Muslims who Admire Israel: What Significance?

There are a tiny number of Arab and Muslim intellectuals who have expressed admiration for Israel. What does this admiration mean? Do we take its numerical percentage as a sign of its significance? Say a hundred pro-Israel Muslims out of 1.4 billion Muslims, so less than .00001% of the total, i.e., less than a fraction of a statistical error?

Or do we take it as the tip of an iceberg of an opinion that cannot express itself in an honor-shame culture where honor has been defined in terms of hating Israel, and therefore every expression of pro-Israel sentiment represents something far more significant, something that, just in order to exist, must fight heavy cross-winds. In other words, it’s the easiest thing to be pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel in the Muslim world; it takes great courage and intellectual integrity to fight that consensus. Just as we should weight Israeli self-criticism differently from Palestinian demonization in our efforts to assess the information we get from the Middle East, so should we weigh pro- and anti-Israel sentiments in the Muslim world.

The case of Salah Choudhury, the Bengladeshi journalist who is now fighting for his life against charges of sedition, treason, blasphemy and espionage, raises yet another dimension. In addition to the peer-pressure of an honor-shame culture — so strong it can drive mothers to kill their daughters — there is also the matter of violent intimidation, whether state-sponsored (as in Choudhury’s case) or supported by a fatwa that operates at the grass-roots level. Just as Islam considers that apostates deserve death, so does this religion exercise enormous threats of and execution of violence against those it considers guilty of betraying the cause.

When one considers the joint threat of social and economic ostracism on the one hand and threat of violence on the other, even the slightest expression of support or admiration for Israel in the Muslim world needs to be factored at, say, 100,000,000 times the significance of an anti-Israel sentiment that is so easy and so (seemingly) cost-free for Muslims to express.

In honor of Choudhury’s struggle — I urge everyone to sign the petition on his behalf — I post here the reflections of another courageous Muslim, exiled Iraqi writer Najem Wali, who followed her intellectual instincts and went to visit Israel.

A journey into the heart of the enemy
Sign and Sight

Exiled Iraqi writer Najem Wali travelled to Israel to uncover some uncomfortable truths about the Arab leaders

When a child is born in Israel or to us in the Arab world, the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict is flowing in its umbilical cord. Since the declaration of the state of Israel on May 14 1948, Israel has been the official enemy number one for the Arab states.

But even as a child I found the rhetoric didn’t add up. How could this somehow “all-powerful” country so successfully “let the Arab nations sink into lethargy”, as the official speeches would have us believe? And why, at the same time, were they so confident that the “small state of Zionist gangs” would inevitably “disappear from the map”? I never found a convincing answer. Nor did I ever make the connection between the “Jew question” and the “Palestine question”, between the victims of the Holocaust and the victims of Israel’s foundation.

Maybe I needed to wait for French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to visit Israel before I could discover his key existentialist principle: get to know the other before you form an opinion of him! Did following this path not involve more than honouring the call to recognise Israel? Did it not mean accepting the other and welcoming him as a partner? This would mean acknowledging the fact that Jews and Arabs live side by side in Palestine and both are obliged to find a solution which is acceptable to both peoples, without third-party intervention. There can be no peace without talking directly with the other side and learning about their way of life.

Why do our leaders fear this truth? They are scared that their countrymen would recognise that the only link between the standstill and devastation of Arab societies and the Arab-Israeli conflict is this: peace with Israel would bring an end to the opium high with which Arab leaders keep their nations in a state of inertia. This is the cause of the problems for which Israel is being blamed.

The sustained absence of economic recovery, the drop in education levels, the spread of fundamentalist ideology are all linked with a lack of democracy and the corrupt ruling families, with their pompousness and contempt for their peoples – not with Israel. There are plenty of raw materials and human resources to kickstart the Arab economy. But what are we seeing? A political stranglehold on personal freedom which is eroding the middle classes. Bribery and favouritism force the virtuous and the educated to emigrate. What has Israel got to do with this?

