A roundtable discussion on the subject of "Religion and Politics" took place under the auspices of the Palestine-Israel Journa l in Jerusalem on April 11, 1994. It was chaired by two members of our Editorial Board, with the participation (in order of appearance) of experts from the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities, all Jerusalemites.
Sa'id Jamjum studied at the American University of Beirut, Bir-Zeit University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is currently dean of AI-Umma Teachers' College in Beit Hanina; Dr. Menachem Lorberbaum teaches Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University and the Shalom Hartman Institute and is a member of the Board of Directors of the religious peace movement Netivot Shalom; Dr. Bernard Sabella, whose family claims to go back some ten centuries in Jerusalem, chairs the Department of Social Studies at Bethlehem University. He studied in the USA and is a member of the Latin Roman Catholic Church.
The discussion was chaired by Prof Galit Hasan-Rokem who teaches Hebrew literature and Jewish folklore at the Hebrew University and chairs the Folklore program. A poetess, she is also a founding member of Reshet, the women's peace network in Israel, and of Jerusalem Link, a joint venture of Palestinian and Israeli women; and by Daoud Kuttab, a Jerusalem-based Palestinian journalist and documentary film producer who is President of the Jerusalem Film Institute and a member of the Board of Directors of the Hakawati Theater in Jerusalem.

Galit Hasan-Rokem:
The first topic is that of religion and politics in the context of the original concept of fundamentalism as a way of interpreting text. Can you elaborate, in the context of your own creed or the neighboring ones, on the development of fundamentalism from the interpretation of texts to political extremism. If we take, for instance, the Koran, is it necessarily a text of conflict with other religions?
Sa'id Jamjum: First of all, I would like to say something about the term fundamentalism, which nowadays casts a negative shadow and is associated with extremism. To my understanding, the word in Arabic, Usulia, means fundamentals: starting from Wahabism in Saudi Arabia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there has been a call for going back to the sources. So to modem Muslim thought, "fundamentalism" is not considered negative, since it is a kind of a must to go back to the sources after long ages of ignorance. The present call of all those Muslim movements which are appearing in different parts of the world is primarily to go back to the sources of Islamic religion.
As for interpreting the text, in Islam we feel that there is no text to be interpreted as such. The four sources of the Islamic religion are the Koran; the Shariya, pertaining to every aspect of life and to politics in particular; the Sunna, the tradition, the consensus; and the opinion of the learned Muslims. During the time of the Prophet we had only two sources, the rest coming in later generations. For centuries those eligible to promulgate learned Islamic law according to Muslim standards did not exist. We cannot say that reading the text literally is a problem in Islam. The recent revival of Muslim thought came in response to the Europeans occupying the lands of the Muslim world culturally as well as politically, as a kind of reaction to Western domination. This representation of Islamic thought and law is connected with the establishment of an Islamic state, seeing Islam today in the light of early interpretations as a comprehensive global view of life. What we now call extremism or fundamentalism embodies this overall vision of building a state based on Islamic law. In Iran it already exists. In Egypt, in Algeria, in the West Bank and in Jordan, we have the same trend.
Galit Hasan-Rokem: Where is the room for other religions in this ideological structure of the Islamic state?
Sa'id Jamjum: According to the Muslims, the Muslim religion superceded, took the place of, all the heavenly religions - that is, Judaism and Christianity. The people of these two religions are called the People of the Book. They are treated with full respect by Muslims, and the prophets of the Jews and the Christians are also holy to Muslims.
Galit Hasan-Rokem: But they do not have a role in the political structure. Sa'id Jamjum: Yes, these two religions have rights like any Muslim, and they are El Dhimmi, those [of] the Book.
Galit Hasan-Rokem: Something like "acceptables," "tolerated."
Sa'id Jamjum: It is a sort of covenant. They have all the rights, civil and religious, except that they are considered out of place in official positions. So as to ensure equality, they pay Jissya, a kind of tribute to the state because they do not take part in the army during Jihad. I believe, although I am not a very religious person, that there is no racism in Islam. Why? Because one of the main principles is that it came to all peoples of the world, and it proved its success in that I think it comprises the largest number of people in the world from China to North Africa.
