Meet the Palestinians

The events in Syria have captured the world’s attention but it would be regrettable if they overshadowed an important study released last week.

The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, published by the respected Pew Research Center, surveyed social, political, and religious attitudes across the Muslim world.

It is an in-depth report worthy of much study but one of the many fascinating insights it provides is a glimpse into the dominant attitudes amongst the Palestinian Muslim population. Seventy-five percent of West Bank residents are Muslim (eight percent are Palestinian Christians and a further 17% are Israeli Jews who live beyond the Green Line) and 99% of Gaza is Muslim. So, the Pew research provides a useful overview of Palestinian social attitudes as a whole.

The headline figure that has garnered media attention is the 40% of Palestinian Muslims who deem suicide bombing justified. While that has understandably raised eyebrows, it is only one of many disturbing findings in the report.

Western liberals fond of addressing Palestinians as “brothers and sisters” might be surprised to learn that their ideological siblings hold more than a few illiberal beliefs. Ninety-three percent say sex outside marriage is morally wrong while 89% specify that homosexuality is immoral.

Women’s rights aren’t high on the list of priorities: “A wife must always obey her husband,” insist 87%, while 77% object to abortion, and only 33% think a wife should have the right to divorce her husband. The Palestinians have evidently seen Jersey Shore because 81% say “Western entertainment” harms society.

“Islam alone leads to Heaven,” 89% told the Pew researchers. And they’re not talking a milquetoast one-hour-a-week Episcopalian Islam either. Seventy-five percent think Sharia is the “revealed word of God” and to that end 89% favor making it the law of the land.

And that’s where the fun really begins. Of those who advocate Sharia, 84% support stoning as the punishment for adultery, 76% backhudud punishments (that’s the hand-chopping and back-lashing stuff), and 66% want apostates to face the death penalty.

None of this accords with the narrative advanced by pro-Palestinian activists or Ramallah’s sympathizers in the international media. It is always Israelis who are extreme, “lurching to the right”, and voting for “hardline” parties, even at the last election when the voters lurched to the center and placed their hopes in the impeccably moderate Yair Lapid.

There are a few reasons to be cheerful. The study found 85% asserting the right of non-Muslims to religious freedom. Seventy-eight percent see no conflict between religion and science and 67% believe in evolution. Democracy is preferred over “a strong leader” by a margin of 55% to 40% and although two-fifths endorse suicide bombing, 49% view it as unjustified.

If a Palestinian state is to be created alongside Israel – and I believe one should – Israel has a legitimate interest in that state being organized around liberal, democratic, and pluralistic precepts. A Palestine that practises chauvinism will not only smother the possibilities of modern statehood but will be disinclined to maintain a long-term peace with Israel.

There are two lessons to be drawn here. The first is for the international Left that makes pilgrimage to holy Gaza, that has turned its university campuses into shrines to anti-Zionism, and that affords the Palestinians a reverence once reserved for the proletariat.

Leftists are often accused of relativism but in their fetishization of Palestinian society they are guilty of a myopic universalism. Activists and academics who suppose that their sexual egalitarianism and secular liberalism are shared by their victim-idols should read Pew’s study carefully to understand the social and attitudinal forces at work. Palestine is not simply Vermont with falafel.

The second, and substantively more important, lesson is that the institution-building approach pursued by Salam Fayyad brought economic growth and a decline in corruption but did not dilute the reactionary persuasions of many Palestinians. For that, there must be a new program of institution-building within civil society that directs resources and political willpower towards the formation of a liberal Palestinian middle class that is capable of creating a country. Not a “Westernized” Palestine but one that, like Israel, can balance Western ideas about individual rights and market economics with the insights of national culture and religious philosophy.

That also means educating the next generation of Palestinian children not to hate Jews but to realize the common interests and mutual benefits in a forward-looking Palestine that cooperates with and learns from Israel. With Fayyad gone, and unlikely to be replaced by a comparably thoughtful reformist, the current chances of progress towards this kind of society are slim.

The suffering of the Palestinian people – and make no mistake, it is real and cruel and shameful – must end and they must have their own place to call home. But the attitudes expressed to Pew’s researchers paint a worrying picture of what that home would look like.

Originally published in the Times of Israel. Feature image © Andrew E. Larsen by Creative Commons 2.0.

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