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Peace, as opposed to Peace
By Lisa Liel January 24, 2002

In the wake of the September 11th bombings, President George W. Bush was quick to announce to Americans that "Islam is a religion of peace." He went out of his way to make this point, and it has been repeated over and over again since then. The message is: Islam is peaceful, and the Islamic fanatics who perpetrated this crime and the vast number of other terrorist acts over the past four decades are and have been acting outside the bounds of Islam.

I won't address the sheer zaniness of the American president making theological pronouncements as to what is and is not valid in Islam, but the issue of whether Islam is essentially peaceful or not is a critical one, and our understanding of this will affect our understanding, not only of the terrorist criminals who attacked American last September, but of every social and political context which includes Islam.

Islam is indeed, as President Bush said, a religion of peace. Even the name testifies to this fact: Islam comes from the same root as the Arabic word salaam, or peace. The question this begs, and it is a question that has been overlooked by both sides of the debate, is "what does peace mean in Islamic culture?" In some cultures, peace means an utter lack of conflict. Even a difference of opinion violates peace in a culture of that sort. To the western mind, peace means that conflicts are resolved before they erupt into bloody conflict.

In Arabic, peace means submission.

Peace in Islam and in all cultures which grew out of Arabic domination means the submission of the weak to the strong. Who is weak and who is strong? The answer is simple. The one who submits is weak and the one to whom he submits is strong. And it is the natural order of things that the weak should submit to the strong. Islam means submission to God, and this is the model they have for peace.

Is it a better view or a worse view than, say, the western one? The question is meaningless. To a western mind, the western view is better, and the Islamic view is worse, since it eliminates any possibility of a cooperative peace. To the Islamic mind, the Islamic view is better and the western view is worse, because it is unnatural, inherently unstable, and perhaps even unjust.

We can each make our own judgements about what peace should mean, but it is a matter of fact that it means different things in different contexts and different cultures. To Osama bin Laden, the United States had demonstrated weakness in ways that he felt his people were strong. Attacking us was the appropriate action from his point of view. Those Muslims who disgree with his actions do so because they see America as strong.

The conflict in Israel is a tragic result of Israel's inability to understand what peace means to their Arab foes. Throughout history, Jews have refused to submit. Over and over, and in the face of overwhelming strength on the part of their oppressors, they have stubbornly gone on being Jews. Being different, even at horrifying cost. When non-Jewish rulers banned the circumcision of Jewish boys, on pain of death, Jewish parents continued the practice and died for it. Even during the Holocaust, the Nazis needed to trick the Jews into submission.

The modern State of Israel was created with the idea that even that kind of submission would never happen again. It is ingrained in the Israeli mentality. And as a result, Israelis imagine that others will similarly refuse to submit. It is a tragic mistake on their part.

In the wake of the 1967 Six Day War, the Arab countries were beaten. The story is told of a single Israeli soldier with a single rifle watching over more than 200 Arabs on the Temple Mount the day Jerusalem was taken. They had been beaten, and they knew it. But the Israelis didn't know it. With their mindset of "never submit", they could not imagine the opportunity they had. The very next day, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan gave the keys of the Temple Mount, the single holiest site in the world for Jews, to the Waqf, the Islamic institution charged with care of Islamic holy places. With that act, he refused the submission of the Arabs, an act which led inexorably to the bombing of the Twin Towers.

But Dayan could have done nothing else. He anticipated the reactions of the Arabs based on his own worldview, and thought he would avoid future conflict by this action. He was tragically wrong, and his error has been repeated over and over by one Israeli government after another.

In 1999, at Camp David, Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a plan which, had Arafat accepted, would have led to the demise of the Jewish state within a year. Israel's borders would have been utterly indefensible, and Arafat would have been able to take everything that was left. But just as Barak and Dayan were locked into their worldviews, so was Arafat locked into his. In western thought, when ones adversary offers concessions, the normal reaction, the sane reaction, is to appreciate them and offer concessions in return, in hopes that the two sides might find a peaceful resolution. But this kind of resolution is only "peaceful" in the western conception of peace. To Arafat, operating from the Arabic mindset, one side must win and one side must lose. And if Barak was offering so much, it would clearly only take a little more time until the Israelis submitted entirely. The conflict would have reached a state of peace at long last, with the Jews submitting to the Arabs.

In rejecting Barak's offer, Arafat may have committed a crime against the western conception of peace, but he had to do it for the Arabic idea of peace.

It may be hard to believe that the Arabs would ever be willing to submit in the century-long Arab-Jewish conflict, but it is the truth. They will fight, with no regard for western concepts of "rules of war", until one side or the other has submitted. If they submit, they will accept it as the way of the world. If the Jews submit, the Arabs will insist on absolute submission. No Jewish sovereign presence will be tolerated in Arab lands. The State of Israel will become a footnote in history. But even if the Israeli government gives in, the Jews in Israel will not submit, and so the conflict will continue.

Strangely enough, to a western mentality, the only possibility of ending the conflict in the Middle East is for Israel to stop pulling its punches and to bring the Arabs fighting it to their collective knees. Literally. Those who think this will merely cause the Arabs to fight harder simply fail to understand the Arab mindset. They are guilty of thinking that their view of peace is the only one that can be held by anyone. They are wrong, and the price of their error has been paid for far too long.

Copyright © 2002 by Lisa Liel.

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