This gets at the heart of the problem. Not only is anti-Zionism a rallying cry for a culture that feels dishonored, but it is the opiate of the masses whose leaders are systematically screwing them. By scapegoating Israel, Arab leaders can continue their typical pre-modern, prime-divider behavior. If they were to relent, and Israel could legitimately serve as an example of a less corrupt regime that actually takes care of its people, there might be real unrest in the Arab world. How much preferable to assault Israel for its “human rights abuses.” Insight into the genealogy of demopathy.

In the meantime Israel, which is embroiled in the same conflict as the Arabs, has built up a modern society of astounding scientific and economic strength. Yes there is militarism in Israel. Its brutal policy of occupation must be addressed. But I will leave this to the Israeli intellectuals. They should fight for peace, just as some Arab intellectuals are starting to do.

When I travelled through Israel in 2007, it dawned on me why the Arab states are so reluctant to let their countrymen cross over into Israel. They fear that the traveller might make comparisons – between the civil rights in Israel and those in their homeland, for example. He might meet the “Arabs of ’48”, the Palestinians whom Israel’s army was unable to drive out. He would see that these Palestinians basically enjoy the same rights as all other citizens. That they are allowed to express their views and live their traditions without fear of imprisonment. He would meet Palestinians who are allowed to vote for their representatives and found their own political parties. When the traveller compares the situation of these people with his own, or with the situation of the Palestinians who live in his country – he might suddenly see the injustice, the betrayal, to which the Arabs in his homeland have had a lifetime’s exposure in the name of “occupied Palestine”.

Israel has not overturned democracy even under the pressure of war. But the citizens in Arab countries are worth nothing to their leaders.

My “journey into the heart of the enemy” was an attempt to pursue the direction which Egyptian literary Nobel Prize laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, laid out in 1978 in a letter to his Israeli colleague Sasson Somekh: “I dream of the day when, thanks to the collaboration among us, this region will become a home overflowing with the light of learning and science, and blessed by the highest principles of heaven.”

He didn’t live to see his dream fulfilled. Naguib Mahfouz died in 2006. In 1994 he survived an Islamist assassination attempt. A year later Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli premier, was murdered by an Israeli extremist for his contribution to the peace process.

I hope people on both sides will continue to defy intimidation, risking their lives in the unrelenting fight for peace. Sixty years after the founding of Israel, I want to believe in Mahfouz’s vision.

This article originally appeared in Imke Ahlf-Wien’s Arabic-German translation in the Kölner Stadt Anzeiger on May 13, 2008.

Najem Wali was born in Basra in 1956 and fled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1980. Today he lives in Hamburg. His novel Jussifs Gesichter (Jussif’s faces) was published by Hanser Verlag in February. His Journey to Tel al-Lahm will be published in English in spring 2009 by MacAdamCage, followed by his Journey into the Heart of the Enemy in the autumn.

Read our other feature by Najem Wali: “The dictator’s orphans

This brings us back to the moral failure of the “left” in the 21st century (well prepared by moral failures equally collosal in the 19th and 20th century). Rather than backing real moderates, real progressives, they have lionized the fascists, the Arafats and the Mahsals, as brave stugglers for “national liberation.” (I note here, in contradiction to this point, that one of the signers of the petition for Choudhury was Susan Blackwell, one of the most virulently anti-Zionist “progressives” in England, leader of the academic boycott.)

The overall problem — and Blackwell fits the case nicely — is why progressives are such easy dupes to the appallingly dishonest claims of Islamist demopaths? How on earth can a whole contingent of progressive journalists and activists be seized with the delusion that Israel is the greatest human rights violator in the world today, and dismantling her would constitute a great victory for human rights?

12 Responses to Muslims who Admire Israel: What Significance?

  1. abu yussif says:

    i need to get a parrot and teach it to say “brutal occupation, brutal occupation” because seeing the occupation firsthand (you know, the same occupation that hamas-dominated gazans now reminisce for) and listening to the caricature of it by supposed intelligent people would make the phrase sound more reasonable coming from the bird.

  2. Chaim says:


    I’d like to see much more material here on moderate muslims like Wafa Sultan, Sari Nusseibeh, Irshad Manji, Ayan Hirsi Ali, Nonie Darwish, etc. Any chance you can interview-by-email (at the very least) these friends of ours rather than just analyze some of their articles and speeches?

