The Arab mistake: Basing foreign policy on religion

Emad Gad , Friday 21 Oct 2011

The issue of Palestine must once again be one of the homeland as a whole, not one of religious sites, as some want to paint the conflict

At a conference of the Arab Parliamentary Union a few months ago, representatives of Arab and Islamic countries failed to include Israeli violations of holy sites in occupied Jerusalem on the agenda of discussions as an emergency issue. Meanwhile, Latin American states were able to add an article on social solidarity by the world community with the people of Haiti and Chile after natural disasters struck the two countries.

The failure of Arabs is a symptom of a chronic disease that has afflicted Arab policies, beginning with making the public domain in Arab societies more religious since the beginning of the 1970s. In time, foreign policies also began adopting religious positions by viewing issues through narrow religious lenses, unlike the traditional component that regulates international relations, namely interests. This was applied to many issues around the world, such as the Balkans, South Philippines, Chechnya and other regions in the world.

The outcome was more apprehension and tension with the capitals of these countries; many Arab countries sanctioned strikes against Belgrade in 1999 under the pretext of solidarity with “brothers” in Bosnia and Kosovo. This resulted in cooler relations with an ally who was close to us and our causes, who had been a main supporter of Arab rights.

Over time, Arab states began painting the Palestinian cause in religious hues. The Palestinian cause was reduced to the issue of Jerusalem; Jerusalem was condensed to holy sites, making the Palestinian cause confined to one square kilometre, the area of the holy sites.

This threatens to undermine the Palestinian cause begun with the forceful occupation of Arab land during the June 1967 attack, covering an area of more than 6,000 square kilometres. The 1947 UN Palestine partition resolution concerned 12,000 square kilometres, half of which Israel occupied in 1948 and the second half in 1967.

Since the beginning, the Palestinian national struggle has relied on the UN Charter, stipulating that land cannot be annexed through force, and that the occupying force must not change the geographic or demographic character of the occupied territories, as well as pertinent UN resolutions 242 (the French text) and 338. The secular foundations of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the leftist bloc (the Popular and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine) created bonds with the international left that has steadfastly supported the struggle of the Palestinian people and has been a major ally.

The PLO’s rational, civic and secular outlook succeeded in rallying the support of most world countries behind Palestinian resistance and the national struggle to liberate occupied Palestinian land. At the same time, all resolutions condemning Israel would pass automatically in the General Assembly, unlike in the Security Council where the US veto would block them.

In time, the domestic scene and public domain became more religious in Arab countries, imposing its view on foreign policy. Arab regimes pushed societies into a heightened “superficial” religious state, and the voice of religion started imposing its demands on decision makers. The latter, in turn, used the religious drive to secure domestic support, including through selective choices to divert attention from domestic rights.

The last years in the life and rule of late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat witnessed excessive manipulation of religious symbols and terms, since Palestinian society was not immune to the religious overtones sweeping across the public domain. Hence, the society that was once the most educated and civic among Arabs — making them the closest to secularism (meaning separation of religion and politics or a neutral position by the state towards religion) — began viewing its cause through a narrow religious lens.

The corruption under Fatah rule naturally gave rise to Hamas's influence on the street, and the group won the majority of parliamentary seats in the second legislative elections in 2006. In this manner, a religious branch of the Muslim Brotherhood came to power advocating that the conflict with Israel is one of existence not borders. Also, that Palestine from the sea to the river is an Islamic endowment, therefore not a single inch can be compromised. There is also no hurry to settle, since any patch of land or emirate of liberated Palestinian land will do as a launching pad towards liberating Palestine from the sea to the river even if it takes a long time, perhaps even centuries.

According to this faction’s view, priority now should not be given to liberating land but instead — according to the group’s charter — “creating the Muslim individual, the Muslim family, Muslim society, then an Islamic state that will liberate the land from the Mediterranean Sea until the River Jordan.” In the background is the issue of Crusader emirates that were planted in the region.

When Hamas seized power, religious indoctrination of the public domain in the Gaza Strip was stepped up, and the categorical elimination of non-Islamic presence was applied against people and structures (the destruction of Catholic schools and the memorial of the Egyptian Unknown Soldier). At the same time, the Palestinian cause was abridged to one of holy sites only.

This was cleverly manipulated by Zionist forces who embraced the religious context to convert the Palestinian cause from one of occupied land into one of a conflict over holy sites, transforming it into a confrontation based on religious foundations. Naturally, the West would support the “Jewish position over the Muslim one” because of a long and bloody history of conflict. Also, because of the world community’s negative attitude towards Islamic movements and organisations.

Notably, a large number of Palestinian and Arab analysts reduce the cause of Palestine, the land, the people and homeland to a patch of 1,000 square metres where religious and holy sites are located. Hence, the conflict has become based on religion, and launched a detailed debate about Jewish assertions that the second temple is underneath Al-Aqsa Mosque, as each side presents historic evidence that confirm their claims.

In such a climate, the failure of Arab and Muslim parliamentarians to include Israeli violations against religious holy sites in Jerusalem is not surprising. We have limited the Palestinian cause to a matter of holy sites and entered, or some of us were coaxed, into a debate about the historical rights to these holy sites. Accordingly, the issue has become one of disputed holy sites, meaning that religious beliefs and sentiments — rather than international law — will be the deciding factor in positions and decisions.

Hence, we must stop making the issue a religious one; first by stopping making the domestic public domain religious, and stopping viewing foreign policy through the prism of religion and limiting the Palestinian cause to one of holy sites. Instead, framing it in a legal, rights and humanitarian context of a people struggling to liberate their homeland, according to the UN Charter and legitimate international resolutions. Otherwise, the fruits will be bitter at home and abroad.

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