The establishment of diplomatic relations by the United Arab Emirates with the Jewish state of Israel must rank as not merely a huge surprise but also an incipient remaking of West Asian politics and possibly the global order as well. The United Arab Emirates opening its embassy in Jerusalem will be looked at, particularly by Islamic countries, as a stunning development. Jerusalem is regarded by Muslims as the third holiest city of Islam after Mecca and Medina. They believe that Prophet Muhammad started from the spot where the Al-Aqsa mosque currently stands in Jerusalem, on his celestial horse Barak to ascend to heaven to meet Allah and return.
A sacred city and also a contested one, officially being recognized as the capital of a Jewish state, and obtaining diplomatic affirmation from another Muslim state is not exactly pleasing news for many faithful ~ lesser would have been the consternation had this mutual recognition of diplomatic status been centered around Tel Aviv, Israel’s former capital or any other city. Jerusalem happens to be a holy place for Christians as well; Jesus Christ is believed to have been born in Bethlehem only a few kilometers away. He lived, preached and worked in the area around Jerusalem. The Calvary Hill on which the Son of God is supposed to have been crucified is located in the holy city, along with the Church of Nativity, where he was buried.
While this action of the UAE ~ an amalgamation of seven principalities led by Abu Dhabi ~ has raised eyebrows galore and more questions, it goes without saying that such an action could not have been unilateral; there must be a substantial Islamic consensus behind it. While on the one hand the UAE’s West Asian neighbours Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, and on the other China, its sidekick Pakistan and possibly Russia will likely carry antipathy to the UAE’s action, it is unlikely the rest of the world would lose much sleep over this. It certainly is a split bigger than even before among the Islamic countries.
What readers might wonder is the reason as well as the implication of this Judeo-Muslim ‘entente’, so to say. Except for those countries named above, Sandi Arabia, the guardian of Mecca and Medina, is the leader of the Islamic world, and must have cleared the UAE action before it was taken, even if not overtly so. This also means that this is the beginning of a cataclysm in Islam, which has until now been comparatively a united world community or quam, until 1924 headed by a religious-cumtemporal head called the Caliph.
There have been changes, about-turns and diplomatic cataclysms before. In 1972, US President Nixon accompanied by the guru of world affairs Henry Kissinger visited Mao Zedong, then the undisputed leader of Communist China. The USA was known to be dead against Communism as well as countries that followed the red ideology. Moreover, Red China was known to be a ‘brother’ of the Soviet Union, the first communist state as well as the other pole in the Cold War, the first pole being the US. America’s Western allies were certainly taken aback; Japan, Taiwan and South Korea being so near the yellow giant were stunned for quite a while.
This UAE-Israel deal evokes the question about the feasibility and desirability of separating politics and statecraft from religion. Islam is one faith which includes every aspect of life, not merely the relationship between humans and the divine. In this light, this latest turn in the Middle East is a cataclysm. Islam and Judaism are theologically similar; the former has borrowed substantially from the latter and yet there has been hatred between the two.
Its political shade exacerbated after Britain declared in 1911 that the Jews would get their holy land in Palestine. Until then, the Jews residing in that country were unwelcome to the Muslims, but not hated to the extent they later began to be.
There have been several wars between the Arab states and Israel after the latter was founded in 1948, with Arabs being worsted each time. The eastern half of Jerusalem was taken away from the Muslims in the war of 1973. Now the whole city is integrated and has been made the capital of Israel. Recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state has been, religiously speaking, possibly the touchiest issue with the Muslim world and Islamic states, but with the UAE now agreeing to open full-fledged diplomatic relations with Israel without making any noise about Jerusalem, and with barely a whisper from much of the Arab world, it does appear that there are winds of change that transcend political realignment.
The UAE, which is currently ruled by a courageous soldier Prince Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan ~ whom Prime Minister Narendra Modi had invited as the chief guest for India’s 68th Republic Day in 2017 ~ has proved his diplomatic vision by striking this deal to normalise relations with Israel. In return, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ~ another close friend of Modi ~ has agreed to suspend plans to annex parts of the West Bank. It also provides an opportunity for Israel and the Palestinians to renew negotiations to end their conflict. Bahrain has welcomed the deal and is expected to be the next Arab state to reach public rapprochement with Israel. Oman and Morocco are interested as well. Not surprisingly, President Trump of the USA has wholeheartedly welcomed this rapprochement between Israel and the UAE; this deal is a triumph for his Middle East doctrine. It has breathed new life into his “Peace to Prosperity” plan, engineered by his adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. This also indicates that the Palestinian cause is of little concern to the UAE, and increasingly, other Arab states and is no longer an obstacle to peace between Israel and them.
What might have caused this change of thinking, if not of heart, among Arab rulers with regard to Israel? For one, the Arab states, and Saudi Arabia in particular, are possibly beginning to realize that Israel does not threaten them in any manner. The real threat looming in their part of the world is now Iran, whose apocalyptic visions of another Islamic revolution combined with its messianic drive to acquire nuclear weapons have the propensity of unleashing an Armageddon in West Asia and the rest of the world.
But there are deeper developments at play in the West Asian part of the world that have dictated this slow but discernible change of heart among the Arab countries vis-à-vis Israel. The Arab Spring, which kicked off in 2011 and was instrumental in bringing down the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt, was a limited measure of the slow but definite churn going on in the Islamic world and West Asia in particular.
The current Iranian regime is constantly in the news for its defiance of the West over its nuclear programme and links with terrorist groups, but less reported is the fact that for the past over one year, Iran’s citizens have been up in arms against their regime.
Significantly, anti-government protesters in the streets of Tehran chant “America is not our enemy”. These Iranian demonstrators are said to carefully avoid walking on US and Israeli flags painted on the street outside one university. The reason for these protests is the slow but growing realization among Iranians that their country’s medieval regime run by theocratic mullahs threatens to make Iran an international rogue state. A 2012 WIN/Gallup International poll found that 5 per cent of Saudi citizens ~ more than a million people ~ self-identified as “convinced atheists”. Approximately 19 per cent of Saudis ~ almost six million people ~ think of themselves as “not a religious person.” This phenomenon has visited other Islamic countries with harsh antiapostasy regimes like Pakistan, Iran and Sudan, which have seen desertions from the faith.
This phenomenon points to a reality we usually do not hear about – many young Muslims are suffering from a crisis of faith. It is being abandoned by moderate Muslims, mostly young men and women, ill at ease with growing extremism in their communities. Noted Turkish-American economist and Professor of Economics and Political Science, Timur Kuran in his book The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East (published 2011) summarized the institutional roots of the Middle East’s economic stagnation even as the rest of the world and particularly the West raced ahead.
Quite possibly, many in the West Asian part of the world are waking up to the fact that shutting the door on ijtehad (reasoning) and enforcing taqlid (orthodoxy) is now costing them a lot. While it might have been dictated by the circumstances that prevailed when their faith was founded, the 21st and coming centuries of unimaginable scientific advances and technological revolutions leave no space for such exclusivism. Hopefully, this realization might turn out to be a lasting one.
The writer is an author, thinker and former Member of Parliament