April 3, 2024 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 589

Challenging The Dominant Radical Narrative Preached In Mosques Across The U.S. Regarding The Israel-Hamas War

April 3, 2024 | By Mansour Al-Hadj*
Palestinians, United States | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 589

In the aftermath of Hamas's October 7, 2023 attack on Israel, in which 1,200 people were killed and hundreds were abducted, I have reviewed and analyzed hundreds of Friday sermons delivered by imams and preachers in mosques and Islamic institutions across the United States. By doing so, I was hoping to understand how these religious leaders framed the attack, Israel's response, and the subsequent U.S. reaction. I also sought to understand the narratives they have adopted, promoted and amplified, along with their proposals for resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Interestingly, almost all the sermons seemed to share similar themes in their framing of the attack, amplifying a single narrative which justifies[1] Hamas's attack[2] as a legitimate[3] act[4] that is based on the command of Allah and the teachings of the prophet Muhammad. Therefore, they did not condemn or hold Hamas responsible for killing and abducting civilians, including children and the elderly, and sexually assaulting several women.[5]

They did not condemn[6] Hamas for starting a war, miscalculating[7] Israel's response, using the Gazans as human shields, or causing the death of thousands of Palestinians and the destruction of large areas of Gaza. Instead, in their sermons, these preachers and imams focused on highlighting the similarities between Hamas' attack and the wars[8] fought by the prophet and his companions, demonizing Israel, narrating historical antisemitic stories attributed to the prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam, such as the hadith about the stones and the Gharqad Tree, and citing verses from the Quran that characterized Jews as corrupt,[9] treacherous, untrustworthy, and the killers of prophets.[10]

Moreover, they presented the conflict as part of an eternal[11] religious enmity[12] between Muslims and Jews that will ultimately end with the humiliating defeat of the Jews by Muslims and the liberation of Jerusalem and Palestine "from the river to the sea." Regarding U.S. support for Israel's right to defend itself and the sending of two aircraft carriers to the Middle East, some imams attributed the move to the antisemitic[13] conspiracy theory[14] that sees U.S. politicians and decision-makers as under the control of the Jews and the Zionist lobby.

I strongly disagree with their framing of the conflict and the promoted narrative for three reasons. Firstly, it is the declared narrative of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Hamas and their supporters that downplays and justifies Hamas's violations of Islamic concepts and principles in order to concentrate all efforts on attaining the ultimate goal of defeating Israel.

Secondly, these imams and preachers have disregarded, either due to their ideological bias or lack of knowledge, multiple interpretations of Quranic verses that offer different and opposing perspectives to their promoted framing and narrative.

Thirdly, the promoted narrative is the same old radical narrative, recycled for decades, that presents the Palestinians as victims, portrays the Jews as evil, insists on an all-or-nothing approach, lacks self-reflection, endorses the vicious circle of violence,[15] and rejects[16] peace and coexistence with Israel.

By challenging this narrative from within the Islamic perspective, I aim to demonstrate that this dominant narrative is a radical version promoted by Islamist groups, regimes, and organizations. I also hope that peace-loving, open-minded, and tolerant Muslims in the U.S. and around the world will question imams and preachers who portray Islam as a religion opposed to peace and coexistence, and who insist that it promotes hate, intolerance, and violence.

By profession, I am not an imam, but I could have pursued that career path with a Bachelor of Arts in Shari'a and Islamic Studies, along with attending a Quran memorization school for several years. During this time, I memorized dozens of chapters and Hadiths and learned how to lead prayers and deliver sermons. Drawing upon my background, expertise, and knowledge, I can confidently assert that Hamas's October 7 attack violated Quran 2:195, which states, "And spend in the way of Allah and do not throw [yourselves] with your [own] hands into destruction [by refraining]. And do good; indeed, Allah loves the doers of good."

Attacking civilians who are citizens of a country with superior military capabilities is a reckless act that disregards and endangers the precious lives of the people of Gaza. In shari'a classes, I learned that Prophet Muhammad prohibited the killing of children, women, and the elderly in wars. These commands are mentioned in multiple authentic Hadiths, in some of which the prophet even prohibited the destruction of trees.

Furthermore, another fundamental aspect of shari'a that all students of it learn is the importance of protecting and preserving human life, which is considered one of the five objectives of Sharia – a responsibility that Hamas has clearly failed to uphold. In fact, Hamas does not believe that protecting the lives of the people of Gaza is part of its responsibility. In an interview aired on Russia Today TV on October 27, 2023, Mousa Abu Marzouk, a member of the Hamas Political Bureau, stated that the tunnels in Gaza were built to protect Hamas fighters from airstrikes, not Palestinian civilians.[17]

The Quran instructs its readers to contemplate and engage in self-reflection during times of calamity, disasters, and adversity, possibly resulting from their wrongdoing, incompetence, or miscalculation, with the hope that these trials serve as a reminder to alter their course. Muslim imams and preachers worldwide consistently urge afflicted Muslims in war zones and in the aftermath of natural disasters to repent and amend their actions, referencing verses such as Quran 42:30, "And whatever strikes you of disaster – it is for what your hands have earned; but He pardons much." However, when it comes to the current war, these imams and preachers have not considered applying this verse to Hamas or the Gazans for resorting to violence, where they could have employed non-violent means, as if the divine wisdom does not apply to them.

