Moshe Sharon, professor of early Islamic history at Hebrew University, presented an analysis of some key Middle East issues to the annual conference at the Counter-Terrorism Institute in Herzliya yesterday. According to news reports, he focused on three main topics, the nature of Islam, the Iranian drive for nuclear weapons, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. I (who also cut his teeth on early Islamic history) read his analysis with great interest because it so closely parallels what I think, though with a couple of major differences.
The nature of Islam: It is a mistake to differentiate between radical and peaceful Islam. After scornfully dismissing the understanding of Islam by Western politicians, he summarized the spirit of the three main monotheisms as follows:
- Judaism speaks about national salvation - namely, that at the end of the story, when the world becomes a better place, Israel will be in its own land, ruled by its own king and serving God.
- Christianity speaks about the idea that every single person in the world can be saved from his sins.
- Islam speaks about ruling the world, as summarized in a phrase: "Allah sent Muhammad with the true religion so that it should rule over all the religions." It is not that the whole world will become Muslim instantly, but that it will eventually be subdued under the rule of Muslims. "Islam is a messianic religion… from the very beginning, it talked about the end of the world." In Islam, "Allah is the king of the end of days."
The Iranian drive for nuclear weapons: This goal, Sharon goes on, motivates the regime in Tehran. "This is why [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad seeks nuclear weapons." He concludes that a deep belief in the mahdi, a messiah, drives the Iranian nuclear project.
They truly believe that the Shiite messiah, the Twelfth Imam (also known as the mahdi), is here, and that he will reveal himself… What moves the Iranian government and leadership today is first and foremost the wish to bring about the Twelfth Imam. … How will they bring him? Through an apocalypse. He needs a war. He cannot come into this world without an Armageddon. He wants an Armageddon. The earlier we understand this the better. Ahmadinejad wants nuclear weapons for this.
Sharon concludes: "This is a time of messianic expectation."
Israel is a side issue for the Iranian leadership, who use it primarily as a means to win support from other Muslims and eventually to dominate them. "But they cannot bluff the Saudis, the Wahhabis… the Shiites are hated by the Sunnis. The Saudis are far more apprehensive of nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran than Israel."
The Arab-Israeli conflict: "The root of the problem between us [Israelis] and the Arab world is Islam. Islam is not only a religion. It is a culture, politics… a state, Islam is everything. It has been like this, and it will be like this for the foreseeable future," From the Muslim perspective,
Islamic territory was taken away from Islam by Jews. You know by now that this can never be accepted, not even one meter. So everyone who thinks Tel Aviv is safe is making a grave mistake. Territory which at one time was dominated by Islamic rule, now has become non-Muslim. Non-Muslims are independent of Islamic rule and Jews have created their own independent state. It is anathema. Worse, Israel, a non-Muslim state, is ruling over Muslims. It is unthinkable that non-Muslims should rule over Muslims.
Comments: (1) Hats off to Moshe Sharon for presenting so clear an interpretation.
(2) My argument with him concerns his extrapolating from the past and implicitly assuming that because something has not happened it will not. On the Islam topic, he is right that there has been no "peaceful Islam," but that does not preclude its coming into existence in the future. On the Arab-Israeli conflict, one cannot say with such certainty that Muslims will never accept Israel, for things change over time. In the first place, there was increasing Muslim acceptance (however grudging) of Israel during the period 1948-93; second, there are plenty of instances where Muslims lost territories and (again, grudgingly) came to terms with these realities. How many suicide bombers or battles of reconquest have there been in Sicily since 1091, in Spain since 1492, in Greece since 1821, or in India since 1867? Things change over time, never say never. (September 15, 2006)
Sep. 29, 2006 update: A text from which Sharon's talk derives has been posted by Nativ at "To Clean Out the Stables and Prepare for War."
Oct. 5, 2006 update: Sharon provides an informative and deep analysis of Arab-Israeli negotiations in "No Peace, No Peace Plans, No Price For Peace (A Short Guide to Those Obsessed with Peace)."