For almost twenty years, Muslims across the world have been on the defensive. Muslim identity has been largely under attack. The terrorist incidents of September 11, 2001 on New York and Washington DC cast – in many a popular imagination – every Muslim as suspect in some way. In almost every continent, a dark cloud hung over us. The security checks at airports are only a manifestation of that deep distrust.
Osama bin Laden and a range of extremist organisations hijacked the Palestinian cause: they created nothing but more loss, terrorism and humiliation for the noble Palestinian people. Now, with the visionary accord between the UAE and Israel, three new horizons open: reinstating Muslim dignity, reviving a two-state solution opportunity and creating regional economic prosperity.
I am a British Muslim. In my teens, I helped raise money in London for Hamas. My peers and I believed suicide bombers were martyrs heading for paradise. We were wrong.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus 2,500 years ago taught that there is only one constant in life: change. Life flows ever onwards. After 9/11, I recognised the blunder of my beliefs. I changed. In my twenties, I lived in Damascus next to a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. In my thirties, I lived in New York and Washington where I advised the US government. I saw the suspicion of Muslims in the eyes of American officials. It always boiled down to something unspoken: show us peace in Islam; stop talking about it.
And that is exactly what the Abraham Accord is doing: showing peace between peoples, not only preaching it. The accord represents an important opportunity to further reject "Islamophobic" accusations of terrorism and anti-Semitism. We can say: "We believe in one God. Peace is possible. A new way of co-existence is achievable. We are not pawns for the mullahs of Iran or the Muslim Brotherhood. Look at the UAE."
More than 70 countries have applauded the agreement with Israel and today, the UAE enjoys unprecedented support on both sides of the US political divide. The Pope’s visit to the Emirates in 2019 won the hearts of 2 billion Christians to the prospect of a pluralist, peaceful Middle East.
Islam-haters cannot say all Muslims cannot make peace with Jews. The natural choice for ordinary Muslims – 1.8bn people round the world – is: modernise, moderate and move with the times. The Quran calls upon Muslims to be rational. It confirms repeatedly that Jews and Christians are the children of Abraham. We are all followers of Jacob, Moses and Jesus. The Prophet Mohammed was a merchant, a member of the elite tribe of Quraysh. He engaged, dialogued, signed treaties and behaved rationally. Muslims are not victims, but victors.
Every time I visit Jerusalem, walking along the Roman cobblestone pavements, it pains me that Jerusalemites cannot visit Gaza. And Gazans cannot visit the West Bank. Terrorism causes this division. It pains me equally that the unemployment rate is 45 per cent in Gaza and 41 per cent for women in the West Bank; that Hamas have turned Gaza into a prison, killing any dissenters or peacemakers; that schools I visit in the West Bank do not even have Israel, their neighbour, on the map. This shows a leadership that is afraid of change and the future.
Hamas leaders cannot continue to visit Tehran and praise terrorists and murderers of Arabs, and then expect to be taken seriously as a state builder by the United Nations. The old tactics of terrorism, boycotting and resistance have not worked. A free, dignified state for the Palestinian people, beside a secure Israel, is now again on the table. The Palestinians have a sincere, transparent ally in the UAE.
We must never forget that the Romans expelled Jews from Jerusalem. After 500 years of banishment it was the Caliph Omar, in the year 637, who invited Jews back to the holy city. Unlike others, Muslims have a long and honourable history of honouring Judaism. The great rabbi Maimonides was a physician to Muslim rulers.
In our time, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, has built a diplomatic corps that is sharp, serious, respected for achieving results and, above all, discrete. To have Emirati diplomacy at the service of the Palestinian people's dream for statehood – now with direct, trusted and open access to American and Israeli political leaders – is a gift. The Saudi Arabian, Bahraini, Egyptian, Moroccan, Jordanian and other Arab and Muslim nations want to see this issue settled so that the Middle East can fulfil its true potential as a global hub of innovation, capital, finance, technology, health and tourism.
Can the Middle East dream again? No, rather, can it be its true self again? From algorithms to ophthalmology to medicine to naming the stars, much came from the early Muslims. Sometime in the 13th century, that desire to dream and understand the cosmos was lost. Philosophy was abandoned and – with it neglected – science and innovation became marginalised.
Among the greatest defenders of reason, if not the only champions of the time, were the Arab Muslims of Al Andalusia – descendants of the Umayyads from Makkah. There, it was Ibn Rushd in the 12th century who shone the light of reason.
That spirit shone again last month when the Emirates "Hope Probe" Mars mission launched. Just imagine the power of that Arab spirit of knowledge, inquiry and ambition coupled with Israeli advances in medical technology, software developments, agriculture and environment, navigation and road safety.
Youth aged 15-24 consist of 32 per cent of the Arab population. That’s 22 countries with a population of 300 million, of which 100m is under the age of 25, crying out for economic opportunities, houses, marriage, families, health care, cars, dignity and stability. This is evident to anyone taking a walk downtown and talking to the youth in Cairo, Amman, Tunis or Beirut.
As the world emerges from Covid-19, the old models of operation will be defunct. Why take a 20-hour flight to Silicon Valley when similarly bright tech minds are three hours away in Tel Aviv? Why seek investors in New York amid jet lag when similarly wealthy financiers are sat in Riyadh? How is it possible that youth in Egypt and Jordan are starved of investment capital and resources when Israel next door needs new markets? For how much longer will the Middle East tolerate a torn-apart Syria? Damascus – land of St Paul, home of the Umayyads and city of Nizar Qabbani – deserves to return to its Arabic regional allies.
Lebanon, pivot of private bankers, again next to Israel, was deprived of basic talent to manage its port and lost innocent lives in last month’s explosion. For how much longer? I could go on, but year after year, the UAE has been the prime destination of choice for youth across the region. The reason for that status is its entrepreneurial trading spirit.
The winds of change are blowing across the world again and, as the cradle of faiths and civilisations, what happens in the Middle East influences us all. “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” asked the beloved US president Abraham Lincoln. The UAE-Israel accord opens new paths for all who seek a better future for their grandchildren: Muslims who seek to live in the modern world, a Palestinian-Israeli two-state solution and a more prosperous region for the youth of the Middle East.
Ed Husain is a doctoral researcher at the University of Buckingham and author of The House of Islam: a Global History