Islam in power

Photo: Patrick Brown / PANOS

Much has happened in the world since I agreed to take on the challenge of editing an issue on political Islam. Protests against suspect elections in Iran morphed into a popular and brutally suppressed uprising against the constraints of theocracy, eerily reminiscent of the prelude to the 1979 Revolution.

The war in Afghanistan, with its high civilian death toll, was brought increasingly into the living rooms of the West, as NATO soldiers continued to die fighting an amorphous enemy generally labelled as ‘the Taliban’.

And in a German courtroom, a hijab-wearing Egyptian woman was stabbed to death in front of her three-year-old daughter by a right wing Islamophobe, while a British National Party-inspired plot to blow up English mosques was uncovered by police.

Even as extremists feed off each other, the so-called ‘Muslim world’ continues to turn in all its colourful, heterogeneous chaos. And despite an often simplistic reduction to an all powerful homogenous ‘other’, the planet’s 1.3 billion Muslims get on with their daily lives in the midst of a wide range of political realities.

Some live in secular nations like Turkey, governed by a religious president who does a delicate dance with Ataturk’s ghost.1 Others live in authoritarian ‘Islamic’ states like Iran or under occupation in Palestine. Some live in majority-Muslim nations ruled by Western-backed dictators where Islamist parties are the ever-ready, ever-suppressed, de facto opposition. Some live in places like Pakistan or Sudan, where Islamic brotherhoods have actually colluded with military regimes.

Still others live in war-zones like Iraq and Somalia where the presence of foreign troops has exacerbated sectarianism and civil strife and where ‘Islamist’ militias mete out vigilante ‘justice’.

And many live in majority Christian countries like France where, despite an obsession with secularism (la laicité) a strong Catholic culture permeates social and legal customs; or the US, where a significant evangelical community wields substantial political clout.

Meanwhile misperceptions about the nature of Islam – from both within Muslim communities and outside of them – can mean that complex issues are boiled down into binary Us vs Them rhetoric. And often the boundaries between Islamic doctrine and authoritarianism, tribalism, nepotism, militarism or Big Oil are blurred.

Theory and practice

With my own inter-faith background – a nominally Christian father and a mother who converted to Islam when I was 10 – my subsequent experience of Muslim communities proved interesting, to say the least. Everywhere I saw fissures in orthodoxies and exceptions to the rule that prompted questions about the line between theory and practice.

 In the immediate aftermath of the Lebanese civil war, I worked with a young Shi’a film maker in Beirut on a documentary about children caught up in the conflict. Most still refused to cross the ‘green line’ that separated the ‘Muslim’ from the ‘Christian’ sides of the city, but would meet together in certain ‘neutral’ areas. A reporting trip to Iran exposed me to the strange contradictions of life in the Islamic Republic, where the distance between public mores and private reality rivals that of Victorian England, and where educated and engaged citizens are constantly testing the limits of theocratic rule.

Time spent in Indonesia allowed me to witness the world’s biggest Muslim nation – its religious pluralism only recently marred by inter-faith violence – recovering from three decades of oppressive, secular rule under the Western-backed dictator Suharto,

And six years of reporting from Iraq showed me how decades of war, sanctions and despotism could erode the civil society of a once-secular nation, making it vulnerable to violent sectarianism, fundamentalism and a huge decline in the status of women and minorities.

The Islamic ‘world’ is of course just as embroiled in politics as the Christian ‘world’. But identifying a precedent for political Islam remains contentious.

‘I am going to light a fire in paradise and pour water on to hell, so that both veils may vanish altogether’ Rabia Al-Adhiwiya, 8th century Sufi saint and poet

Early Islam was arguably a revolutionary movement, with the Prophet Muhammad espousing women’s rights and appointing Bilal, a black man, as his first muezzin. His statement upon conquering Mecca seems uncompromising: ‘I trample under my feet all distinctions between man and man, all hatred between man and man.’2

And yet so many ‘Islamic’ states are authoritarian rather than egalitarian.

A wide spectrum of Muslims actually oppose theocracy (see page 12). Even the Ayatollah Sistani, the Iraqi Shi’a leader re-empowered by the 2003 invasion who issued a fatwa against gay rights activist Ali Hili (see page 9), theoretically opposes the fusion of mosque and state. In a position strangely reminiscent of certain religious Jewish groups who reject as apostasy the actual state of Israel – at least until the mashiach arrives – the Ayatollah Sistani believes that a truly Islamic state cannot exist until the arrival of the long-awaited 12th Imam. Anything less, goes the argument, would sully the purity of the faith itself.