Galit Hasan-Rokem: When you read the experiences of people who have lived as dhimmi in Muslim states in the past, they did not exactly feel equal.
Sa'id Jamjum: Of course, equality as such does not exist because there is a difference of faith. But what we talk about is equal rights in general. Even in contemporary America, the biggest democracy in the world, Protestants and Catholics are not equal.
Galit Hasan-Rokem: They are equal according to the law.
Sa'id Jamjum: In Muslim rule, as far as I know, they are equal in everything before the law.
Menachem Lorberbaum: You asked about fundamentalism, and first I must wonder whether it is really a good category for religious or social interpretation of the Jewish religion. Fundamentalism is a Christian term. It is not a Jewish term and Judaism has no real equivalent for it. The real issue in the Jewish tradition is, first of all, that fundamentalism as literalist interpretation is not operative vis-a-vis the Bible. The mainstream Jewish religion from the tenth or eleventh century on has no literalism in interpretation of the Bible.
It is important to note that there is no self-evident transition from strict adherence to the law or conservative interpretation of the law on the one hand, and a political agenda on the other. The ultra-Orthodox (Haredim) are the typical example of that. They are officially an anti-political movement. Of course, since the creation of the state of Israel they have been politicized, but officially they adopt an anti-political doctrine. The nationalist religious groups - let's take Gush Emunim, for example - are not operating within a fundamentalist frame of mind. What is motivating them is a vision of history and an idea that they are living in Messianic times. They will therefore primarily argue that they can operate as if there is no realism in politics, and secondly, as if they do not have to adhere to the moral claims of others.
Fundamentalism is not really the main point although you might find a similarity in the frame of mind between them and certain Christian fundamentalist groups.
Galit Hasan-Rokem: Doesn't the way the nationalist religious politicians relate to the holy sites seem to you fundamentalist?
Menachem Lorberbaum: No. I do not think so. The case at point would be the ultra-Orthodox. They have no fewer claims about holiness of places or land or certain places of worship but they do not interpret it into a political agenda. What seems to be at work here is a certain perhaps unholy matrimony or psychological connection between religion and nationalism.
I was wondering, Said, whether the kind of picture which you gave of Islam - which is also the one that foreigners to Islam like myself, outsiders who learned about Islam from books and from people, have usually been taught - is not necessarily a return or a call to return to the status quo of the Middle Ages between, for example, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. For me, the experience of the Enlightenment in the West has transformed the way I see religion. A return to the model of the Middle Ages is no longer possible, nor even desirable, from my point of view. Is there in Islam today this kind of voice, a parallel to the liberal project of interpreting religion, of a critical commitment to religion, that one finds among liberal Protestants and liberal Catholics, and liberal Jews for that matter?
Sa'id Jamjum: Yes. I do not feel that what we see in Iran and elsewhere is what is advocated in the law of Islam. I would like to stress that people make Islam what it is. Islam, when it was applied during the time of the Prophet and the Caliphs, was less interested in beards and dress and men not shaking hands with women, while neglecting the important things dealing with life, which are progressive. I am not afraid of Muslims who speak of working with the text and coming up with innovations to fit our present society. So the problem here is the people who are going to apply the principles of Islam. In history we can find proof of this. If the whole interpretation of Islam is progressive, then there is no danger of falling back into the Middle Ages. The problem now is in us, not in the religion.
Daoud Kuttab: But one of the problems is not so much in interpretation as in the basics, certainly of Islam, and to a certain degree in Judaism - the mingling or marriage or merger between religion and politics.
Sa'id Jamjum: In Islam they are one entity.
Daoud Kuttab: In Islam it is a comprehensive rule for society...
Sa'id Jamjum: Yes.
Daoud Kuttab: ... and not faith, but it claims to be a program for society in politics as well as in social life. Therefore, it is much different than in Christianity, for example, where, for the most part, there is a separation.
Bernard Sabella: First, I would like to say• something briefly on fundamentalism. I think the term itself is a very loaded one. It is not simply a politicization of Islam or Judaism by a certain political religious group, but also how the rest of the world views this phenomenon. We should change the term fundamentalism. We should allow different religious groups to be as "fundamentalist" as they want and we should try, in a sense, to judge the application of religious movements and their sincerity by how they deal with other groups in society. This applies to Muslim as well as Christian and Jewish groups.
