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Theology's Place in Mideast Peace

It's up to Muslim clerics to publicly denounce attacks on Israel

IN the aftermath of every terrorist attack against Israelis since the initiation of the Oslo accords, we hear Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin decry Islamic fundamentalism. The recent Ramat Gan attack was no exception.

Spokesmen for the various Islamic fundamentalist groups say their terror against Jews will continue. They maintain that Islam demands it. Israelis are the enemies of Islam.

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''The failure to meet the July 1 deadline is a clear evidence of the intention of the Israeli occupation,'' said Islamic Jihad leader Sheik Abdullah Shami in a July interview from Gaza.

When asked if the attacks would resume, the Sheik replied, ''The Islamic Jihad will choose the appropriate time to achieve its goals. The situation can last for a long period of time, and it may not. The Israelis cannot sit quiet.''

Yesterday, another bus was bombed, this time in Jerusalem; four people were killed and 100 others wounded.

Is the Islamic fundamentalist worldview vis-a-vis Israel a minority view in the Muslim world? Is this view becoming more isolated, as President Clinton said in his October 1994 address to the Knesset?

Even more important, what is mainstream Islam's view? Is it true that Islam cannot tolerate Israelis in Palestine? Is violence legitimate when efficacious to this end? If the answers are ''no,'' then a Ramat Gan bus rider is not an enemy of Islam. If the answers are ''no,'' then why haven't we heard it loud and clear?

Israelis wonder about the religious precepts of their peace partners when they hear public incitement from mosques to violence against Israelis. Why does the cry of ''Allah-hu-Akbar'' (Allah is great) invariably accompany Arab acts of terror? During an official visit to the Vatican, Israel's Chief Rabbi Lau brought this Israeli concern up with the pope. Nevertheless, terrorist attacks in the name of Allah continue.

Islam has outlasted and no doubt will outlast any number of political personalities, no matter how prominent, and national regimes, no matter how strong. That's why a question raised by Catholic University Professor Russell Hittinger is so pertinent. ''The modern state does not know how to change people's hearts and minds. What happened to theology?'' he asks. A lasting peace must take Islamic doctrine into account.

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A United States Institute of Peace symposium in July 1993 concluded that ''more can be done in advancing peace in areas of conflict through work with religious bodies and communities.'' Professor John Paul Lederach of Eastern Mennonite College, who is also a member of the Mennonite Central Committee's International Conciliation Service, proposed a specific strategy whereby ''religious institutions can play a key role in ... promoting reconciliation, [and] they can be at the center of conflict transformation.'' Professor Lederach says, ''We need to ask how we can work with people of faith at the middle levels to generate peaceful transformation.''

Clearly, Muslim religious leaders, not the politicians and security experts presently negotiating the peace, are the appropriate ones to address. Yet when Chief Rabbi Lau asked the head of the Jerusalem Waqf (Muslim Council) to declare that the murder of innocents in the name of Allah is unacceptable, his request fell on deaf ears. In fact, no Islamic leader of stature has come out clearly and unequivocally for amelioration.

Abdulazziz Sachendina, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, notes that the Koran affirms, ''War may legitimately be waged only with religious authorization.'' John Kelsey, author of ''Just War and Jihad,'' asserts that ''those who proclaim Islam is a religion of peace and has nothing to do with war mislead us.''

Yet, while admitting that mainstream Islam ''does not embrace nonviolence,'' Prof. Michael Nagler of the University of California at Berkley, founder of the Peace and Conflict Studies program, says there is nothing inconsistent with Islam and nonviolence and that the development of nonviolent movements within Islam is in fact possible.

Perhaps the individual Muslim religious leader who wishes to work toward peaceful coexistence needs support. A world-recognized body of Muslim clerics should convene and pronounce explicitly and unequivocally that a sovereign non-Islamic state can indeed be tolerated in the Middle East according to its understanding of the Koran.

In addition to alleviating Israeli suspicions, these clerics would reduce Muslim antagonism and terror toward Israel. Both outcomes would reduce tension and thereby promote peace.

This idea was first proposed as part of a 1992 peace initiative put forth by then-Secretary of State James Baker. It should be reconsidered now. Success or failure of the peace process could hinge on it. The blood of the many innocents that has been - and may yet be - spilled in the wake of the present peace process demands it now more than ever.

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