Most people seem to be confused about Islam. Is it “a religion of peace,” or the opposite? Are Muslims who live and die for “jihad” extremists or fundamentalists, or just observant Muslims? To find out, I recently attended a lecture by Mordecai Kedar, under the auspices of “The Jewish Narrative” Thursday English Lecture series in Herzliya.
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Mordechai Kedar, born in 1952 in Tel Aviv, is an Israeli scholar of Arabic literature and a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University. He holds a Ph.D. from Bar-Ilan University. He is an academic expert on the Israeli Arab population and served for twenty-five years in IDF Military Intelligence as an expert on Arab affairs. He has been described as “one of the few Arabic-speaking Israeli pundits seen on Arabic satellite channels defending Israel.” (See Kedar educating about Jewish Jerusalem on al-Jazeera TV, in a YouTube video which has more than half a million views.)

On his website, Kedar writes, “We in the West often delude ourselves into believing that all cultures have exactly the same goals: peace, prosperity, freedom, and exactly the same values: human life, honesty, human rights. And although all of these goals and values are undoubtedly part of every human culture, not all cultures value them to the same degree that we do in the West.”

Dr. Kedar began his study of the Arab world at age 13, which gives him 50 years of experience in the field. Below is my recollection of the lecture:

Today, everyone is afraid of radical Islam perpetrated by radical Muslims. But there is neither a radical nor a moderate Islam; there is only one Islam. Islam contains a hierarchy of sources for Muslims to study. First is the Quran (Koran) itself, revealed by Allah to Muhammad. Then there is the Hadith (similar to the Jewish Mishna, the written version of the oral traditions). Hadith is the written account of what Muhammed said on many topics. Then there is the very important life story of Muhammad, from which Muslims learn by example.

Kedar points out that what is written in the Quran may be contradicted on the same or the next page. The same ambivalence applies to the Hadith and to Muhammad’s biography. One chooses “his” Islam from the sources he learned in childhood. In other words, one “tailors his Islamic garment to be a perfect Muslim,” based on following certain sayings or actions while ignoring contradictory ones.

The followers of ISIS are radical people who are Muslims, but there are also moderate people who are Muslims. All follow Islamic teachings. Kedar asks, “Who gave radicals permission to commit atrocities?” and answered, “Allah, the Deity, will judge everything, not us.” All Muslims place themselves somewhere on the radical — moderate spectrum of Islamic belief. Their religious status is not rigid or frozen. Believers will decide what practices to follow.

There is a massive crisis in the Islamic religious world, which is fragmented and constantly riven by fighting among its components. It is Shia v Sunni and even Sunni v Sunni. [Briefly, Shia Muslims are a small minority who believe that after Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, his title should have gone to Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. Sunni Muslims, the vast majority, believe that the new leader should be elected from among those capable of performing the work, regardless of familial ties to Muhammad.] This is an intra-religious war that has spread to Europe. This was already the case during the 1990s in Germany, between Kurdish immigrants and Turkish immigrants, both Sunni.

The Arab nations are torn between two poles, represented by ISIS (who promote a regional or even global caliphate) and al-Sisi (a normal, secular state). ISIS has even destroyed the remnants of former cultures, most famously at Palmyra in Syria. ISIS (following the Taliban example) does this because those artifacts and ruins predate and are antithetical to Islam. Egypt, by contrast, preserves its Pharaonic history, the source of its tourist income.

Muslim internecine warfare and destruction of antiquities is very offensive to Westerners. The flood of immigrants entering Europe is problematic and being dealt with individually by the various states. As a result, says Kedar, European demographics are changing and war will result, one way or another.

Q&A following the lecture:

Kedar says that ISIS is against “reductions” of the severe examples [hatred and killing of non-believers, treachery, child marriages, slavery, etc.] that are common in Muslim’s holy sources. Judaism and Christianity were once violent, but both have acted to reduce the influence of negative behavior or injunctions. Perhaps Islam will become more moderate with time. It’s up to the individual Muslim followers to choose which example to follow.

Concerning the subject of immigration, Kedar visited Sydney and Melbourne eight years ago and found that Sydney had a big problems with its Muslims, but not Melbourne. Why? In Melbourne there are no Islamic neighborhoods; Muslims are spread out and mostly secularized. In Sydney, there are three Islamic neighborhoods which are segregated and unacclimatized to Western culture, mimicking the Middle East. Clearly, Islamic concentrations minimize acclimation into modern society.

About the Syria / Iraq revolutions, Kedar says Israel should stay of it unless it is attacked or it just can’t be avoided. This intra-Muslim warfare is an Eastern problem which can’t be judged with Western concepts.

Dr. Kedar knows with certainty that there is only one Islam, whose adherents will take diverse paths according to the believers’ choice of sources. He says that the future of the Middle East can’t be predicted for the next ten minutes, let alone a decade. In conclusion, Kedar spelled this out: the Middle East is like a car with four wheels, four transmissions, and four drivers. There’s no way to predict its direction.