Introduction: A Regional Survey - 2014/2015

More than 40 years ago Jacques Ellul, the French moral philosopher and sociologist whose knowledge of Islam was limited and distorted but who clearly understood the implications of mass media wrote that the flood of information and discontinuous facts increasingly available would overwhelm any sense of historic context.

This is so obvious when considering broadcast news but it is also true even for the major daily newspapers in the world and their online website versions which are obviously perceived as the future. Indeed, discontinuity is even a problem for an annual regional survey such as this Introduction.

In theory we are surveying significant events and trends from the last few months of 2013 to the Fall of 2014, certainly a far broader time span than even the most thoughtful daily newspaper report contends with. But even here, in face of probably what is the most troubling event of the past year– it is impossible to indicate that the stunning initial successes of DA’ISH are neither mysterious or even sudden as one would think based upon newspaper headlines and some of the statements made by US President Obama, without referencing, relatively-speaking, old history.

Of course by DA’ISH we are referring to the so-called “Islamic State” group, but even when put into quotation the very association of the idea of an Islamic state (debatable as even the honest use of that phrase may be) with this murderous heresy is unbearable — so the use of an Arabic acronym by anyone who writes exclusively in English provides a certain relief.

At the height of the DA’ISH offensive this past summer global media focused its attention upon the flight and despair of Iraqi Christians , the killings and flight of the Yazidis as well as the enslavement and rape of their women, and the gangland style summary executions of more than a thousand Shia soldiers of the Iraqi Army who had surrendered, as well as the killing of Iraqi and Kurdish Sunnis who refused to acknowledge and publically declare submission to the rule of DA’ISH’s false Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. All of these events took place before the video productions of individual beheadings of American and British hostages held by DA’ISH.

All of these horror stories could be comprehended as described — both in news reports and editorial comment as the poisoned fruit of bigotry and fanaticism. But also in vague allusions to DA’ISH seeking a return to “medieval behavior” —this last description indicated an extraordinary lack of knowledge of Arab/Islamic history; lacking any sense of all of the many religious and ethnic minorities populating Iraq and Syria not to mention nearly all of the other predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Those minority communities would not exist now, as they have for the past thousand years if DA’ISH’s atrocities were characteristic of Islam’s “medieval behavior.” And one would think that this long-standing, uninterrupted existence of so many minority communities in the Arab Islamic world would be fairly obvious to any journalist when compared to the far more homogenous nature of Western European countries prior to the post-World War Two massive immigration from former colonial territories in the East.

But even without reference to the history of Islam, this is a particularly puzzling description given DA’ISH’s mastery of quite modern technical communication skills and, again, technically correct employment of all available outlets of social media as well as a thorough understanding of contemporary procedures (however cruelly applied) in administering the large swath of Syrian and Iraqi territory it was still in possession of by the end of this past summer.

The only thing about DA’ISH that really references pre-modern times is the practice of beheading. But that is a self-conscious visual effect — either for individual summary executions to terrify the villagers and townspeople remaining in the areas it has overrun or as dramatic video to provoke its enemies, or of equal significance as recruiting tools to excite and even inspire individuals among the Muslim youth of Europe and America, as well as in the East, and who yearn to transcend their marginality and alienation by acts of violence. These individual acts of violence, as well as the more mass slaughter of DA’ISH’s prisoners of war by the more expeditious manner of bullets to the head are revolutionary acts worthy of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge who killed three million of their fellow countrymen some 40 years ago, but when dramatized in videos as individual beheadings the use of the sword disguises the revolutionary violence implicit in these acts with the obvious allusion to pre-modern and thus “traditional” or even “religious” forms of capital punishment.

But DA’ISH fighters do not ride into battle on horseback bearing spears and swords — they roll into towns and villages in open trucks with mounted heavy machine guns or in Humvee jeeps, which along with their tanks, multiple rocket launchers and artillery were all provided in an unintended sense by America courtesy of the Iraqi Army which predictably disintegrated (predictable according to U.S. Army intelligence and Central Intelligence reports of the corrupt, politicized nature of the Iraqi Army command dating several years back and ignored by the White House) .