In this de facto anti-theocratic stance the Ayatollah Sistani is the strange bedfellow of everyone from self-declared ‘Muslim atheist’ Tariq Ali to the likes of El-Farouk Khaki, the Canadian founder of the gay Muslim group Salaam, who was the grand marshall at this year’s Toronto pride parade.

While certain crusading atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – whose non-theist zeal rivals that of the best American televangelists – reject the notion of re-interpreting religious text entirely, many Muslim thinkers are re-examining the very precepts of Islam by going back to its origins.

Swiss-Egyptian theologian Tariq Ramadan, for example, calls for radical reform within Islam, grounded in textual sources. Unfortunately his call for full engagement of Muslims in civil society is marred by his ambivalent stand on gay rights.3

Writer and scientist Ziauddin Sardar offers a more progressive and pluralistic stance. He views Islamic culture within a transmodern – as opposed to postmodern – context. For Sardar, postmodernism is ‘the new imperialism of Western culture’ that ‘pretends’ to give marginalized cultures a voice but actually undermines their worldviews. His concept of ‘transmodernism’ is about a synthesis between tradition that is open to change, and ‘a new form of modernity that respects the values and lifestyles of traditional cultures’.4

Simultaneously a believer, sceptic, critic and reformer, Sardar writes: ‘Muslims have been on the verge of physical, cultural and intellectual extinction simply because they have allowed parochialism and traditionalism to rule their minds.’ He rejects the concept of the Islamic state as something antithetical to Islam and traces its origins as a 20th century Muslim reaction to the concept of the Western nation-state (see page 14).

Sardar rightly argues that Islam is a universalist movement, not bound by geographical borders. Rather than being nationalistic in nature, true Islam is all about the greater global ummah or ‘community’ of Muslims. But he also argues that historically this concept of community extended beyond Muslims to include Jews (see page 10), Christians and others. This concept should be reinvigorated within a modern, multicultural context.


12th Imam: believed by some Shi’a Muslims to be the saviour of humankind.

Hadith: sayings or traditions of the Prophet Muhammad.

Hijab: can refer to types of head-covering worn by Muslim women, or more generally to a modest way of dressing.

Ijma: literally, agreeing upon, consensus of the community in general, and the learned in particular.

Jihad: any earnest striving in the way of God, involving personal, financial, intellectual or physical effort, for righteousness and against wrongdoing.

Mashiach: a Hebrew word which means ‘anointed one’, it refers to a human being who will usher in a messianic era of peace and prosperity.

Muezzin: a person who leads the call to prayer.

Sharia: a code of law based on interpretations of the Qur’an.

Shi’a and Sunni: the two major denominations of Islam. Their split originated in a dispute over a successor to the Prophet Muhammad.

Shura: community consulation.

Sufism: the inner, mystical dimension of Islam.

Ummah: global community of Muslims.

Wahhabism: a conservative form of Islam that originated as a reform movement 200 years ago in Saudi Arabia.

Keeping extremism alive

While progressive reformers like Sardar are articulating dynamic reinterpretations of a 1,300-year-old faith against the backdrop of increasingly violent Islamophobia and the fallout from the ‘war on terror’, in certain quarters extremist Islamism is being actively funded and encouraged.

As 30-year-old British author Nafeez Ahmed writes (see page 17) the old Cold War relationships between certain national intelligence agencies and Islamist extremists are still alive and well.

While researching a doctoral thesis on imperialism and the ‘war on terror’, Ahmed found that in most Muslim countries where there is a significant petroleum industry, Western intelligence agencies have formed close relationships with Islamist groups – and in many cases are supplying them with arms and funds.

As strange new Wahhabist militias appear in, for example, Somalia and Chechnya , local Muslim communities with populist Sufi or other indigenous, moderate forms of Islam suddenly find their faith hijacked. Wherever sharia law is used as a tool of authoritarianism, there are often, it seems, hidden political agendas at work.

While some secular nationalist governments in majority-Muslim countries have engaged with Islamist extremists ( like Algeria’s ruling party – see page 18) to further their own agendas and co-opt the power of religion, similar tactics by Western governments and intelligence agencies can be new versions of the old divide-and-conquer imperialism.

Even as the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq empowered extremist Shi’a death squads via the new Ministry of the Interior, the CIA continued to support Salafist, Sunni militias throughout the region (see page 17). Sectarian strife would seem almost unavoidable under such circumstances.

