The Procession of the Three Kings. Gdansk. Picture Credit: Agnieszka Pazdykiewicz/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Get religion or get lost

In an age of rising religious conflict, religious literacy is not an optional extra

Artillery Row

In the early 20th century, the numbers of Christians in the Middle-East were reduced greatly by the “unremembered” Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides. At that time, roughly 10 per cent of people living in the territory called Palestine were Christian, including about 25 per cent of Jerusalem. Today, through a combination of Islamist violence and Israeli discrimination, Christians comprise about one per cent of the population of the Palestinian Territories. This persecution continues to receive little media attention. Often eclipsed by the periodic intifadas and border wars, it is occasionally profiled by a specific act of brutality such as kidnapping or a murder. My first encounter with the beleaguered Palestinian Christian community came in 2007, when I visited with a group of MPs following the execution in Gaza of the Bible Society bookstore manager Rami Ayyad. A trip which disconcertingly involved a missile attack while at the Erez checkpoint. 

Few have sought to explain the theologically inspired aspects of the barbarism of 7 October, or its timing with Yom Kippur the holiest day in Judaism

Following the savagery of “Operation al-Aqsa Flood” on 7 October and Israel’s bloody response, the attention of the world is once again on the Gaza strip. With Hamas atrocities excused and defended by angry mobs in Western cities, and with universities resounding to chants of “death to Israel” and “gas the Jews”, scenes of hitherto unthinkable antisemitism have surprised and appalled many. But not me. During my advocacy work for persecuted Christian minorities, I had long been aware of the “red-green alliance” of leftists and Islamists. Neatly dividing the world into oppressed and oppressors, both groups are characterised by the paradox of claiming victimhood while seeking domination. 

As this intersectional confluence rolls on with evermore nasty protests, the prospects for peace via a two-state solution are slimming. With belligerent Iranian, Yemeni and Syrian proxies now being targeted by Israel, the prospects for regional peace and stability are also fading. Critically, although the spreading conflict has obvious political, economic, cultural and ethnic dimensions, in both source and nature – in both the “why” and the “how” it is being fought – it is religious. A fact which presents serious challenges for a secularly conditioned Western commentariat. With a few exceptions, journalists today are deeply religiously illiterate. Resenting the idea that religion still matters, or denying that the world is becoming more not less religious, their reporting is generally restricted to an atheistic worldview or motivated by fear of being violently attacked. For most mainstream media platforms and publications, this cognitive dissonance of reporting on things that are (often willingly) incomprehensible is well illustrated by the one-dimensional coverage of the evil perpetrated by Hamas.        

Few journalists have noted that, Hamas – an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (the Islamic Resistance Movement) – means “zeal” in Arabic, and means “violence” and “wrongdoing” in Hebrew (Gen 6:11, Psalm 7:16, Eze 7:11, Hab 1:3). Few have sought to explain the theologically inspired aspects of the barbarism of 7 October, or its timing with Yom Kippur the holiest day in Judaism, or Netanyahu’s “Amalek” framing of the invasion – a biblical reference to a spirit of undying envy and hostility towards Israel by descendants of Esau – those who forfeited their birthright to inherit the promised land. Still fewer have reported on Hamas’s desperation to scupper the success of the Abraham Accords which, by fostering interfaith dialogue had secured a series of agreements to normalise relations between Israel and several Arab states. Very few sought to unpack the Caliphate rational for Hamas urging Muslims in neighbouring states to “march to the borders and play their part in this historic juncture”, because clearly hardly any journalists had bothered to read the Hamas Charter (or covenant), first written in 1988 and revised in 2017, which explains the goals of the movement. 

The preamble of the 1988 charter provides perhaps the best summary of the core objective of Hamas, stating at the very outset: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” The charter directs the killing of Jews, drawing on a hadith (prophetic saying): “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: “O Moslem, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.” The 36 articles that follow are buttressed by quotes from the Quran and lessons of the Prophet Muhammed. Replete with antisemitic tropes, it blames Jews for various international conspiracies. In a 2014 essay in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, called the Hamas charter “a frank and open call for genocide, embedded in one of the most thoroughly antisemitic documents you’ll read this side of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

What Western journalism seems unable to grasp is that the occupation of land – the Caliphate – is central to Muslim identity

No doubt in response to post 9-11 condemnation, Hamas sought to reframe and sanitise their goals in a revised charter which states that the conflict is with Zionism, not Jews. However, it still delineates the Palestinian territory to be liberated as being from ‘the river (Jordan) to the sea (mediterranean). It also confers holy significance on the territory as a “waqf” or sacred “Islamic land”, especially Jerusalem of which all holy sites including Christian sites are stated as belonging to the Islamic Ummah – a theological concept of identity which is meant to transcend national, racial, and class divisions to unite all Muslims. Declaring Judaization to be “fundamentally null and void” the revised charter describes Israel as a “Zionist Project”  of colonial occupation – no doubt music-to-the-ears of woke Westerners. Paradoxically (or perhaps tactically?), while affirming an uncompromising “full and complete liberation of Palestine”, it also proposes a return to the state boundaries before the Six-Day War in 1967. Again paradoxically, although codifying Hamas’s commitment to violence, which it calls “armed resistance” by citing “divine laws” as justification, it also conflates Islamic law with other legal systems, for example:

Resisting the occupation with all means and methods is a legitimate right guaranteed by divine laws and by international norms and laws.

