Bad Muslims With a Good Idea

On the morning of Eid al-Fitr, the biggest festival in the Muslim world, I went to a mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The mosque had taken over the street to accommodate the Eid crowd. Colorful prayer mats covered the asphalt. A thousand people sat down and raised their hands to pray.

With rehearsed passion, the Imam pleaded for salvation for ourselves and the community, and prayed that we have the courage to do the right thing in life.

Then came the issue of Palestine.

"God," implored the Imam, "Help Palestinians free themselves. They have suffered for decades under the yoke of oppression, their dream crushed by enemies awash in arms and money. God, help our brothers achieve a homeland."

For a moment I thought of Palestine's U.N. bid for statehood. Then I drifted to my school days, some twenty years ago. Even at that time the faithful would raise their hands to pray for brethren in Palestine.

Nothing has changed, neither the prayer, nor reality.

Those who don't understand Muslims take such congregations as signs of fanaticism. Why else would people support others half a world away, year in and out, calling them brethren?

Modern Western sensibilities claim that our foremost political passion must be for the nation; political loyalties that transcend the nation are either utopian fluff, or, more likely, fanatic zeal.

In such sensibilities, there are essentially two types of Muslims, as Mahmud Mamdani of Columbia University put it. The Good Muslim is secularized and "rational," and by and large a defender of imperialist interventions. The Bad Muslim is the nihilist, the militant, a brainwashed pawn who believes only in crazy conspiracies. The Good Muslim is an object of manufactured fascination, an exotic creature now enlightened. The Bad Muslim is the subject of wholesale vitriol.

Where, then, to place those praying hands for Palestine? Fluff or fanaticism? Good or bad?

One reason that Palestine draws many is the concept of a brotherhood that transcends man-made boundaries. For them, it's normal to pray for others far away.

That unity has been forged stronger by the gung-ho colonialism going on in the West Bank, where Israel has constructed more than 200 settlements on grabbed land, at gunpoint.

It's also been driven by the toothless inaction of fissiparous Arab leaders, America's bizarrely lopsided policy on Palestine, and Israel's self-congratulatory trumpeting of democracy while denying a people the right to live free.

The combined frustration felt from Dakar to Dhaka is not fanaticism. It's a reasonable reaction to poisoned politics; it's solace in the prospect of an uninterrupted global community when faced with barbed-wire borders.

But in the popular binaries of our time -- good versus evil, us versus them -- this type of reaction has no place. It doesn't fit the model. You're supposed to either accept, or react violently.

Consider Tony Blair's recent reprise of a Bush-era refrain: "The reason why these people are radicalised is not because of something we're doing to them. They believe in their philosophy."

Blair's message is not only ignorant of evidence, but also deeply conservative. If those radical Bad Muslims do crazy things regardless of policy, then there is no benefit to expediting permanent peace. Just maintain the status quo: occupation.

But those Bad Muslims, those who won't accept the "ground realities" as Good Muslims do, are now armed with a good idea. This makes U.S./Israeli hardliners nervous because this, too, doesn't fit the usual mold: Bad people are not supposed to have good ideas!

That idea is to bid for a full U.N. membership. Palestine won't get it, but the process will divide countries spectacularly, a preponderance of which will side with Palestine.

The occupation will continue. But Palestine will be an important PR victory.

To dent that, pro-occupation hardliners are thumping down the good-bad card. Applying for U.N. membership, they insist, is bad behavior.

U.S. and Israeli diplomats, along with Tony Blair, are trying desperately to push Palestinians back into the mold, to the good-boy negotiation tables that have proven deceptive for decades.

One hopes Mahmoud Abbas won't bow to the tremendous pressure being imposed on him. Palestine has taken the right decision. A diplomatic showdown is bad behavior in colonial eyes, but a public show of hands in the U.N. is the right thing to do at this point.

Outside the U.N., whether in prayer on in protest, the hands that are raised for Palestine are stronger and more numerous than ever before. These are the hands that forged the Arab Spring. Palestine knows that. But it seems that U.S. and Israeli hardliners still don't realize this seriously enough to discard poisoned politics.