Re-Imagining Jerusalem: One Faith, One City
by Muqtedar Khan, September 1, 2000

The Camp David effort to bring peace to the Middle East failed because the two concerned parties could not resolve the Jerusalem question. Jerusalem is sacred. In three thousand years it did not loose its centrality to Judaism and there is no possibility that it will loose its importance to Christianity or Islam. One cannot resolve the issue of Jerusalem through promises of aid, geopolitical calculations or urban planning.

Many secular analysts in the West erroneously believe that religion itself will loose its pre-eminence making the sacredness of Jerusalem immaterial. However, one cannot deny that along with the rise and fall of communism and the emergence of liberal democracy and globalization, the global resurgence of religion and its burgeoning political influence is one of the most important developments of the twentieth century.

Three out of the four individuals involved in the present American Presidential race would easily pass the muster with the Christian Right. This year both the Republican as well as the Democratic convention opened with a Muslim prayer. An undisguised attempt to gain votes through religious appeasement. In Israel religious parties have increased their share of Knesset members. In India, Hindu nationalism is ascendant. The West could not wish Iran away. Religion and its political power is here to stay. If anything we will see an even greater role of religion in domestic and world politics. I am convinced that as long as religious identities remain strong in the region and elsewhere, the status of Jerusalem will be contested and the struggle for sovereignty over Jerusalem will not diminish.

Plans which are premised on material calculations of power and wealth, using threat and aid, will alone be insufficient in resolving the conflict over Jerusalem. Political solutions to religious problems usually fail. The problem is a symbolic one and will necessarily need a major symbolic component in the solution. The solution that I wish to suggest is a collective theological initiative toward reconstruction of Jerusalem's identity. The current discourse on Jerusalem imagines it as a contested city claimed by three different religious communities. The concept is so aptly captured in the title of Karen Armstrong's book on Jerusalem, One city, Three Faiths.

As long as Jerusalem is seen as one city desired by three different communities it will remain contested. Such an imagination presupposes inevitable and eternal conflict. Jerusalem cannot be imagined as three cities desired by three faiths, that is inconceivable. The only alternative is to imagine Jerusalem as one city desired by one faith. This re-imagination of Jerusalem eliminates conflict. Discourses constructing this particular identity of Jerusalem can and should be encouraged.

The conflict between Jews and Christians has diminished primarily because of the widespread belief that the contemporary West is a common heritage based on a Judeo-Christian ethic. In the last two decades a lot of research has acknowledged the enormous contributions that Islam has made to Western civilization. Scholars like Norman Daniels and John Esposito, and leaders like Prince Charles and President Clinton, have paid homage to Islam's civilizational contributions.

Western theologians and historians now acknowledge the impact of Islam on Jewish, Christian and modern secular thought. The debt owed to Muslim philosophers and scientists is now well recorded. But unfortunately we have not used these developments in civilizational understanding to educate Americans. Negative images of Islam continue to fester in the Western media as well as in the common Western mind.

American Muslims are taking an initiative in reconciling the three monotheistic traditions by focusing on a common Prophet -- Abraham. It has generated an inter-faith dialogue which talks about the commonalities between Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and depicts them all as The Abrahamic Tradition. The Abrahamic vision imagines the three faiths as three manifestations of the same religious tradition of monotheism whose founder was Abraham. If this discourse can be fostered, widely and aggressively, leading to some kind of a consensus, then Jerusalem can be imagined as one holy city of one great religious tradition. Conflict will symbolically disappear.

Muslim intellectuals in the West are seeking to replace Judeo-Christian as the basis of Western civilization with the Abrahamic tradition. With a little education, some grass roots lobbying and a concerted support from the media, this idea can catch on. It benefits all. It unites the three communities. Jews get to keep their Jerusalem. Christians get an equal say in the matter, right now they are marginalized, and Muslims not only get Jerusalem back but also get an irrevocably recognition from Judaism and Christianity.

But first, we all must dare to imagine ourselves as one  the followers of the Abrahamic tradition. Then Jerusalem will be ours.

About the author: Dr. Muqtedar Khan,,  is Assistant Professor of Political Science at a liberal arts college in Michigan. He writes on International Relations, Globalization, Foreign Policy and Islam. Dr. Khan also maintains an E-zine on Islam and Global Affairs:

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