Why would they not consider Quran 24:11: "Consider it not a bad thing for you. Nay, it is good for you," to suggest that perhaps the divine wisdom and the hard-learned lesson from the deaths of thousands of Palestinians and the destruction of Gaza is for them to abandon violence once and for all and give peace a chance?

Often and rightly so, these religious figures express their frustration with the injustices occurring worldwide, particularly against innocent Palestinian women and children who have been unjustly killed. I fully agree that oppression, injustice, and cruelty, whether against humans or animals, must be condemned universally. However, these figures often exhibit selectivity and bias by overlooking and downplaying heinous crimes committed by Muslims against Christians, Jews, and minorities, such as the enslavement of thousands of Yazidi women and children. In fact, they have not even acknowledged, let alone consoled, the families of the 1,200 individuals killed by Hamas or the relatives of those kidnapped, despite the Quran's clear injunction (4:104): "If you should be suffering – so are they suffering as you are suffering, but you expect from Allah that which they expect not. And Allah is ever Knowing and Wise."

Ironically, while claiming to advocate for justice, their proposed model of justice is problematic, particularly when it involves Jews. Regrettably, many of these U.S.-based Muslim imams consider the mass killing of all the Jewish men of the tribe of Banu Qurayza, the enslavement of their women, and the confiscation of their property by Prophet Muhammad and his companions as a just punishment.

They do not even dare to question why all the men, women, and children are punished for the alleged crime of betraying a tribal alliance forged with Prophet Muhammad, a decision likely made by the head of the tribe. Another flawed model of justice they often proudly cite is Prophet Muhammad's deployment of his army and the expulsion of the entire Jewish tribe of Banu Qaynuqa' after a few men allegedly assaulted a Muslim woman and killed a Muslim man.

I do understand that many of these imams and preachers feel helpless and saddened by the death and destruction unfolding in Gaza, and some genuinely seek ways to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people. In my view, this cannot be achieved by demonizing[18] Jews,[19] inciting further violence, or echoing the same rhetoric that has perpetuated this conflict. Instead, as Quran 5:8 states: "Oh you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah, witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what you do," they should champion justice, peace, non-violence, and coexistence. Both Palestinians and Israelis are destined to coexist in that land, and advocating for these principles is essential for a sustainable solution.

I would also like to emphasize that rather than amplifying Muslim Brotherhood propaganda by demonizing Arab regimes that have chosen peace and normalized relations with Israel, or continually calling for divine intervention[20] to annihilate the Jews, or reiterating baseless prophecies of an inevitable holy war between Muslims and Jews, it would be more beneficial to spend time preaching about the beauty of diversity, multiculturalism, and coexistence. People from all over the world, with different beliefs, histories, and cultures, are living in harmony in the United States – an example from which the Palestinians can learn a great deal.

A fundamental aspect of the responsibility of religious leaders is to provide hope, guidance, and solutions to those who are suffering, rather than endorsing practices and actions that perpetuate harm. Therefore, when Hamas leaders advocate[21] on television channels from luxurious hotel rooms in Qatar or Europe for following the examples of resistance in Algeria and Vietnam, where millions have perished, it is incumbent upon wise religious leaders to offer alternative examples of nations and communities that have achieved similar objectives with fewer casualties. Examples such as South Africa, India, and the struggle of African Americans in the U.S. have utilized non-violent means to achieve their goals, serving as more constructive models for achieving change.

Certainly, people who dare to challenge this radical narrative, whether they be imams, preachers, or other open-minded Muslims, will inevitably face marginalization. They may be labeled as traitors, unbelievers, or even Zionists by the Muslim Brotherhood and their ideological allies for daring to expose their attempted monopoly of Islam – a characteristic shared by all intolerant, violence-loving radical Islamist groups.

Scholars from the four schools of Islamic Jurisprudence once taught their respective jurisprudence inside the Grand Mosque in Makkah, each surrounded by their students in different parts of the mosque. This historical practice serves as a clear reference to the diversity inherent within Islam. This example should serve as an inspiration and reminder for Imams and preachers in the U.S., who, unlike their counterparts in other parts of the world, enjoy the freedom of expression. They should feel empowered to challenge the prevailing radical narrative from an Islamic perspective and advocate for a peaceful, tolerant, and humanistic interpretation of Islam.

The Quran and Sunnah offer comprehensive guidance for peace-loving, courageous, and sincere religious leaders to advocate for peace. This is exemplified by the significance of "Salam," meaning peace in Arabic, as both an attribute of Allah (Al-Salam) and the root of the word Islam. Promoting peace not only aligns with the true essence of Islam but also represents a noble pursuit aimed at securing stability and a brighter future for the Palestinians. This stands in stark contrast to the efforts of those who propagate hate, endorse violence, and empower pro-violence groups, actions that only serve to prolong the suffering and anguish of the Palestinian people.

*Mansour Al-Hadj is Director of the MEMRI Project for Reform in the Arab and Muslim World.


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