Nor were DA’ISH fighters organized like tribal or “medieval” forces–but as units of a modern regular army, not a guerilla force or a clandestine band of terrorists. That organization as well as the rapid mastery of sophisticated American weaponry is due to Al-Baghdadi’s recruitment of former men trained and combat seasoned as officers in Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army. So the formation of DA’ISH goes back to the American occupation of Iraq, and the curious as well as disastrous decision taken by Washington a few weeks into the occupation to dissolve the entire Iraqi Army which was the only institution to have survived the Baath Party transformation of Iraqi society (and distrusted for that reason by Saddam.) That decision, made no sense at all except to the passionately pro-Israeli sentiment that animated the Neo-Conservative movement policy makers who were so influential in the Bush II administration.

Effectively this demobilization provided a well-trained cadre in a rapidly emerging armed resistance to the American occupation. The eventual but inevitable rule of Iraq by a quite sectarian-minded Shia political party ushered into office by the Americans, reinforced a Sunni Arab sectarian quality to the armed resistance, which enabled Al-Qaeda ( decimated in Afghanistan) to re-asset itself as Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM) but with an even more extreme perspective than the original Al-Qaeda, and it is here in AQM that Al-Baghdadi begins his militant career, and it is as a POW in an American prison camp that he will hone his revolutionary Islamist ideology and meet and recruit former Iraqi Army officers who had abandoned Baathist ideology for Islamist.

This is a pattern discernible as early as in late 1960s in Egypt and other Arab countries when young men disillusioned with Nasserist Arab Socialism and/or Marxism and in search of an alternative revolutionary ideology to define their lives, were drawn to extreme movements that originated in the Muslim Brotherhood or in Salafi currents and which would become the earliest and pre-Qaeda jihadi movements of the late 1970s and 1980s.

If there is to be found any significant “medieval” rather than more modern historic parallels to DA’ISH, it is to be found in found in the reported behavior of the Kharajites, as noted by Saudi Arabia’s Mufti, who rebelled in the name of religious purity against Imam Ali, the fourth and last of the “Righteous Caliphs” in Sunni historiography and declared that any and all Muslims who did not join in their cause were apostates, and could therefore be killed be they non-combatants or not; be they men, women or children.

Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM) was not defeated by American military might — a point that should have been remembered when Arab as well as Western leaders, ,more recently considered responses to DA’ISH’s most dramatic success, when DA’ISH sent its forces from Syria back into Iraq.

AQM had been defeated by former Sunni Arab tribal allies in the Iraqi Resistance to the US occupation, who were put off by AQM’s brutal style of killing Shia as a matter of principle, and were encouraged and funded to fight AQM by the US armed forces in Iraq. Defeated in Iraq, Al-Baghdadi as a survivor of AQM, reconstituted the movement as the Islamic State of Iraq and Shems (ISIS) and moved into the fertile field of the Syrian civil war, where with the passage of time and lavish funding from wealthy individuals in the Gulf, Islamist militias of various designations — Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi, and Al-Qaeda affiliated Salafi-Jihadi groups — were increasingly outperforming the original rebel formations that had coalesced, under the leadership of non-Islamist defectors from the Syrian Army, as the Free Syrian Army.

DA’ISH as ISIS did well within rebel ranks in Syria as it took over by force-of-arms portions of rebel “liberated” territory significantly close to the Syrian-Iraqi border — for it was from Iraq it had originally come and it would be to Iraq, that it would (without abandoning its Syrian bases) return.

DA’ISH’s timing was impeccable. For while the American command had laid down conditions for the ruling Shia sectarian party led by Nuri al-Maliki to share authority with Arab Sunni and Kurdish leaders and to continue to fund and integrate the Sunni tribal militias of The Awakening movement into the Iraqi Army, Al-Maliki did the opposite, cutting off funds for The Awakening militias and refusing to integrate them into the Iraqi Army and Security forces in any meaningful way; purging and imprisoning both his government and the Iraqi Army command of Sunnis and taking over the ministries of defense and interior with Shia commanders whose qualifications were not those of merit but of personal and sectarian loyalty to Al-Maliki.

The final blow came after Sunni Arab political movements staged non-violent protests and sit-ins, and Al-Maliki sent both army and interior ministers forces to shoot and disperse the protesters. So, many Sunni Arabs rallied to ISIL when it reappeared in Iraq as a tough, well trained force waging war against Al-Maliki’s regime.

