Interviews

Interview with Mordechai Kedar: At the core of things

Today, in Israel, Mordechai Kedar is one of the most renewed lecturers around. His scholarly knowledge of the Arab and Muslim culture and mindset is augmented by his knowledge of Arabic, which enables him to go directly to the sources. Language is the key to understanding, to penetrate into the depth of reality, dispelling myths and legends or, as they say today, “fake news”. Like every maverick and pundit, Kedar is an enemy of common places and consolidated narratives. We have met him in Ra’anana where he has being living for many years.

Dr. Kedar, according to European scholar Bat Ye’Or, “Jihad is at the heart of Islamic history and civilization. From when the doctrine was elaborated for the first time in the jurisprudence of the VII and IX century it was never put into question again”. Would you like to elaborate on this?

I would say with a joke even if the matter is very serious that Islam without Jihad is like a cat without whiskers. Of course there are other injunctions but jihad is actually the way in which to make people accept Islam. Jihad could be peaceful, it’s actual meaning is effort and effort could be peaceful if you are nice to people and you are actually able to convince them through persuasion. This is called Jihad al dawa, calling to Islam, through education, caring, persuasion. However, if people refuse to join Islam or they act against it, it will be the time of Jihad al kitai, the jihad of war, and here everything is allowed. It is allowed to take the lands of the infidels, their wives, and so forth. Once Islam formulated this device to spread itself in the world, jihad actually became the way through which Islam works when it comes to others. Inside there are other devices, like rulers, caliphs and so forth, but when it comes to others, infidels, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, etc. there is jihad. This is actually why Jihad is the soul of Islam from the beginning already in the days of Muhammad.

In an interview I had last year with historian Benny Morris, he answered to the question of the role of religion in the Arab-Israeli conflict like this, “There is a deep religious antagonism in Islam towards Judaism and it is anchored in the Quran as Judaism was a rival religion to Islam when Muhammad begin preaching. Religion is still the base for continuous Muslim antagonism towards Jews and Christians and a justification for jihad”. Do you agree with him?

Yes, I do, and it’s even more. Islam and Muslims are obsessed with Judaism. Muhammad was accused that all of the Quran was a copy and paste from Jewish sources. There is an expression in the Quran which is “asatir el awalin”, it means in Arabic, the fables or the stories of the first ones. “Asatir” actually is the plural of the word “ushtura”, which means fable, “ushtura”, story. “Storia” is the same word that came from Latin into Arabic. This was an allegation which was directed against Muhammad by the Meccans who heard him speaking of the world which was created in seven days, about Adam and Eve, about Noah and the Ark and the flood, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, Jesus Christ and Johannes, all of the stories that he got from friends, one Jewish and the other Christian. The people of Mecca actually accused him that the whole Quran that he brought to them was nothing more than “asatir al awalin”, a copy of the stories from the first ones. This expression recurs in the Quran no less then eleven times. Eleven times the Quran mentions that Muhammad was depicted as a plagiarist who stole the material from Jews and Christians. He was already then obsessed with this allegation because he wanted to show the Meccans that Islam is an original, independent religion with no connection to Judaism and Christianity, so he created this idea that Islam is the religion of truth while Judaism and Christianity are religions of falsehood. In this perspective, whatever resemblance there is between Judaism, Islam and Christianity it simply means that they both took from Islam. Islam tried to build its reputation as a real religion by destroying Judaism and Christianity, by depicting them as religions of falsehoods. This is the basic teaching of the Quran against Judaism and Christianity. In the Quran Jews are described as the descendants of apes and swine and as the biggest haters of Muslims. Jews are those who kill prophets, an accusation taken from Christianity. According to the general exegesis of the first chapter in the Quran, Jews are those upon whom the anger of Allah rests and the Christians are those who went astray. So in the Quran, from the days of Muhammad, the attitude towards Judaism is clearly very negative.