  3. Richard Landes says:

    to Chaim,
    interesting idea, but that’s a level of active work i’m still not engaged in. you (or anyone else) interested in participating? compiling a list, listing questions. i’d be interested in a series on this.

  4. well said.

    i would like you to answer the question in your headline: “what significance?”

    i would also appreciate a one-sentence reason from you why the leftists are such dupes.

    mine is that as human beings they are bullies who run from the pain of taking responsiblity.

    Jews are the easiest target to bully. period.

    And the pose of standing for justice while kicking the defenseless is the most wonderful way of avoiding responsiblity for the injustice the blackwells of the world are causing. does a declared do-gooder want to admit that she is actually selfishly oppressing others? she seeks acceptance in a society (the west) that must find justification for
    (1)its present wealth (while most of the world is poor and oppressed)
    and 2)its enormous past atrocities?

    she cannot bear to point the finger at herself. na. much easier to join the bandwagon and shift the blame on someone easy.

    her audience will cheer her. she is simply pandering.

  5. Joanne says:

    “He might meet the “Arabs of ‘48″, the Palestinians whom Israel’s army was unable to drive out.”

    This is obviously a brave and intelligent man, but when I see a phrase like this, I cannot help flinching. Some of the Arabs probably were driven out by the Israelis, though many of these were really driven out by the war with the Israelis. The Jews didn’t set out from the start to drive out all the Arab residents of that part of Palestine.

    So, even a dissident can be a product of his own political culture, and still buy into some of the myths. I guess that cannot be helped, and it doesn’t take away from his bravery.

  6. Diane says:

    Just as we should weight Israeli self-criticism differently from Palestinian demonization in our efforts to assess the information we get from the Middle East, so should we weigh pro- and anti-Israel sentiments in the Muslim world.

    While I understand where you’re coming from, this kind of formulation makes me uncomfortable for a few reasons.

    1. I’m not sure there’s ever a justification of ‘weighting’ views based on the political context of the source. It strikes me as a kind of ideological affirmative action. For example, as a pro-Zionist Jew, I often get the feeling in conversation that my views on Israel – however well-grounded – are automatically assigned “lesser validity’ than the views of non-Jews or anti-Zionist Jews. This seems shockingly unfair. (Of course, in America there is no serious price to pay for expressing unpopular political views. Does that make your “weighting” exercise qualitatively different?)

    2. Who is “we” in your formulation? We, readers of Augean Stables? We, Americans? We in the West? We, all thinking humans? If any but the first group, you’re in the realm of wishful thinking here. No one else would ever engage in such an exercise.

  7. oao says:

    she cannot bear to point the finger at herself. na. much easier to join the bandwagon and shift the blame on someone easy.

    folks, antisemitism IS scapegoating. it always was.

  8. oao says:

    So, even a dissident can be a product of his own political culture, and still buy into some of the myths. I guess that cannot be helped, and it doesn’t take away from his bravery.

    because of indoctrination one must always take these expressions of admiration with a large grain of salt. it is not always what we hope it is.

  9. oao says:

    If any but the first group, you’re in the realm of wishful thinking here. No one else would ever engage in such an exercise.

    If only the first group, it means nothing.

    With the collapse of education and its replacement by socio-political indoctrination/PCP, there is no capacity even if there were the will, which does not exist either.

  10. Eliyahu says:

    Sari Nuseibeh does not deserve to be considered a moderate and should not be put in a class with the others that Chaim mentions.

  11. vivek iyer says:

    Under British occupation, some brave Jews in Palestine took to terrorism. Later on, because Israel developed in a democratic and transparent way with public officials turfed out of office, no matter how charismatic, on the basis of their performance on ‘parish pump’ issues- terrorists, though still present in small numbers in the 1970s- were simply weeded out of the mainstream. The feeling was ‘oh the poor misguided fellow- well, what can you do? Some Mothers do have them, it sometimes happens even in the best families.’ Thus it was pity- and perhaps a faint hint of ridicule- which pretty much knocked Jewish terrorism on its head.
    A separate question is whether there was ever any purely Jewish fascist (a la Jabotinsky) or extreme Communist movement. Certainly there was a Jewish Messianism, a couple of centuries previously,but it is not clear to me that it could have developed on totalitarian lines.
    Why should this be so? Does it have something to do with the need to reason freely about the Law as part of one’s duty as a mensch? Or is it simply that with so many enemies around them, the Jews could not countenance shedding each other’s blood?
    Turning to those Arab, and other self-professedly Islamic, societies which have made a quite deliberate choice of identifying with Palestinian victimology and harnessing its rhetoric to their own chiliastic legitimating ideology- we find in case after case that it was the absence of transparent political and judicial processes, the subversion of consultative representative bodies- elected or not- which created this formula of unlimited hate reinforced by spasmodic, strategically self-defeating, unlimited terror.
    The case of Pakistan- the prime mover in the nexus which enabled Al Qaida and the Taliban- is instructive. A democratically elected tyrant- Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto- subverts all institutional checks on his power by using a matryology which in some garbled manner links up Chairman Mao and Chairman Arafat, with the result that the Pakistani economy- in particular its social infrastructure- goes into the toilet.
    Bhutto believed his Army Chief- Zia- who had fought the Palestinians in Jordan- was too compromised to pose a threat. He was wrong. Bhutto was hanged. His sons went to Afghanistan- then under the Soviets- and engaged in terrorism. They gained sophisticated weaponry from the P.L.O- in return for cash provided by the Emirates- and tried to bring down Zia’s plane. They failed. Ultimately, Bhutto’s sons were probably eliminated by family members.
    What is remarkable is that the slogan of Palestine could be used by both Zia and his successors in the Army/I.S.I, as part of their ‘Mard-e-Momin’ ‘Islamic Superman’ ‘josh’ sessions (morale building seminars), as well as by Bhutto loyalists. It seems Palestine- or more to the point, demonising Jews- is a multivalent symbol.It means everything to everybody because at bottom it means nothing. The former wife of a Bhutto satrap- Tehmina Durrani- has recorded a bizarre incident in her biography. Her younger sister- who appears to have had a chequered past including a questionable relationship with her brother-in-law- is courted by a wealthy young Jewish man from New York. He agrees to convert to Islam to marry her. However, the real sticking point is her family’s demand for a large sum of money. After all, the fellow’s a Jew and not to bleed him would be irreligious. The New Yorkers smell a rat and back off.
    I quote this incident to show that posturing hate speech plus terror is just adolescent immaturity which flourishes in regimes where there is no free discussion, no transparency, no accountability.
    Ultimately, countries like Pakistan are reaping the whirlwind but not before they suckered us into paying them off big time. In other words, the question cui bono, the suggestion ‘follow the money’, is still the crucial element in explaining the whole sorry mess.
    Turning to the question of shame and guilt cultures- an erroneous idea that entered scholarly discourse because of the special war-time conditions prevailing amongst Japanese there is little evidence that such notions have explanatory power in the Muslim context. Certainly, kinship and quasi-kinship affiliations have a greater strength in a context of an absent or debilitated ‘civil society’- especially if there is a concerted political instrumentalisation of civic disorder- and, no doubt, expressing hate for the out-group has its value- but, surely in the Middle East more than anywhere else, there is also the notion that meaning is not in use but that meaning must be gamed. So ‘Death to Israel’ actually means ‘sorry mate, I’m not gonna repay that loan you very kindly gave me,” while the riposte, “My Allah shower blessings on the Revengers tho’ Allah is the best of plotters and God destroy America y’all have a nice day now” actually means, “Oh yeah? Well in that case I’ll sick Al Qaida on your ass.” At which point the other guy mentions ‘Westoxification- the shameless way their women dress! Allah have mercy.Surely the End of Days is upon us’ which means, ‘Hey, no need to get nasty. I really don’t have any money. But my daughter’s just turned twelve. How about it?”
    Which explains why you gotta kill your sister or mom or daughter- otherwise they just cease to be fungible assets. It’s a portfolio choice thing- simple economics is all. Change the incentive system- behaviour is changed. That’s the point of reason and the rule of law. We can get together and change the contract to generate benefits for all. But there has to be transparency and accountability otherwise the bad coinage of nutty discourse will drive out the good currency of reason and utility and well, folks, that’s pretty much how these countries got to this mess in the first place.

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