A way forward

While realpolitik continues unabated, the case of Iraq remains instructive. The troubled nation is a tragic model of how sustained assault on civil society can foster fundamentalism.

It now seems incredible that Iraq once had the best publicly funded health and education system, highest literacy rate and highest status of women in the Arab world. But funds for social programmes were drained during the eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s. This was followed by Saddam’s disastrous invasion of Kuwait and 12 years of draconian UN sanctions that ruined what was left of the economy. A whole generation came of age knowing only war, poverty and a socio-cultural vacuum – one that was filled by the promise of fundamentalist Islam.

Under the sanctions regime and in the post-invasion years, mosques were distribution centres for food and medicine, meeting places and informal employment agencies – especially for alienated young men offered jobs and guns. These foot-soldiers for the violent militias that now rule Iraq fell back on faith when the state collapsed, with terrible consequences.

As ever, the way to build peaceful, pluralistic and democratic societies is to support public institutions – health and education being the primary pillars – not sectarian militias.

Daughters of the Prophet

While Iraq remains a dramatic example of what can befall an educated, secular yet majority-Muslim state, the statistics for many predominantly Muslim nations remain appalling. The education levels for girls and women, for example, are abysmally low in many countries and reformers cite this issue alone as one that could effect profoundly positive change if the trend were reversed.

And yet, if Islam’s original message of equality for women were revived, the faith could be a real tool for change. This is the argument made by Muslim feminist Amina Wadoud and others. There is a tradition of female leadership in Islam that goes back to the time of the Prophet. His wife Aisha was politically active and an authority on hadith, while women like Ume Warqa and Samra Binte Wahaib were appointed heads of the market committees of Medina and Mecca by Umar, the second Sunni Caliph.

At a more grassroots level, I have experienced the powerful sense of sisterhood and solidarity engendered by communal women’s prayer in mosques around the world. At the al-Gaylani mosque in Baghdad, I listened as an Iraqi grandmother railed against US soldiers who had killed her son, even as the imam continued his Friday sermon. For her, the women’s prayer section was the only public platform where she could vent her concerns. Later, a woman implored me to help her rescue her young daughter who had been kidnapped by her abusive, estranged husband who, she said, had become increasingly violent after the invasion.

In Jerusalem I prayed side by side with Palestinian women at the Dome of the Rock mosque. Later they told me of the trials they faced living under occupation in an increasingly conservative society.

While Western critics of the status of women in majority-Muslim countries abound, people like Saudi activist and writer Wajeha al-Huwaider (see page 8) are working from within their own cultures for change. Al-Huwaider challenges the all-powerful male guardianship laws that infantilize Saudi women and makes doing anything without the approval of a male relative or husband next to impossible. Yet she does this from within the kingdom and chooses not to denigrate a people or the place she loves, but rather the laws that maintain an oppressive system.

Towards a new Andalucia

Islam is a culture as well as a faith, but there are as many different cultures within Islam as there are ethnicities and ideologies.

Many look to Andalucia as an example of how Islamic civilization was at its height when it was at its most pluralistic. Although there was Muslim rule in Spain for 800 years, the period of the caliphate of Abd al Rahman III in the 10th century is seen by many as one of the highlights of Islamic history. It was a time when scholars from around the world came to study in Cordoba. Later the works of Ibn Rush (Averroes) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) helped fuel the European Renaissance.

Certain elements of Andalucian society might well have made the puritans of present-day Islamist movements blush. Women like the 11th century Cordoban poet Wallada bint-al-Mustakfi, who went unveiled and wore translucent garments, and wrote overtly sexual poems to her lover that were discussed alongside religion and philosophy at her literary salons.

Not all share the view that this was the high point of Islamic civilization, but it was certainly a time of cultural pluralism and tolerance.

In contrast with much of ‘Christian’ Europe, in Andalucia Jews, Muslims and Christians lived, worked and created together in relative harmony. The celebrated mystical works of Ibn al Arabi, the glorious Alhambra and even flamenco music are products of that unique fusion.

Monoculture and extremism are inexorably linked. And so narrow-minded Islamism, so often fuelled and exploited for political gain, meets its natural counterpart in the thugs who planned to blow up mosques in Britain.

A Bosnian imam who survived the Serb massacres of his war-torn homeland only to find himself a refugee in polyglot Vancouver, once told me: ‘multiculturalism is the real jihad – learning to live peacefully with other people.’