In the global media account of ISIL’s (soon to rename itself as DA’ISH) sweep across northern Iraq, DA’ISH’s destruction of at least half a dozen of Mosul’s most revered Muslim holy places — including the mosque-shrines that contained the tombs of the biblical Prophets Jirjis, Sheeth (Seth) and Younis (Jonah.) which, as in the case of the better reported atrocities, would be attributed to quote the Associated Press, to the “harsh interpretation of Islamic law.”

( DA’ISH and other Salafi or Salafi-jihadi within the rebel camp in Syria had already destroyed Sufi shrines in Aleppo and Damascus, a phenomena which was also noticeable as a barely -reported by-product of the “Arab Spring” in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Somalia.(see Muslim 500 2012 edition pp 177-178 and 2013/14 edition, pp189-191and current edition pages 253-255 )

The idea “harsh interpretation” seemingly complements the almost unavoidable description of normal Muslims and their religious leaders as practicing “moderate Islam” which in turn implies a “less harsh Islam.” What would be far more accurate and scene-setting so to speak, would be the use — when designating the overwhelming majority of practicing Muslims — of the phrases “Sunni Orthodoxy” and “Traditional Islam,”. These are the designations used in The Muslim 500 every year in the increasingly more critically important section on “Major Doctrinal Divisions Within Islam” (page 19 )

As to the concept of DA’ISH’s “harsh interpretation of Islam” consider the “Open Letter” addressed to the False Caliph by the leading religious scholars in the Muslim world, accompanied by a helpful executive summary (since the language of the traditional ulema can be difficult for those not familiar with the literature) published in this year’s edition of M500 (pp ) and distributed on a global basis to media and concerned institutions by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR).

The Open Letter makes it definitively clear that DA’ISH operates according to a perverse misinterpretation of Islam, not a “harsh interpretation.” (Some of the most important points in the Open Letter are re-expressions in juridical language of The Amman Message (p30) which was of ground-breaking importance at the time precisely because it confronted the pretensions of Al-Qaeda and lesser known extremist groups. But the Open Letter is the most comprehensive Islamic juridical rebuttal by orthodox scholars of the “religious” justifications for revolutionary Salafi-jihadis, manifest in its most extreme form by DA’ISH.

And here is a critical point in perception of DA’ISH but alluded to in the text of the Open Letter. When DA’ISH forces began operations in Aleppo, Syria and then in Mosul, it distributed the books of Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab, the 18th century Arabian theologian considered to be the inspiration of modern day Salafism. The scholars of The Open Letter note that the outstanding spokesman of a more muted (and far less powerful) classical Salafism, Ibn Taymiyyah, repudiated in his final years the most extreme doctrine that characterizes much of contemporary Salafism — takfir, to declare Muslims to be non-Muslims — to declare them apostates– if they contradict Salafi doctrine. But the practice of takfir is central to many of DA’ISH’s murderous practices.

It is also significant that Saudi Arabia, the religious establishment which in the late 1970s and onwards has generously been funding Salafi preachers throughout the Muslim world, has spoken out against DA’ISH after being admonished by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah for their silence.

King Abdullah has also firmly embraced Al-Azhar — the citadel of Orthodox Sunni religious thought and very much targeted by both Salafi groups and the Muslim Brotherhood in the anything-goes environment in Egypt of the Arab Spring and then its transmutation into Muslim Brotherhood rule for one year.

Saudi Arabia along with the UAE has provided both moral and financial support for the new government in Egypt headed up by President and former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who in his capacity as Minister of Defense and head of the Army was instrumental in deposing then President Muhammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013.

King Abdullah’s distancing Saudi Arabia from manifestations of Salafism outside of the Kingdom has also been reflected in measures taken in recent years to loosen the most blatant manifestations of extreme Salafi tendencies within the Kingdom, reorganizing the religious police, taking the control of women’s education away from the religious establishment and restoring it to the Ministry of Education and generously funding the establishment of a co-educational university for scientific studies and encouraging the re-orientation of the religious establishment from the rejection of Traditional Islam’s grant of authority given to all Four Schools of Sunni Legal Thought, to identification with one (Hanbali) of the Four Schools.(see page 26).

