Looking at the Middle East through the Lens of Ghandi

zilleLast Sunday, the arrival of another cold front tempted me to stay in bed, nurse my flu, and send apologies to the organisers of an event at Cape Town’s St George’s Cathedral.

I’m glad I didn’t. It turned out to be one of those occasions that remind us never to take for granted how far we have come in South Africa; to remember those who made it possible; and to keep their legacy alive.

Organised by Mahatma Ghandi’s grand-daughter Ela and her niece Uma Mesthrie, the event brought together Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians in an interfaith celebration of the man who began his tireless campaign for religious pluralism and amity in South Africa, and continued it in his mother country before he was assassinated by a religious fundamentalist.

Ghandi’s dream of Hindu and Muslim living in peace in a free India proved unattainable, and was superseded by a “two state solution”, which involved approximately 6 million Hindus and Sikhs migrating from Pakistan to India; and an almost equal number of Muslims relocating from India to Pakistan.

Yet, here we were, in one of the world’s most complex plural societies, honouring Gandhi’s vision of religious freedom in a common country. We were commemorating the centenary of the Mahatma’s departure from South Africa for the last time — on 18 July 1914 — a day that, four years later, would be the birthday of Nelson Rohlihlala Mandela, who would give Ghandi’s vision political content.

I wondered whether South Africa was the only country in the world to have nurtured the fathers of two nations — our own and India’s — who also happen to be the two most universally revered leaders of the 20th Century.

I reflected on the evolution of the first hominids on South African soil, and the responsibility we have inherited to remain at the forefront of evolution regarding ways in which humanity can live together in peace.

The keynote address by Ela Ghandi and speeches about peace building in a variety of religious idioms from Imam Rashied Omar, Rabbi Greg Alexander and the Dean of the Cathedral, Rev Michael Weeder, made me feel as warm inside as it was cold out.

Afterwards, back in bed to thaw, I read the newspapers, in print and on-line. Front pages world-wide were still dominated by investigations into the Ukrainian separatists who used Russian missiles to shoot down a civilian airplane, killing all 298 people on board.

There were also numerous reports about developments in the Middle East, birthplace of the three great Abrahamic faiths, whose representatives I had just heard speaking so movingly in the Cathedral.

In the lands of their forefathers, however, Abraham’s descendants, who all profess to believe in the same God, seemed to be waging war with each other on every front, not just in Gaza.

In the preceding two days, more than 700 people had been killed by the fighters of an organization that calls itself “Islamic State”, which is on a mission to achieve its own version of a “one state solution”: an Islamist Caliphate in Syria and Iraq as the basis from which to wage international Jihad.

I read about the thousands of Christians fleeing Mosul in Iraq, home to one of the oldest Christian communities on earth, after militants gave them a stark choice: convert, leave or die.

I read about the Shia Muslims in Tikrit who were not given the luxury of choice. More than 1,500 members of this Muslim minority have already died for not conforming to the most reductive and intolerant version of Islam.

And on the other bank of the Red Sea, in Sudan, I followed the case of Mariam Ibrahim’s reprieve, after being sentenced to death for refusing to convert from her mother’s faith, Christianity, to Islam. I learnt that she had been forced to give birth with her legs in shackles as a result of which her baby girl may be permanently disabled.

It must be stressed that South African Muslims, most of them Sunni, have condemned all these things, including the fundamentalism of organisations such as Islamic State in Iraq, Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabaab in Somalia.

Indeed, in my experience, South African Muslims reflect the essence of Islam through their leadership and influence in every sphere of our society. There is, for example, no humanitarian crisis in our country where you will not find Muslim organisations such as Gift of the Givers, Mustadafin and Nakhlistan, caring for their fellow human beings, irrespective of race, religion or origin.

But reading about events unfolding so far away, I understood anew why the conflict in the Middle East evokes such intense passion, and seems beyond rational analysis.

Which brings me back to Gaza. Last Sunday, while we were commemorating Gandhi in the Cathedral, the bloodiest battle thus far was unfolding in the besieged enclave, claiming 99 Palestinian and 13 Israeli lives.

If the descendants of two brothers, Abraham’s sons Ishmael and Isaac, cannot solve their differences, who on earth can be expected to?

So I escaped into social media, hoping to bury myself in queries about street lights, potholes and toilets. But all I found was a deluge of “hate-tweets” rejecting the DA’s statement calling for a cessation of hostilities and a return to negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The trolls demanded that I choose a side.

Maajid Nawaz, author of the book “Radical: my Journey out of Islamist Extremism”, was correct when he noted that the Israel-Palestine conflict provokes one of those recurrent debates where “almost everyone, everywhere becomes hysterical, tribal and mutually nasty from the offset.

The voices of those seeking a peaceful resolution to this conflict are not only drowned out (for that would be a luxury) but are actively hounded by all sides as insufficiently aware of ‘the truth’.”