In a video interview in December 2022 senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar helpfully clarified these incongruities: 

The entire planet will be under our law, there will be no more Jews or Christian traitors… The entire 510 million square kilometres of Planet Earth will come under [a system] where there is no injustice, no oppression, no Zionism, no treacherous Christianity …

What Western journalism seems unable to grasp is that the occupation of land – the Caliphate – is central to Muslim identity. Without a clearly specified Islamic territory with Islamic jurisprudence, the religion is seen by many conservative adherents to lack legitimacy – which, if properly reported would explain the strategic displacement of Christians in places such as Nigeria, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, Bangladesh etc. Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister, Ziad Abu-Amr explains how Palestine magnifies this theology:

All Islamic groups, not only in Palestine but throughout the Muslim world, consider Palestine in its entirety as Muslim land, no part of which can be ceded under any circumstances. The establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza is therefore seen as sinful if it entails conceding the rest of Palestine to Israel, an illegitimate entity. For the Islamic groups, Palestine is not merely a Palestinian or an Arab problem, but an Islamic problem of concern to the entire Islamic nation; true Muslims are called upon to sacrifice lives and money to liberate every inch of the holy land.

As article 15 of the first Hamas charter states: “When an enemy occupies some of the Muslim lands, jihad becomes obligatory on every Muslim.” In seeing Muslim-land and once-Muslim-land as being forever Muslim-land, and (in the first charter) seeing all non-Islamic land as being pre-Islamic land, both Hamas charters affirm that the conflict is religious rather than nationalistic. A situation exacerbated by the shame or dishonour of “nakba” – the catastrophe of losing land to another religion with a claim to it, such as the Jews in Israel, or the Christians in Spain. Hence the general jubilation and emboldening of jihadists in Africa and Asia following the calamitous US-led withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. 

For solutions and stability, understanding the tectonic dynamics of religion and acknowledging the reality of the metaphysical are essential prerequisites

The territorial doctrine accords with the theology expounded by the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which was founded by Hassan al-Banna (to promote the tenets of Wahhabism, better known today as Islamism) and which had been active in the Gaza Strip since the 1950s, and had more recently been challenged to radicalise further by groups such as Islamic Jihad. In this vein, Hamas is influenced by the theology of Sayyid Qutb – a scholar who preached the impossibility of compromise between Islam and the world of ignorance (jahiliyya) – against which suicidal terrorism was advocated. A staunch antisemite, he is also considered by many to be the primary intellectual influence for the global Jihadism of recent decades, inspiring the violence of Al Qaeda, ISIS and many other terrorist groups. His theology is a simple call to Quranic purity and a return to the militaristic origins of Islamic conquest – essentially to enact a religious reformation. This means that all those who are kafir (an Arabic word meaning nonbeliever or infidel – plural: kuffar) should be converted, executed or subjugated to live as dhimmi – second-class citizens who, under Shariah Law, must pay the tax imposed on non-Muslims called the jizya. According to Qutb, political rulers who do not apply the rules of Islam, are kafir, even if they claim to be Muslims, and as such should be fought. Clearly incompatible with democracy or the modern state, this is the theological root-system of Hamas. Both al-Banna and Qutb were executed in Egypt, which explains why after a military coup to displace the Muslim Brotherhood, President Sisi’s Egypt refuses to open its border with Hamas-controlled Gaza. Another underreported religious factoid.

Regardless of the misapprehension of Western political apologists, and to the consternation of the Western media, the fact is that Hamas is an Islamic death cult which cannot be appeased, reasoned with or trusted. Seeing the West as a hideous sinful monstrosity, with America at its venal vanguard, it is part of a geo-political powerplay sponsored by the ayatollahs of Iran for whom the very existence of Jews is an offence against God – an offence heightened by the religious claims of Jews upon land deemed Muslim. In the middle of this war between the children of Issaac and the children of Ishmael are Christians, for whom the incendiary context is likely to herald even more persecution. This is bad news for all, both regionally and globally, because the depletion of religious diversity will only hasten an Islamist monoculture in which radicalism is more easily fuelled – and exported. 

For solutions and stability, understanding the tectonic dynamics of religion and acknowledging the reality of the metaphysical are essential prerequisites. The problem is that, after a century of secularisation in the West, both the transmitters and receivers of news are now largely mute to religion or frightened by its enduring influence. Addressing this deficit has to become a priority, especially for those charged with truthfully reporting what is happening. It was Wittgenstein who observed that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”. Without the ability or appetite to describe reality theologically and spiritually, Western thought-leaders will remain at best impotent to, and at worst complicit in more and more atrocities, because in the words of secular Jewish historian Jacob Howland

The only language that can hope to do justice to Evil is theological. Perhaps all that can be said of Hamas and the worldwide gang of Islamists is that their crimes and plans are Satanic: absolutely and completely demonic.

For Westerners apprehensive about wars and rumours of wars in 2024, while lacking a lexicon for the spiritual, all that remains is apathy or anxiety. To resolve this loss, at both an individual and institutional level – including in education systems, religious knowledge and literacy should be prioritised. For those responsible for reporting about what is actually happening in the Middle-East, this would be a very good New Year’s resolution.

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