Mourning Jihad

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First, an admission: I am Palestinian, yes; but I know neither the sting of the Israeli whip nor the insufferable loneliness of life under occupation.

In the struggle for Palestine, I have wielded words alone. My moniker, "Palestinian," has been my weapon, even as America denied my existence, even as bombs exploded through the carcasses of children.

So today, with flags and furies unfurled, with no doubt that Palestinians are, I ask instead what we are.

As has been the case in the decades since Palestine became Israel, Arabs and Muslims have reacted to the most recent scenes of Palestinian suffering by calling for "jihad" against Israel and on behalf of Jerusalem.

We should be careful what we wish for.

In my world, Jihad died last week. He fell in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, somewhere in the shadow of the Mount of Olives and Al-Aqsa’s façade. I watched World Cup soccer with him one July afternoon in Nablus. He was 21 then, and I could not have known that he too would soon be a martyr for Palestine.

These days, he is one among many. Palestine, it seems, shall have no shortage of martyrs. And for each one who falls, a thousand and maybe ten will march through the streets of an Arab capital, swearing revenge and renouncing "peace" forever.

I wonder what we Arabs will do after the chants go hoarse and the banners crumple. Will we look back on these days and realize that we encouraged young men to die willfully for a cause that we would fain forget?

Jihad’s father, who also happens to be the governor of Nablus, was at Joseph ‘s Tomb Saturday, entreating a mass of grieving Palestinians against desecrating the prophet’s shrine. What happened, in spite of the governor’s pleas, was shameful.

If destroying a site sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims is jihad, then I – a Muslim and a Palestinian – want no part in it. But I know my people well enough to know that they are overcome with grief and its emotional descendant, anger. For this reason, I cannot renounce the Palestinian struggle.

I can and will, however, resign my part in any Arab "jihad" that elevates ethnic pride and collective guilt for its inaction above the timeless edicts of religion and decency. Without a word in print about the sacrilege of burning religious texts and taking hammers to a place of worship, the Arab world – according to the standards set by Islam’s only commander-in-chief, the Prophet Muhammad – appears unworthy of the Holy Land’s stewardship.

Was it not Muhammad who wept over the death of a child in a war that was not his own? Was it not he who counseled against destroying so much as a tree in battle? Was it not his successor, Umar, who refused to set foot disrespectfully in a Christian church, even as he rode triumphantly through the same cobbled streets that today trickle with Jihad’s blood?

Arabs and Muslims who swell dangerously with pride when they remember Muhammad’s compassion and Umar’s chivalry should never forget the lofty standards set for them by Islam and its holy book, the Quran:

"Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for God loveth not transgressors."

I am afraid that this order applies equally to all Muslims, regardless of their sense of maltreatment or oppression. I remember the account of a Bosnian math professor who had arrived at the university I attended in the early 1990s. She described a scene in war-ravaged Sarajevo, in the breathtaking cold of another heatless winter, where Muslims stood nightly at the gates of an orthodox church to receive their ration of candles.

"In all the nights of winter," she said almost matter-of-factly, "no Muslim so much as threw a bottle at that church."

As a Palestinian, I would be hard-pressed to compare my people’s suffering with that of our brothers and sisters in Bosnia and, later, Kosovo. Such comparisons cannot be substantiated, by any standard. But, at the same time, I cannot deny that the systematic rape of tens of thousands of Muslim women and the torture and starvation of hundreds of thousands of Muslim men, women, and children in Serbian concentration camps easily could have evoked the same rage exhibited by the Palestinian throng that tore down Joseph’s Tomb.

That Serbian actions – including the destruction of thousands of mosques – did not, in fact, elicit an in-kind response from the Bosnian Muslim community is proof that such vengeful acts can be avoided. Indeed, they must be, if Islam is to have anything to do with the ongoing Palestinian struggle.

I would like to think that Jihad might have stood with his father at the entrance to Joseph’s Tomb, that he might have doused a burning page from an ancient Torah or gathered the frayed patches of a prayer shawl. Had he done so, he would have honored his own tradition without succumbing to the culture of violence and hate sustained by his Israeli oppressors.

Mourn Jihad as you would all martyrs, but do not make of his martyrdom an excuse for blind infamy.

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