Religious Freedom on the Islamic Temple Mount

Dome of the Rock (south side)
Dome of the Rock (south side)

When I visited Israel for the first time in July of this year, a trip up to the Temple Mount topped my list of things to do. I wanted to see the most contested piece of real estate on earth with my own eyes and experience the site that is so integral to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. I wanted to meet devout Muslims, speak with them, and listen to what they had to say about the Dome of the Rock, the al-Aqsa Mosque, Israel, and the Temple Mount itself.

More than anything I wanted to encounter the truly liberal, pluralist Muslim world that the mainstream media and Western chattering classes so emphatically insists exists at the core of the Islamic faith, or at least could soon exist in Palestine if only Israel were to stop occupying the Palestinian Territories and turn over complete control of the West Bank.

The perplexing and fundamentally disturbing problem which I quickly discovered, is that non-Muslims (and Jews, in particular) are persona non grata on the Temple Mount, with the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf authorities unashamedly relegating the concept of religious freedom to the exclusive purview of liberal academic fantasy. Appreciating these intellectual and theological conclusions is vital because they also underpin so much of the global perception of Islam as a faith, and of Islamism as a radical, totalitarian ideology that is legitimately threatening the free world.

After traversing the enclosed wooden ramp up to the Temple Mount, the Waqf security officials at the entrance gate greeted my female tourist friends with sudden shouting and forthright demands that my friends “cover up” the remaining parts of exposed skin on their bodies. (Click here to watch my YouTube clip: “Visiting the Temple Mount – A Tourist’s Guide“)

Of course, we knew enough to wear “modest” clothing prior to arriving at the Temple Mount, and I respect the requirement to do this, but less so the theological reasoning. The more troubling issue was that my friends were already covered up, each wearing long dresses, shirts with sleeves, and scarves around their necks (but not their hair). Apparently their barely exposed ankles and lower forearms were deemed “insufficiently modest”.

Though hardly a serious incident, we all felt as if the women were targeted simply because they were Western-looking, standing out with fairer skin and blue eyes. Rather than being welcomed by the Waqf officials upon arriving at the Temple Mount – or encouraged to see the third holiest site in Islam, the al-Aqsa Mosque – we felt as if we had wandered into enemy territory. This tense experience was followed and compounded by hostile stares and random shouts in Arabic from men all over the Temple Mount, particularly around the Dome of the Rock.

The al-Aqsa Mosque
The al-Aqsa Mosque (west side)

At no point were we greeted peaceably by anyone on the grounds. There were no Arab tour guides waiting to explain and extol the virtues of the area, of Islam, nor on behalf of the Palestinian people. There were no pamphlets, no explanatory signage, and none of the helpful, basic tourist niceties that could be expected at a location so vocally deemed essential to the existence of the future State of Palestine.

Is this vacuum of information by design? Or the result of abject neglect? Either way the absence of a guided narrative for tourists is telling, for several reasons.

Foremost, the Temple Mount is the tip of the Palestinian-Arab spear, if one is to view the conflict through a strictly strategic, militaristic prism. The area serves the Palestinians as a stronghold, a foil, and an enigma, all at once, neatly arrayed in well-fortified package. That there is no attempt made to explain the political situation surrounding the Temple Mount site functions as a ploy to exploit the general ignorance of tourists. Second Jewish Temple? What is that? Never heard of it.

The lack of historic (or current) information is also an overt attempt to maintain de facto moral and religious supremacy over the Temple Mount grounds. Walking over to the al-Aqsa mosque, an Israeli policemen stopped me and stated, “No non-Muslims allowed.” To which I replied, “Why not?”, genuinely curious. “No non-Muslims,” he repeated, his simple retort betraying the lucid absurdity of the situation without revealing why he was denying my entry.

Entrance to the al-Aqsa Mosque. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter.
Entrance to the al-Aqsa Mosque. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter.