Islamic "fundamentalism" has recently been under attack in the West, since the Iranian revolution, but if we apply the same set of standards of the Western media to our situation in Palestine and Israel, then we may be committing an error. The judgment of whether "fundamentalism" is good or bad should really be based on how it deals with the problems of its own community on the one hand, and how open and fair it is to the other groups with which it comes into contact.
Menachem Lorberbaum: As to Daoud's question, we have to remember that Israel is a secular country. It is a mistake to think of Israel as a "Jewish state," as if Israel were a Jewish religious state. It is true that the religious parties have a unique weight in Israel due to coalition issues.
Daoud Kuttab: What about the Law of Return?
Menachem Lorberbaum: It is exclusive, not religious. The real way to understand the Law of Return, in my opinion, is nationalist. Israel is a nation-state and it perceives of its nation as a wide entity. Of course, there is an important internal argument in Israel as to who exactly comes under the name Jew.
Daoud Kuttab: If it is a state of its people, then everyone who is Israeli should be eligible for the Law of Return.
Menachem Lorberbaum: I disagree. The way to understand the dynamics of Israel is that of a nation-state. Germany has a Law of Return too, and the issue is not religious.
Daoud Kuttab: Does the Law of Return apply also to non-Jewish Israelis or only to Jews?
Menachem Lorberbaum: I am not saying that this law does not treat non-Jewish citizens unequally. I think it does.
Daoud Kuttab: A person born in Israel, does he have a birthright?
Menachem Lorberbaum: The main point in the Law of Return was nationalist and not religious, although there is a certain overlap between them. But Israel is fundamentally a secular state. Secular does not mean that it is not a nation-state. And as a nation-state, yes, it gives preferential treatment first of all to the members of its nation.
Daoud Kttab: Who are the members of the nation?
Menachem Lorberbaum: The members of the nation are Jewish people, and Jewish self-understanding has a big argument over this subject. Secular Jews see it as a secular category of nation. Others see it as a religious category. The State of Israel does not see traditional Jewish law as its law because it is not a religious state. The religious and non-religious have not found a way to conduct a real dialogue in Israeli society.
Daoud Kuttab: Sa'id, in an Islamic context it is wonderful to talk about the justice of the Prophet and the Caliphates, but we are talking about the twentieth century. And when you talk to Islamists who speak about this comprehensive Islamic state, the first question is what is the model. The only model we know of is Iran which is a big mess.
Sa'id Jamjum: You are right. I myself am frightened of that model.
Galit Hasan-Rokem: So are we.
Sa'id Jamjum: I remain hopeful that the people who try to outline the new laws in an Islamic state will try to combine the very good things in Islam with modern conditions of life.
Galit Hasan-Rokem: My question about the utopia or the model is - is it not true to say that Christianity on the one hand and Islam on the other, see a vision that the whole world will be respectively Islamic or Christian? In their ideas, they are universal religions. If I understand the Jewish vision correctly, it does not claim universality.
Bernard Sabella: I grant you that in Christianity there is this view of saving souls. That is one of the purposes. That is the whole message of Christ. So it is a religion of salvation. But this is more descriptive of earlier times. I think there have been vast and rapid transformations even within the Catholic Church, where the perception now is that we have to be open to other religions, and to look at Islam and Judaism on their own terms and not on ours. I think this is an excellent thing. It also applies to Protestants, though there are some "fundamentalist" movements among Christians who would not speak to Muslims in dialogue and certainly not with Jews.
Therefore, I think we need to go back to some sort of re-education. My solution is that we can go back to our religious roots, but with the stress being on openness to other religious roots.
This is especially important to us here in this part of the world because, in this context, I cannot understand for example how a religious Jew or a religious Muslim or a religious Christian can kill others in the name of religion. There is a major failure of education when we get to this kind of situation.
Daoud Kuttab: How much of "Thou shalt not kill" applies to all people or does it apply only to certain people? And a just or unjust war, how does this relate to Islam, the Jihad, the martyrdom, the refusal to denounce innocent killing? Where is Islam in all this?
