The Temple Mount and UNESCO by Denis MacEoin

  • The attempts to deny any ancient and ongoing Jewish presence in Jerusalem, to say there was never a first let alone a second Temple and that only Muslims have any right to the whole city, its shrines and historical monuments, have reached insane proportions.

  • Is this really what it boils down to? The Islamic State rules the international community? Including UNESCO?
  • The world is outraged when it sees the stones of Palmyra tumble, or other great monuments of human civilization turn to dust. But that same world is silent when the Palestinian Arabs and their supporters Islamise everything by calling into question the very presence of the Jewish people in the Holy Land.

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is known throughout the world for the many places it designates as World Heritage Sites. There are more than one thousand of these, distributed unequally in many countries, with Italy at the top, followed by China.

The largest single category of sites consists of religious sites, categorized under the heading of cultural locations (as distinct from natural ones). Within this category, UNESCO has carried out many dialogues with communities in order to ensure that religious sensitivities are acknowledged and guaranteed. UNESCO has undertaken many measures in this field.

In 2010, the organization held a seminar on the “Role of Religious Communities in the Management of World Heritage Properties.”

“The main objective of the [seminar] was to explore ways of establishing a dialogue between all stakeholders, and to explore possible ways of encouraging and generating mutual understanding and collaboration amongst them in the protection of religious World Heritage properties.”

The notion of dialogue in this context was clearly meant to avoid unilateral decisions by one nation or community to claim exclusive ownership of a religious site.

Alleged or actual claims to multiple ownership of religious sites are not uncommon. A collection of essays entitled, Choreographies of Shared Sacred Sites: Religion, Politics, and Conflict Resolution, examines such disputes over shared religious sites in Turkey, the Balkans, Palestine/Israel, Cyprus, and Algeria, providing powerful analyses of how communities come to blows or work reconcile themselves in a willingness to share shrines and other centres. Sometimes people come to blows over these sites, and sometimes one religion can cause immense pain to the followers of another, as happened in 1988 when Carmelite nuns erected a 26-foot-high cross outside Auschwitz II (Birkenau) extermination camp in order to commemorate a papal mass held there in 1979.

A more famous example of an unreconciled dispute is the conflict over the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, India, a mosque originally built in 1528-29 on the orders of Babur, the first of the Mughal emperors. According to Hindu accounts, the Mughal builders destroyed a temple on the birthplace of the deity Rama in order to build the mosque — a claim denied by many Muslims.[1] The importance of the site is clear from a Hindu text which declares that Ayodhya is one of seven sacred places where a final release from the cycle of death and rebirth may be obtained.

These conflicting claims were fatefully resolved when an extremist Hindu mob demolished the mosque in 1992, planning to build a new temple on the site. The demolition has been cited as justification for terrorist attacks by radical Muslim groups.[2] The massacres at Wandhama (1998) and the Amarnath pilgrimage (2000) are both attributed to the demolition. Communal riots occurred in New Delhi, Bombay and elsewhere, as well as many cases of stabbing, arson, and attacks on private homes and government officers.[3]

Muslim invaders did indeed destroy or modify thousands of “idolatrous” temples and sacred sites in India, just as they did elsewhere on a lesser scale, and just as the Islamic State has been doing for several years in modern Iraq and Syria. This is not simply the sort of destruction normally associated with wars, invasions, or civil disputes. For Muslims, it has a theological basis. Islam, as it has existed since the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632, is predicated on three things: the belief that there is one God without partners or associates; the belief that Muhammad is the messenger of that one God; and the belief that Islam is the greatest and last religion revealed to mankind, authorized by God to destroy all other religions and their artefacts:

“He (God) has sent his prophet with guidance and the religion of the truth in order to make it prevail over all religion” (Qur’an 9:33; 61:9).

It is this last belief that has, for over 1400 years, instilled a deep sense of supremacism within the Muslim world.

As many Muslims believe that Islam is the final revelation and Muhammad is the last prophet, so they believe that they cannot possibly live on equal terms with the followers of any other faith. Jews and Christians may live in an Islamic state, but only if they submit to deep humiliation and abasement and in return for the payment of protection money (the jizya tax). Churches and synagogues may not be repaired or, should they collapse, be rebuilt. Islam trumps everything.

