In his recent foray into Ramallah, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jack Straw identified the Palestine-Israel conflict as the most important issue between the West and the Muslim world. Straw was echoing the conventional wisdom according to which a solution to that problem would transform relations between Islam and the West from what is almost a clash of civilizations to one of cuddly camaraderie.
But what if conventional wisdom got it wrong?
I have just spent the whole fasting month of Ramadan in several Arab countries, where long nights are spent eating, drinking coffee and, of course, discussing politics.
There are no free elections or reliable opinion polls in the Arab world. So no one knows what the silent majority really thinks. The best one can do is rely on anecdotal evidence. On that basis, I came to believe that the Palestine-Israel issue was low down on the list of priorities for the man in the street but something approaching an obsession for the political, business, and intellectual elites.
When it came to ordinary people, almost no one ever mentioned the Palestine issue, even on days when Yasser Arafat’s death dominated the headlines. When I asked them about issues that most preoccupied them, farmers, shopkeepers, taxi drivers and office workers never mentioned Palestine.
But when I talked to princes and princesses, business tycoons, high officials, and the glitterati of Arab academia, Palestine was the ur-issue.
The reason why the elites fake passion about this issue is that it is the only one on which they agree. In many cases, it is also the only political issue that people can discuss without running into trouble with the secret services.
More importantly, perhaps, it is the one issue on which the elites feel they have the sympathy of the outside world. For example, I found almost no one who, speaking in private, had any esteem for Arafat. But all felt obliged to hide their thoughts because Arafat had been honored by French President Jacques Chirac.
When some Arab newspapers ran articles on Arafat’s alleged corruption and despotism, other Arab media attacked them for being disrespectful to a man who had been treated like “a hero of humanity” by Chirac.
Conventional wisdom also insists that the US is hated by Muslims because it is pro-Israel. That view is shared by most American officials posted to the Arab capitals. But is it not possible that the reverse is true – that Israel is hated because it is pro-American?
When I raised that possibility in Ramadan-night debates, I was at first greeted with deafening silence. Soon, however, some interlocutors admitted that my suggestion was, perhaps, not quite fanciful.
Let us consider some facts.
If Muslims hate the US because it backs Israel which, in turn, is oppressing Muslims in Palestine, then why don’t other oppressed Muslims benefit from the same degree of solidarity from their co-religionists?
During Ramadan, news came that more than 500 Muslims had been killed in clashes with the police in southern Thailand. At least 80 were suffocated to death in police buses under suspicious circumstances.
The Arab and the Iranian press, however, either ignored the event or relegated it to inside pages. To my knowledge, only one Muslim newspaper devoted an editorial to it. And only two newspapers mentioned that Thailand was building a wall to cordon off almost two million Muslims in southern Thailand – a wall higher and longer than the controversial “security fence” Israel is building.
Muslim states have never supported Pakistan on Kashmir because most were close to India in the so-called nonaligned movement while Pakistan was a US ally in CENTO and SEATO.
When Hindu nationalists demolished the Ayodhya Mosque, no one thought it necessary to inflame Muslim passions.
Nor has a single Muslim nation recognized the republic set up by Muslim Turks in northern Cyprus. The reason? Greece has always sided with the Arabs on Palestine and plays occasional anti-American music while Turkey is a US ally.
When the Serbs massacred 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica 10 years ago, not a ripple disturbed the serene calm of Muslim opinion. At that time, the mullahs of Teheran and Col. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya were in cahoots with Slobodan Milosevic, supplying him with oil and money because Yugoslavia held the presidency of the so-called nonaligned movement. Belgrade was the only European capital to be graced with a state visit by Ali Khamenehi, the mullah who is now the Supreme Guide of the Islamic Republic.
And what about Chechnya which is, by any standard, the Muslim nation that has most suffered in the past two centuries? Last October the Muslim summit in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, gave a hero’s welcome to Vladimir Putin, the man who has presided over the massacre of more Chechens than anyone in any other period in Russian history.
Right now there are 22 active conflicts across the globe in which Muslims are involved. Most Muslims have not even heard of most of them because those conflicts do not provide excuses for fomenting hatred against the United States.
Next time you hear someone say the US was in trouble in the Muslim world because of Israel, remember that things may not be that simple.