SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Friends and enemies

TABISH KHAIR

Why a Muslim cannot simply condemn Israel...

The statistics are clear: about a thousand Palestinians, including more than 400 children and women, killed by Israeli forces in the first 20 days of the current misadventure in the Middle East. The context is also clear enough: as John Pilger puts it in New Statesman, every war that Israel has waged since 1948 has resulted in the expulsion of native populations and the capture of more territory.

Given the statistics and the context, it should be easy to condemn Israel. But it is not. Not unless you are a Jew.

As a Muslim, believing or not, I cannot take the easy path of a rousing condemnation of Israel. Because I have to bear in mind not only Muslim experiences but also Jewish ones. I have to bear in mind not only Zionism but also Nazism. I have to bear in mind not just the duplicity of Israeli politicians but the stupidity of Muslim ones.

If I were Jewish

If I were Jewish, believing or not, I could simply condemn Israel’s latest misadventure. If I were Jewish, I could choose to overlook my own, Jewish, contexts and focus instead on the rights and suffering of the other: of Muslim Palestinians. If I were Jewish, I could hardly do anything else — as a significant minority of Jewish intellectuals has demonstrated — without lying to myself about my own motives and twisting facts. But as a Muslim, believing or not, I cannot give myself the right to overlook the fears of the other: in this case, Israeli Jews.

I cannot deny the Holocaust, as fact and fear. I will not deny the Holocaust just to obstruct Zionism, for that will be to play into the hands of the odious racism of the European Right, which led to Nazism. I want Palestinian Muslims to have a safe, viable state, but I will not win that state for them with the tacit or direct support of Nazism. All I can do is point out, as the Jewish leader Meir Ya’ari did, that Israeli leaders are using means of dispossession against Palestinians that bear a close resemblance to what Jews experienced in early 20th century Europe.

I will also not deny the right of Jews, in Israel or elsewhere, to be assured of life and property and human rights. For that is what I want for myself, and for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere.

Include the other

In a time of much shouting and name-calling, one has to remember that the only just way to speak up for yourself is to include the other in what you wish for yourself. The failure of many Israeli leaders and spokespersons to do so, vis-À-vis Palestinians, cannot justify my failure to do so, vis-À-vis Israelis.

Hence, I will continue to speak up for the Palestinian people and support their struggle for a decent life, a viable state. But I do not want to use that for the sort of populist exercises that many Muslim, particularly Arab, leaders seem to be prone to. The missiles Hamas fires into Israel are of that nature. They are deplorable not only on humane grounds but also on strategic ones.

Arab leaders, being politicians with fragile popular bases, like to posture at times. Saddam did so most recently. When their bluff is called, it is the Arab people who suffer — as the Palestinian people are suffering right now. Just as Zionists take the support of Jews for granted, expecting them to justify every crime committed in the name of a Jewish homeland, many Muslim leaders take the solidarity of the Muslim ‘ummah’ for granted. I refuse to let these leaders — Jewish or Muslim — take my support for granted. I refuse to suffer for them or let ordinary people — Muslim or Jewish — pay the price of their juvenile politics.

Above all, I refuse to subscribe to ‘Biblical’ reasoning. It is this that has infected Muslims, Jews and Christians on all sides of the international tragedy of the Palestinians, sharing as they do the assumptions of Old Testament logic. God cursed the ancestor, and the present is a consequence of the curse, that legacy. Original sin, et al. Switch on any TV show and you find Jewish, Muslim and Christian (though sometimes they pretend to be secular) champions hammering at the details of the past, using them either to justify or condemn Israel/Palestine.

Well, that conception of God is faulty. The sins of the father cannot be visited on the daughter. That is the main condition for sensible living in the present. History is there to learn from, not to justify or destroy the present. And hence, I take my stand only on the ground of the present: a present that should assure all human beings, including Palestinians, of basic human rights. I take my stand on hope that is not rooted in the deprivation of others.

The writer is Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Aarhus, Denmark.

Recommended for you