A prominent Egyptian scholar named Youssef Ziedan urged Muslims to question their stance towards Jews and Israel in an interview on Egyptian CBC television on December 30.
Ziedan is described as “one of Egypt’s most highly respected scholars on Arabic and Islamic studies.” He is the director of the Manuscript Center and Museum. He is also a university professor and author of over 50 books, including Azazeel, which was published in 15 languages and won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
During the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ziedan’s book, “Arabic Theology,” got him in trouble. In February 2013, he was charged with blasphemy because he alleges in the book that Judaism, Christianity and Islam come from a single source.
Ziedan said that Muslims need to think about their current attitudes towards “the Jewish question,” pointing out that there are hadiths adopted from Jewish and Christian traditions. By making that observation, he is arguing that his view is not a violation of Islam as his opponents claim. Ziedan even went so far as to talk about “the so-called Middle East problem, which I do not consider to be a problem at all.” He attributes the conflict to ignorance, “stupidity,” indoctrination and close-mindedness.
“We were indoctrinated at school” and given a “system of ready-made answers,” Ziedan says.
“It has become a common trade, benefiting all our politicians. Any politician who wants to gain popularity curses Israel, but when he comes to power, he has no problem with Israel,” he said.
Ziedan’s statement might be indicative of a larger trend in the Arab world, particularly since the Arab Spring.
There aren’t major signs of a change in overall attitude towards Israel and Jews, but the protests across the region show that the populations are blaming their problems on their leaders instead of outside influences. In each case where there was an uprising, the rulers accused their opponents of playing into the hands of the anti-Islam conspiracy of the Zionists. And in each case, it failed to dissuade the opposition.
The Syrian regime is an example of one government that has played the “Jewish conspiracy” card and has been disappointed by the result.
In 2011, shortly after the Syrian uprising began, Assad and his allies tried to provoke Israel into an armed conflict on Nakba Day, hoping to turn the population’s focus towards an external enemy. It failed. The protests against Assad continued to intensify and there was no outbreak of anti-Western fervor that his regime could capitalize on.
As the revolution escalated and turned into a civil war, the Palestinian population in Syria turned against Assad despite his years of sponsorship of Palestinian terrorism. When the regime tried to remind the Palestinians of his support for their cause, one Palestinian from a refugee camp said, “We will not accept to be a bargaining chip for the Syrian regime.”
The regime deployed Ahmed Jibril, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command to rally support. He called for a united front against Israel and Palestinian protestors threw rocks at him and shouted at him for trying to take advantage of them. Clashes began between the Palestinians that support the Syrian rebels and the PFLP-GC terrorist group.
The point here isn’t that the Arab world (and the broader Muslim world) is having a revolution in their thinking towards Israel, Jews and the West. The point is that they are becoming aware that their rulers are manipulating the Palestinian and anti-Israel cause for political purposes.
This is what Egyptian Armed Forces commander General El-Sisi was talking about when he boldly declared that the Muslim world needs to revise its thinking. Instead of blaming the Muslim world’s troubles on an anti-Islam conspiracy by Zionists, General El-Sisi and Youssef Ziedan are looking inward.
El-Sisi said: “Religious discourse is the greatest battle and challenge facing the Egyptian people, pointing to the need for a new vision and a modern, comprehensive understanding of the religion of Islam—rather than relying on a discourse that has not changed for 800 years.”
Again, negative attitudes towards Jews and Israel won’t change for a long time. The first step is critical thinking and skepticism about anti-Semitic and anti-Western propaganda. And we are seeing that first step, albeit a baby step, being taken now.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.