But the defense of Traditional Islam from onslaughts of both Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood has so far been defensive in nature, and largely in terms of juridical thought interpreting shari’a. But Traditional Islam and the institution of Al-Azhar has always had a positive perspective of orthodoxy, which is that the very core of Islam that enlivens the Law, is spirituality (taqwa) — with its stress on one’s personal relation or attentiveness to God, which is expressed in Sufism, and has been manifest for centuries not only in the Sufi tariqas — the mystical brotherhoods which exist to substantiate that attentiveness with politically quietist methodologies based upon the Invocation of God. If one were to advance a slogan for this positive rather than defensive perspective of Traditional Islam–it would be “Personally Invoke, don’t politically provoke.|” After the disaster of the 1967 War which did deflate some of the ideological fervor of the preceding decade in Egypt, there was a resurgence of Sufism which had been deemed unfashionable in Muslim intellectual circles since the earliest years of the 20th century. That resurgence was very much championed by Al-Azhar; perhaps this is the time for Al-Azhar to again go beyond defensive refutation and resume its role as a champion.

The other great and costly drama of this past year was the 50-day long Gaza War between Israel and Hamas that ranged through July. The fighting ended when Hamas accepted, in early August, a cease-fire proposal advanced by Egypt which approximated the very cease fire proposal also offered by Egypt and rejected by Hamas three weeks earlier, before the Israelis moved into Gaza with ground troops and continued the process of massive bombing and shelling that destroyed thousands of homes as well as much of the infrastructure.

One of the topics of great debate, at least in the first weeks of the war was who was responsible for starting it. In the first days of fighting, the Egyptian press blamed Hamas for starting an impossible-to-win war which could only lead to massive destruction and loss of Palestinian life given Israel’s overwhelming superior and accurate fire power. An observation borne out by low Israeli civilian casualties –something on the order of six civilians and 67 Israeli soldiers compared to at least 2,120 Palestinians, most of whom were civilians. This is one of the debating points in the aftermath of the war — the Israelis contend that only half of that total were civilian, but even if that were true, and that supposed low estimate is no more likely to be the case than the high Palestinian estimate, then the supposedly low of “only” 1,100 dead Palestinian civilian dead compared to six dead Israeli civilians would still be incredibly disproportionate.

Either way is disproportionate despite the fact that Hamas and some other radical Palestinian groups like Islamic Jihad operating in Gaza fired as many rockets into Israel aimed at civilian concentrations (but lacking any sort of serious guiding systems) as the very destructive Israeli targeted attacks from the air. Neighborhoods on the perimeter of Gaza were largely flattened by tank and artillery fire in the final weeks of the war, but most civilian casualties were probably caused by rockets fired into the more central parts of Gaza, which were less likely to have been evacuated as in the case of civilian areas near the border with Israel.

As one commentator in Cairo observed, the failure to kill more than six civilians (and one of them was a Beduoin) did not indicate a soft-heartedness on the part of the Hamas command. Hamas rockets were intended to kill civilians. And the inadequacies of those rockets as well as the extensive air raid shelter and civil defense system, which is non-existent in Gaza, as well as the Dome ground-to-air anti-missile system is the reason for only six dead Israeli citizens.

As the days of combat stretched on the never ending stream of horrific video of Palestinian women and children struck down dead or dying by Israeli bombing and shelling broadcast not only by Egyptian television channels, but by the many pan Arab and global television channels able this time around to be in Gaza and cover the war, and the ease now of being able to transmit picture, even if necessary by mobile telephone, had its effect.

The deep reservations not just the Egyptian government but much of the Egyptian public had for Hamas — for its Muslim Brotherhood affiliation, for its suspected role in allowing Gaza to be a rear base operation for the terrorists in Sinai that have been attacking both Egyptian civilian administration as well as army and police forces for several years, and for its rejecting the first ceasefire proposal advanced by President al-Sisi -and not only accepted by Israel but approved by Abbas and by the Arab League-, tended to melt away or at least be downplayed in public expression, as the impact of pictures of dead and wounded Palestinian civilians and the ruins of many of their homes continued to play. These scenes intensified in the final three weeks of fighting as Israeli ground and air fire increased in devastating effect both to protect Israeli ground troops that had by now moved into Gaza to inflict still greater damage upon Palestinian civilian life, and as a way to pressure Hamas to accept a ceasefire. By the beginning of August when Hamas accepted Al-Sisi’s second ceasefire proposal, the obvious loss of Palestinian life and property was so severe that few Egyptians would say or write a word in which Hamas shared some of the blame for the war.