In it’s charter of 1988 and in it’s slightly emendated version of this year, Hamas is very esplicit in specifying that all of Palestine belongs to Islam. If one reads and listens to what Fatah says about this issue one discovers that there is no big difference between the two factions. Is this so?

Definitely. Both hate Jews, hate the State of Israel, hate the existence of any Jewish entity and differ only by nuances. To say that Fatah is a secular movement while Hamas is religious is wrong because this is some kind of Western, European distinction between secular and religious which they try to impose over here. Even Abu Mazen, as Arafat did, go to Mosque every Friday, so what are they, are they religious or secular?. In Islam there is no secular ideology, unlike in Christianity and Judaism. In Islam there has never been tolerance towards those who question the religion, there were not enough people who were brave enough to question the mere existence or validity of their religion, very few of them. Traditionally there is no secularism in Islam, this is why there is no division between secular and religious. We can say that Fatah is basing its views more on nationalistic ideas while trying not to use the religion so much while Hamas is based much more on religion then on national issues but they are also concerned with national issues as well, but at the core they are very similar.

Don’t you think that one of the most persistent reasons of the Arab-Israeli conflict relies on the fact that for Muslims it is intolerable that the Jews, who for centuries were dhimmis under them now have their own state in what is considered to be Islamic land forever?

We must clarify something from the start. First of all a land in Islam is only a one way ticket, to enter Islam, not to get out of it. Whenever the hoofs of the horses stepped on one place, it belonged to Islam. This is why, in the Muslim view, Spain should return to Islam, Sicily should return to Islam, large areas in the Balkans all the way up to Vienna, where they were defeated in 1683, should return to Islam, because it was once occupied by it. Since, in the Islamic theological perspective, Jews have a religion of falsehood, their punishment is to live in exile and to live under Islamic rule as dhimmis. Bat Ye’Or has described very well in her work what was the condition of Jewish and Christian dhimmis when they lived under Islamic rule. The State of Israel is actually a series of road accidents. The first one was in 1948 when Jews made a state out of this country and had to kill Muslims in order to make it happen, and Jews have no right to kill Muslims, if they do, under Islamic law, they lose all their rights. The second one was in 1967 when Jews took the so called West Bank from Jordan which was there illegally, and also occupied Jerusalem. Now they might want to return to the Temple Mount to renew the Jewish life in the place which was destroyed by the Romans a thousand years ago. In this way, if they go back to the Temple Mount, Judaism will actually get back to life in the same place where, for centuries it was a thriving religion. This poses a serious problem for Islam as it came in the world to replace Judaism and Christianity. Muslims actually took the Christian theory of replacement and advanced it a step forward declaring that Islam, the true religion, has come to replace both Judaism and Christianity. So, if Judaism comes back to life in Jerusalem and especially on the Temple Mount he whole raison d’être of Islam will be put into question. This is the reason why Muslims object so firmly that Jews pray on the Temple Mount. Jews are allowed to pray wherever they want, in the whole world, even in the Colosseum in Rome possibly, but not on the Temple Mount. Why? Because it would actually signify the return of Judaism to life as it was before, after it was cancelled by Islam. Religious sentiment underlies everything here. Before everything else, the struggle between Israel and its neighbors is a religious problem, a religious struggle. On this foundation a series of national issues, territorial issues, legal issues, political issues, are overlapped, but the basis of the whole matter is a religious one.

One of the most striking features of the Arab-Muslim propaganda against Israel is that it is deeply rooted inside classical Quranic antisemitism but it has also inherited all of the paradigms of western antisemitism: The Jews are the enemies of mankind, they have an overwhelming and nefarious power, Zionism is ontologically evil. Isn’t it just a wishful thinking to imagine that something so strong and enduring will end one day?