This last doctrine is used repeatedly in the works of modern Salafi ideologues such as the Pakistani Abu’l-A’la Mawdudi and the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb. Here is a fairly typical statement by Qutb, from his best-known publication, Ma’alim fi’l-tariq, (“Milestones”):

“Islam, then, is the only Divine way of life which brings out the noblest human characteristics, developing and using them for the construction of human society. Islam has remained unique in this respect to this day. Those who deviate from this system and want some other system, whether it be based on nationalism, color and race, class struggle, or similar corrupt theories, are truly enemies of mankind!”[4]

Here is a recent comment by a modern Salafi writer:

“this worldwide domination of Islam which has been promised by Allah does not necessarily mean that every single person on earth will become Muslim. When we say that Islam will dominate the world, we mean as a political system, as the messenger Muhammad prophesied that the authority on earth will belong to the Muslims, i.e. the believers will be in power and the Sharee’ah [Shari’a] of Islam will be implemented in every corner of the earth”.

Under Islamic jihad law, any territory once captured for Islam must remain an integral and inviolable possession of the Muslim authorities.[5] In other words, even entire countries like Spain, Portugal, India, Greece or the Balkan nations that had been colonies under Ottoman rule, should be reclaimed for Islam, either by re-conquest or through the current “cultural jihad.”

It is through mass immigration, separatism, gradual introduction of Islamic law, and ghettoization that many countries in Europe have grown to be victims of a more determined Islam. But one territory remains under the threat of a violent takeover: the state of Israel.

Although there are revanchist and irredentist movements in many countries, Muslim effort to re-possess Israel has served to spark off and maintain the longest-lasting and most intractable physical conflict in modern history. Demands and counter-demands, attacks and counter attacks, wars and defensive responses taking place in Israel are in the media every single day.

The dispute is not primarily political. After the First World War, a system of international law was created, and that mutually agreed system was expanded after World War II to all countries joining the United Nations. Israel was created, not to displace the Arab inhabitants of what the British named Palestine, but to provide a homeland for the Jews alongside an Arab state. But all the Arab countries turned down this proposal. The Palestinians today still refuse to accept a state of their own, even while clamouring loudly for one.

Their deepest motive lies in a religiously-determined rejection of the nation state,[6] combined with the conviction that the Holy Land is an Islamic territory that cannot ever be awarded to the Jews.

That denial of international law and ethics allows many Muslims to claim the city of Jerusalem as an Islamic city, a city that can never be treated as the capital of a Jewish state, a holy place that has meaning for Muslims and Muslims alone.

You do not have to be a historian to know that Jerusalem was originally a Jewish city with, later, Christian connections and, later still, weak Islamic connections. More than that, it is the holiest city in the world for Jews, and it contains the most sacred site in the Jewish religion, the Temple Mount — the area on which not one but two Jewish temples were built.

There, Jews worshipped until the temples were destroyed, first by the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar (in 586 BCE), and again by the Romans in 70 CE. Jews have always turned toward the Temple Mount in their prayers.

Muslims, too, faced the Temple Mount when they prayed for several years while Muhammad and his small band of followers lived in Mecca. They continued to do so for many months after they emigrated to the oasis town of Yathrib (now Medina) in 622. They originally prayed facing Jerusalem because Muhammad was at first a great admirer of the Jews, from whom he learnt most of what he knew. But in Medina, he found he did not get on so well with the Jews of the city, who refused to convert to his new religion.

So, sixteen or seventeen months after the emigration, a revelation came to Muhammad that the Believers had to turn round about 180 degrees to face the city from which most of them had come, Mecca. In mid-prayer, the entire congregation turned their backs on Jerusalem. The holy city of the Jews was no longer of the least interest to them.[7]

The Qur’an could not be more explicit in this matter. Muhammad does not follow the direction of prayer used by the Jews. The Ka’ba in Mecca has erased all thought of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. At that point in time, there was not a single rock or stone or tree or building in Jerusalem that was Islamic in any way.

But for today’s Muslims, the opposite is true. There is nothing in Jerusalem that belongs to the Jews, and every part of it — especially the Temple Mount and the Western Wall — is and always has been Islamic. It is seen as the one of the holiest cities for Muslims, after Mecca and Medina.