But the best that could be said about Hamas if one dared to speak was that they were stupid — they allowed Netanyahu to provoke them into starting a hopeless war when he ordered a massive search for then supposedly still alive kidnapped Israeli teenagers, rounding-up Hamas cadre throughout the West Bank, and in the process killing at least nine West Bank Palestinians, as well as staging an air strike that targeted and killed a handful of Hamas militants.

Did Netanyahu want war or was his intention simply to heat up the region as a way to disparage the unity government that the PLA/Fateh had formed with Hamas only a few months before? But the very existence of that unity government, even if it existed only on paper deeply troubled Netanyahu, for this time around (there had been an earlier attempt at a unity Palestinian government several years ago) not even the United States objected to the unity government, and a unity government in which Hamas deferred to Abbas to carry on negotiations for peace.

With global support for the Two-State solution, the PLA’s Mahmoud Abbas and the White House could seriously attempt to force Netanyahu into signing-on to an |Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the creation of a truly independent Palestinian state.

This would be something that in his heart of hearts Netanyahu can never accept, even though he did nominally announce a highly conditional, obviously reluctant acceptance of a two state solution under pressure from Washington. What the war did provide Netanyahu with was an excuse that with intensive rocket fire launched against Israel during the war, he could not accept a Palestinian state in which Israel did not have a permanent military presence in the West Bank — which meant effectively, no Palestinian state during Netanyahu’s tenure.

While the battlefield in Gaza (at the time of publication) remains quiet there was one major Palestinian-Israeli confrontation, but this time non —violent and verbal, in the arena of the UN General Assembly; between Mahmud Abbas and Netanyahu, not Hamas and the IDF.

Abbas made headlines accusing the Israelis of genocide in Gaza. If Abbas had simply accused Israel of committing war crimes by striking rocketing and shelling schools, hospitals and civilian concentrations and reminded his global listeners and viewers and readers of the scenes of death and destruction they had all witnessed via television , reeling off the names and locations of all the obvious civilian and residential neighborhoods that were targets and in many cases levelled and quoting ,as back up comments, to that same effect by neutral UN and relief organization spokesmen, that all would have been very creditable and impressive.

But genocide? — “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political or cultural group” (my copy of Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary). That would have meant two million Palestinian deaths not a little more than two thousand, and this headline-grabbing exaggeration ,instead of summarizing the harm Israel inflicted upon the civilians of Gaza, diminished the hard facts of Palestinian civilian suffering.

On the other hand Hamas was desperate. The very conditions it agreed to in the negotiations for a unity government and that still prevail in the renewed negotiations held in Cairo two months after the ceasefire reflect that desperation on the eve of the war and prevail even a few months after the ceasefire: serious funding as well as military supplies no longer reaching Gaza with the closure by Egypt of most of the tunnels running from Gaza into the Egyptian Sinai; some 40,000 civilian employees of the government in Gaza not paid their salaries for a number of months, etc.

Wars can be entered to out of desperation and not because of any strong sense that victory was possible, and such was the case with Hamas, or at least for its military command which does not necessarily answer to the political leadership.

But from a strictly political point of view Netanyahu was the loser. The condition of the Palestinians be they under occupation or siege or in a combat zone dominated absolutely by Israeli fire power has further isolated Israel in the world

As for Hamas itself, there was something both desperate and repellent in the video of a Hamas Gaza leadership surrounded by vast destruction and aware of the totally disproportionate death toll, yet claiming victory. But politically Hamas had an additional point. For despite the hopelessness, obvious to anyone with a detached sense for the facts, however pro-Palestinian, Israel has the capacity to level all of Gaza using just conventional artillery, tank and air power in 24 hours. Yet esteem for Hamas, which was doing poorly in public opinion polling in Gaza before the war, rose dramatically in the immediate aftermath of the war.

That was not only an expression of defiance despite terrible losses, but because the popular Palestinian assumption is that Hamas had somehow forced Israel to accept a ceasefire and Israel had not managed to knock out all or possibly not even most of Hamas’s very portable rocket launchers.

But if one grasped present day Israeli military strategy known as the Dahiya Doctrine one would realize that for all its war time rhetoric the goal of Israeli air and artillery strikes was to do in a good part of Gaza what Israel did to the Dahiya quarter, a Shia neighborhood of large apartment buildings leveled by the IDF during the 2006 Lebanon War. The Dahiya Doctrine– according to General Gadi Eizenkot, then commander of the IDF’s northern front, meant to ‘wield disproportionate power (against whoever would fire rockets at Israel) and cause immense damage and destruction.” The context was Hizbullah as the enemy, but also applicable to Gaza as he would later remark, At the time however General Eizenhot went on to say “Harming the population is the only means of restraining Nasrallah.”

