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The Sheikh Said: Go Out and Vote

Nesya Shemer
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An Israeli Arab woman casts her vote in Kafr Qassem, September 17, 2019.
An Israeli Arab woman casts her vote in Kafr Qassem, September 17, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod
Nesya Shemer

The Joint List’s enormous achievement in the last election was made possible by a rise in Arab voter turnout, which jumped from 49 percent in the previous election in April to 63 percent in September. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s incitement against the Arab community apparently played a role. Statements like “Arabs are going to the polls in droves” and “the Arabs want to destroy us,” like his effort to pass a law allowing cameras in polling stations, caused Arabs to get out and vote.

But it’s not just ordinary voters who mobilized to raise the turnout rate. Surprisingly, religious leaders in the Arab world also dedicated themselves to this task.

In August, not long before the September 17 election, Sheikh Prof. Ahmed al-Raissouni, head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, issued two religious rulings, or fatwas. One permitted Muslims throughout the world to visit Jerusalem – something that had previously been forbidden because it constituted a form of recognition of Israel’s occupation regime. The second urged Arab Israelis not to boycott the election.

These rulings sparked a flood of responses in the Arab world, both because of the ideological revolution they entailed and because of Raissouni’s importance. It appears that a major ideological shake-up is happening among Muslim clerics today.

The International Union of Muslim Scholars is the organization that unites the largest number of Muslim scholars. More than 90,000 Muslim clerics, both Sunni and Shi’ite, belong to it. It was founded in 2004 by Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, who served as its head until 2018.

Qaradawi was born in Egypt in 1926 and now lives in Qatar. He’s considered the greatest religious scholar in the Muslim world, as well as the most popular and influential arbiter of Islamic law.

On Israel, he has hard-line views: He sees it as an illegitimate occupying state that oppresses the Palestinians, and which must therefore be fought. Because of these views, Hamas has viewed Qaradawi as its official arbiter of religious law ever since the death of the organization’s founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

A year ago, Qaradawi announced his resignation as president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, due to his advanced age. Raissouni was elected to replace him.

Raissouni, who was born in Morocco in 1953, is a professor specializing in Islamic law as well as a cleric who belongs to his country’s largest Islamist party, Justice and Development. The two rulings cited above, which he issued after becoming the union’s president, are diametrically opposed to Qaradawi’s previous rulings on these issues.

For religious Muslims living in Israel, participating in elections isn’t self-evident. Between the 1992 election and that of 1996, the local Islamic Movement faced an internal schism between those who favored participating in elections and those who opposed it. Ultimately, this led the movement to split in two. The southern faction, led by Sheikh Abdallah Nimr Darwish, favored participating in elections, while the northern faction, headed by Sheikh Ra’ad Salah, opposed it.

Both sides consulted Qaradawi, who ruled that participating in elections constituted recognition of the State of Israel and its institutions, and was therefore forbidden. Hamas also supported Salah’s position.

But despite this ruling by Qaradawi – the greatest religious scholar of his generation – Darwish, who founded the Islamic Movement, decided that the southern faction should participate in elections. He even set up a party to do so: the United Arab List.

Qaradawi refrained from criticizing Darwish publicly and said that Israeli Arabs could, just barely, and on a one-time basis, be permitted to represent themselves in the Knesset to protect their own interests, in keeping with the Islamic legal principle that “necessity makes the forbidden permissible.” But some time later, he rescinded this permission.

Qaradawi’s approach to Muslim minorities participating in American and European elections was completely different. He ruled that they had a religious obligation to vote, form parties and do anything they could to improve the status and rights of their countries’ Muslims.

This was in line with Qaradawi’s vision of the role Muslim minorities should play in the West: that they must reach a position where they can influence Western society from within and advance Muslim interests in those countries and worldwide. “We shouldn’t abandon the field to the sole influence of the Jewish lobby,” he wrote.

His ultimate goal was to conquer the West through peaceful means. “Islam has already conquered Europe twice, and the time has come for Muslims to return to Europe for a third time,” he said.

So why didn’t he encourage Israel’s Muslim minority to secure its rights through politics? The reason is that he defined these minorities differently. Europe’s Muslim minority migrated there, whereas Israel’s Muslim minority is native. Thus Israeli Arabs can’t actually be considered a minority, because they are the original owners of the land, which was occupied.

He defined Israel as a country at war with the Muslim world (dar al-harb in Arabic), and therefore the conditions for cooperating with the majority didn’t apply to its Muslim minority as they did in other non-Islamic countries.

The religious ruling Raissouni issued a month before the last election, in which he urged Israeli Arabs to go out and vote, represents a sharp turn from complete non-recognition of Israel and its institutions to adoption of the pragmatic position taken by the Islamic Movement’s southern faction, which favors integrating into state institutions. In an interview with a French newspaper, Raissouni explained his position by saying that Israeli Arabs must protect their rights and interests, and boycotting the elections won’t help them to do so.

But beyond the Arab community’s interest in protecting its rights, the subtext of this ruling is that the Muslim world’s largest organization and its leader have recognized the existence of the state of Israel, its laws and its institutions.

Another person who signed this fatwa was the well-known Muslim religious scholar Dr. Nasser al-Din al-Shaer. He is closely identified with Hamas and even served as deputy to Ismail Haniyeh, the former Hamas prime minister and the organization’s chief in Gaza who currently heads Hamas’ political wing worldwide.

Thus it’s possible to see how religious law in Islam (and not only in Islam) is a product of changing circumstances. When faced with the data showing the growing integration of Israeli Arabs in all walks of life, even religious rulings change accordingly.

Dr. Nesya Shemer teaches in Bar-Ilan University’s department of Middle East history.