‘Interfaith’ Under Occupation is Normalization, Not Solidarity!

Recently a firestorm has taken the US based Palestine solidarity movement because of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative(MLI), as a second group of young American Muslim participants finished a two week fully sponsored visit to participate in an ‘interfaith’ program. The controversy is connected to Palestinian’s civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions that is directed at Israel and the participant’s decision to join the fully funded program in complete disregard to Palestinians plea for global solidarity on its basis.

Indeed, by accepting a sponsored trip from Hartman, a well-established Zionist outfit in Israel involved in military educational officer training projects and government contracts to specifically counter the BDS movement, the participants crossed the global picket line and violated Palestine’s civil society call for solidarity. The BDS movement is a Palestine’s civil society non-violent grassroots initiative and a detailed call for specific steps and actions in solidarity with Palestinians living under Occupation. The BDS movement is founded upon an ethical and voluntary participation in an effort to effectuate a change in global political, economic and diplomatic support extended to Israel. Palestinian civil society seeks local and global solidarity that is reflected in words and deeds.

Based on Hartman’s own website the description for MLI’s goal, “is to enable emerging religious and intellectual leaders—including university chaplains, journalists, academics, and cultural figures—to understand the meaning of Israel in Judaism and in contemporary Jewish life.” Hartman’s MLI program involves bringing a group of young American Muslim leaders to participate in a fully paid and guided trip in Occupied Palestine for a purported‘ interfaith-based’ curriculum and engagement.

The controversy has many layers to it including Hartman’s funding from Russell Berrie Foundation and Koret Foundation, a source of support for many Islamophobic organizations in the U.S. as well as the institute’s direct links to the Israeli military and officer training programs.

Hartman’s aims for the participants “to experience how Jews understand Judaism, Israel, and themselves,” and more critically “helping emerging North American Muslim leaders to develop a deeper understanding of Judaism, the Jewish people, and Israel.” Hartman’s MLI desired outcome being “to change attitudes in the North American Muslim community and in Muslim-Jewish discourse in communities and on campuses across North America.”

Hartman’s MLI project needs to be understood within the broader Israeli strategy to improve their globally damaged image after the wholesale slaughter of civilians in Gaza, counter the success of BDS on college campuses and prevent it from taking hold further in the US. Indeed, Hartman’s MLI project aims at shaping emergent American Muslim leadership perspective on Israel and Zionism while peeling away layers of support to the Palestinian cause within the confines of American-Muslim communities.

Fatwa Does Not Sanction Hartman’s MLI Program!

One important argument used by some participants in this program or defending the initiative revolves around the presence of a fatwa (a single juristic opinion) permitting visitation of Palestine and by extension, according to some participants, would lend support to such fully funded program with Shalom Hartman.

Before examining and responding to the cited Fatwa and in terms of established normative Islamic legal opinions, Muslim scholars are in agreement on the desirability of travelling to Jerusalem for performing legal acts of worship there: like prayers, supplication, remembrance of God, recitation of the Qur’an and staying in Al-Aqsa mosque for a fixed period of time for the purpose of worship. However, this normative practice is supposed to be undertaken while the city is free and not under occupation.

A recent fatwa has been issued in a conference titled, “Road to Jerusalem” held in Amman under the auspices of the Jordanian government that explicitly called on Muslims to visit Jerusalem to support the Palestinian economy and society living under occupation. The conference was organized and hosted by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, the King’s cousin and adviser on Jerusalem affairs with the main agenda focused on issuing this fatwa to permit visiting Jerusalem and Palestine as a follow-up or in conjunction with performing Hajj.

It is important to situate the conference and the broader Jordanian efforts post the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty in the area of normalization and constructing an Arab bridge for Israel into the Arab and Muslim worlds. This bridge was far stronger than the one constructed through the Camp David Agreement with Egypt and was given a major push by the introduction of the Palestinian Authority and the signing of the already failed Oslo Agreement. For anyone observing the Palestinian struggle these are not new revelations rather are part and parcel of understanding this role played by various Arab and Muslim actors in the region and the facilitation provided to Israel in the region. For more details on the subject read my earlier article in Turkey Agenda.

