There is a widespread popular belief in Israel and in the West that Islam is only “Radical Islam” , which is perceived to be the religion of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and other fundamentalist extremist Islamic groups which promote a violent, anti-Israel and anti-Western agenda that is antithetical to a humanist understanding of religion in our time. This version of Islam is in the news and on the internet every day, almost every hour, so that most people actually believe that this is what Islam is really all about. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
On the contrary, Islam in Israel , as it is understood and practiced by the more than 1 ½ million Sunni Muslims who are citizens of the state of Israel, is actually a moderate, modern religion which upholds the basic values of humanistic Islam, as preserved in the sacred texts of the Koran and the Hadith, which include respect for human life, honoring the dignity of every human being, respect and appreciation for the religious beliefs and practices of followers of other religions, especially Judaism and Christianity, since their believers are considered to be “people of the book.” How do I know this? Because I have heard these views espoused countless times during the past 25 years by Muslim religious leaders in Israel who have participated in interreligious dialogue through programs and projects that I have planned and implemented with Muslim colleagues via the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), an organization which I founded and have directed for the past quarter century ( and which is now part of Rabbis for Human Rights).
Why is Islam in Israel — and in many other places in the world — so different than the other versions of this religion that are widespread in the Middle East? Why is it not as radical or violent as the versions of Islam that we hear about all the time in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and Syria?
There are a few major explanations for this phenomenon:
- Muslims in Israel do not live under “Occupation” any more. The military rule over Israel’s Arab citizens ended in 1966, fifty years ago! Therefore, Muslims in Israel do not wake up in the morning with the imperative of resisting the Occupation, as do their fellow Muslims in Gaza or the West Bank (including East Jerusalem). This has led Muslim citizens of Israel to be more pragmatic and less extreme than their co-religionists in the region.
- The religious leadership of the Muslims in Israel –especially the moderate majority of imams (local religious leader) and kadis (judges in the Sharia courts of the state of Israel)—have been preaching and teaching a religion of coexistence and cooperation for decades in their communities (which does not make the news very often!). Indeed, most of the kadis in Israel today offer a humanistic understanding of Islam, which they actually practice and implement in their family courts throughout Israel and in the communities where they serve as moral voices on behalf of their caring and compassionate understanding of the teachings of Islam.This is in stark contrast to the Northern wing of the Islamic Movement in Israel, which gets a lot of attention in the Israeli media because it is led by a fiery, colorful and provocative spokesperson, Sheikh Rayed Sallah, who preaches and teaches a more radical version of Islam, which has been verbally violent but does not engage in physical violence. On the other hand, the Southern wing of the Islamic movement—which has elected representatives to the Knesset for many years– has been much more moderate and reasonable in its religious outlook and has engaged in genuine dialogue with Jews (including myself) for a long time.
- Muslims in Israel, like Christians, Druze and Circasians in Israel, are citizens of the state. They are equal before the law, even if they don’t always enjoy equal opportunity, to put it mildly (in fact, they suffer much discrimination in many areas of daily life). Despite the fact that they mostly live in separate communities–and many if not most of them identify with the Palestinian people and their desire to have a Palestinian state side by side with the state of Israel– they seek to be integrated into Israeli society. They want better education for their children, better housing, better infrastructure for their cities, towns and villages, and they want to be accepted as Israeli citizens in this country. If they have grievances with policies of the government of Israel, they are free to protest publicly and to work for change via the many non-governmental organizations in civil society in Israel which do so, including many in the Palestinian Arab sector of Israeli society, such as Mossawa and Adallah.
For all these reasons, I believe that it is incumbent upon the Jewish majority in Israel to come to know their Muslim neighbors better and not to rely on the inflammatory headlines in the daily tabloids or the nasty posts on social media for their knowledge of what Islam really is and what their Muslim neighbors in Israel really think. Unfortunately most Jews in Israel have yet to encounter their Muslim Palestinian Arab neighbors who are citizens of their state (and who do not have to prove their loyalty to the state). It appears that most Jews here (and abroad) prefer to live with false stereotypes about Muslims or simply live by ideologies or theologies which have taught them to be intolerant of people of other religions (Christians as well as Muslims).
It is high time for this to stop since it is not healthy or constructive for the democratic nature of Israeli society. Rather, it is time for more Jews in this country—and more from abroad on their visits to Israel—to encounter Muslim Palestinian Arabs of Israeli citizenship directly, face-to-face. In this way, counterproductive stereotypes can be overcome, and peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Jews can become the new agenda and even the new order of the day in Israel.