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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 special interests.

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.

Published 31/7/03
Bitterlemons-international.org is an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at ghassan@bitterlemons-international.org and yossi@bitterlemons-international.org, respectively.

hagalil.com 05-08-2003



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