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February 27, 2018 12:19 pm

Islam Respects Right of Jews to ‘Live in Dignity,’ Muslim World League Chief Muhammad al-Issa Declares

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Muhammad al-Issa, secretary-general of the Muslim World League, in Paris, Nov. 2017. Photo: Reuters / Clotaire Achi.

As the keener readers of Jewish media outlets and social media feeds will doubtless be aware, there is an active bidding war going on right now between the rival Gulf Arab states of Qatar and Saudi Arabia for the hearts and minds of American Jews.

Over the last few months, several American Jewish figures of varying degrees of influence have flown to Doha to hear directly from the ruling al-Thani family about why they have been profoundly misunderstood regarding their embrace of the Palestinian terrorists of Hamas and the ruling regime in Iran. Meanwhile, the Saudis have seemingly upended decades of Salafi Islamist propaganda against the Jews by discreetly warming relations with Israel, explicitly identifying Iran’s rulers as the single greatest threat to the Middle East, and stoking political opposition to the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.

In this maelstrom of political consultants, PR flaks and advocacy leaders armed with talking points, the figure of Muhammad al-Issa is something of an incongruity. A former Saudi minister of justice, and presently the secretary-general of the influential, Mecca-based Muslim World League, al-Issa has, in recent weeks, been addressing the twin issues of antisemitism and anti-Judaism among the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims with an unprecedented candor.

Spending two hours with the methodical, scholarly al-Issa — as The Algemeiner did in Washington, DC, earlier this month — it is plain to see why, at this particular juncture, he is an asset to a Saudi government eager to convince the West that, finally, it stands resolute against both Sunni and Shi’a variants of Islamism, and is determined to establish Islam as a religion of peace and coexistence. Still, to reduce Al-Issa’s own message to a strictly political calculation would be a grave mistake, if only because its theological content needs to be heard irrespective of the political machinations in Gulf capitals.

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Our interview began, therefore, with a quote — specifically, a hadith, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, that has been cited widely by Islamist preachers inciting hatred against Jews: “The Muslims will kill the Jews, and the Jews will hide behind the stones and the trees, and the stones and the trees will say: Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him, except for the Gharqad tree, which is one of their trees.”

In al-Issa’s view, to brandish this hadith as a modern-day weapon against the Jews is foremost a crime against Islam itself. He pointed to a verse in the Quran which declares, “Let there be no compulsion in religion, for the truth stands out clearly from falsehood,” alongside another which states unambiguously, “For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.”

“Islam is a humane religion, and a religion of coexistence and tolerance,” al-Issa said. “It is a religion that calls its followers and all mankind to peace. It neither calls for war, nor does it welcome war at all. It only accepts war when it is imposed from outside.”

How, then, to explain a quotation that appears to relish the prospect of a final reckoning with the Jews? Al-Issa’s answer centered not on the text itself, the wording of which he did not dispute, but on a broader explanation of its purpose and significance. The hadith in question, he said, was one among many visions and reflections of Muhammad, some of which explicitly mentioned violent conflict between his own followers. “Is this to be interpreted as the Prophet encouraging his followers to fight?” al-Issa asked.

The hadith about the Jews, he continued, “speaks of a matter that might occur (in the future) or that might have occurred many times in the past. But that doesn’t mean it is encouraging this fighting … it’s a prophecy, merely a prophecy.” For al-Issa, context is all, and it is what marks the difference between a moderate interpretation of Islam and an extremist one. “Those who memorize the texts verbatim should not be treated like those who understand them,” he explained. “Extremism and fanaticism is a mental disorder, and not a religious problem.”

Part of this “mental disorder,” al-Issa said, involved the interpretation of Islamic texts, such as this hadith, in a manner designed to reinforce the ideological predispositions of extremists. On one level, he said, the apocalyptic interpretation “puzzled” him, because it clearly contradicted core Muslim teachings about religious coexistence. On a deeper level, he added, “it hurts me that these incorrect interpretations and understandings exist.”

Throughout our discussion, al-Issa was adamant that Muhammad’s faith was predicated on an appreciation for a divine order in which differences between religions and nations are a cause for peace, rather than conflict — the diametrical opposite of the vengeful teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations. Another widely-cited antisemitic meme among Muslims — that the Jews are descendants of “apes and pigs” — elicited a dismissive chuckle from al-Issa, who excoriated the “stupidity” of those for whom a Quranic verse that Jews profaning the Sabbath “shall be as apes despicable!” is a transcendent condemnation of all Jews, everywhere, for all time.

Moreover, al-Issa stressed that — in contrast to the long-standing Christian depiction of the Jews as eternally responsible for the death of Jesus — Islam did not approach Judaism from the vantage point of “original sin.”

“Islam as a religion has never accused Judaism as a religion of anything,” he stated plainly. “Therefore, there’s no problem which requires a dialogue [similar to that between Judaism and Christianity].” A Muslim, then, faces no challenge to their faith when it comes to “respecting the Jewish religion and the right of the Jews to live in dignity.”

When that “dignity” includes an independent, sovereign state that is yet to exchange ambassadors with Saudi Arabia after seventy years of existence, what then? Again and again, al-Issa emphasized the political neutrality of the Muslim World League, and the need for a strict separation between religious faith and political orientation. At the same time, he gave no succor to historic Arab ambitions for Israel’s elimination.

Peace begins, al-Issa said, by recognizing that all the nations of the region will remain exactly where they are. “Therefore they have to coexist, and to offer concessions,” he said. “Otherwise we won’t just be fighting for the next seventy years, but for thousands of years.”

Just as important, he said, is a revision of fundamental world-views. “The idea that disagreeing with someone over creed or philosophy requires that you hate and fight that person is insanity,” he stated. “And they pay the price of this when it comes to peace.” To view Islam as a religion of “resistance,” al-Issa asserted, “negates the tradition of the Creator Almighty, who created His universe in such a way that it contains diversity and variety.”

What stands out in al-Issa’s religious message is its plain-speaking transparency. A similar approach was on view in January, when, on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, he penned a statement in which, in the words of the Middle East expert and historian Robert Satloff, “Saudi Arabia took a giant step toward joining the world in its recognition of the enormity of the Holocaust.” In that statement, al-Issa spoke of the “evil” of Nazism and condemned the “denial of the Holocaust or minimizing of its effect a crime to distort history, and an insult to the dignity of those innocent souls who have perished.”

Hearing such words led, ironically, to a question that was painful but necessary to ask: Are the world’s Muslims listening to you? Are your words having an impact on the people who need to hear them most? Al-Issa’s response underlined his conviction that the Muslim World League, founded in 1962, still carries decisive weight among the faithful.

“The League is definitely heeded and greatly respected in the Islamic world,” he said. “That includes those who have differed with us regarding some opinions. But at the end of the day, they respect the League. Whenever any opinion or idea is presented on the religious level, and we have not weighed in, they seek our input.” As to the scale of the challenge, al-Issa did not minimize what lies ahead, even joking that a boost in the “birthrate of intelligent people” would not go amiss.

Ultimately, al-Issa believes, that intelligence will spring from education. In that sense, his expression of his end vision carried something of an echo of an American civil rights leader. “We must increase our closeness, our knowledge of one another, and our cooperation,” he said. “And our love of one another.”

These are not sentiments that we have heard from a mainstream, powerful Muslim leader in the past. They are, of course, a comforting antidote to the venal rhetoric of theologians like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood. But because of that, al-Issa’s future work will inevitably encounter skepticism — above all from those who fervently wish him every success. Only he can change this perception, and one leaves his company with the distinct sense that he knows that.

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