SMOKERS’ CORNER: MANUFACTURING A 'HOLY WAR'

Published October 29, 2023
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

It is incorrect to frame the so-called ‘Israel-Palestine war’ as a “religious conflict.” Indeed, the region was once part of the Ottoman Empire and had a large Arab Muslim population. But this population had significant Arabic-speaking Christian communities as well. 

During the First World War (1914-18), Arab nationalism found increasing traction among Palestine’s Arab majority. This nationalism looked to end Ottoman control and create an independent Palestine. Arab Christians, too, were part of the Arab nationalist movement. In 1919, with the Ottoman Empire crumbling, a Palestinian Arab conference of Muslim-Christian associations was held to address the other issue: Zionism. 

Like Arab nationalism, Zionism too was a secular ideology. Formed in Europe in the late 19th century, it declared that Jewish people had faced persecution for centuries and, therefore, needed a country of their own. The Zionists’ first option for this country was Uganda, the second was Argentina. Their third option was Palestine and the narrative of it being a natural choice because “it was the homeland of ancient Jews” was only stressed upon much later.

Zionism was secular because it was a modern nationalist ideology. Even though it eventually sought to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine on the basis of a Biblical narrative, the homeland was to be a modern nation-state and not a Jewish theocracy. After the First World War, when Palestine began being administered by the British, Arab nationalism and Zionism clashed. In the 1930s, Arab nationalists sought to make Palestine part of a larger Arab region. 

For decades, Israel has framed its conflict with Palestine as a war between Jews and Muslims, in an attempt to justify and expand its territorial occupation

Most Arab Christians largely sided with the Arab nationalists. They too opposed Zionism and the allotment of lands to Jewish immigrants in Palestine. Just before the eventual emergence of Israel in 1948, Amin Husseini, a prominent Palestinian Arab nationalist, called for the creation of a secular state in all of Palestine that would include Muslims, Jews and Christians. 

The same year, Egypt, Syria and Jordan went to war against the newly-formed Israel. This too was a conflict between Arab nationalism and Zionism. This was how it was framed by the involved combatants. It was never explained as a war between Islam and Judaism. Although Israel won the war, the Palestinian diaspora living as refugees in various Arab countries began to revive Palestinian nationalism. 

But this nationalism as well was based on Pan-Arabism. It was greatly inspired by the Arab nationalism championed by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was secular and also supported by Arab-speaking Christians. A Syrian Christian, Michel Aflaq, was the leading ideologue of Ba’ath Socialism — a variant of Arab nationalism that began to dominate the politics of Syria and Iraq. 

In 1964, Nasser facilitated the formation of an alliance of various Palestinian nationalist groups. The alliance was dubbed the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). It was vigorously opposed by Islamist outfits such as the Muslim Brotherhood, but supported by the ‘communist bloc’ headed by the Soviet Union. PLO did not see Israel as a Jewish homeland. It saw it as a Zionist state that had forcibly occupied Arab lands through violence. 

It was, in fact, Israel that began to frame the Arab-Israeli animosity as a religious conflict. This worked in Israel’s favour because, although Israel was a secular state, any attack or criticism against it began being portrayed as an act of ‘anti-Semitism’.

Whereas large Islamist outfits such as the Muslim Brotherhood were more invested in challenging Arab nationalist regimes, smaller Islamist groups often circulated old Nazi literature and Hitler’s autobiography (translated into Arabic). Yet, these groups were never taken to task by Israel. In fact, in the 1970s, Israel consciously bolstered the political fortunes of a Palestinian Islamist, Sheikh Yaseen. He was ‘allowed’ to form his own organisation and recruit Palestinians in Gaza. 

Yaseen began to build mosques, charity organisations and then a militant wing. He was regularly treated at some of Israel’s finest hospitals. Brigadier-General Yitzhak Segev, a former Israeli military governor in Gaza, is on record stating that Israel aided Yaseen’s Islamist movement, viewing it as a counterweight to the PLO (as quoted in the Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2009). 

But this was not the only reason for propping up Islamist movements in territories occupied by Israel. According to the Palestinian-American author and journalist Ali Abunimah, after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Zionists began to increasingly frame the tussle as a religious conflict. This, they believed, would better serve Israel’s ambition to turn all of Palestine into a Zionist state. 

The framing also romanticised Israel as a Jewish enclave besieged by hostile Muslims who wanted to eliminate Jews, as the Nazis had tried to do. But this narrative could not be strengthened when Israel’s core Arab enemies were secular who were framing the conflict as territorial. 

Once the Islamist movements aided by Israel succeeded in weakening the PLO, these movements turned their rhetoric and guns towards Israel. In 1987, Yaseen’s movement evolved into becoming Hamas. Israel finally got itself a powerful Islamist opponent to ‘prove’ that Israel was embroiled in a religious war. 

For the past three decades now, Islamists, Zionists and Israel’s Western allies have all been viewing the Israel-Palestine conflict as a war between Muslims and Jews. The Islamists do this to rationalise their militancy and Islamist rhetoric; Israel does it to justify and expand its occupation as a way to eliminate ‘anti-Semitism’; and Israel’s Western allies do it to rationalise oppressive Israeli policies against the Palestinians as a war against Islamist terrorism. 

But is it working? Not quite. The recent ‘invasion’ by Hamas militants of Israel was largely denounced by most Muslims, including by the Palestinian diaspora. However, Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of Gaza that has killed thousands of unarmed men, women and children, and the mishandling (if not manhandling) of this fact by the Western media, has uncannily brought back to life the true nature of the conflict: it is a political and territorial dispute rather than a religious one. 

Accusations of anti-Semitism, often floated by Western institutions against even the most secular Muslims and non-Muslims opposed to Israeli policies in Palestine, are now sounding increasingly cynical. These institutions are aligned with Israel’s ‘religious war’ narrative. But they are struggling to mitigate the reactions Israel’s brutal tactics are triggering. 

The discourse is moving back to being about occupiers and the occupied instead of about a Jewish enclave besieged by Muslims. Even one of Israel’s oldest media outlets, Haaretz, isn’t falling for this narrative anymore.

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 29th, 2023

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