The Muslim claim to Jerusalem is tenuous to say the least. One Qur’anic verse (17:1) talks of a night journey made by Muhammad from the Sacred Mosque (in Mecca) to the Farthest Mosque (al-masjid al-aqsa). Later commentators identify this Farthest Mosque with Jerusalem. But there were no mosques and no Muslims in Jerusalem at this time — in fact, not that many even in Arabia. The current Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount was first built in the year 705, seventy-three years after Muhammad’s death in 632, and rebuilt several times after earthquakes. By the 20th century, it was severely neglected. A film of the mosque in 1954 shows serious deterioration. It was clearly neither cared for nor much valued by the Muslim community.

You do not have to be a historian to know that Jerusalem was originally a Jewish city with, later, Christian connections and, later still, weak Islamic connections. The second Jewish Temple, completed by King Herod in 19 BCE, was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE (depicted at left in a 1626 painting by Nicolas Poussin). The current Aqsa Mosque (right) on the Temple Mount was first built in the year 705, seventy-three years after Muhammad’s death in 632, and rebuilt several times after earthquakes. (Images’ source: Wikimedia Commons)

And there is more. For centuries, Muslim writers (not to mention Jewish and Christian historians and archaeologists) agreed that the Kotel, the Western or “Wailing” Wall, was the remaining section of the second Jewish Temple, the temple built by Herod and visited by Jesus. As far back as 1924, the Supreme Muslim Council in the British Palestine Mandate published a pamphlet entitled, A Brief Guide to al-Haram al-Sharif – Temple Mount Guide. This document confirmed the Jewishness of the site: on the fourth page, the historical sketch of the Mount declares:

“The site is one of the oldest in the world. Its sanctity dates from the earliest times. Its identity with the site of Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute. This, too, is the spot, according to universal belief, on which David built there an altar unto the Lord, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings (2 Samuel 24:25)”

According to the Jewish Virtual Library:

Early Muslims regarded the building and destruction of the Temple of Solomon as a major historical and religious event, and accounts of the Temple are offered by many of the early Muslim historians and geographers (including Ibn Qutayba, Ibn al-Faqih, Mas’udi, Muhallabi, and Biruni). Fantastic tales of Solomon’s construction of the Temple also appear in the Qisas al-anbiya’ [Tales of the Prophets], the medieval compendia [sic] of Muslim legends about the pre-Islamic prophets. As the historian Rashid Khalidi wrote in 1998 (albeit in a footnote), while there is no “scientific evidence” that Solomon’s Temple existed, “all believers in any of the Abrahamic faiths perforce must accept that it did.”

For some time now, however, Muslim individuals and institutions have started to claim that the Mount has nothing to do with a Jewish Temple, that no such temple ever existed, and that the Western Wall is in fact the wall at which Muhammad tethered his fabled winged-horse, Buraq. For example, with enormous effrontery, Sheikh Tayseer Rajab Tamimi, the leading religious figure in the Palestinian Authority, stated in 2009: “Jerusalem is an Arab and Islamic city and it always has been so.” Tamimi claimed that all excavation work conducted by Israel after 1967 had “failed to prove that Jews had a history or presence in Jerusalem or that their ostensible temple had ever existed.” He condemned Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and “all Jewish rabbis and extremist organizations” as liars, because of their assertion that Jerusalem was a Jewish city. Tamimi accused Israel of distorting the facts and forging history “with the aim of erasing the Arab and Islamic character of Jerusalem.”

There is no reason why Muslims should not venerate the spot, whether from afar or while living in Jerusalem itself. In that way, the Temple Mount would be another religious site with connections to more than one religion — in this case to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Unfortunately, that sense of dominance over all other religions, as described above, means that Muslims are having none of that.

For them the Temple Mount and its surroundings are Muslim and nothing else. In the modern period, this is an offshoot of the wider view that all Israel is Islamic territory.

The Islamic concept of supremacy has overtaken UNESCO in direct contradiction to its acceptance of multi-religious sites.

In October 2015, six Arab states, on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and others, proposed to UNESCO that it should change its designation of the site, turning it from a Jewish holy place to a Muslim one, as part of the al-Aqsa Mosque. A vote was set for October 20, but was postponed following an indignant protest by UNESCO’s head, Irina Bokova, who said she “deplored” the proposal.

But that vote may still go through in favour of the PA and its supporters. One day later, it was announced that UNESCO had voted to designate two other important Jewish holy sites as Muslim — the “Cave of the Patriarchs” in Hebron, and the Tomb of Rachel near Bethlehem.

