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Muslim Zionism

Might Muslim Zionism be stronger than Jewish Zionism?

Although the question may sound preposterous, it is not.

Jewish Zionism evolved out of a steadfast three-millennium-old love of Jerusalem that flourished despite a dispersion that settled Jews remote from their holy city. This love of Zion inspired the most extraordinary nationalist movement of the twentieth century, one that motivated a far-flung population to relocate in their ancient homeland, to revive a dead language, and establish a new polity — and to do so against intense opposition.

Muslim Zionism, in contrast, has a conditional and erratic history, one based on an instrumental view of the city. Each time that Jerusalem has emerged as a focal point of Muslim religious and political interest since the seventh century, it has been in response to specific utilitarian needs. When Jerusalem served Muslim theological or political purposes, the city grew in Muslim esteem and emotions. When those needs lapsed, Muslim interest promptly waned. This cyclical pattern has fully repeated itself six times over fourteen centuries.

In the first such instance, an account in the Koran tells how God instructed Muhammad in 622 to pray toward Jerusalem and 17 months later redirected him to pray toward Mecca. The Arabic literary sources agree that the Jerusalem interlude constituted a failed effort to win over Jews to the new Islamic religion.

The same utilitarian pattern holds in modern times. Ottoman neglect of Jerusalem in the nineteenth century prompted French novelist Gustav Flaubert to describe it as "Ruins everywhere, and everywhere the odor of graves. … The Holy City of three religions is rotting away from boredom, desertion, and neglect." Palestinians rediscovered Jerusalem only after the British conquered it in 1917, when they used it to rouse Muslim sentiments against imperial control. After Jordanian forces seized the city in 1948, however, interest again plummeted.

It revived only in 1967, when the whole city came under Israeli control. Muslim passion for Jerusalem has soared over the past four decades, to the point that Muslim Zionism closely imitates Jewish Zionism. Note two similarities:

  • Emotional significance: Ehud Olmert, today the prime minister of Israel, said in 1997 that Jerusalem represents "the purest expression of all that Jews prayed for, dreamed of, cried for, and died for in the two thousand years since the destruction of the Second Temple." The Palestinian Authority’s Yasir Arafat echoed his words in 2000, declaring that Jerusalem "is in the innermost of our feeling, the feeling of our people and the feeling of all Arabs, Muslims, and Christians."
  • Eternal capital: Israel’s President Ezer Weizman reminded Pope John Paul II en route to his visiting Jerusalem in March 2000 that Jerusalem remains Israel’s "eternal" capital. A day later, Arafat welcomed the pontiff to "Palestine and its eternal capital, Jerusalem." Jewish and Muslim religious leaders meeting with the pope likewise spoke of Jerusalem in as their eternal capital.

Generalizing, the analyst Khalid Dur√?¬°n observed in 1999 that "there is an attempt to Islamize Zionism … in the sense that the importance of Jerusalem to Jews and their attachment to it is now usurped by Palestinian Muslims." (Interestingly, this follows a larger pattern of Palestinian nationalism imitating Jewish nationalism.)

This effort is working, to the point that, as secular Israelis increasingly find themselves unmoved by Jerusalem, Muslim Zionism is emotionally and politically more fervid than its Jewish original. Note the example of rival Jerusalem Days.

Israel’s Jerusalem Day commemorates the city’s unification under its control in 1967. But, as Israel Harel writes in Ha’aretz, this tribute has declined from a national holiday to just "the holiday of the religious communities." In contrast, the Muslim version of Jerusalem Day — instituted eleven years later, by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 — attracts crowds of as many as 300,000 persons in distant Tehran, serves as a platform for rousing harangues, and steadily is gaining support around the Muslim world.

A 2001 poll found that 60 percent of Israelis are willing to divide Jerusalem; just last month, the Olmert government announced its plans to divide the city, to little outcry.

Therefore I conclude that the Muslim use of Zion represents a more powerful force today than the Jewish love of Zion.

Written By

Mr. Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and author of Miniatures (Transaction Publishers).

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