In recent weeks, there have been numerous media reports warning about escalating tensions and possible violence on the Temple Mount. Even if you just read the headlines and leads, the situation sounds pretty dire, as this selection from Al Monitor, Sky News and the Washington Post illustrates:
“Israeli Restrictions at Al-Aqsa Mosque Could Spark Violence: Israel is imposing tighter restrictions on Palestinian Muslims wishing to access Al-Aqsa Mosque while allowing more Jewish visits that disrespect Islamic customs.”
“Sacred Shrines Become ‘Ticking Time Bomb: ‘The chief cleric at one of the world’s holiest mosques tells Sky News that acts of Jewish prayer could spark a regional war.”
These headlines and leads also tell us already who is to blame for this potentially explosive situation: Jews who want to visit the Temple Mount and maybe even pray there. Well, who could imagine a greater outrage than Jews wanting to visit and perhaps pray at the historic site of the Jewish Temples? And who would dispute that followers of the “religion of peace” have every right to react to such an outrage with threats of massive violence? After all, Muslims are used to having their holiest sites off-limits to “infidels.” True, frustrated journalists who don’t make it into Mecca and Medina may point out that “You don’t have to be a Catholic to go to the Vatican. You don’t have to be Jewish to go to the Western Wall… You don’t have to be Buddhist to hear the Dalai Lama speak” – but there is obviously no reason to expect similar openness from Islam. Indeed, as a Guardian contributor casually remarked: “a billion Muslims worldwide would go ballistic” if Jews were allowed to freely visit the Temple Mount and pray there. And of course, in the Guardian as elsewhere, it’s the Jews who are the extremists.
However, this kind of reporting and commentary isn’t as biased as it may seem, because it unfortunately reflects the view of the Israeli authorities. As a recent Jerusalem Post report about violent attacks by Muslims explains:
“Although the [Israeli] Supreme Court has upheld Jewish prayer rights at the Temple Mount – which is overseen by the Wakf Muslim religious trust – the court also allows police to prevent any form of worship there if they believe such activities will incite a ‘disturbance to the public order.’ […] Asked what has precipitated the pronounced uptick in violence, Police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said Arabs are growing increasingly incensed by religious Jews who increasingly illegally pray there in an act of civil disobedience. ‘The Arabs don’t like Jews coming there to pray, and an extreme group of Jews is going there to provoke them,’ he said.”
In other words, Israel’s Supreme Court has acknowledged that Jews have the right to pray on the Temple Mount, but it has also given Muslims a veto right: if they don’t like it and become violent, then they’ll get their way and Jews who exercise their supposed right are accused of engaging in a provocative “act of civil disobedience.” In practice that means that the Saudi policy of treating “infidels” like dogs who have to be kept off Muslim holy grounds is all too often also enforced on the Temple Mount.
While I myself am not religious and have little sympathy for the political agenda of the more prominent activists who push for greater access to the Temple Mount, I don’t quite agree with the conclusion offered in a recent article by Avi Issacharoff that “[r]adical Muslim and Jewish groups at times seem to have forged an unholy alliance to push for holy war.”
As most of the reports on anything that happens on the Temple Mount emphasize, it is probably the most explosive spot on earth – but it is so explosive because the whole world takes it for granted that it is perfectly acceptable that “a billion Muslims worldwide would go ballistic” if they had to acknowledge the fact that first and foremost Jews, but also Christians have a historic attachment to the Temple Mount and that the claim of exclusive Muslim control is a ridiculous anachronism rooted in the glorification of Islamic imperialism and supremacism.
One of the very few Muslims to publicly acknowledge the long pre-Islamic history of the Temple Mount and its significance is Qanta Ahmed, who earlier this year published a fascinating four-part report on her visit to the site. In the final part of her report, she recounts her visit to the Al Aqsa mosque, where her Muslim guide showed her some massive ancient columns, explaining: “This was the entrance to the Second Jewish Temple that was here before Al Aqsa. You can see it is absolutely distinct.”
Reflecting on this sight, Qanta Ahmed writes:
“Somehow, these hardy arches, these massive pillars had escaped even the Romans’ determined destruction of the Second Temple. Before this place was made ours, it had clearly been theirs. We were on borrowed ground.”
Already in a melancholic mood from the decay and neglect she witnessed all over Islam’s supposedly third-holiest site – something noted also more recently by another Muslim visitor – Qanta Ahmed ends her report with a somber conclusion:
“Nowhere in my long ago travels and imperfect memory is the anoxia of Islamism more apparent than [in] the spent bosom of the Farthest Mosque [i.e. Al Aqsa]. Here, we have become the Farthest Muslims. I feel our departure most acutely in Jerusalem, the world’s gentle biographer, the beating, romantic heart of all belief, to all People, of all Books. Jerusalem, dear Muslims, is home to a gilded dome rendered hollow, little more than a fading husk to the richness once contained therein. She is ours no more.”
Once we hear even remotely similar sentiments from Muslim leaders, we will know that the Middle East is on the mend and peace is really possible.
In the meantime, it would be already a big step in the right direction if journalists and commentators hesitated a bit before they nonchalantly report – and implicitly justify – threats of Muslim violence. Ironically enough, the recent “Islamophobia” report of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) lectures us that the notion “that Muslims are inclined to violence including revenge and retaliation” is “Islamophobic.” So the next time a Sky News reporter hears the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem threatening that the “whole region will be engulfed by war” if Jews want to pray on the Temple Mount, he could perhaps ask the Grand Mufti to explain this threat in view of the historic Jewish attachment to the Temple Mount and claims that Islam is a “religion of peace.” And maybe next time a Guardian blogger – particularly if he happens to be a Christian priest – writes about how easily “a billion Muslims worldwide would go ballistic,” he could ask himself what it would take for him to write with equal understanding about the threat of a billion Christians worldwide going ballistic.
As long as the media depict Muslim violence in the name of Islam as an inevitable reaction to any perceived provocation and give a free pass to the Muslim leaders who never tire to threaten such violence, we can regard the OIC definition of “Islamophobia” as no more than a cynical political tool that allows Muslim leaders to incite violence with impunity – and we can expect that the Temple Mount will remain a dangerous symbol of Muslim fanaticism.
* * *
First published at my JPost blog on December 12, 2013