Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Muslim stigma on visiting Jerusalem waning?

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In what was was considered another sign of the rapidly deteriorating ties between Israel and Egypt, a visit to Jerusalem by Egyptian Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa -- accompanying Jordanian officials -- caused outrage in Egypt's new Islamist-dominated Parliament last week. The Parliament demanded Gomaa's resignation for behaviour that risked "normalising" relations with Israel.

Despite Gomaa's statements that the visit was unofficial and that it took place under the supervision of the Jordanian authorities, the visit angered those opposed to normalizing relations with Israel.

Parliament Speaker Saad al-Katatny read out a recommendation within a statement issued by the People's Assembly's Religious Affairs and Endowments Committee that demanded an apology from Gomaa, and his resignation.

The recommendation received the approval of a majority of Parliament.
It demanded Gomaa's "repentance to God," "an apology to the Arab and Islamic peoples" and his resignation."

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, however, took a different tack. Abbas not only defended Gomaa's decision, but denied that Muslims visiting Jerusalem under Israeli control was harmful to the Palestinian cause. Abbas has, in fact, called for more Muslims to visit Jerusalem as he thinks this will strengthen the Palestinian claim to East Jerusalem.

As the AP's Diaa Hadid reported on the weekend, it seems that Abbas' call was answered before it was even made. Muslim tourism to Jerusalem, while still a fraction of Christian and Jewish tourism to the city, has been steadily increasing over the past few years.

After decades of shying away from an ancient pilgrimage route, Muslims are visiting Jerusalem to pray at Islam's third-holiest site, the revered Al-Aqsa mosque. ...

The vast majority of the pilgrims are from non-Arab countries like South Africa, Malaysia and India, where the stigma of visiting Israeli-controlled areas isn't as powerful.

"Jerusalem is a beautiful place," said Ali Akbar, 51, a Shiite Muslim who was visiting recently with a group of 40 pilgrims from Mumbai, India. "All Muslims should try to come to Jerusalem and pray and seek the blessings of Allah, the almighty," Akbar said.

Muslim pilgrims began trickling back beginning around 2008 as violence between Israel and the Palestinians petered out. Palestinian tour guides, hotel operators and religious officials also attribute the increasing numbers to easier travel and rising Muslim middle classes in Asia and Western countries that can afford tickets to the Holy Land. While Islam's birthplace is in the Arabian peninsula, Jerusalem is intimately tied with Islam's beginnings. Muhammad's first followers prayed toward Al-Aqsa and only later turned their prayers east to Mecca.

It is worth noting that, while many of these pilgrims are from Malaysia, the Malaysian government technically bars its citizens from visiting Israel -- although the Israeli government permits Malaysians to visit regardless, provided they obtain a visa.

Hadid further notes the response by some prominent Islamist leaders to Gemaa's Jerusalem visit:

"Visiting the state of the Zionist enemy - for non-Palestinians - is forbidden," Yousef al-Qaradawi, a widely influential Muslim cleric, wrote on his website. He said Jerusalem needs warriors not tourists. "Muslims are ordered to liberate (Jerusalem) and save it from (Israel's) hands."

Gaza's Hamas rulers and Islamic parties in Jordan and Egypt all condemned the visits by Gomaa and the Jordanian officials.

Abdulateef al-Mulhim, a columnist for the Saudi English-language newspaper Arab News, has written some interesting analysis on the outcry over Gomaa's visit. Mulhim notes the importance of Jerusalem to all three Abrahamic faiths, lamenting the centuries of conflict over one square mile containing dozens of holy sites, and ruminating on how politics is trumping religion in this dispute.

The irony of this city is that all major wars took place because of an area less than a square mile in this city. This small area has the Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque, Temple Mount, Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And no matter who writes about Jerusalem, he or she will have opposing and disagreeing opinions (including my article). It is very difficult to talk about Jerusalem. It is like going through a mine field.

These days, the Fatwa in regard to the visit to Jerusalem is still coming from many clerics in the Muslim world. And they consider any Arab or Muslim visiting Jerusalem an enemy of the Palestinian cause and a traitor. ... [E]ven though the grand mufti of Egypt is representing one of the largest Arab and Muslim countries, he came under intense criticism from all corners of the Arab and Muslim world. So, if the grand mufti of Egypt is not an authority on religious Fatwa regarding visiting Jerusalem, then who is?

Mulhim's final point is one that is made all too rarely in the Arab world. As he implies, successive Arab dictators have used the Palestinian cause to distract their people from abuses at home, wasting time, resources and -- most importantly -- lives in pointless wars, trying to eradicate the "Zionist entity", while their people suffered and their nations stagnated.

The Egyptians now are divided on the visit to Jerusalem, the same way they were divided after President Anwar Al-Sadat's visit to Israel. I think the visit by Egypt's grand mufti should be a good gesture toward solving many misunderstandings between people in the area. A visit to Jerusalem by a prominent figure such as the grand mufti of Egypt is an important step toward finding solutions to the Middle East conflict. This conflict has cost the Arabs dearly. The Arab train of development stopped in 1948. And when Israel was building state of the art education system and research centers, the Arab masses were listening to hollow speeches by some dictators. And the Arab masses are not in the mood for cheap talks.

They heard it in the past from Egypt's Jamal Abdul Nasser, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, Syria's Bashar Assad and Iran's Ahmadinejad. The Arabs should have recognized the state of Israel in 1948 and kept themselves busy with modernizing their countries instead of wasting the Arab assets in wars.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

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