Certainly Abbas had to be aware of this doctrine, since the 2009 UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict in the wake of the 2008 Israeli attack on Gaza, make several references to the Dahiya Doctrine, calling it a concept which requires the application of “widespread destruction as a means of deterrence” and which involves “the application of disproportionate force and the causing of great damage and destruction to civilian property and infrastructure and suffering to civilian populations.”

Alluding to conflict with Hamas, the Israeli Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) analysis of the Dahiya Doctrine, which the IISS simply described as Israel’s “updated security concept” as it applied to Gaza: “There, the IDF will be required to strike hard at Hamas and to refrain from the cat and mouse games of searching for Qassam rocket launchers. The IDF should not be expected to stop the rocket and missile fire against the Israeli home front through attacks on the launchers themselves, but by mean of imposing a ceasefire on the enemy.”

The IISS went on to conclude “…the IDF’s primary goal must be to attain a ceasefire under conditions that will increase Israel’s long term deterrence, prevent a war of attrition, and leave the enemy floundering in expensive, long term processes of reconstruction.”

How much more effective Abbas would have been if instead of talking about genocide he had simply reminded those who already knew, and shocked those who did not know, what the Dahiya doctrine was and how it had been applied to the letter in Gaza this past summer and how, as far as achieving its actual goals, Israel had done so at the calculated intentional high loss of Palestinian civilian lives, property and infrastructure.

Netanyahu then rushed to New York to rebut Abbas but along with the usual rhetoric about “tissues of lies and fabrications etc” Netanyahu came up with a new twist curiously hailed as a more moderate stance than usual for the Prime Minister. All that he did was to turn the Arab Peace Plan on its head, upside down, so-to-speak. In effect Netanyahu said that perhaps instead of trying to achieve a settlement now with the Palestinians, with the thought that this was a prerequisite to establishing durable peace with all the Arab states, Israel should reverse course and seek closer relations — cooperation in any number of regional projects and issues with the Arab states, and that good relations and cooperation with the other Arabs would eventually propel an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. But of course formal recognition, economic as well as diplomatic relations and the acceptance of Israel as a legitimate part of the region is precisely the concession with which the Arab states would reward Israel for coming to real terms and accepting the creation of a viable Palestinian state in what are now the occupied territories including besieged Gaza. It is interesting because it means Netanyahu no longer feels compelled to even nominally go along with President Obama and US Secretary of State Kerry’s ideal vision of Israel seriously negotiating with the Palestinians.

But back in late 2013 and early 2014 Netanyahu’s tactic to deter serious negotiations with the PA was to suddenly come up with a new condition ,“a minimal requirement”, before any negotiations could seriously begin, and that was for the Palestine Authority to recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The speculation in the Israeli press was that this was the latest way for Netanyahu to sabotage the American-pressed peace process but in such a way that it would be the Palestinians who would get blamed for its failure — which is indeed a long standing Israeli maneuver.

Mahmoud Abbas’ initial reaction to this demand was cool. He implicitly dismissed it as absurd. The Palestine Authority, he noted, simply recognizes the state of Israel — how the Israelis define that state is their own business, not the Palestinians. But as Netanyahu continued to press the point he got the reaction he was hoping for, instead of a simple and quite sophisticated dismissal, there was fervent Palestinian refusal. Does that mean that educated Palestinian opinion does not read the Israeli press, but does, but forgets either because of emotional fury or because in the world of intra-Palestinian politics, taking a more steadfast position than Abbas is more important than thwarting an Israeli maneuver. Or to put it in a more respectful mode and applicable not just to the Palestinians, it is an example of where honor is more important than winning.

Of course polemics aside, and Netanyahu’s cynical reading of how to provoke the Palestinians, there is really nothing startling about the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. It is the very essence of modern Zionism, of the raison d’etre for the creation of the state of Israel as far as those who struggled for decades before there ever was a holocaust, to create a Jewish state in Palestine. And the UN Partition Resolution in 1947 which has been referenced in recent years by the Palestinian Authority as one of the international documents recognizing an Arab state in Palestine, also referred to what would within less than a year become the state of Israel, to a Jewish state in Palestine.