I am reminded of this call for peaceful pluralism as I add my voice to the growing chorus of those who say that the ummah should extend to the whole of humanity. Increasingly – from the grieving grandmother in Baghdad to the queer Muslim parade marshall in Toronto to your neighbour’s son who died in Afghanistan – our destinies are entwined.

Let us use this juncture to augment our sense of community, not to deny it.

  1. Kemal Ataturk was the founder of the Republic of Turkey and a fervent secularist.
  2. Charles Le Gai Eaton, The Book of Hadith: Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad from the Mishkat Al Masabih, The Book Foundation, 2007.
  3. Tariq Ramadan
  4. Ziauddin Sardar, ‘Beyond Difference: Cultural Relations in a New Century’, in How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations edited by Ehsan Masood, Pluto Press, London, 2006.

Islam in power?

Defining ‘Islam in power’ is not easy. Here are a few variations on how Islam and politics interplay at a state level.

Style of government
Reality check

Islamic Republic

Authoritarian regime with an active and youthful broad based opposition/reform movement

Islamic Republic
Nominally secular, authoritarian Western-backed regime with active Islamist opposition. Near ‘failed state’

Procedural Democracy         
Authoritarian regime led by a former military man, democratic window-dressing with some encouraging signs

Elective monarchy and parliamentary democracy
More power in the executive branch of government than in the legislative, weak judiciary, multi-party system plagued by corruption

Presidential Republic
Since resignation of Western-backed dictator Suharto in 1998, major democratic reforms have taken place; still a long way to go

Parliamentary Republic     
Brutal discrimination against ethnic minorities and human rights abuses mar democratic nature; ongoing tension between secularists and Islamists

Semi-Presidential Republic
De facto
dictatorship backed by the West, with significant Islamist opposition

Islamic Republic  
Taliban rule replaced by corrupt warlordism, a country shattered by three decades of war and invasions

Knowledge is light: join us for a panel discussion

As a prelude to the October issue of New Internationalist on Islam in Power, contributors Ziauddin Sardar and Nafeez Ahmed as well as poet and film maker Mahmood Jamal will be discussing issues around progressive Islam. We'd love to see you there!


Join New Internationalist for a panel discussion in association with Asia House and the Commonwealth Journalists Association.

Tuesday 8 September, 6.45pm at Asia House, London

How will the culture of Islam be defined in the 21st century? In this special panel discussion authors and political commentators look at how Islam's rich cultural heritage has been hijacked by extremist views from within and distorted by negative perceptions in the West.
The panel is chaired by New Internationalist and co-incides with our forthcoming issue on Islam in Power. The panellists will discuss opportunities for reinvigorating Islam.

Nafeez Ahmed, author and political scientist.
Mahmood Jamal, poet and film-maker.
Ziauddin Sardar, author and cultural commentator

Ticket Booking
Tel: 020 7307 5454 or Email [email protected]
Tickets £10
Asia House Friends, Concessions and CJA Members £5


Asia House
63 New Cavendish Street
London W1G 7LP

Backyard beehives

Vancouver’s apiary missionary Brian Campbell: ‘If you care about grizzly bears, help the bees.’

Photo by *Hadani Ditmars*.

‘We have a special responsibility,’ says master beekeeper Brian Campbell, ‘to create and preserve bee-friendly habitats.’ Campbell is preaching the bee gospel to a rapt group of mums, tots and members of a local non-governmental organization called the Environmental Youth Alliance (EYA) where he is a mentor for apprentice beekeepers.

We’re in a garden in the Hastings Sunrise area of Vancouver on a sunny Saturday morning, where large lots and new immigrants make for an enthusiastic gardening community – and a natural habitat for many native bee species.

Campbell is a low-key missionary of all things apiary with an arsenal of props at his disposal. One is a jar full of an old subterranean bumblebee nest, which he passes around, explaining that many bees live underground. Some like gravel, some like packed soil, some like grass, so ‘a diversity of soil types is ideal’. Next he exhibits a cluster of bamboo sticks – the former home of a group of cavity-dwelling bees.

But creating bee-friendly habitats in urban environments is largely a question of awareness. As the group moves from a garden inspection to a back lane stroll he points out that unpaved laneways often make ideal bee habitats. He stops to examine a rose bush growing over a fence where he notes a bee has recently used part of a leaf for nesting material.

