Q&A: Muslim, Jewish and Christian coexistence defines Jerusalem's history

  1. For a long time when Muslims prayed, they faced Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem
  2. We shouldn't forget centuries of peaceful coexistence between Jews, Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem
  3. The world is complex and Jerusalem is complex; you can't just solve things by changing the capital

President Donald J. Trump has broken with decades of U.S. policy by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The status of Jerusalem, which has historic and religious sites that are significant to Christianity, Islam and Judaism, is among the most contentious issues in discussions over bringing peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel captured Eastern Jerusalem in the 1967 war, and its control there has not been recognized internationally.

Leaders in the Middle East, Europe and the UN met Trump’s speech with concern, many citing the international consensus that the status of Jerusalem should be negotiated as part of any settlement between Israel and Palestine.

WikiTribune interviewed Shanon Shah, deputy editor of London-based journal Critical Muslim to discuss the history behind the dispute over Jerusalem, and its significance to the Muslim world.

Shanon Shah, deputy editor of Critical Muslim. Photo credit: Rehan Jamil
Shanon Shah, deputy editor of Critical Muslim. Photo credit: Rehan Jamil

Q: All Muslims are expected to perform hajj, going to Mecca, at least once in their lifetime. Most will never travel to Jerusalem. So why is the city significant? What does it symbolize?

A: Well, the city of Jerusalem is significant because most Muslims believe this is where Mohammed went on his night journey where he ascended into heaven in a single night, around the year 610.

A lot of Muslims believe Jerusalem is mentioned in the Qu’ran [in one place, but this is disputed] and equate this with “Zion”, the Jewish name for Jerusalem, which is mentioned in scripture many times, so this equivalence doesn’t quite work. But, the Qu’ran does refer to the Al-Aqsa mosque, which is in Jerusalem and for a long time when Muslims prayed, their direction of prayer was the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, it was only later that the direction of prayer was changed to Mecca.

Q: Israel would say that its claim to Jerusalem as its capital dates back thousands of years. Can you talk about the issues this argument raises, considering the historic significance of the city to all three Abrahamic faiths?

A: The claim that Jerusalem, or Zion, is the homeland of the Jews does have a lot of support, if we look at the Hebrew scriptures, but even this is disputed among many Jews, from the medieval era until now. Because the question of “is Zion the homeland of the Jews?”, after the exile and in the diaspora, [as well as] “do the Jews have a prerogative to actively resettle Jerusalem or do they need to wait until after the coming of the messiah?” have always been very live debates.

It’s important not to turn this entirely into a Muslim issue because it’s important not to forget indigenous Christians in the region as well. Historically there have been Christian Arabs living in the region for two millennia, alongside Jews and Muslims. At the moment, Israeli policies that restrict movements from the occupied territories to Jerusalem, they don’t just affect Muslims, they affect Christians as well.

I think this announcement by Trump sort of has the effect of erasing the centuries of peaceful coexistence in Jerusalem between Jews, Muslims and Christians, especially during the Ottoman era. When Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal after the Catholic takeover there, where did they go to? A lot of them went to Jerusalem. So Jerusalem has a significant population of Sephardi Jews from Spain and Portugal who settled there in the 15th and 16th centuries onwards. There was good coexistence between Jews, Muslims and Christians and we shouldn’t forget that.

Q: What message do you think Trump’s policy change sends to Muslims, either in Palestine and the wider Middle East, or in the U.S.?

A: I think this is probably the greatest tragedy about Trump’s announcement. It does make it all about Muslims, it does make it seem like it’s a war led by the U.S. against Muslims and against the Muslim world. But as I said before this kind of makes us forget that the history of Jerusalem is complex and I think that the way that this recent announcement sits with a lot of other things that President Trump has said – his attack on mainstream media, his constant saying things are fake news – the reality is that the world is complex and Jerusalem is complex, you can’t just solve things by changing the capital.

Q: There is a lot of instability in the Arab world at the moment – what does the timing of this say about Arab leadership, and does that have any significance to the timing of this policy change?

A: Well I think that the Middle East has been the subject of so much foreign interference, since before the Second World War, before the First World War, we’ve seen the experience of foreign powers there. So it’s always been a region that’s been fought over, but at the moment I think we are seeing a dramatic reconfiguring of power and politics there, I think it’s really hard to say.

I think the worst thing we could do with the Israel-Palestine conflict is turn it into a religious war between Jews and Muslims, because it’s about geopolitics, it’s about resources, it’s about a lack of democracy in a lot of governments in the region, and at the end of the day it is about basic human rights. And we have to remember that there are brilliant Israeli organisations doing human rights work under very difficult conditions.

Following up by email, Shah added:

On a more hopeful note, there are also lots of Jews and Muslims who are sick of politicking in the Middle East. There are increasing numbers of Jews, especially in the Diaspora, who are uncomfortable with Netanyahu’s policies and human rights violations in the Palestinian territories. Many of them are clearly not Trump fans either. And many of these Jews actually see themselves as Zionist and pro-Israel.

There’s a parallel phenomenon with younger Muslims who are passionate about seeking justice for Palestine but who are getting sick of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel baiting by their community and religious leaders. But these justice-seeking and peace-building Jews and Muslims are having to work within increasingly endangered spaces and under political environments that are growing more and more toxic by the day.

This interview has been edited for brevity. The full transcript is now available here.

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