Far better would be for the Palestinians to do as the Israelis do, and that is to say “Yes, but first….” As an evasive technique it has worked over and over again for the Israelis. In this case for Abbas to have followed up his very first and quite exquisite comment, by saying if it was so important to Israel for the Palestinians, and implicitly for the world to affirm an obvious political reality — if that is so critical an issue for Israel then let Netanyahu change the name of the state of Israel, to the “Jewish State of Israel” as Pakistan renamed itself “The Islamic Republic of Pakistan” in 1956.

Meanwhile with negotiations going on or not going on, with war in Gaza on or off, Israel continued to authorize still more new housing for Israeli settlement in Arab “East” Jerusalem Shortly afterwards dozens of Israelis belonging to the settlement movement and protected by Israeli security forces took over seven houses in the Arab Jerusalem suburban neighborhood of Silwan (which is almost within shouting distance of the Old City of Jerusalem) evicting seven Palestinian families. The settlers claim they have papers proving they have legally purchased the buildings, which is being challenged by the Arab residents of Silwan.

This ongoing Israeli settlement in Arab Jerusalem is periodically denounced throughout the Arab and Islamic world, but it is Jordan that continues to encourage the one present circumstance, that Muslims can directly aide the beleaguered and impoverished Arabs in Jerusalem who hold on in the most difficult of circumstances. At an international conference, “Road to Jerusalem”, of leading Muslim religious scholars, academics and political figures held in Amman in February 2014, the scholars rejected the fatwa of Sheikh Yusuf Qardawi banning Muslims from visiting occupied Jerusalem.

On the contrary, the conference called upon all Muslims, and particular all Palestinians to undertake pilgrimage to Al-Aqsa mosque in occupied Jerusalem, that all “transactions including buying, selling, dealings, accommodation and transportation undertaken must benefit the Palestinians and the Jerusalemites and none other than them” in order to support the Palestinian economy and in particular the Arab Jerusalemite economy and to dedicate their zakat for the social, medical and economic welfare of the people of Arab Jerusalem. (Full report on the conference on pp .)

Jordan also continues to uphold its commitment to Inter-Faith activity. The Common Word Initiative which was organized by the Royal Aal Al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, now partners with the Vatican in holding periodic meetings of the Catholic-Muslim Forum in which a representative group of Muslim scholars and intellectuals from the original Common Word group meet with Catholic theologians and scholars to deepen mutual understanding. The Forum will meet before the end of 2014 at the Vatican. The previous meeting in 2011 was in Amman.

But perhaps the most intense effort at mutual understanding in the domain of theology is being undertaken by the annual Building Bridges Seminar in which a small group of Christian and Muslim scholars, usually about 30, gather for almost exhausting study lasting for three days. Texts from the Christian and Islamic traditions relevant to the topic chosen by the participants are used as the basis for discussion in a program that includes relevant paper presented in the morning followed by long late morning and afternoon meetings in four even smaller groups of seven to eight scholars. The purpose of the seminar is not to arrive at agreement, but rather to make sure that each has understood the other’s beliefs and concerns.

In 2014 the topic was “Sin, Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Christian and Muslim Perspectives.” The Building Bridges Seminars was originally led by the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. But in 2012, Georgetown University accepted the Archbishop’s invitation to take on the responsibility of administering and hosting the Seminar after his retirement. The Seminar is sponsored by Georgetown University’s President John J. DeGioria and the discussion is chaired by Father Daniel Madigan, also from Georgetown.

As for conflict, intra-faith rather than inter-faith; Syria and Iraq are not the only war torn countries in the Muslim world. Islamist terrorism persists in Nigeria where Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 school girls. Some have escaped but most are still in the hands of Boko Haram which has threatened to sell them off to men seeking wives. In Somalia, the Islamist Al-Shabab, while still on the defensive and losing ground, continue to stage occasional suicide bomb attacks in the capital.

