The historic visit to Israel this week by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Justice and Development Party, proves that a Muslim who is serious about his religion can be friendly to Israel, and that those who predicted a decline in Turkish-Israeli relations following the rise of Erdogan’s Islamic- inspired conservative party were wrong.
As another Muslim from Turkey, let me offer a personal story of my visit to Israel, especially to those who might still be — quite understandably — suspicious about the possibility of a real, committed amity between serious Muslims and the Jewish state.
This past December, I was in Israel for the first time as a guest of the American Jewish Committee’s “Project Interchange.” Along with eight other fellow journalists from Istanbul and Ankara, I toured the Holy Land and marveled at most of what I saw. The most astonishing moments for me, though, were two prayers I made in Jerusalem.
The first one was at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Like all Muslims, during that prayer I paid tribute to the one and only God, the creator of the heavens and the earth. Toward the end of the prayer — again, like all Muslims — I also commended former believers, including “the descendants of Abraham.”
After that, I left the Temple Mount to head toward the Western Wall, where Jews were praying toward the spot where the Holy of the Holies once stood. I could not resist the empathy. These believers were praising the one and only God, the Creator of heaven and earth, too. Moreover, they were the very descendants of “the descendants of Abraham” that I had commended just five minutes before.
I did not hesitate to join them in prayer. I approached the Wall, and I recited the single phrase that I know in Hebrew: “ Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad .” I was quite sure that “Our Lord” was one.
This figurative moment deepened my existing conviction that a lasting peace between the Jewish state and its Muslim neighbors, and a rapprochement between Judaism and Islam, is possible.
Let me explain how.
Jews According to the Koran
The term Islam is mostly used to define the faith that started with the Prophet Muhammad in seventh-century Arabia. In that context, Islam is a distinct — or even a rival — faith to Christianity and Judaism. However, there is a second and more encompassing meaning of Islam: It merely means submission to God; and it dates back not to Muhammad but way beyond to Adam, the first human being. We can call this primordial Islam, which is actually mere monotheism.
One little-recognized fact is that when the Koran speaks about Islam, it virtually always means the primordial one. That’s why many Old Testament prophets are mentioned as “Muslims.” They were, of course, Jewish prophets, but this meant that they were “Muslims,” as well, for being a Muslim simply means submitting to God.
This is why the Koran makes no distinction between the Prophet Muhammad and the prophets and kings of the Old Testament. It also tells us that God “sent down the Torah containing guidance and light” (5:44). Moreover, the Koran declares Abraham as the “forefather” to all Muslims (22:78). Therefore, one could argue that all Muslims are, whatever their ethnic origin might be, honorary Semites.
There are also parts of the Koran that criticize Jews severely, and some current Muslims who embrace antisemitism quote them quite frequently. Yet there is a very crucial point that they fail to recognize: The Koran criticizes Jews not for being Jews, but rather for failing to be so. To be more precise, the Koran condemns only those Jews who disobeyed God and abandoned His law — such as those who worshipped the Golden Calf, refused to enter the Holy Land, disobeyed Jewish prophets, venerated the idol Baal and so on.
Moreover, while such deviators are condemned in the Koran, righteous Jews are praised. In one particular chapter, after first telling about the sins committed by those from “People of the Book” — a term which refers to Jews and Christians as the bearers of previous revelations — the Koran says, “They are not all alike; of the People of the Book there is an upright party; they recite God’s communications in the nighttime and they adore (Him)… .Those are among the good (3:113-4).
The logical outcome of this is that Muslims should esteem and appreciate Jewish — and Christian, for that matter — piety.
Unfortunately, among many contemporary Muslims it is very hard to find such a positive approach to Jewish piety. This stems from a misconception that they take for granted: The Koran teaches that its advent delegitimized Judaism and Christianity. In fact, the Koran itself presents a somewhat different view. Of course all humans are invited to enter Islam, but those who choose to remain as Jews and Christians are promised salvation, as well, as long as they are faithful and pious. “Those who are Jews, and the Christians,” says the Koran, “all who have faith in God and the Last Day and act rightly, will have their reward with their Lord” (2:62).