It takes generations to change cultures. It is not easy at all. The Germans had a very problematic culture which we saw in action during the First and the Second World War, but the fact that they were devastated to the ground by other powers made them change their culture, and today, apparently, they are different, so, unless a nation goes trough a real disaster it will not change its mentality. Jews had for two thousand years the mentality of exiles, of communities that lived under others and made their best out of it, but the Holocaust convinced most of the people that there was no other way to live in the world but in their own free country. Of course Zionism started sixty years before the Holocaust, but it was due to it that many Jews were convinced that only Israel was their safe place in the world, while others went to the United States or in other places. Millions came here after the Holocaust as it was the Holocaust that changed their exile culture paradigm to an independent culture one. Syria will probably undergo a deep change after the atrocities committed there, it won’t be the same country as it was before, because of the atrocities. Japan cultural mindset was deeply changed after the nuclear bombs in the Second World War. Japan after the war cannot be compared culturally to how it was before the war started.

From what you say you seem to imply that in order for Muslims to change their mindset towards Israel and the Jews it has to undergo a deep trauma.

History proves that only mass atrocities can change a culture in a short time. It happened in Germany because of WWII, it happened in Japan because of two atom bombs and it happened in Egypt because of the High Dam in Aswan, which destroyed the traditional agriculture and sent millions of Egyptians from the rural areas to the cities in a couple of years. The culture of these countries changed in short time only because of the disasters. In stable societies changes take generations if not centuries.

If the conflict is not just a conflict about portions of land and land swaps but it is really deeply entrenched into religious hatred, isn’t it really naïve after all to think that we will find a peaceful solution?

No it’s not naïve, but we must first understand the definition of peace. “Peace”, as it is in English, or “shalom” in Hebrew is not like “salam” in Arabic. “Salam” in Arabic means ceasefire. Documented, agreed upon but not more than a ceasefire. You are here, I am there, we don’t exchange anything, we don’t hug each other, we don’t get married, I live in my place, you live in your place, this is the border between us and you care for yourself and I care for myself. This is “Salam” in Arabic, and this is what we can achieve in the Middle East because this is the only merchandise in the peace market of the Middle East. This is the kind of peace that is achieved when one side gives up on eradicating the other side or when one side is too powerful and too dangerous to mess with and the other side gives it peace. This peace, ceasefire actually, will continue as long as the other side is invincible, once that the other side becomes weaker or falls asleep on guard, Muslims will attack it. This is actually based on a precedent that the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, made in the year 628. Six years before, in 622, he emigrated from Mecca to Medina, what is known as the hejira and he built a little army in order to occupy Mecca, but the Meccans, who were smart people, knew in advance of his plans and prepared a big army. When Muhammad came down from Medina to Mecca, the two armies met near a small village known as Hudaybiyyah, and when Muhammad saw the Meccan army he understood that it was better not to mess with it because it would have been the last thing that he would have done in his life. So he sat with the Meccans and a treaty was signed for nine years, nine months and nine days. After two years that Muhammad had not attacked them, the Meccans assumed that he was serious about peace so they went back to business, and when he saw that they went back to business he attacked Mecca and killed all the men, took the women and burnt all the idols. This was the end of the peace which was signed for almost ten years. It happened in 630, two years only after the signing of the treaty. Now, Muslims learn from this two things, the first one is that if you cannot defeat the infidels give them temporary peace as Muhammad, who is considered infallible, did. The second one is that if Allah, through his mercy, gives you the power and the opportunity to get rid of the infidels you do it, even within the peace time which you signed. So, this precedent of Hudaybiyyah, is actually the mechanism by which Muslims can give peace to other countries, other nations, other religions if the other side is too powerful and dangerous to mess with and it is invincible. This is what we can expect and what we can get and this is actually what we get. How do I know? We had the peace with Egypt. This peace was signed in 1979 after a year and a half of negotiations. A year earlier, in 1978, Sadat asked Al Azhar, the supreme Sunni authority, if he could make peace with Israel, and as people from Al Azhar already knew of his initiative and got their salary from him, they understood clearly what he wanted from them. So they wrote for him a three pages fatwa, a verdict, in which they allowed him to give peace to Israel just like the prophet Muhammad gave peace to the Meccans in Hudaybiyyah. The mere mention of the name Hudaybiyyah means that this is a temporary peace and it will last only until the Israelis are too powerful, too dangerous and invincible. Peace with Egypt is based on this. The same thing happened with the Oslo Agreements. Arafat never hide it, he was saying it on the left, the right and the center, that the Oslo Agreements were like Hudaybiyyah, and when the time was to come, Israel was going to be attacked again. It happened after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000 in a very shameful way. In September Arafat understood that Israel was too weak and too vulnerable so he decided to open the Second Intifada which was meant to kick Israel all the way out. This is Hudaybiyyah with the Palestinians who really never meant real peace but just temporary peace only because the Second Intifada failed.

