An Imam dares to say what Islam should be
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, May 4, 2002)

Muslims and Jews in the Middle East enact their struggle with such persistent bitterness that we could easily assume they are continuing an ancient and probably immutable rivalry. Those who even glance at history know otherwise, but as the battle rages, who bothers to glance at history?

Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi, an Imam who serves as secretary general of the Italian Muslim Association in Rome, has recently been travelling across Canada, trying to persuade various Muslim, Jewish and academic audiences that Muslims and Jews once lived together comfortably and might do so again in the conceivable future. But as he sees it, that will require the return of Islam to its true principles, such as tolerance.

He's an unusual man with many unusual messages, and he delivers them (as I discovered while spending a few hours in his presence at the University of Toronto this week) with complete confidence, outlining the most unorthodox ideas in a tone that implies we will immediately agree with him and then wonder why we didn't see things his way all along.

Islamic countries were not always oppressive. In fact, Islam came early to the idea of freedom, earlier than Christianity. Three centuries ago, many Jews considered Islamic societies safe havens. Bernard Lewis, the great historian, wrote recently that Islamic countries in the Middle Ages "achieved a freedom of thought and expression that led persecuted Jews and even dissident Christians to flee Christendom for refuge in Islam."

Systematic hatred of Muslims for Jews is mainly modern. Before the 20th century, Muslims sometimes saw Jews in stereotyped form, but the stereotypes were more dismissive than suspicious or obsessive. Anti-Jewish conspiracy theories entered Arabia as European imports, spread through the Middle East by the Nazis. Even now, anti-Jewish books and pamphlets in Arabic are usually translations from European languages. The stereotype they introduced seven decades ago eventually proved convenient. After the Israelis won the war of 1948, leaving many Arabs humiliated, the idea of the Jew as (in Professor Lewis's words) "a scheming, evil monster" became satisfying, a case of losers denouncing winners for trickery.

Sheikh Palazzi accepts not even one of the standard political arguments that make up common attitudes toward the Middle East. The world judges Israel harshly, he says, and the world is dead wrong: "The right of self-defence is permitted to every country in the world except Israel." He thinks Israel deserves to exist, that the Koran mandates Jewish control of Jerusalem (so long as Islamic holy sites are respected), that peace will not come until the PLO is dismantled ("supporting the PLO is supporting massacres"), and that Yasser Arafat is a gangster. Why, Sheikh Palazzi asks, was the world not delighted when the Israelis pinned him down in his headquarters? In the Sheikh's view, people should have said: "Thank God Arafat is imprisoned. Now let us try him for 40 years of terrorism."

Sheikh Palazzi understands that these views are outrageous to many: He's a little like the Fool in a Shakespearean drama, stating truths that the rest of us are too timid to utter. His background has given him elements of both Islamic piety and European skepticism. Born in Italy 40 years ago, to a mother from Syria and a father who embraced Islam, he studied in the Arab world. When he took his doctorate in Islamic Sciences at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Islam was less rigid than it has since become. His main teacher had urged Anwar Sadat to make peace with Israel. But at Al-Azhar today, as Sheikh Palazzi says, those who were considered outsiders and radicals in the 1980s are now the leading scholars.

He's talking about adherents of the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, which he sees as an apostasy. Rigid, politicized, and puritanical, Wahhabi sprang up in Arabia in the 18th century, created by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab. It won over vast numbers of Arabs, conquered large territories, lost them, and conquered them again in the first decades of the 20th century. With the help of the British Empire, Ibn Saud rebuilt his ancestral domain and named it Saudi Arabia, with Wahhabism as its way of religious life. The Saudis have since used their oil money to spread Wahhabism around the world. As Sheikh Palazzi has put it, "The Wahhabis first conquered the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, transforming these two sanctuaries into places for propagating a primitive and literalist cult to Muslims coming from every part of the world." In his view, Wahhabism suffocates the humane and enlightened Islamic tradition with dogmatic uniformity. But it's wealthier than other forms. Its mosques are magnificent. Its network of agents has spread across the world.

For reasons Sheikh Palazzi cannot fathom, the world has decided not to think much about the fact that the Sept. 11 terrorists were mostly Saudis. In his view, "It is as if people said Japan had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor. Imagine how the Saudi princes feel. They say to themselves, 'We kill thousands of Americans and now they welcome us as men of peace.' "

Meanwhile, most of Islam insists that the Jews are the problem. Eventually, in Sheikh Palazzi's opinion, that will change and even now is quietly reforming: "Many of us are now ready to admit that hostility for Israel has been a great mistake, perhaps the worst mistake Muslims have made in the last 50 years."

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