A stop in another backyard garden offers a close-up of a fertile bee environment, packed with fruit trees and flowers. Here a young mother gets out her power drill to demonstrate how to make a quarter-inch hole in a piece of 2-inch plywood, so attractive to some bees as an egg-laying site. The children are fascinated. One five year old asks: ‘How can you tell if bees live somewhere?’ ‘You just have to watch for them,’ explains Campbell.

Indeed, as we drive to a nearby park, site of the EYA’s ‘community hive’ programme, Campbell’s lecture has awakened a whole new way of viewing the urban landscape. We cruise past shop fronts and houses, our eyes peeled for bee-friendly plants and hospitable habitats.

While it may seem limited, restored habitats can have a wide-ranging effect on overall bee populations, explains Campbell. He cites the decline in bees in the northern town of Bella Coola, which resulted in a low yield of berries, which meant that local grizzly bears couldn’t hibernate due to lack of food. ‘So in that part of British Columbia, if you care about the plight of the grizzly bear,’ says Campbell, ‘you can help by restoring native bee species in your own backyard.’

Over at the ‘Means of Production’ community garden, on the edge of a park and opposite an industrial waterfront, the concerns are food security, the importance of pollinators and urban agriculture. ‘Over three-quarters of what we eat wouldn’t exist without bees,’ explains community hive coordinator Rhianna Nagel. The crucial connection between bees and plants – many of which have co-evolved together – is brought home by a ‘bee-friendly’ garden full of clover, poppies and sunflowers. Other plots are part of an initiative by local artists to grow their own materials – plants for dyes and other uses.

A few ‘bee condos’ – small rectangular plywood structures built for mason bees – hang on a nearby tool shed, remnants of the EYA programme that distributed them to individuals, schools and parks last year.

A few yards away a group of young volunteers tend the garden while others learn about beekeeping from Campbell. Today’s lesson is about hive inspection and mites. ‘Even a few can destroy a colony,’ he explains as a small group in protective gear looks on. He then shows them a ‘sustainable’ method of getting rid of mites, without hurting the bees, by using a small amount of tobacco smoke.

His students hang on his every word. One is a young marketing executive, hoping to gain a greater sense of connection to the land. Another works at a nursery and studies environmental science. Still another dreams of starting his own Buddhist monastery and raising bees for honey.

The young Buddhist asks Campbell if he can recommend any books on sustainable bee keeping. ‘They really don’t exist,’ he says, which is why his passing on his knowledge to the apprentices is so crucial.

Hadani Ditmars is a New Internationalist co-editor.

Peace offerings

PHOTO: Patrick Neri / Still Pictures

Special Features - Israel / Palestine

When the first Israel Defense Forces (IDF) bombs began to rain down on Gaza last December, Nirmeen Kharma was terrified. ‘I felt so afraid for my kids,’ relates the mother of three from her Gaza City neighbourhood, which is still reeling from the 22-day assault that left 1,600 dead, 900 wounded and devastated infrastructure.

But she received comfort via text messages from a friend. It was a friend she’d never met, someone she’d only spoken to on the phone – a man living a few kilometres away.

‘How are you doing? Are you safe? How is the family?’ he asked.

Nirmeen Kharma

Nirmeen responded as best she could, keeping him updated as the terrible days of bombing continued. That friend was Eric Yellin, an Israeli living in Sderot who had started various dialogue initiatives a year earlier – ranging from a shared blog with a Gazan man to meetings with a group of peace-minded Israeli neighbours called Other Voice.

‘It was a weird feeling at first,’ admits Kharma, who is hoping to pursue a Masters in international human rights law at Oxford University. ‘It was strange to be on the receiving end of Israeli bombardment on the one hand, and Israeli compassion on the other. But in the end the support of Eric and his friends in Sderot meant more to me than the phone calls from friends abroad. After all, these were the people who were having rockets launched at their town [by Palestinian militants]. And they were against the Israeli offensive in Gaza.’

For his part Yellin, a software engineer and long-time peace activist, says he was moved by Kharma’s story, as well as the writings of her 14-year-old daughter Nour, who had published an account of one of her school friends dying during the bombings. Their daily phone calls and text messages brought what Yellin terms ‘a strong sense of connection – like a family. I have three kids, she has three kids, we’re both married, around the same age, and we’ve both worked for years for peace and justice.’