The conference fatwa needs to be located within the broader regional strategy and normalizing Israel’s role in the newly formed alliances post Iraq invasion and events of the Arab Spring. Even before the fatwa was articulated, a number of prominent Muslim scholars took the unprecedented step of visiting Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa under Jordanian and PA facilitation with total coordination and pre-approval of the Israeli authorities.Number of articles were written in response to Egypt’s Mufti visit to Al-Aqsa and some put the context of the debate, incorrectly if I may say, into the on-going conflict with the Brotherhood Movement. Indeed, having translated and documented every fatwa issued in relations to Palestine I can say for certain that the body of Fatwas from Al-Azhar and the office of the Egyptian Mufti on the issue of visits goes back 50 years and not a function of recent events or response to the Brotherhood Movement.

As the recent Fatwa, a number of questions arise as to the nature of the Fatwa, the rationale behind it, the scope, and expressed limitations? The fatwa’s intent, as described by the conference, is to permit Muslims visits in order to help in “defending Islamic and Christian holy sites” and to stand up against “Israeli violations in Jerusalem.” In the context of the conference, the rationale for the Fatwa was to help support and defend Palestinians under Occupation by allowing Muslims to visit, interact and spend their money in Palestinian owned business and establishments, in essence to help them stay steadfast in resisting the constant ethnic cleansing.

The scope of the Fatwa focused on permitting organized visits by individuals and groups with the ability to spend time in Jerusalem and other areas in Palestine. What is of relevance and significance as far as the MLI initiative is concerned is the expressed limitations included in the Fatwa itself, which barred participation in any event or program directed at normalization. Reading and considering the Fatwa in question I have to conclude that the explicit prohibitions would certainly include the Shalom Hartman MLI program

The text expressed in categorical terms that visitors must avoid “normalizing with the occupation” as well as stick to “buying, selling, traveling and [accepting] hospitality only with Palestinians.”

Certainly, this fatwa is the first of its kind and it did depart from existing body of Islamic juristic opinions on Occupied Palestine extending from the initial opinions during the Crusades all the way up the to the current Zionist occupation period. Even this carefully crafted conference with handpicked scholars could not overcome the body of legal opinions restricting extending any type of support to the Occupying power by engaging in normalization efforts. One can point to the contradictions in the limits imposed considering Jordan, Egypt, and Gulf States have open relations with Israel itself; however Islamic legal determination should not be confused or contingent upon actions or opinions of any single or combinations of Arab or Muslim nation states.

While some will raise the obvious arguments that such legal opinions are difficult to govern under contemporary circumstances and the heavy participation of nation-state actors who are facilitating political and economic normalization. Another argument is located in the notion that as American Muslims we are not party or included in these perspectives because we live outside Muslim majority countries and have ‘our’ own jurisprudence and should not be confined by what is developed outside. These are legitimate and rich arguments and I would not purport to dismiss them altogether but MLI participants introduced the Fatwa from the Muslim world to support their actions while at the same time excluding the sections in the same opinion than runs contrary to their stated action and decision to participate in the funded program.

Some participants in the MLI program have cited the Fatwa as a rationale for participation in the program. However, and setting aside debates about how the Fatwa was arrived at in the first place and if the Fatwa is accepted as granting the permission to visit then the expressed limitations would preclude and make the MLI Israeli paid-for and hosted visits a prohibited matter.

Indeed, no scholar, past or present, including those who permitted visiting Palestine and Jerusalem in the cited Fatwa has accepted an opinion or action that a person visits the occupied area while funded by the occupying power. The body of legal opinions on this prohibition is unified and comprehensive without opposition. Certainly, Hartman’s MLI project is an interfaith initiative in name only and in reality is a political program instrumentalizing religion in support of Zionism, settler colonialism and Apartheid.

The BDS movement does call for people to visit and come to Palestine in solidarity with the Palestinians. Come to Palestine and be a witness to the injustices taking place. Visit Palestine, stay, spend time and money with the Palestinians as an individual or group act of resistance and support for the oppressed people as many have been doing and will do in the future. The issues is not a matter of visiting Palestine but undertaking a visit sponsored and funded by the occupying power: This is an unethical and immoral political act that is hurtful to the Palestinians in Palestine and in the diaspora!

If Shalom Hartman Institute and Israel’s leadership want to have an interfaith dialogue then let them allow all the Palestinians’ Muslims and Christians expelled in 1948 and 1967 back for an open-ended dialogue on the meaning of thou shall not steal someone else’s property!