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Palestinian religious zeal and nationalism

Posted By Obadiah Shoher On January 21, 2011 @ 4:09 am In History of Palestinians | 21 Comments

Nationalist zealots are few in any nation; most people are content with whatever rule allows them to earn their bread. The small size of Palestinian society makes local nationalists especially vulnerable. Just like the British arrested hundreds of them in 1930s to end the Arab revolt, just like the Israelis expelled a lot of Arab nationalists in the 1950s and 60s, so today Israel can solve the problem of Palestinian insurrection by expelling all the university students and a few thousand Arab opinion-makers. Israeli-American efforts at encouraging an open society in Palestine are counterproductive to Israeli security.

Observers often mistake religious overtones for religiosity. The notion of jihad has reverberated in Palestine at least since Izz Qassam’s fiery speeches of 1920s, but his followers were near-secular bandits. Similarly, the Arab gangsters of 1936-39 were called mujahedeen. Quasi-socialist Arabs established a Syria-based Committee for National Jihad in Palestine in the late 1930s. Israelis similarly adopted biblical rhetoric for their atheist state. A religious conflict between Jews and Muslims would be odd: Jews have no religious problem with the monotheistic Muslims whatsoever, and Muslims have protective obligations toward Jews. A conflict between Jewish and Arab secular nationalism is understandable, and lacks a peaceful solution. In religious terms, Jews and Arabs share substantial values and can reach an agreement; in nationalist terms, our values are opposed and no middle ground exists: the ground is either the Jewish or the Arab.

Palestinian Arabs were unreligious. In rural areas, women rarely wore a veil. Friday mosque attendance, when it happened at all, was more of a party scene. Rural Arabs, like rural populations generally, were atheistic pagans given to superstitions. Hamas had a hard time rallying Palestinian Arabs around Islam, and attracted them with an extensive network of charities. Islam is only a nationalist doctrine for the Arabs.

Until the late 1970s, Israel suppressed Palestinian organizations with even the slightest nationalist potential, from political parties to sports clubs. Muslim religious expression was suppressed less rigorously. As the result, Palestinian discontent was sublimated into the religious sphere, and Israeli Arabs became relatively zealous religiously. Arabs also invested their efforts in grassroots charities, which were allowed by the Israeli government, and used them as a front for political gatherings. Israeli Arab charities sent money to Intifada “victims,” though it is inconceivable that American Japanese citizens would have sent money to Tokyo during WWII.

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