“After people hear me preaching about collecting weapons from homes, they approach me anonymously and say, ‘You’ll be getting a bullet soon,’” Sheikh Mohammed Haleilah of the Al-Fatah mosque in the northern Israeli town of Majdal Krum recounts.
Haleilah is just one of a number of Israeli Muslim religious figures who are seeking to fill the vacuum left by government authorities in Arab towns and villages and help curb the rising crime in the Arab community through sermons, parlor meeting and public advocacy efforts.
Such activity comes at a price, but Haleilah is not deterred. “I’m not afraid of preaching and I’m angry at the sheikhs who don’t,” he says. “A generation of orphans has grown up here, and that needs to be stopped.”
On Friday afternoon, hundreds of men march to the central mosque in Kafr Qasem, a city northeast of Tel Aviv. They take off their shoes and gather on the lower level to recite verses from the Koran. Following the prayers, another Muslim leader, Sheikh Iyad Ammar, delivers an hour-long sermon on the wave of violence, and states explicitly: “Anyone who draws a weapon has no place in Islam.”
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Ammar says he is also committed to use his position in the community to preach against violence. “I choose passages from the Koran that appeal primarily to the minds of young people,” he explains. After the mosque empties out, he stops to speak with local residents, even approaching motorists on nearby streets.
When violence occurs in Kafr Qasem, the following morning local sheikhs take to the streets with megaphones to recite passages from the Koran, decrying the violence and calling on residents to get rid of their weapons.
With the recent wave of violence, residents say they consult with Ammar more frequently. “I come to talk to the sheikh in the middle of the week. It makes me feel stronger,” says Musa Isas. But another man identified as Fathi, whose son-in-law was shot two year ago, added that “faith helps but the police aren’t doing anything.” He warned that neglect of the issue will also ultimately affect Jewish communities in the country.
The women at Ammar’s mosque listen to his sermon via loudspeakers. They gather every Friday to talk about their fears over the next violent incident. “Despite the [gender] separation in prayer, the encounter on the street makes no distinction between genders and all of us are at risk,” says Asmahan Issa. Fatma Hamad adds: “When we hear about a murder, the entire house is paralyzed. We want to tell our children to be restrained and to calm their emotions when there is anger, and actually, it is during such times that we embrace religion.”
Despite the respect shown religious leaders, Ammar is also criticized for his stance. He was blasted on social media after he called for police to arrest those involved in firing weapons in the air at wedding celebrations. “The moment we mention the police, people accuse us of being collaborators,” he says, preferring to avoid discussions about law enforcement in an effort to earn the community’s trust.
One prominent Israeli Arab religious leader who has taken a stance against violence is Sheikh Ali Al-Danf, the chairman of the Islamic movement in the central Israeli town of Ramle. About a week and a half ago, he was shot and seriously wounded while on the way to a mosque for prayers. Three days later, another sheikh, Hassan al-Akram, and other religious leaders gathered outside the mosque and put together posters for a demonstration against violence. Al-Akram, who walked around the town to recruit residents to come to the demonstration, said everyone he spoke to agreed.
Back in Majdal Krum, Haleilah convenes parlor meetings on Fridays after prayers at the mosque for a group of five men. Every week they meet at another participant’s home. Here, too, the focus is on violence. One talks about how he had been threatened, another says that he is afraid to leave his home with his children.
Nasser Kassas says the stature of religious leaders has enabled residents of the town to express themselves on the issue. Mu’ata Haleilah said he feels like he is living in a firing range, but religious figures have even managed to reach out to secular residents, even if not everyone is sympathetic. He added: “People won’t go to a psychologist, but they will to an imam.”