Fundamentalists on both sides of the conflict need and feed off each other in order to ramp up, and rationalize their own extremism.

But there is another reason for the bombardment on my twitter timeline. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is what we call a “wedge” issue in politics. It can be used to divide people who are otherwise on the same side.

Our political opponents especially love those wedge issues they can use beneath a veneer of morality, to divide the DA and tempt me into an intemperate response. Fortunately, having fallen into several troll traps before, I have at last learnt to avoid them.

In the days that followed, we read about the mounting death toll in Gaza, including the annihilation of entire families. We read about the disproportionate civilian casualties among the Palestinians. Hamas says this is because civilians are being indiscriminately targeted.

Israel vows it is trying to prevent civilian casualties and accuses Hamas of launching its rockets from mosques, hospitals and schools, anticipating civilian deaths in order to bolster international outrage against Israel. For every allegation, there was an equal and opposite rebuttal.

And in the middle of it all, another magic South African moment: an article on the front page of the Cape Times under the headline “Muslim, Jewish pupils form society promoting tolerance and education”.

The article was about “pupils from two city schools, one Jewish and the other Muslim, [who] have come together to form an after-hours organisation promoting religious education and tolerance”. And, we read, this group is “expanding exponentially” as pupils from other schools seek to join it. They plan to meet for discussions twice a term and are making arrangements to visit a church, mosque, synagogue, temple and other places of worship.

The vision of Ghandi and Mandela was indeed being kept alive by a new generation of South Africans, as tensions were mounting on all fronts — including inside the DA.

In preparation for what I expected to be a tense Parliamentary caucus meeting last Thursday, I was interested to read former DA Leader, Tony Leon’s fortnightly column in Business Day where he quoted renowned US orientalist Bernard Lewis who asked: “What is the conflict about? Is it about the size of Israel or about its existence?”

“If the issue is about the size or borders of Israel, then it is not easy, but it is possible to solve in the long run and to live with in the meantime. But, if the issue is the existence of Israel, then clearly it is insoluble by negotiation. There is no compromise between existing and non-existing. And no conceivable government of Israel is going to negotiate on whether the country should or should not exist.”

The DA caucus meeting showed, yet again, that we can talk and listen rationally to each other about things that cause people to kill each other elsewhere in the world. It was particularly encouraging to record our areas of agreement:

  • All of us believe that human life is sacrosanct, and that any violent death anywhere diminishes us all;
  • None of us believes in selective moral outrage;
  • All of us agree that the DA’s foreign policy must be consistent, and promote both human rights, as well our country’s interests;
  • None of us will have any truck with fundamentalism of any kind;
  • All of us believe in a negotiated two-state solution for Israel-Palestine, where Israel has the right to exist, in peace, side-by-side with a free Palestine;
  • None of us believes that events in the Middle East should be allowed to undermine our historic project of demonstrating that a one-State solution is possible in historically divided societies;
  • All of us believe that this will only be achieved if every South African is free to define their own identity, including their religion, and exercise their rights without harming others;
  • None of us believes we have the monopoly of insight and wisdom on “the truth” regarding the Middle East conflict (or anything else for that matter);
  • All of us support an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, deplore civilian deaths, and believe United Nations facilities that are assisting victims cannot be targeted.

But it is too easy to hide behind these generalisations. People want to know: where, exactly, does the DA stand, and more specifically: where does Helen Zille stand?

Beyond our broad support for a negotiated two-state solution, DA members differ (just as ANC members do) on the details, as we grapple with this most intractable of long-running conflicts.

I am open to other views. But until new or different facts come to light, my position is this:

On the basis of an acceptance by Hamas of Israel’s right to exist, I believe that Israel should end its occupation of all Palestinian territories based on the 1967 borders; that Jerusalem should be a shared capital of both an Israeli and Palestinian state; that Hamas should stop digging tunnels to attack Israel; that Israel should end the siege and blockade of Gaza, withdraw its settlements from the West Bank and recognize the Palestinian unity government.

And as mutual trust grows and suicide bombs cease, the West Bank barrier (referred to as an “apartheid wall” by the Palestinians; and a “security fence” by the Israelis) should come down. And ideally, as confidence returns, all Middle East refugees – including the Christians from Mosul, the Shia from Tikrit, and the Palestinians from Israel – should be able to return to their homes and live in peace and freedom.

I have a limited knowledge of the Middle East and have never been there. Based on what I have read, these are my views. Not everyone in the DA agrees with them. And many, on both sides of the conflict, do not believe it is possible.

But I do speak for everyone in the DA when I say that we cannot allow fratricide in another part of the world to derail our historic South African project. We must succeed in our first attempt, to make democracy work in our own country, where, in the words of our Constitution, South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

Demonstrating that this is indeed possible, would be our biggest contribution towards a lasting peace in the Middle East, and an example to the world.

Helen Zille

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