Middle East Roundtable
Even if the majority of Israelis support a return to
pre-1967 borders in exchange for peace, hardliners among Christian and
Jewish Zionists would oppose such a move.
Simple answers no longer suffice
by Laila Al-Marayati
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In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September
11, 2001, politicians and the media in the United States argue that
religious extremism, especially Islamic extremism, is the primary enemy
facing America and the world today.
This message echoes the sentiment of many Israelis who
also believe that Islamic extremism is not only a threat to Israel but to
all of mankind. Yet the role of religion in the politics of the Middle East
and in the US is much more complex and deserving of deeper analysis.
Following the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Bush administration
made it clear that American and Israeli interests regarding the fight
against terrorism had converged as we were all in the same battle against
Islamic extremists. Validation of Israel's struggle provided carte blanche
to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to increase the level of violence
against Palestinian resistance groups, Muslim or other. The US was in no
position to question Israel's crackdown on terrorists and extremists when we
would "have to" do the same elsewhere to avenge the deaths of 3,000
Americans and prevent further carnage.
Since that time, little space has been given in public discourse to discuss
the root causes of terrorism, lest any discussion be perceived as an apology
or excuse. Rather, the administration and its mouthpieces in the media
approach the subject as if it exists in a vacuum: terrorism happens. We
don't know why and it doesn't matter. We have declared war on terrorism and
we will prevail no matter how long it takes.
Such a simplistic approach satisfies the American media, which currently
appeals to the lowest common denominator of American intellectual capacity.
The above argument has worked over the past two years because of a largely
apathetic public that generally believes what it is told. Public support (or
rather lack of public resistance) for anti-terrorism policy after 9/11 gave
the neoconservatives who surround US President George W. Bush the momentum
they needed to promote a broad domestic and international agenda.
But now that their plans in Iraq have gone somewhat awry, the tide may be
turning. Despite the fact that most Americans wrongly believe that Iraqi
leader Saddam Hussein was responsible for the attacks of 9/11 (a
misconception that is unabashedly exploited by Bush), their support for the
war and the ongoing commitment of US troops is showing signs of strain.
Also, the circumstances in Iraq are exposing the weakness of Bush's
simplistic "us vs. them" philosophy with respect to the Muslim world and our
enemies therein. For example, Iran, a Shi'a Muslim theocracy, is part of the
"axis of evil" and next on the list. But in Iraq, a majority of the Shi'a
Muslims in the south supported the US-led campaign to remove Hussein; their
leaders are now calling for an early end to the American occupation. Simple
answers no longer suffice and slogans used to garner public support ring
hollow as more soldiers die every day.
In response, Americans are eschewing pat responses from our leadership about
why America is having such trouble with our foreign policy objectives these
days, especially in the Middle East. Even though the majority of the public
here supports Israel, according to public opinion polls growing numbers
recognize that there is a relationship between anti-American sentiment and
our lopsided policy favoring Israel. Many no longer believe that American
and Israeli interests are identical.
The bedrock of support for pro-Israel policy emanates primarily from two
powerful religious groups in the US: key elements in the American Jewish
community and Christian Zionists who mainly belong to the evangelical
movement. In the view of Christian Zionists, the restoration of Israel to
the Jews is a pre-condition for the second coming of Jesus Christ. As such,
members of this group believe that any compromise on Israel's side with
respect to giving up land will interfere with the fulfillment of the
prophecy. Influential evangelical leaders and their supporters in Congress
issued a strongly worded letter to President Bush warning him against
pressuring the Israelis into concessions to promote the roadmap to peace.
Even if the majority of Israelis support a return to pre-1967 borders in
exchange for peace, hardliners among Christian and Jewish Zionists would
oppose such a move.
But more Americans are daring to ask questions, calling for increased public
debate on the issues, at least at the grassroots level. Opposition voices
from both mainstream and evangelical Christian communities are emerging,
reaching the public through the pulpit as they are given very little space
in the mainstream media.
Even the perceived monolith of unequivocal support for Israel from the
Jewish community may be transforming as well. In response to the deaths of
hundreds of Israelis, their position, at least to outsiders, has been to
support Israel at all costs. Yet this may be giving way to a more critical
approach as many realize that current Israeli policy will not bring peace or
security to her people.
As positions shift, American Jews, Christians and Muslims have an
opportunity to play a more constructive role in shaping US policy in the
Middle East--one that promotes peace, justice and reconciliation instead of
Dr. Laila Al-Marayati was a presidential appointee to the
US Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2001. She is
the spokesperson for the Muslim Women's League based in Los Angeles.
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