Schwartz: The Palestinian War is About Politics, Not Religion
by Brikenda Rexhepi
Introductory note by Koha Ditore: The Palestinian war resembles that of the Kosovar Albanians – it has nothing to do with religion, but with the state. Hamas, as a branch of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, "dresses itself in Islamic costume and employs Islamic vocabulary to present the war as a conflict between differing believers, but it has never been that," said Stephen Sylejman Schwartz, a scholar of Islam and executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, based in Washington, DC, USA.
Schwartz, in an exclusive e-mail interview given to Koha Ditore, discussed the context of the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, and the consequences of its influence in the region and in the world – including debates in Kosovar society.
Efforts to present the war as directed against Muslims, according to Schwartz, reflect the penetration of the Muslim Brotherhood in Kosova. He spoke about Prishtina's position on this issue and the Kosovar approach to a Palestinian state.
Schwartz, a well-known American journalist (who in 1997 became a Hanafi Muslim), is the author of many books, among them several about Kosovar Albanians. His book The Other Islam [Islami Tjetër] was issued recently in Albanian by the Koha publishing house.
KOHA DITORE: Mr. Schwartz, during the latest Israeli operation, "Protective Edge," the death toll among residents of Gaza reached 1,300 by Thursday. There were casualties from the Israeli side as well, around 60. War seems endless in that part of the world...
Schwartz: I do not think any normal person in the world can be unaffected by the bloodshed in Gaza. The Israeli-Arab conflict has gone on in a sustained manner for 65 years, and seems irresolvable. Every positive development, it appears, is doomed to be reversed. I am horrified by the loss of life in Gaza but like many others am also concerned at the way this unending contest of will draws attention away from other, terrible, recent crises. During the period of active combat in Gaza 1,800 people were killed in Syria. The so-called "Islamic State" or ISIS committed gross atrocities and cultural vandalism after its eruption into Iraq. The crisis about which I am most concerned, which involves Russian imperialism and its attack on Ukraine, has been overshadowed by Gaza. I am disturbed by the new fighting in Gaza, but it is not really "new" – it is merely a resumption of the struggle between Israel and Hamas.
KOHA DITORE: Can you provide us with a context, how did it come to this point?
Schwartz: My own view – and I stress that it is my own – is that the latest Gaza outburst is motivated basically by the frustration of Hamas with the breakdown of its backing by Egypt. Since the Morsi government was overthrown in Egypt – an elected government but one controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and encouraging other Islamist extremists – Hamas, which is the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood, has become isolated. The Israeli authorities have undergone domestic criticism for their apparent unawareness of the extent of clandestine tunneling under the Egyptian border with Gaza, as well as the Israeli border. Gazans feel they are imprisoned. It is a matter for irony that one of the Hamas demands on Israel is that the latter should reopen its border to allow Gazans to work in Israel. Thus, Hamas wants Gazans to be able to earn a living in Israel while Hamas shoots rockets into the territory of the Jewish state. There appears to be no exit from this stalemate.
KOHA DITORE: Reports from Gaza and Israel show the grief that both sides suffer, however the impact of news and photo reports of Palestinian civilians, mainly children, is huge on the public all around the world. Debates on this issue were sparked in Kosova as well, and they often lean toward religious interpretations. How should this war be seen?
Schwartz: The Israeli-Arab conflict, as shocking to ordinary sensibilities as it may be, is not about religion. It is about land. Hamas, as a branch of the fundamentalist Brotherhood, dresses itself in Islamic costume and employs Islamic vocabulary to present the war as a conflict between differing believers, but it has never been that. In the past, the most extreme Palestinian advocates, such as Wadi Haddad, Georges Habash, and Nayef Hawatmeh, were Orthodox Christians, not Muslims. The Arab and other Orthodox and Catholic clergy in Jerusalem have been anti-Israel historically. Yasir Arafat was a pro-Soviet leader of atheist bent.
Hamas has argued that Palestine was an eternal Islamic waqf or endowment and cannot be alienated from Islam by the establishment of the Jewish state. But before the arrival of the British after the first world war, Palestine was ruled by the Ottoman Turks, not by Arabs. Until recently Turkey was allied with Israel. In this context, Hamas propaganda appears false.
KOHA DITORE: However, there was no institutional stand in Kosova on this issue. Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi posted on his Facebook page a message of admiration for the Jewish leaders that supported Kosova during its war, while the opposition movement "Vetëvendosje" [Self-Determination – VV] issued a statement condemning the killings of Palestinian civilians and appealing for an institutional stand of support for them. What is your opinion – should there be such a positioning?