Moreover, the Koran envisions a kind of monotheistic pluralism. In a direct appeal to Prophet Muhammad, we read that the existence of different monotheistic paths is not against God’s will: “Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good” (5:48).
Respecting Israel, As a Muslim
The perspective I am describing is pretty unorthodox in today’s Islamic world, but it is right there in the Koran, the single unquestionable source of Islam, waiting to be rediscovered.
That koranic perspective led me to admire much of what I saw in Israel during my six-day trip last December. I kept, and still keep, my reservations and criticisms on some of the Israeli policies toward Palestinians, but the nature of Israeli society gained my approval in many ways. I was, for example, pleased to see the respect and recognition of the Sabbath, kosher laws and other religious practices in the Jewish state.
I was also glad to see that fellow Muslims who live under Israeli rule are quite free to practice their faith — a blessing they could not have in some countries with a Muslim majority. One such place is my own country, Turkey, where any religious symbol is fiercely expelled from the public square. In contrast to Turkey’s secularist monism, the overall picture in Israel presented a pluralism in which the sacred and the secular coexist with mutual respect. At least to my eyes, the Israeli model looks much more appealing than the Turkish model.
The idea that Jewish religiosity deserves respect from Muslims leads us to reconsider another issue: Zionism. Most Muslims loathe the term and what it represents, but maybe that is not a very Islamic position at all.
As is well known, Zionism developed in the late 19th century with the sole purpose of establishing a Jewish nation state, which was definitely not an unjustified objective. But where should this hypothetical state be founded? Most Zionists were pretty secular, and they did not appeal to religion to find an answer. That’s why they considered many alternatives. Yet the religious and historical aspiration to Eretz Israel gained ascendancy and became undisputed after the Balfour Declaration.
When I, as a Muslim, rethink that early debate in Zionism, I see no other way than sympathizing with the choice of Eretz Israel. There are two important reasons.
First, the Jewish aspiration to the Holy Land is valid. Not only is it declared in the Torah, which is definitely important for us Muslims, but it’s also confirmed in the Koran. In verse 5:21, we read that Moses lead the Israelites to the Holy Land and said: “My people! Enter the Holy Land which God has ordained for you, do not turn back in your tracks and so become transformed into losers.”
The second reason is that the Jewish aspiration to Palestine is a religious commitment that we Muslims cannot ask the Jews to abandon. The very fact that Jews did not give up a central theme in their religion is a profound testimony to the power of faith. Had Israel been a state in Uganda named “The People’s Republic of the Jewish Nation,” with a hammer and sickle in its flag — or anything but the star of David — then it would be a testimony to the power of secularization. We Muslims, by default, have to support the religious, not the secular, way.
All this means that there can well be an Islamic argument for the right of Israel to exist. However, and of course, this should be combined with an insistence on the rights of Palestinians to live in security, dignity and peace. How this will be achieved is a political question, but a proper Islamic theology would demand that the two peoples in the Holy Land, Jews and Arabs, find a way to co-exist in peace and mutual respect.
Another piece of good news is that Jewish theology presents a similar basis for peaceful coexistence, as well. Biblical passages such as “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21) makes it clear that Jews have an obligation to be generous to gentiles. Today’s Palestinians are such strangers. Moreover, unlike the pagan Canaanites of biblical times — who hated both Israel and its God — they are fellow monotheists.
No Peace Without God
This final evaluation should lead us to reconsider the role of religion in the quest for peace in the Middle East. Many people think that such a role is inherently negative in effect, and therefore must be marginalized as much as possible. Once you put the “religious zealots” out of the picture, this secularist view assumes, things will be much easier.
Yet the secularist view has a serious flaw: It does not work. If religion is pushed out of the picture, it strikes back vigorously. In short, religion has to be a part of the solution; otherwise the solution becomes impossible.
Islam has the potential, in itself, to help bring about that solution. This is also true for Judaism, as it is for Christianity. As the Psalmist sensibly declared three millennia ago, “fear of God” is the beginning of wisdom — not of fanaticism, hatred and violence.