Menachem Lorberbaum: I agree totally with Bernard. A true inter-cultural dialogue can reconstitute our religious identity. One of the great possibilities we have in Israel and Palestine together is actually the unique situation where we live together. We are thrown by destiny together and we are destined to speak to each other. We have had models beforehand. How do we use them? How do we use them to make speech rather than guns the way we communicate with each other?
Daoud Kuttab: So you do not see that what is happening here regarding religion versus human rights of others is any different from what has been happening over the centuries?
Menachem Lorberbaum: No. I think that at a certain point - and I can speak for Judaism, I cannot speak for Islam or for Christianity - Jewish religious self-interpretation stopped because enlightenment and secular nationalism became the carriers of Jewish identity. Therefore, religion got pushed aside, remaining in the hands of people always interpreting it from a defensive point of view, out of a feeling that they are being threatened and may vanish one day. Religion has to gain a certain self-confidence in order to undergo the processes of self-interpretation.
Sa'id Jamjum: The problem here is not religious. I think most of us agree it is not a conflict between Islam and Judaism, or Islam and Christianity on the one hand, and Judaism on the other.
Bernard Sabella: It is nationalist.
Sa'id Jamjum: It is a purely political issue now between Israel and the surrounding Arab Islamic communities.
Daoud Kuttab: Yes. But religion is expected to provide the medicine. It promises its followers that it will be the savior, the healer, the reconciler. But the religions are not the healers. They add more oil to the fire. They are making a bad situation even worse. So Hamas and the Islamic Movement say all of Palestine is Islamic. Jews say this is all God's promised land. This is not a religious war, but people are using religion not to bring peace, but to make more wars.
Bernard Sabella: And Christians are too cowardly to take a stand that is ethically in keeping with the rights of people and with their own teachings. We are too cowardly. Accordingly, we tend to be apologetic and fence-sitters. Therefore, I think this heritage of Abraham is really a mythical heritage. It does not exist. There are three different religious groupings in this area. Each one of these religions has its own agenda and though this may be very pessimistic - I do not see that there is an agenda for a real dialogue.
Sa'id Jamjum: To my belief, the perspective is somewhat different. Islam and Muslims do not fight Israel because Israel is a Jewish state. Before the Zionist idea I do not remember that there were any negative attitudes or feelings towards the Jews. Now, too, the attitude of Hamas or other groups, like Iran, or Hizbullah, is not religious. It is not against Judaism.
Daoud Kuttab: The attitude of Hamas is not against Judaism?
Sa'id Jamjum: Not as such.
Daoud Kuttab: That is not true. In their leaflets they do not attack Israel. They attack the Jews.
Sa'id Jamjum: The Jews were attacked because they were associated with Zionism and because of the occupation of the Palestinian lands.
Galit Hasan-Rokem: In history there are cases where Jews were persecuted as Jews.
Sa'id Jamjum: In Islamic history?
Galit Hasan-Rokem: As a minority in Yemen, for example.
Sa'id Jamjum: I never heard of this. You have more persecution of Muslim Shi'ites or other groups than of Christians, for example. Muslims and Arabs in general, are today not against Israel because of religion. The conflict is not against Jews. It is not against Judaism. Patriotic Arab leaders and Muslim sheiks were considered the vanguard of the fight against Western imperialism since the eighteenth century. If you go deep enough, you will see that the conflict here is an aspect of the Arab cause of religious fighting against a Western intruder.
Daoud Kuttab: Do you agree with the Hamas claim that Palestine is Islamic Wakf?
Sa'id Jamjum: Of course.
Daoud Kuttab: So this is a religious issue.
Sa'id Jamjum: As I told you, Muslims are the vanguard of the fight against the Westerners. For instance, there is no Jewish religious justification for Israel to be here.
Galit Hasan-Rokem: You are now discussing the right of existence of the state of Israel on a religious basis, so how can you say it is not a question of religion? You are putting the question of the existence of Israel in religious terms. According to what you said in the beginning, there is no place for Jews in the Islamic Wakf, in the Islamic state, except as subjects - and unequal subjects - because they are not to participate in the state system, etc.
Sa'id Jamjum: When Jews first came here, they did not come here as religious people. They came, according to modern international law, to the properties of others. This is the main problem.