Was the peace that Israel signed with Jordan the same?

I did not find any mention of Hudaybiyyah with Jordan, but I didn’t look for it as well, so maybe there was, maybe not, but certainly there was with Egypt and with the Oslo Agreements which were signed with Israel only as temporary peace treaty.

Is the Arab-Muslim rejection of Israel part of a much wider picture, by this I mean a global conflict between the Muslim religious Weltanschauung and that of the West, isn’t Israel also and for the most a symbol of the despised West?

Definitely, but not only this. According to them, Israel was created by the West because of the British occupation here after the First World War, the Sykes-Picot Agreements and the chopping of the Arab world in something as seventy countries, which, in their view, is a Western conspiracy to take over the whole world, especially the Islamic one. For the Islamic mindset Islam is supreme and nothing is above it, so how can the others impose on Islam something like Israel? Muslims believe that Islam is the religion that fits the human nature more than any other, for them the only real book in the world is the Quran, so whatever they think is done against their will is totally illegitimate and unacceptable. Definitely there is a clash of civilization going on, or better, this is a clash between civilization and barbarism, because if you treat others as people who have no right to live and you chop their heads off, this is not a culture, a civilization, this is plain barbarism. I am not saying that all the Muslims are barbaric, because obviously not all of them believe in these things, but they are not counted, because the moderate Muslims cannot force the radical ones to behave, so they are irrelevant in the struggle between the radical Muslims and the rest of the world. There is also something else which must be emphasized.

Please.

We listen a lot about the distinction between moderate Islam versus radical Islam. I don’t think there is such a thing. Islam is a religion which is based mainly on three scriptures, the Koran, the hadith, which is the oral tradition and the Sira, which is the biography of the prophet. There is only one Koran, there is not a moderate Koran and a radical one, there is one corpus of hadith, and one biography of Muhammad. What we have are verses in the Koran which are moderate, like “There must be no compulsion in religion” while others refer to imposition and jihad. The hadiths are also made of traditions which support a moderate approach to life and to others, while there are different hadiths which support the idea of jihad and bloodshed. The same thing happens with the Sira, the biography of Muhammad. There are incidents in his life that show he was a moderate man and there are other anecdotes about him that show he was a very extreme person.

The problem is the way in which the Quran and other Islamic sources are approached by different kinds of Muslims, but it is undeniable that both so called moderate Muslims and radical ones find what they look for in the sources to which they refer. This also depends on the culture in which they are brought up into.

Yes. Let us take a Muslim who is born, in Italy, where generally speaking, people are moderate, and absorbs the moderate culture of the country where he lives, it is more likely that he will pick from the Quran the verses that support this approach to life and the same will happen with the hadiths and the Sira of Muhammad. Another Muslim who is born in Libya where people have been killing each other continuously will absorb the culture of Libya, and most probably will like to quote the verses of the Quran which call to kill the infidels. He will take from the hadiths the sayings of Muhammad that reflects his violent character and will take from the Sira all the anecdotes which show how vicious Muhammad was. What we have is not moderate Islam versus radical Islam, what we have are radical Muslims versus moderate Muslims. However, it is very tricky, because people can and do change. For example a Muslim who is born, let us say, in Britain, who is moderate in his version of Islam but then goes for a tour in Pakistan or into the internet and ends in all kinds of websites of radical schools suddenly might says to himself, “I was mistaken all my life, this is the real Islam. This is the right way how to be a Muslim” and become a radical. So, even someone who was born in a moderate place and has internalized the atmosphere of his birthplace might change and become radicalized. This is the tricky thing, especially if you bring emigrants or refugees who do look moderate and maybe are moderate but who, one day, will radicalize themselves and will try to impose their view of things on others especially by force, by terror. We have already seen this happening, haven’t we?