What touched Yellin the most was Kharma’s revelation that she felt guilty for having brought children into such an unsafe environment. Even under the constant strain of the 22-day campaign, she found time to text him whenever there was a rocket attack on Sderot, asking if he and his family were all right. Kharma and other Gazan friends continue to speak on a weekly basis with Yellin’s Other Voice group via speaker phone, answering questions and sharing the reality of life in Gaza with peace-minded citizens of Sderot.

In these dark days of fear-fuelled extremism, with a right wing Israeli government in power, such a dialogue between Gazans and Israelis raises some critical questions. Can individual initiatives transcend intransigent officialdom and help move the peace process forward? Or have things gone too far already? Has a violent occupation, siege and ongoing aggression rendered such encounters meaningless?

Eric Yellin

‘Not at all,’ says Kharma, ‘this is a basic human act. I used to tell Eric, “If only our governments would think this way – we’d have no problems.” This feeling of caring about someone on the other side – this is where it has to start.’

Nomika Zion, activist and Other Voice member, agrees. For her, the bombing of Gaza was a physical reality. ‘I could feel the vibrations from the blasts in my body,’ she says. Zion, who recently organized the building of an ‘alternative fence’ made of children’s drawings about peace, admits that her work is as much about establishing dialogue with Gazans as it is about educating the Israeli public. In an article written during the bombings she gives voice to the dangers of demonizing the ‘other’.

‘I am frightened that, underneath the Orwellian smokescreen of words and the pictures of [Palestinian] children’s bodies that are especially blurred for us on TV as a public service, we are losing the human ability to see the other side, to feel, to be horrified, to show empathy. With the code word “Hamas” the media paints for us a picture of a huge and murky demon that has no face, no body, no voice, a million and a half people without a name.’1

Zion’s efforts at lobbying her Government for a non-violent solution to the conflict in Gaza fell on deaf ears – the Deputy Minister of Defence accepted and then declined her invitation to meet with the Other Voice group, just days before the bombing campaign began. But she has not completely lost hope in the political process.

‘I’m not optimistic about the current situation, but if Israel really is a democracy then I need to speak out as loudly as I can so that my fellow citizens and the world know that there is an alternative, non-militaristic voice – even here in Sderot.’

Kobi Snitz

Voices from the West Bank

While the blockade of Gaza and entrance ban on non-military Israelis makes it almost impossible for Zion to meet her Palestinian neighbours, the reality is somewhat different in the West Bank. Here a new generation of Israeli activists have been focusing their energies.

For Israeli activist Kobi Snitz, who has worked for years with Anarchists Against the Wall, and in co-operation with Palestinian popular committees, the key issue in ‘joining in the Palestinian struggle’ has always been rejecting any concept of normalization.

‘Even when we are marching arm in arm, we are not equal,’ relates the 37-year-old doctoral student in mathematics, who credits a stint at a Canadian university and work against the sanctions imposed on Iraq for his activist outlook. ‘Israeli soldiers are less likely to shoot at Israeli citizens than at Palestinians and if I am arrested it will only be for a several hours, not days or months.’

Snitz makes a clear distinction between ‘friendship’ and ‘joint struggle’. ‘Friendship in itself is not a political act,’ he asserts, criticizing some dialogue groups that work from a false premise of parity.

‘If Palestinians say: “Hey, we’re not on an equal footing,” they’re called accusatory. One of the committee members in Belin has said: “There will be lots of time to drink tea together once we end the occupation.” We’re not in this to drink tea together. It’s insulting to the people under occupation to pretend things are normal. Israelis are the ones with money, who can travel, who decide when they meet and don’t meet, the one to ask favours from –  in that sense the occupation extends into the personal relationship and perpetuates itself even further.’

That said, Snitz admits he has formed strong friendships with Palestinians through his work with Anarchists Against the Wall, and was initially ‘embarrassed’ by the warmth and hospitality with which he and his Israeli colleagues were received in many West Bank villages.

‘I’ve been to weddings, parties, funerals, important community events.’ But he is painfully aware of his position. If Israeli soldiers approach him, wrongly assuming that he is the ‘leader’ of the group, he points them to a Hebrew-speaking Palestinian. And he seeks the counsel of committee members before participating in any action. ‘I would never deign to “speak” on their behalf,’ he explains.

Disenchanted with mainstream Israeli groups like Peace Now, that he says are ‘fundamentally not anti-war’, Snitz  thinks that a ‘popular movement of Israelis and Palestinians is still the best hope that there is’ for ending the occupation.