Lastly, the third holiest site in the Islamic faith is just that: the third holiest. After the preeminent sites of Mecca and Medina, one would think that tourists might be allowed to at least briefly experience a visit to a building that reflects and perhaps exemplifies the “religion of peace”. Maybe tourists could be given a highly controlled guided tour through a roped-off section of the al-Aqsa mosque? Not a chance.

And so within fifteen minutes of arriving, I had already experienced the sensations of hostility, unease, and that unshakeable feeling of simply being unwelcome. What exactly had I done to deserve such disdain, other than not being a Muslim? Further, if this is how I am treated by religious officials at an Islamic holy site in the heart of Jerusalem, how would I be treated by Islamists anywhere else?

Approaching the Dome of the Rock, I had been told that non-Muslims are sometimes allowed to enter the golden shrine, but unfortunately this was not possible on the day I visited. At this point, I was not surprised, but nonetheless disappointed that even a major Islamic shrine was off limits to a kafir like myself.

Dome of the Rock (south side)
Dome of the Rock (south side)

Comparing this prohibition to the panoply of Christian churches of all denominations that I had visited and explored a day earlier in the Old City, I started to feel that the Muslim faith was sort of like an exclusive club that I was not “cool” enough to see the inside of, let alone experience.

More questions arise: how can a non-Muslim even begin to understand Islam when the sites considered so sacred and holy are off limits to everyone but devout Muslims? Is the distrust between Islam and the rest of the world such that the custodians of Islam have walled off their entire faith and history? These questions are particularly troubling in light of recent events.

All over the world, nation states are grappling with radical Islamists who swear by a literal interpretation of the Quran and who carry out unimaginable acts of violence against non-Muslims.

Al-Shabaab’s attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya is a recent, terrifying example of Islamists specifically executing Christians and non-Muslims, as is the double suicide bombing of a Christian church in Pakistan two weeks ago. Meanwhile, the ongoing slaughter of Christians (and Muslims) in Syria at the hands of Islamist forces is as startling as it is unrelenting across the Middle East.

The West has been told that such radical Islamist fighters are a fractional minority of the Muslim faith, and that their extremist and intolerant views are mere misinterpretations of what is actually a peaceful religion. While I make no suggestion that these radical views represent the majority of Muslims, my visit to the Temple Mount exposed the dark shadow of Islamist intolerance carefully creeping into the mainstream Islamic worldview. Any prospect of religious freedom taking root within Islam, including most importantly the freedom not to believe, certainly will not begin to grow out from the Temple Mount.

The following questions must be asked and answered as a result: if the holiest of holy sites in Islam are such hostile and uninviting environments for non-Muslims, where then are the peaceful Islamic holy sites in the Middle East? The sites where non-Muslims are welcomed with open arms and honest dialogue? Where can a non-Muslim go to experience the “peaceful Islam” that the mainstream Western media is so quick to proclaim is the “true Islam”? Is there an Islamic holy site where a non-Muslim can go to join a Muslim in communal prayer to the God above who they both believe is listening?

Posters plastered around the Temple Mount
Posters plastered around the Temple Mount

Since non-Muslims are forbidden from visiting both Mecca and Medina, the only entry point for non-Muslims to experience the ancient history and foundational culture of Islam is in fact at the Temple Mount. Appreciating that there is much nuance to the recent history and political situation of the site, it is a tragic shame that at this one, lonely gateway into the origins of the Islamic worldview, non-Muslims are treated with utter disdain.

This is especially troubling in light of how radical Islamists are treating non-Muslims around the world.

Humanity, collectively, deserves much better than this primitive exclusionary policy exhibited by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf authorities, and frankly, the West and Israel should require better than this segregation in an age of ever-present global communication. Given the state of foreign affairs today and the rampaging terror of Islamist militants, the future stability of the world demands an immediate increase in transparency, dialogue and understanding to emanate out from the world of Islam.

A good place to start would be on the Temple Mount.

About the Author
Robert David Onley is a lawyer and freelance writer from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He is the Co-Founder of the Young Diplomats of Canada, and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community in the Ottawa Hub.