In 1937 the Peel Commission proposed to give to the Arabs most of the land and a small part of it to the Jews. The Arabs said no and have since kept saying no to any proposal made by Israel. Don’t you think that the time has arrived to say that there will never be a Palestinian state because the first not to want it have always been the Palestinians themselves?

First of all let me say that I don’t believe that there is a Palestinian people or a Palestinian nation. Why? Because the modern Middle East didn’t create nations, they are all Arabs. There is no Syrian nation, there are Arab tribes and ethnic groups like Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and Armenians in Syria. There are also different religions, Alawi, Druze, Christian, and there are Islamic groups such as Sunnis and Shias who remain loyal to their traditional framework, to the tribe, to the ethnic group, the religious and the sectarian group. They have never internalized the state as the source of their identification, this is why the state has failed in settling in the hearts of the people. This is Syria, at least the Syria that was under Assad until the Arab spring started in March 2011. There is no Syrian people, one consolidated people. The same thing happens in Iraq and in Libya. These are groups of people that never became one nation. The Palestinians are the same. You can understand how it works through marriages. A girl from Hebron has no option to get married to a boy from Nablus, because “they” are not “like us”, they “are not us”. Not to mention Gaza which is viewed as a totally different environment from the so called West Bank where there are many instances of Arab discrimination against Gazans. There is no real Palestinian nation, like there is no real Iraqi, Syrian or Sudan nation.

This being said, what could be, according to you a possible solution to the conflict, setting aside a Palestinian state?

I endorse the emirate solution, and the reason is that emirates are the only form of state that function in the Middle East. Modern states like European states don’t work because they don’t fit the culture. Only the Gulf Emirates, like Qatar, Abu Dubai, Kuwait, all these emirates are successful states, not because of the oil, Dubai has no oil, but because of the stability of the sociology, because the society is based on one single tribe. One you have a society based on one single tribe, the political arena will function. Fragmented societies like in Iraq are fighting each other all day long and this strife is carried along inside the Parliament, as a result of all of this, the economy is a failure. So, for the Palestinians we should follow the emirate paradigm, and create emirates for the Palestinians inside the cities. One emirate has already been existing for ten years, this is Gaza and the Gazans know very well how to correspond tribally with their issues. Another one should be in Hebron, another one in Jericho, in Ramallah, Jenin, Qalqilya, Nablus. This is the only solution based on sociology rather then dreams about nations that do not exist.

One of the main scholarly distinctions made today is that which diversifies between Islam and Islamism. Islamism in this view is just Islam gone astray. However, if we go back to the Quran, especially the part that was written in Medina, we can clearly see that most of what the radicals do was taught and done by Muhammad himself in the VII century. So don’t you think that this distinction is quite thin?

Islam and Islamism are Western models which Muslims don’t understand in most cases. What they know is the difference between those who strictly keep the order of Islam and its injunctions and those who do not keep them so strictly. They don’t have this Western distinction between Islam and Islamism. Praying five times a day and going to jihad is to them the same thing, while in the West they define between injunctions that one preform on oneself, like fast on Ramadan or praying, which no one has anything against and those injunctions that one tries to impose on others. Muslims are theoretically divided into two kinds: those who believe in Islam and perform it on themselves only and those who try to impose it on the others.

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