Yemen slides back and force between a variety of civil wars and discontents: The central government against Al-Qaeda; the central government against southern Yemenis attempting to recover independence from the North, and the Sunni central government allied to a Sunni Salafi tribal movement fighting and losing out to ” the Houthis” who are often treated in the media as some sort of mysterious Yemeni Shia force. They are the armed communal heirs, although their leader is not in any direct line of descent of the Zaidi Shia Imamate that ruled most of Yemen, for most of the time from the late 9th century until overthrown by a coup by predominantly Sunni officers in the Royal Army — a coup wrapped in the banner of Republicanism and avidly supported by Gamal Abdul Nasr in a civil war that lasted for several years and resulted in serious losses for the Egyptian expeditionary army in Yemen.

It is an indication of the extent that sectarianism has come to play a much greater role in the Arab world than it did many decades ago, that Saudi Arabia under the leadership of the late King Faisal supported the Zaidi Imam in his ultimately unsuccessful guerilla war against the Sunni Republicans to restore the Imamate. Ultimately a compromise agreement resulted in a Sunni-dominated Republican regime that was theoretically committed to power-sharing with the Zaidis, who constitute nearly half of the population of Yemen.

But the most dangerous terrain in the Arab and Islamic world is Libya. There are now two rival governments operating in two different capitals, Tripoli and Tobruk. There have been numerous clashes between rival militias that have come to dominate Libyan political life since the Uprising against Gaddafi in 2011

The country is at the edge of all out civil war. In the last round of fighting the Misrata militas, which are in an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and the particularly well-armed and well funded Salafi-Jihadi Ansar Al-Sharia of Benghazi, defeated the Zintan militia which is loosely allied to the traditional Muslim as well as nationalist and liberal forces along with feebly trained units from the new and small national army established by the transitional political authority that assumed nominal power after Gaddafi was overthrown. These regular army units were defeated by the Ansar Al-Sharia in protracted and ragged fighting for control of Benghazi.

The legitimate Libyan government in the eyes of most Arab states and in particular in the eyes of Egypt and Algeria is that formed by the new parliament elected in June 2014. It is opposed by a rival government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafi-Jihadi allies set up in Tripoli after the city’s capture by the Misrati militias. The legitimate government fled Tripoli to Tobrok not far from the border with Egypt. Since Libyan Salafi-Jihadi units have raided an Egyptian Army border position twice in 2014, inflicting serious casualties in the second raid this past summer, there have been recurrent rumors circulating in Cairo that Egypt may intervene upon the invitation of the Libyan legitimate government either alone or in alliance with Algeria.

Egypt’s President Al-Sisi has visited Algiers and re-established good relations with the Algerians but if Egypt alone or with Algeria does intervene it will most likely only happen if intervention is approved by the Arab League. As for Al-Sisi, 2014 began as a trying year with continuing demonstrations by pro-Morsi protestors in Cairo, particularly at the universities, and in Upper Egypt,

But by the time Al-Sisi was inaugurated as President, the demonstrations had already begun to ebb and even evaporate, largely due to massive arrests of the Muslim Brotherhood and allied Islamists. A sense of normality and stability has returned to Cairo. It is clearly welcomed by the majority of Egyptians for whom the breakdown of law and order, the widespread loss of employment and the failure of a succession of administrations to mitigate either, following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Beyond the limited circles of Human Rights activists and NGOs, and liberal to left intellectual and academic circles, not to mention residual elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mass of the Egyptian public was far more troubled by the reduction of subsidies for fuel and basic commodities, than by post-coup human rights concerns.

And the President Al-Sisi was warmly received by both the various UN delegates as well as enthusiastic Egyptian-Americans in the public gallery when he spoke at the UN General Assembly. Al-Sisi’s pledge that Egypt was proceeding on a roadmap to democracy and human rights has been contested by critics of the coup d’etat that ultimately led to new elections and brought him to power. However, within the halls of the General Assembly, where no doubt many delegates are troubled by the United States’ cold shoulder for Egypt and Washington’s curious, softly pedaled sympathy for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood that has been apparent even before the now imprisoned Muhammed Morsi was elected president in the summer of 2013.

But perhaps the most telling sign of a much sought after stability in Egypt is the opening of a large underground parking lot built beneath Tahrir Square where construction work had been delayed until the Fall of 2014, due to demonstrations since January 2011. Now Tahrir Square is quiet and its garden areas increasingly well-tended. END

S. Abdallah Schleifer
Professor Emeritus & Senior Fellow
Kamal Adham Center for Television & Digital Journalism
The American University in Cairo
AUC Ave,P.O.Box 74, New Cairo 11835