Enmity towards Islam hampers road to peace in Israel

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 August, 2005, 12:00am

With daily newspaper images last week of grim-looking Israeli soldiers forcing angry protesters to leave their Gaza Strip settlements, it might have appeared that the roadmap to an Israeli-Palestinian peace is on track.

The reality, suggests the co-founder of a recently formed international think-tank, is far from certain, and if there's to be a true peace between Israel and Palestine - and also the west and Islam - then there needs to be a critical re-examination of the way in which the west views the Muslim world.

'There are three major misunderstandings in the west about the Muslim world,' says Alastair Crooke of group Conflicts Forum. 'The first is the language we often hear, that these people [Muslims] hate our values and are a threat to our societies ... The second is the use of the term 'terrorism' and putting into the same compartment groups that are extremely unalike ... The third is that this is all about the west.' He adds: 'The use of language has dimmed and obscured our ability to comprehend the realities of a political solution, and those groups that are a solution and those that are a problem.'

A former officer with British intelligence agency MI6, Mr Crooke helped launch Conflicts Forum last year in response to growing alarm among public policy formulators that the west's approach to Middle Eastern issues was unconstructive.

The group's website, www.conflictsforum.com, describes its goal as being to 'end the isolation and demonisation of Islamist movements by the west ... create the space for their engagement in politics ... stimulate a new and rigorous understanding of armed political action, its causes and its varied nature, and to distinguish between this and what has been labelled as 'terrorism'.'

Previously posted to global trouble spots such as Afghanistan and Colombia, Mr Crooke's last position was as security adviser to European Union foreign affairs representative Javier Solana. 'It's about politics, a political struggle ... the only way you can deal with it is to talk to it, listen to it. Bombing Fallujah is not the way to solve the problem,' says Mr Crooke.

Controversially, he advocates engagement and dialogue with terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah - groups that use suicide bombers - and a recognition that they're willing to work within a democratic framework that might one day encourage them to lay down their arms.

'The steps Hamas have taken are clear. A few years ago, people told me Hamas would never enter into a ceasefire. They have entered into a ceasefire ... now they've agreed to take part in parliamentary elections and last week announced they would take part in the Palestinian Authority government, which before they refused to do. Even their language has moved on. Their quarrel is now with 'aggressive Zionism'.'

There are crucial differences, he says, between groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah - who want to create an Islamist state from the bottom up via elections and popular support - and jihadi organisations such as al-Qaeda, who aim to destroy the state from top down, and then rebuild from the ruins.

'These groups are poles apart. I think this dichotomy was well expressed by Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric in Iraq. In an interview he said, 'Look, there are some of my brothers who believe that by working with the provisional government, they can work to bring about an end to the occupation of Iraq. Well, I wish them luck, but I believe, ultimately, they will fail because the US will not allow it. That is why I believe that, first, by resistance we must bring about the end of occupation, and only then will it be possible to create a Muslim state ...''

Organising ongoing meetings between Islamist groups and western diplomats, Mr Crooke has unsurprisingly drawn criticism for a stance that includes the questioning of the use of the label 'terrorist' on groups such as Hamas.

Writing in the Jerusalem Post in April, journalist Daniel Pipes offered this conclusion: 'Conflicts Forum offers a seductive alternative to the hard business of waging and winning a war. Unfortunately, its wrong-headed, defeatist and doomed approach amounts to preemptively losing the war. Its counsel deserves a round rejection.'

Events since then have perhaps furthered the case that dialogue with groups such as Hamas cannot be ignored. In May's municipal council elections in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas took 30 of the contested 84 councils, while the ruling Fatah party of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas took 50.

Hamas announced this month that they would also run in next January's legislative elections - a result that's alarmed some in the west who had actively encouraged elections, but given hope to others who believe that 'terrorist' organisations can be won over by the democratic process. 'If no position is given to those who want to participate in elections, then the younger people - and it's already happening - will say 'what is the point of moderation when we are excluded?'. The only way is to break the system. That's the only way to build a society,' says Mr Crooke.

In understanding this trend, he says, the west needs to discard its image of Muslims as being anti-democratic. 'All polls show Muslims support elections, reforms and constitutional guarantees. In many cases, Muslims support them more than western societies. What they have a problem with is our policies in Syria, in Iraq, in Iran and in Sudan. It's our policies they oppose.'

Observing the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, he cautions against premature expectations of peace, saying Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may now need to move to the political right to compromise in the run-up to his re-election bid in 2006. This could mean an entrenchment of settlements and construction of the wall in the more politically sensitive West Bank, and the risk of further conflict with armed members of Hamas and Hezbollah.

The key, says Mr Crooke, is an acceptance of the other. 'Both sides need to build confidence and build an ability to listen. What is important is it's done from a position of respect rather than a position of contempt. The legacy of the intifada is that each side sees the other as an enemy, not as a human being. There needs to be mutual de-escalation of violence.'