While progress has been slow and often frustrating, Snitz has seen some positive outcomes. ‘In Budrus the wall was pushed back as a result of demonstrations – without a court case. In Bil’in after four years of struggle, we won a high court decision that ordered the army to push back the fence [although to date the fence remains where it is].’

However, he cautions: ‘It’s their [the Palestinians’] movement – we can only join it. But we can make a contribution.’

Before Palestinian photographer and film-maker Hindi Mesleh met Snitz in 2005 at a protest against the wall in Bil’in, his relationships with Israelis had been limited to encounters with soldiers. While Mesleh shares Snitz’s suspicion of certain ‘all talk, no action’ dialogue groups, he notes of his fellow Israeli protesters: ‘When you see that these people suffer the same as you – they are beaten and arrested and shot and called “anti-Israeli” by their own society – then you think, “Hey, these people are honest about their commitment.”’

There are real benefits to be gained from working with Israelis, says Mesleh, whose stories can ‘more easily influence people in the West and in their own society’ and whose presence at protests prompts different behaviour from the IDF. While Mesleh admits that the on-the-ground situation is getting worse, with more settlements being built and the Wall a fait accompli, the joint work with Israelis has ‘created more international solidarity and awareness’.

‘This relationship we are building will not be lost,’ he affirms. ‘Even if their contribution is small, they are a catalyst for change in Israeli society. Even if there are a few people in Israel, this means a lot. They are part of this effort that may lead to the end of the vicious circle of violence.’

Hindi Meslseh

We can’t do it alone

For Palestinian activist Issa Amro, an electrical engineer living in Hebron, joint struggle is key. ‘We have to work together to end the occupation – Palestinians, Israelis and internationals. One group can’t do it alone.’

Working with Israelis as well as the Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT) and the International Solidarity Movement since 2003, Amro also sees Israeli activism as a way of refuting the contention of the often violent settler movement that the conflict is a religious one.

‘It’s not a Muslim/Jewish conflict, it’s a political one. The settlers are trying to say it’s about religion but it’s about land, freedom, our everyday life.’

When his university was closed by the Israelis in 2003, Amro led a non-violent resistance movement that managed to re-open the campus. Later with the help of CPT, he established the Tel Rumeida project named after the Hebron neighbourhood under siege by settlers.

‘We asked many internationals and Israelis to help us – to visit the remaining Palestinian families, document their stories, bring tours, accompany kids to school, observe checkpoints, etc.’

Now Amro works with several Israeli organizations, helping to document settler violence, often using a video camera as a ‘non-violent weapon’. Although he and other activists have been subject to attack by settlers who have tried to break or steal the cameras, the video footage has provided damning evidence of assault and other illegal activities, some of it replayed on Israeli television.

Amro has learned a lot from his comrades. ‘Israeli activists know the language of the soldiers and police,’ he says. ‘They taught me how to deal with them. The most important thing is to tell them that you know the law well and that you know how to complain about their behaviour.’ Intriguingly, language is a powerful tool for dealing with soldiers. ‘If I need something from the soldiers then I speak to them in Hebrew, to be close to them and so they can’t say: “We don’t understand.” But when they need something from me, I talk to them in English to show my international connection.’

Unfortunately for many Palestinians, according to Amro, soldiers and settlers are ‘the ambassadors of the Israelis’. Joint activism challenges stereotypes. While some Palestinians might only relate to Israelis as occupation ‘enforcers’, many Israelis view Palestinians as ‘terrorists’.

‘But when I work with Israelis it’s obvious that we are all civilians who believe in peace and human rights. It’s not just talking, it’s resistance – and we are arrested and attacked together.’ And importantly, for a society where the whiff of ‘collaboration’ can have fatal results, ‘people in the community can see that we are working side by side and they respect that.’

Amiel Vardi, a lecturer in classics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is one of those Israeli activists working with Issa Amro. A member of Ta’ayush (Arabic for ‘life in common’) since 2002, Vardi is the first to admit that the organization’s goal of Israelis working together with Palestinians with Israeli passports was not practical.

‘Unfortunately, because of the economic divide between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis, we no longer have any Palestinian members. Volunteering like this requires time and money, so it’s now mainly Jewish Israelis working in joint struggle with Palestinians on the West Bank.’

But it was actually a settler’s bullet to his belly that ‘deepened’ Vardi’s commitment to ending the occupation. ‘After I was shot while assisting some Palestinians with their olive harvest in 2002, I knew there was no turning back.’

