The Gaza Conundrum: How it Exposes the True Nature of Religious Leaders

Israeli soldiers

Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7 has sparked diverse responses from Muslim political leaders and religious figures, reflecting deep divisions about Islam in the 21st century. The core differences lie in the ability to empathize with innocent victims on both sides of the Israeli-Palestnian divide, despite the focus on the carnage caused by Israel’s assault on Gaza. The divide is also mirrored among Israelis and Jews, who have little sympathy for the suffering of innocent Palestinian civilians.

Most Muslim religious leaders believe the Hamas attack stemmed from Israeli policies designed to repress Palestinian resistance and thwart resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. The indiscriminate Israeli bombing and ground offensive in Gaza overshadow the brutality of the Hamas attack, causing the death of 1,200, mostly civilian Israelis. The divide among Muslim religious leaders and scholars is evident in the response of two poles of the spectrum of moderate Muslims.

The diversity in’moderate’ interpretations of Islam reflects the struggle to define what moderate Islam means in the 21st century and the divide between moderate and more militant expressions of the faith. The muddling of different perspectives highlights the need for reform of Muslim religious jurisprudence to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law and deprive militants of the ability to find legitimization in Sharia.

The contrast in responses to the Gaza war by Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest and most moderate Muslim civil society movement, and Al-Azhar, a Cairo-based citadel of Islamic learning, highlights the muddle. Nahdlatul Ulama called for a “just” resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, urging religious inspiration to be brought to the forefront of public awareness at all times. The statement called on Muslims to collectively pray for the souls of all who have perished in the escalating violence and urged people and governments everywhere to refrain from weaponizing identity or appealing to religion to fuel hatred and hostility, including in relation to the conflict and violence between Israel and Palestine.Nahdlatul Ulama has invited Muslim and non-Muslim religious authorities for a summit to discuss “religion’s role in addressing Middle East violence and threats to a rules-based international order.”

Al Azhar, a Palestinian religious group, has expressed condolences to Palestinians who have been martyred in the Gaza war, but has not mentioned the killing of innocent Israelis. The group’s Global Fatwa Center issued a religious opinion that contradicts Hamas’ assertion that there are no innocent Israelis, mirroring Israeli statements that all Gazans are terrorists and supporters of Hamas. The fatwa stated that the term “civilian” does not apply to Zionist settlers on the occupied land, but rather to occupiers who usurp rights, disregard prophets’ ways, and attack holy sites in Jerusalem.

It is unclear whether the fatwa refers to settlers on Palestinian land conquered by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war or defines all Israeli Jews as settlers. Al Azhar clerics have also endorsed the Hamas attack, describing Jews as “the cursed descendants of apes and pigs.” The Gaza war has evoked destructive instincts on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, and has largely failed the test for Muslim and Jewish religious leaders.

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