The “Cave of the Patriarchs” is where tradition says the bodies of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah are buried. It is the most ancient of Jewish holy places, second in importance only to the Mount on which the two temples were built. It will now be known as al-Haram al-Ibrahimi, the Sanctuary of Abraham, so named because Abraham is described in the Qur’an as the first Muslim. Bizarrely, that is enough to make it a “Muslim” site.

The Tomb of Rachel, situated toward the northern entrance to Bethlehem, is regarded as the resting place of the matriarch Rachel, the wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin. Considered the third holiest Jewish site and a place of pilgrimage for Jews since ancient times, it has been holy to both Jews and Christians for centuries. Since the tomb fell under Muslim hands in the seventh century, it has also been a place venerated by Muslims, because Jacob and Joseph are Qur’anic figures, although Rachel herself is not mentioned by name in the book.

Muslim authorities and leaders such as the head of the radical Northern Islamic Movement, Shaykh Raed Salah, do not want a little here and a little there. They want all of Jerusalem to be enshrined internationally as an entirely Muslim city and, as happened when Jordan occupied the city, to expel the Jews and destroy all the synagogues there.

The attempts to deny any ancient and ongoing Jewish presence in Jerusalem, to say there was never a first let alone a second Temple and that only Muslims have any right to the whole city, its shrines and historical monuments, have reached insane proportions. The most extreme expressions of this gamut of ahistorical claims, supremacist assertions and conspiracies are the many speeches and comments of the above-mentioned Shaykh Raed Salah. Here is part of a speech he made at a rally in 1999:

“We will say openly to the Jewish society, you do not have a right even to one stone of the blessed Al-Aksa Mosque. You do not have a right even to one tiny particle of the blessed Al-Aksa Mosque. Therefore we will say openly, the western wall of blessed Al-Aksa is part of blessed Al-Aksa. It can never be a small Western Wall. It can never be a large Western Wall… We will say openly to the political and religious leadership in Israel: the demand to keep blessed Al-Aksa under Israeli sovereignty is also a declaration of war on the Islamic world.”

Salah is far from alone. The current head of the Supreme Muslim Council, Ekrima Sabri, has for many years done his best to invalidate Jewish claims to the area. He claims that Solomon’s Temple is an “unproven allegation” — something that the Jews dreamed up out of “hatred and envy.” He claims the Western Wall, too, is “a Muslim religious property” to which Jews “have no relation.”

In a recent statement, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that, “The Al-Aqsa [Mosque] is ours… and they [the Jews] have no right to defile it with their filthy feet.”

According to UN Watch,

“Ambassador Shama Hohen [Carmel Shama Hacohen, Israeli ambassador to UNESCO] asked Palestinian delegate Mounir Anastas why Palestinians are not prepared to recognize the Jewish right to the Temple Mount and include the term ‘Temple Mount’ in the resolution, alongside the Arab term, Haram al-Sharif. Anastas replied… that if the Palestinians were to recognize the Temple Mount, then Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah would become number one targets of ISIS.”

Is this really what it boils down to? The Islamic State rules the international community? Including UNESCO?

On April 15 this year, the Executive Board of UNESCO’s Programme and External Relations Commission convened for its 199th session. The earlier Temple Mount resolution was moved by Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan — all members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. That vote then passed to the 21 members of the World Heritage Committee during its 40th session in Istanbul, which had been scheduled to run from July 10 to July 20.

By mere chance, July’s military coup attempt in Turkey disrupted the event, and the vote has now been scheduled for an autumn meeting. That may be based on a draft resolution created by the European Union, which is, in fact, just another denial of the historical Jewish connection to the Temple Mount. But, considering the one-sidedness of this resolution, just where is UNESCO’s above-stated commitment to bring about “a dialogue between all stakeholders”?

Turning the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, Rachel’s Tomb, the Cave of the Patriarchs, and other sites into exclusively Muslim holy places is directly linked to the growth of Islamisation in the modern era. By destroying churches, shrines, tombs, whole sites of antiquity deemed idolatrous, and even mosques deemed heretical, the Islamic State seeks to wipe out all traces of what is termed the era of Jahiliyya, the “Age of Ignorance” that held the world in its grip before the advent of Islam.

The world is outraged when it sees the stones of Palmyra tumble, or other great monuments of human civilization turn to dust. But that same world is silent when the Palestinian Arabs and their supporters Islamise everything by calling into question the very presence of the Jewish people in the Holy Land.

Denis MacEoin PhD has studied and taught Islam at several universities and is currently working on a book dealing with concerns about the religion. He is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.

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