Schwartz: Kosovar Albanians should not, in my view, become involved in endorsement of Hamas, but like anyone else should contribute to sincere peacemaking efforts. Unfortunately, at present it is hard to imagine what such initiatives would involve. I find it interesting that both Thaçi and VV come to this issue from a contradictory background. The Islamist so-called Justice Party (PD) is a member of the PDK coalition [led by Thaçi], while Albin Kurti [head of VV] has, in the past, spoken in support of Israel.
KOHA DITORE: Should Kosova recognize Palestine, and vice versa?
Schwartz: Kosovars should be aware that the Palestinian state has enjoyed a good relationship with Serbia, and that the Palestinians have given no sign of solidarity with Kosova. In 1999, Slobodan Milošević was invited to celebrate the Orthodox Christmas in January 2000 in Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank, by the Palestinians, but was informed by the Israelis that if he attempted to travel through Israel he would be arrested and handed over to the Hague Tribunal.
Nevertheless, other regional states, including Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia as well as Serbia, have relations or have initiated a process of recognition toward both Israel and the Palestinian state. If one believes, as I do, in an eventual "two-state solution" recognizing Palestinian sovereignty alongside that of Israel, then there should be no impediment to Kosova seeking relations with both. But recognition of a Palestinian state would not imply recognition of Hamas domination over Gaza so long as Hamas refuses to recognize the legitimacy of Israel.
KOHA DITORE: Is there reason for Kosovars to be "angry" with the stand of Palestinian diplomacy so far towards Kosova?
Schwartz: Considering the warm relations of Serbia with the Palestinians, and the indifference of the Palestinians to the Kosovar struggle for freedom, I think there should be considerable resentment of the Palestinian position on Kosova.
KOHA DITORE: On the other side, an Islamic political party [in Kosova], LISBA [the "Islamic Movement to Unite"], called for protests in Prishtina in support of the Palestinian people, and the Islamic organization "Muslim Youth Forum" called the Muslims of Kosova, not all Kosovars, to support Palestinians, in the war "against Muslims there". How do you see such an approach?
Schwartz: I think this agitation reflects the penetration of the Muslim Brotherhood in Kosova.
There is no "war against Muslims" in Israel or Gaza. More than 1.5 million Israeli Arabs have full citizenship rights, including a right to vote and elect their representatives to the Israeli parliament (Knesset). The Haram-i-Sharif or Temple Mount in Jerusalem remains under the control of an Islamic waqf. The Israeli government subsidizes shariah courts for Muslim Arabs and finances training of judges to serve in them, through Islamic educational institutions, at one of which I have lectured on Sufism in the Balkans. If Israel wished to wage war on Muslims it would presumably do so on the territory it controls fully.
KOHA DITORE: Since the timing of this interview corresponds with the latest posting on Facebook by a Kosovar Albanian commander of ISIS in Syria, Lavdrim Muhaxheri, where he is seen beheading a young man, I would like to ask for your opinion on the large number of Albanian recruits from Kosova, Macedonia and Albania that join these organizations. How do you explain it and how do you see its end? Is there a real danger of further Islamic radicalization of, particularly, young Albanians?
Schwartz: I have wondered how many individuals have left the Balkan area to participate in ISIS. There has been much discussion of the involvement of Albanians in this terrorist organization but there is a lack of reliable figures.
Certainly, it is alarming to observe the participation of Albanian Muslims in such a dangerous and disreputable campaign. I hope it will end soon and that if they return to Kosova, Macedonia, and Albania such fanatics will be stopped from launching terrorism in their homelands. Kosova authorities are committed to preventing such an outcome.
I think this participation, like the previously-mentioned demonstrations, reflects the infiltration of the Muslim Brotherhood among Albanians. Every Sunni Muslim in the world who is old enough to pay attention to events is horrified by the massacres in Syria. The failure of the West, and especially of the U.S., to act against the bloodthirsty dictatorship of Bashir Al-Assad opened up a void which ISIS and other radical Wahhabi groups, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, have filled. The West refused to identify and assist moderate opponents of Al-Assad, but the radicals were ready and willing to fight and die to overthrow Al-Assad. Now they have turned on the Shia-led government in Iraq.
Albanian Muslims have enough problems facing them in the Balkans. The effort in Macedonia to portray Albanians as jihadists, and the unfortunate, immature reaction of some young Albanians in embracing jihadist rhetoric, is nearer to home and more threatening to the Albanians than the war in Syria or the situation in Iraq. The same may be said of continued Serbian aggression north of Mitrovica.