Daoud Kuttab: On the issue of Judaism and the land, this land, where does Judaism stand? Is this Jewish land? How do you explain the interpretations of the "promised land," that this is the land of the forefathers and so on?
Menachem Lorberbaum: First of all, from all Jewish perspectives the land of Israel is seen as the promised land. The question is how does this view interpret itself politically, but it seems to me that there is no doubt, from a Jewish point of view, that Jews have a claim for sovereignty over this land. Daoud Kuttab: To define it, "this land" meaning the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean? The land east of the Jordan?
Menachem Lorberbaum: The exact borders are the subject of a lot of argument. If you take the Jewish Halacha (religious law) as the framework, you will find everything from saying that the limits are from Acre to Beersheva to the grandest promises in the Hebrew Bible claiming an area from the Euphrates to the Great Sea. From my point of view, the moral tragedy of the conflict between Jews and Arab Palestinians is the fact that they have two equal claims for sovereignty on the land, and I do no see this as a tragedy that cannot be recognized within religious terms.
We are all here together because we feel the pain of the situation. The question is the one that Bernard faced us with: how do we re-educate, how do we interpret, how do we force the good aspects of the tradition to be dominant.
Bernard Sabella: I am a Palestinian, but I want to bring in the Christian perspective on the land so as to complete the circle, or the triangle. In Christianity, the holy places are really not that important.
Galit Hasan-Rokem: Many wars were fought by Christians for them.
Bernard Sabella: Yes. But theologically, it is not the place, it is the person.
Daoud Kuttab: It is the soul.
Bernard Sabella: Therefore, the attention you pay to the Holy Sepulchre is very great, but you can have the Sepulchre without really coming to Jerusalem. In other words, the act of salvation is not limited to one place. Jerusalem could be the start of Christianity, but you can be in New York, or in New Delhi or Sydney and you can celebrate the resurrection of Christ with the same enthusiasm as you would celebrate it in Jerusalem. I do not see a real transformation in relations between the three religions but the hope in the long run is not religious. It is political and economic. If we can get this country, these two societies, to a point where people can live with a decent feeling in terms of a good standard of living, basic rights of education, health, welfare and security in their personal lives and in their homes - then we can learn to live side by side without these phenomena of violence and counter-violence. At that stage we can perhaps learn how to start to appreciate the religions of other peoples, and maybe to look at our own religions in a different perspective.
Daoud Kuttab: To close, I will put a question to both Sa'id and Menachem. Does the hope for the betterment of the people of the area lie in dereligionizing the area, or is the hope in making people more committed to their religion and more faithful to the goodness of their religion?
Menachem Lorberbaum: I would answer that it lies in both. I think de-emphasizing the role of religion in politics is a necessary condition for freedom of conscience and for dignity of people. At the same time, religion is not a passing episode in human culture. Therefore, marginalizing religion is not an option. Religion has to be reinterpreted so as to be a positive force in infusing morality and spirituality into people's lives.
Sa'id Jamjum: The scene from a religious and historical perspective would make me very pessimistic because the crux of the problem, again, is occupation, starting from 1948. Before Hamas and such extremists, ordinary Arabs, though Muslims, were not religiously oriented between 1948 and 1967. The whole issue was dormant.
After 1967, there were Fatah and the PLO which do not have a religious contour. They dominated the Palestinian street and the religious stream was very weak. In the present circumstances, on the other hand, I expect a very strong religious Hamas trend to continue and even to overcome the Fatah stream because the Islamic stream holds out a promise to the people which the secular Fatah did not fulfill. That is why the religious trend will not weaken. I suspect it will become much stronger.
Daoud Kuttab: What do you think? What would you like to see?
Sa'id Jamjum: I am looking at it from a historical perspective. I do not think that there is a solution without solving the main issue of occupation. Forget about what happened in 1948. There are Jews and Palestinians living in Palestine. The only solution, whether it is one democratic state or two separate states, is that we should have equality. Unless we grant equal rights to both sides, along with sovereignty and a feeling of identity, I think the Islamic trend will strengthen and there will be continuous bloodshed. Sometimes in other parts of the world bloodshed, as terrible as it is, has brought both sides to respect each other at the negotiating table and this has been beneficial. So I wish there will be peace but I am pessimistic.