By Joharah Baker
It is absolutely true that fundamentalism begets violent behavior and discrimination; we have all seen this in action. Muslims are forever being burned at the proverbial stake for their extremist views and their violent ways. However, it has come to pass that extremism has reared its ugly head in Israel, this time for the whole world to see.
The fact is, no one in their right mind could take pleasure at the sight of a traumatized seven-year old girl scared to walk to school for fear that she might get spit on. That was the image that shook Israel last week. Naama, who immigrated from the United States and moved with her family to the Jerusalem-area town of Beit Shemesh is constantly spit on and cursed on her way to school for what the ultra-orthodox deem as her “immoderate” clothing.
The incident sparked riots and a sharp divide in Israeli society between secular and ultra-religious. “There is only one law, the law of the Torah,” one Beit Shemesh resident defiantly told an Israeli television cameraman, thus justifying the terrorizing of women for their so-called immodest dress, even a seven-year old.
This kind of manic fundamentalism is not foreign to any of us, no matter with what religion we associate. If secular Palestinians are worried about anything in this upcoming election, it is not about the political ramifications of a Hamas win but about the social changes that might take place if the Islamic movement is in control. We have already been given a hint of things to come in the Gaza Strip, with Hamas officials banning women from smoking water pipes in public, demanding marriage license from couples walking together in the street and imposing Islamic dress codes on girls in elementary and middle school. Recently, Hamas police cracked down on shop owners, ordering them not to display naked mannequins, lingerie or so-called indecent advertising.
If Hamas were to win the elections, Palestinians, who are largely secular and also have a Christian community, just might be up against some fierce social battles, ones that can be very hard to win.
The social clashes currently taking place in Israel also point to another critical juncture in any society – that is, whether a self-proclaimed democracy tolerates the clash of ideologies as freedom of expression or oppresses it to better fit the democratic makeup of that society. For Israel, this is an obvious conundrum because the only reason the situation even came to blows is because of the violent nature of the clashes, in Beit Shemesh particularly. But Israel is keen on not compromising the democracy it boasts of being, at least for Israeli Jews.
That is something we Palestinians must consider in the next phase. Hamas is an integral part of our society and we have fought long and hard to defend the notion of national unity and democracy. But there is a fine line between respecting differences of opinion and ideology, and allowing those ideologies to run the democratic foundations that brought them into power straight into the ground.
For the Palestinians, it is all about baby steps. We need to complete the reconciliation agreement first and then plan elections and form a unity government afterwards. Perhaps, though, what is happening in Israel is a reminder of how extremism can drive wedges between members of the same society and threaten the democratic fabric which holds it together.
If we are smart, we will take this opportunity to learn from others. It is not about any religion and how much you choose to practice the rites and rituals of your faith – that should always be left up to the individual. It is a matter of imposing this faith or at least one group’s narrow interpretation of it that is so dangerous. Hopefully, we will not have a Beit Shemesh in our future state. Because we would have worked far too hard to sabotage it with our own hands.
Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at [email protected].