The Middle East is a lot more diverse than most people realize. The Middle East is not homogeneous. There are the Kurds, the Copts, the Arab Christians, Druze, Bedouins, Ba'hais, the Sunnis and Shiites, the Jews, the Persians, secular Arabs and Wahabists. All of these ethnics/religious groups have been "drawn" together by the map makers of colonist Europe. Israel stands out by the fact that even though the UN partitioned what was left of the British Mandate of Palestine to be divided up between the Jews and Arabs, the Jews had to fight for it. When some of the Middle East countries were created, they put one person to rule the country over people that they had nothing in common with except maybe that they were Muslim.
Let us imagine that we were all to wake up tomorrow morning to the incredible news that the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority had concluded a peace treaty, including agreement by both parties on the issues of water rights, borders and the status of Jerusalem. A Jewish state and a Palestinian state would live forever, side by side, in blissful peace. The violence plaguing the Middle East would end for good; Iran would cease both beating its war drums and calling for the end of "the Zionist entity"; and calm would prevail over a united Iraq and an independent Afghanistan. One of the world's most unstable regions would be converted into an oasis of stability, with Jew, Christian and Muslim living together in felicity.
Wrong - so much for imagination.
The reality of today's Middle East is the same centuries-old one of ethnic and religious strife that extends far beyond the borders of the State of Israel. The civil war plaguing Iraq is, in part, a 1,300-year old conflict among Muslims, having nothing to do directly with the century of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. The Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians are far more afraid of an expansionist and nuclear Iran than they are of Israel. The last words of Saddam Hussein before the Iraqi government hanged him was not "Death to the Americans!" or "Death to the Zionists!" His last words were "Death to the Persians!"
THE IRAQI dictator chose to curse fellow Muslims as he prepared to die. It is apparent that even if Israel did not exist, the Middle East would be a region divided by many sorts of conflict that have nothing to do with Zionism or Israel. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is only one of many bloody conflicts rooted in an area with a long history of religious, political and ethnic strife.
I am not claiming that the Palestinian-Israeli issue is not central to a broader peace in the Middle East. Yet, we ignore a more decisive reason than that of Palestinian refugees in attempting to understand Arab and Muslim opposition to the existence of the State of Israel. That reason is religion, specifically Islam. The obsessive hatred of Zionism and Israel, especially in the realm of fundamentalist Islam, can be traced back to the earliest years of the great Muslim conquests of much of the known world in the early to mid-seventh century.
The Muslim conquerors, while granting Jews and Christians religious freedom and autonomy, relegated these tolerated "Peoples of the Book" to the status of dhimmi, "dependent peoples." Muslim rulers forbade Jews and Christians the honor of riding a horse or camel, conducting religious ceremonies in public, carrying weapons, converting Muslims to Judaism or Christianity and building places of worship. Jews and Christians had to pay a special tax to signify their status of inferiority for rejecting Muhammad as the final prophet of Allah's revelation.
While there were certainly periods in which Muslim rulers ignored the dhimmi status and provided Jews and Christians with a modicum of power and influence - the best examples are medieval Spain and the later Ottoman Empire - the inferiority of Jews and Christians was and still is an important component of Muslim theology and identity. In Yemen and in the Iranian Safavid Empire, Jews were more harshly treated than in Muslim Spain and the empire of the Turks. Wherever Jews and Christians lived in the Muslim world, they were at a legal disadvantage that was almost always degrading and even sometimes lethal.
IT SHOULD, therefore, come as no surprise that there are some Muslims, especially those in the fundamentalist world, who cannot live in peace with Israel. The existence of Jews in a democratic state of proud independence - not the dhimmi state of humiliating dependence - poses a threat to a centuries-old Islamic theology that proclaimed the legal, social and religious superiority of Muslims over non-Muslim infidels. The fact that the State of Israel with its capital in Jerusalem resides in the heart of what was once Islam's greatest empire - that of the Ottoman Turks - is a constant reminder to Muslims that the glory days of their religion's military and political power is over.
The reality of 10,000 American companies doing business with or in the Jewish state, helping Israel forge an economy the size of a small European nation, infuriates some Muslims who are envious of a small country with its share of Nobel Prize winners and global entrepreneurs. Israel, despite its size, its crises and the plagues of war and terrorism, is no Third World nation. It is a modern success story.
Fundamentalists in Islam yearn for a return to a time when Jews knew their place. Too bad for them that the dhimmi finally tired of inferiority and humiliation, choosing independence and sovereignty. This fact will remain a factor in Muslim attitudes toward Israel whether Jews and Palestinians make peace or remain in a perpetual state of war.
The writer, based in Florida, is an adjunct lecturer on Jewish history at Broward Community College.
Would the Left of today and Palestinian symapthizers seek democracy for the Palestinians in the Middle East if Israel didn't exist? What about the policitcal and civil rights of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of people in the Middle East?