By Hassan Bin Youssef Yassin
Mar 26, 2016
Although human civilization emerged in several parts of the world, the Middle East will always be considered the “Cradle of Civilization.” Much of the scientific, cultural, philosophical, agricultural and religious development that modern life continues to be based on emerged in the Middle East. Allah chose the area to transmit the message of Judaism through Moses, the message of Christianity through Jesus, and the message of Islam through Muhammad (peace be upon them). Religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism have their roots in Asia, but the three monotheistic religions that emerged in the Middle East carried their message to billions of people throughout the world. And by transmitting His message which became the three monotheistic faiths, Allah also ensured that beyond accepting the central power of the Universe, people would learn about diversity and the need to live together in peace and tolerance.
The majority of Arabs today are Muslims, but a great many Arabs were and are also Jews and Christians. We are all aware that throughout the history of Islam and the Caliphates, minorities were accepted and lived in peace and tolerance in the lands of Islam. This coexistence was exemplified by Al-Andalus, where people of different faiths advanced science, culture and philosophy in an atmosphere of progress and tolerance that many parts of the world still envy today. Musa Ibn Maymun, or Maimonides, was both a Jewish Arab Torah scholar and one of the most renowned scientists of Arab civilization.
Over the past century, we continue to have prominent examples of Jewish or Christian Arabs contributing to Arab culture and to the world. George Antonius, a Lebanese Christian, was the father of Arab nationalism in the early 20th century; Sir Sassoon Eskell, an Iraqi Jew, formed the modern state of Iraq alongside Iraq’s King Faisal as his finance minister; Nessim Joseph Dawood, another Iraqi Jew, wrote the first and still most popular modern English translation of the Holy Qur’an; Carlos Slim and Carlos Ghosn are amongst the best-known businessmen of Lebanese Christian origin, and a Jewish woman, Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, served as Bahraini ambassador to the United States between 2008 and 2013.
Two of the most famous female singers in the Arab world, Fairuz and Leila Murad, are, respectively, Christian Lebanese and Jewish Egyptian. Leila Murad even became the official singer of the Egyptian Revolution, ahead of Umm Kulthum. The actors Omar Sharif and Naguib Rihani were both Egyptian Christians, whose popularity reached across the Arab world and beyond. Famous historians and UK professors Avi Shlaim and Elie Kedourie were born in Iraq to Jewish families, while the Palestinian Christian Edward Said made his mark at Columbia University in New York for his post-colonial studies. A number of Israeli politicians were of North African descent, while Palestinian leaders such as George Habash or Azmi Bishara are Christian Arabs.
The goal here is not to list as many names as possible, but to illustrate the richness and diversity of Arab life and achievement, reflecting a true melting pot that flourished for centuries before it was disturbed by the implantation of European Zionists, who brought with them Western concepts of occupation and taking the lands of others instead of respecting the tolerance and peaceful coexistence that existed until then in the region.
Unfortunately, the creation of Israel transformed the realities of the Middle East and saw many Arab Jews leave their countries of origin for Israel. This event sadly created a rupture in the open and tolerant societies of the Middle East, but Arabs and Muslims will not forget that Allah gave them His message in order to advance peace and tolerance in the region and throughout the world. He created man to think for himself, and He gave us diversity so that we would learn to live together and to learn from our differences. The late King Abdullah’s Interfaith Initiative was an extension of this concept, repeating the example of an Arab world reaching out to embrace others in tolerance and diversity.
The Christian and Jewish Arabs mentioned above were not anomalies in Arab society, they represented the top echelons and achievements of Arab society. People like Leila Murad or George Antonius are revered until this day. The concept of tolerance is deeply ingrained in Islam, and thankfully it is also ingrained in others. When Jewish rabbis boycott Donald Trump’s address of AIPAC because of his insulting comments about Muslims there is clearly a common platform of tolerance for us all to build upon. These are the kind of remarkable people we should be tying our hopes and destiny to, strengthening our mutual tolerance, as with the many Israeli Jews who oppose their government and the occupation, as we oppose extremists in our midst.
The tolerance and coexistence that reigned for so long in the Arab and Muslim world does not belong to the past, it remains an essential element of our future and of our identity as Arabs and Muslims. History offers not only a record of events, but also a warning of past mistakes and a repository of noble examples and concepts to be emulated. As Arabs and Muslims, we must strive for who we want to be and we must remind the world of the noble values of our ancestors in matters of tolerance and coexistence. At a time when our region is suffering much hatred and confusion, only calm reflection can remind us of who we were and what we can still be. We can still take a good look at ourselves and others and say: “We can be better”.
Hassan Bin Youssef Yassin is a political and petroleum consultant