When, 35 years ago to this day, Michael Dennis Rohan set fire to the Aqsa mosque, the Muslim response was vicious. Here is my account of the incident from The Hidden Hand:
Allegations that the Zionists planned to do away with the Mosque of Al-Aqsa, the holiest Islamic shrine in Jerusalem, and replace it with the Third Temple inspired the Western Wall riots of 1929 and poisoned Arab-Jewish relations in Palestine. Forty years later, the same issue gave birth to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the United Nations of Muslim countries. In August 1969, a deranged Australian Christian by the name of Michael Dennis Rohan (which many Muslims turned into Cohen) set fire to that mosque. Though Israeli firefighters quickly extinguished the blaze and Rohan soon after confessed to setting it, Muslims around the world convinced themselves that the Israeli authorities had paid Rohan between $50,000 and $100 million to burn the mosque. Bellicose pronouncements echoed from all parts of the Middle East and rioting erupted in India, leading to widespread loss of life. King Faysal of Saudi Arabia capitalized on these passions to convene 25 Muslim heads of state at a meeting in Rabat, Morocco. Out of that meeting came the OIC.
This ugly memory came back to mind today, as Jordan's official Petra news agency used the anniversary to accuse the Israeli authorities of instigating the fire. Specifically, Petra says that a "radical Jew" had started the fire, Palestinians saved the mosque, and Raef Nijem, deputy chairman of Rebuilding Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock Committee, is quoted saying there is "crystal clear proof of [Israeli] compliance with [Rohan] in this ugly crime."
The Washington Times reports that Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Israeli Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, responded to this assertion by calling it "an outrageous libel, ... similar to the continued claims in the Arab world that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are genuine." Steinitz expressed disappointment that Jordanian officials again raised this falsehood. No good can come from reviving such calumnies. (August 21, 2004)
Aug. 26, 2004 update: Of course, the Palestinian Authority could not be far behind in brewing conspiracy theories about Israel. Palestinian Media Watch has today published choice excerpts from three commentators on Palestinian Authority Television along these lines.
June 28, 2005 update: And Agence France-Presse also joins the chorus, explaining in an article today that the Organization of the Islamic Conference was founded "following an attempt by Jewish hardliners to burn down Islam's third holiest site—Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque—which is also revered in Judaism." That added bit about Al-Aqsa being revered in Judaism adds a memorable touch, no? July 6, 2005 update: It took eight days and prodding from the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), but AFP did the right thing and today sent out a correction to its original story: "following an attempt by an Australian member of the Protestant Church of God, Dennis Michael Rohan, to burn down Islam's third-holiest site."
Aug. 20, 2005 update: In what appears to be an annual rite leading up to the Aug. 21 anniversary, the PLO's news agency, WAFA, states today that "On 21 August 1969, a radical Jew following dawn prayers, when the mosque was free of worshippers, set fire to the al-Aqsa Mosque."
Aug. 21, 2005 update: David Ouellette points out that the Jordanian media again this year commemorate the 1969 fire by ascribing it to "an attempt by Israeli extremists"; and the Canadian Islamic Congress maintains its reputation for reckless disregard of the facts by ascribing it to "the Australian Zionist Denis Rohan."
Mar. 15, 2010 update: A useful conspiracy theory can be endlessly recycled, and so the libel that the Israeli government tried to burn down Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969 rises again in the Palestinian Authority's media, as reported by Palestinian Media Watch. This time it takes the form of a slide broadcast on PA television ten days ago:
Slide on PA television blaming Israel for the burning of Al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969.
Text on top: "Israeli aggression against the holy places"
Text in middle: "And on Aug. 21, 1969, the Jew Dennis Michael set fire to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, with the support of the Jewish government, which cut off the water supply from the neighborhoods close to the Al-Aqsa Mosque with a view to delaying the operations to extinguish [the fire]."
Text on bottom: "Aggression against the holy places - the occupation: a long history of defiling and desecrating that which is sacred."
Aug. 20, 2015 update: Not to be outdone by the Saudis' OIC (which now stands for Organization of Islamic Cooperation), the Iranian regime in 2002 founded an organization called the Conference of the World Mosque Day which meets annually on August 21, a day it celebrates as World Mosque Day. Also not to be outdone, the Iranian media calls Rohan "a settler."