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Prof. Moshe Ma'oz - Report no. 4; August 2012

Records from Regional Meetings is a series of publications by Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, which present the Israeli public and decision makers with perceptions and questions by Arabs and Muslims, as these are reflected in international policy conferences where representatives from Israel and the region take part. At times when channels for communication between Israel and its neighbors are limited, we find it crucial to distribute this information as a tool for promoting an Israeli foreign policy that encourages peace and regional belonging.

The Imam at the central mosque in Tirana, Albania's capital, agreed to sit down with me after the closing prayer during Ramadan, before the Iftar meal marking the end of the daily fast. The Imam was ordained several years ago at El-Azhar University in Cairo, so he spoke to me in fluent Arabic about the significance of Ramadan and the relationship between Islam and Judaism of the subject of my research at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He emphasized the common values of Islam and Judaism, among them monotheism and the fast commandment, as well as the fact that in Albania there has historically been equality between Muslims, Christians, and Jews. He even praised the Albanian Muslim community's efforts to save hundreds of Jews during the Second World War.

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue, he was more hesitant, believing that there is a clash of religious perceptions on the subject. Muslims believe that the entirety of the land of Palestine is Muslim, whereas Jews believe that the land belongs to them. The Imam did not point towards a concrete political solution, stating that each side must acknowledge the perception of the other and both must live in peace and serenity on the same land.

It is plausible to assume that his moderate views represent the religious Muslim community in Albania, which is relatively small (the congregation in this particular mosque is around 200 people). The majority of the Albanian population is secular as a result of a series of harsh secular reforms imposed by the fanatic communist rulers over several decades. This period also witnessed the destruction of many mosques, spearheaded mainly by the dictator Enver Hoxha. Since the collapse of the communist regime in 1990 and the establishment of democracy in 1992, religious and educational institutions were built, and a moderate Islamic orientation emerged. Today, the majority of Muslims in Albania (70 percent out of a population of 3 million), are secular or traditional. Neighboring Kosovo, where approximately 90 percent of the population is Muslim, follows a similar pattern, and Bosnia-Herzegovina has a Muslim population of about 45 percent out of 4.5 million.

In my conversations with academics, students, clerks, and journalists in Kosovo and Albania, I was exposed time and again to moderate, pragmatic, pluralistic, and non-hostile Islamic perceptions towards Jews and Israel. From my research, I know that this is not exclusive to the Balkans, it is also the case in Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, and African-Muslim states. This is not the place to elaborate about the roots of this outlook in contrast to extremist anti-Israel perceptions, anti-Semitism in Iran, and organizations such as Al-Qaeda, Hezbullah, Hamas, and others. While the significance of these is not to be underplayed, it is important to highlight the catalysts of moderate Islam around the world: tolerance and pluralism combined with strategic economic and political interests relating to Israel.

As mentioned earlier, in Kosovo and Albania I generally heard positive opinions about Jews and Israel. Numerous interlocutors or individuals spoke to me about support for coexistence and mixed marriages between Muslims and Jews. They also praised the economic and military assistance provided by Israel to their countries, although Israel's decision not to recognize the independence of Kosovo and to send an ambassador to Pristina has angered many Kosovars. In contrast, I have heard claims from several interlocutors in other Muslim countries that Israel and the Jews rule the world, especially the United States, thanks to their wealth and their connections with "secret global organizations" such as the "Freemasons" and the "Elders of Zion". Similarly, and seemingly subject to the influence of the Arab media, there are Muslim Albanians who distinguish between Jews on the one hand and Zionists and Israelis on the other. In other words, Jews are accepted and treated with equality and fairness by Muslim-majority countries, whereas Zionism and Israel are imperialist and colonialist factors that abused the Palestinian people and stole their lands.

Nonetheless, these accusers, and the majority of moderate Muslims in the Balkans and in many other regions, believe that a fair and mutually acceptable solution to the Palestinian problem (for example on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative from 2002), will contribute significantly to the improvement of relations between Muslims and Jews and to the acceptance of Israel by the Arab and Muslim worlds.

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