The Gaza offensive only increased his passion to continue protesting against the occupation. ‘The settlers took advantage of all the public attention focused on Gaza, so we had to be there. It’s more important now than ever.’

While Ta’ayush has been involved in a wide range of activities, from ‘solidarity’ aid convoys to besieged West Bank villages to public demonstrations against the Wall, Vardi says that, at the moment, ‘raising public awareness through the press is a major goal’.

Vardi maintains that ‘settlers are not as legitimate as they used to be’. Through a variety of activist media campaigns, and the distribution of video cameras to Palestinians in the Hebron area, ‘we’re trying to show how the army and police are working for settlers; how the whole system collaborates with them.’

Zeev Ben Arieh (and priest)

From struggle to celebration

While many activists are concerned with joint struggle, networks like the Jerusalem Peacemakers are increasingly concerned with joint celebration.

Z’eev Ben Arieh, a Jewish Sufi who works closely with the interfaith group, regularly brings Jewish Israelis to Islamic Sufi zikrs or prayer sessions. At a celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in early March, he brought a Jewish group to a Sufi meeting in Acco. Together they chanted the 99 names of Allah – in almost flawless Arabic – with a group of Palestinians from the Shazali order.

After prayers, there was tea, sweets and lively conversation. An invitation was extended to the Jewish visitors to attend a special zikr to honour Hanukkah in December. Considering that Acco was the site of violent riots last Yom Kippur, when a Palestinian-Israeli drove his car too close to a synagogue, the gesture was not insignificant.

Ben Arieh feels the traditional political process can only go so far towards achieving a just peace. ‘Israelis often don’t see the suffering of the Palestinians,’ he maintains. ‘They’re so involved in their own holocaust drama, they don’t see the tragedy of the other side – and without more compassion and understanding things won’t change.’

To that end, Ben Arieh often brings Jews to meet the Sufi Sheikh Bokhari, who lives in the Muslim quarter of old Jerusalem. On a recent visit, after speaking to the group about Sufism and the spiritual connections between the Abrahamic faiths of Islam and Judaism, Sheikh Bokhari revealed that his father-in-law had just died in Gaza, but that he was unable to visit him before or after his death. He had also missed the wedding of his only daughter in Gaza City and mentioned that some family members had been killed during the recent bombardment.

‘I noticed that even some of the more right-wing Israelis were moved by this story,’ recounts Ben Arieh. ‘They began to question some of their assumptions about Palestinians, and their own government.’

But, tellingly, the groups that used to meet the Sheikh at his home must now meet him in a café, after objections from neighbours who said, ‘If there is no peace in Gaza, there’ll be no peace in Jerusalem.’

‘I’m not naïve,’ maintains Ben Arieh. ‘I know there has to be a political solution. But in the meantime, the more connections Israelis can have with Palestinians on a truly human level, the more awareness will develop about the realities of occupation.’

He notes that when Izzedin Abu Ayash – the Gazan doctor who spoke regularly to Israeli television during the recent offensive – broke down on a live broadcast as he learned that his family had just been killed by an IDF bomb, this did more to influence Israeli public opinion than dozens of anti-war protests.

In April, Ayash and Nomika Zion were awarded the Niarchos peace prize in New York – given for ‘courage and resilience’ in the face of conflict. Voices like theirs must prevail.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone and has been reporting on Israel/Palestine since 1994.

1 ‘War diary from Sderot’, 13 January 2009 at

Olive branches

Links to organizations mentioned in this article.

Other Voice

Anarchists Against the Wall


Jerusalem Peacemakers

Some other joint initiatives worth exploring are:

Combatants for Peace
An organization of former IDF soldiers and Palestinians who were ‘involved in acts of violence in the name of Palestinian liberation’, now committed to non-violence and a two-state solution.

Zochrot (‘Remembering’) is the most significant political Jewish-Israeli led initiative working closely with Palestinians to educate the public about the nakba (the Palestinian ‘catastrophe’) of 1948. They focus on making information about the destruction of Palestinian villages available in Hebrew and support Palestinian right of return. Their manifesto states: ‘Acknowledging the past is the first step in taking responsibility for its consequences.’

Life must go on in Gaza and Sderot
This joint blog by Eric Yellin (‘hopeman’) and his friend ‘peaceman’, a man in his early 30’s living in Sajaia Refugee Camp in Gaza (who must remain anonymous for his own safety) chronicles life on both sides of the border. It aims to transcend biased, jingoistic media reports to communicate the human reality behind the headlines.