Towards Autonomy? the Islamist Movement's Quest for Control of Islamic Institutions in Israel

By Peled, Alisa Rubin | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview
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Towards Autonomy? the Islamist Movement's Quest for Control of Islamic Institutions in Israel

Peled, Alisa Rubin, The Middle East Journal

From origins as a small clandestine association, the Islamist movement in Israel grew into a major grassroots organization with political representation at the municipal and national levels by the late 1990s. The movement has been particularly successful in mobilizing Israel's Muslim population to challenge the state-- controlled Islamic institutions. The current literature tends to downplay the impact of this escalating campaign either to gain control over Islamic institutions (such as waqf, charitable endowments, and shari'a courts) or to establish autonomous alternatives wherever possible. The article focuses on this quest in order to assess the movement's development and its prospects for future communal autonomy.

Beginning as a small militant underground movement in the early 1980s, the Islamist movement developed into a major force on the Arab political scene in Israel by the early 1990s. Providing community services and action where apathy and despair had previously reigned, the independently funded movement improved the quality of life for many of its supporters and achieved political representation at the municipal, and then national, levels. While critical of all aspects of state minority policy, the Islamist movement has been especially successful in rallying public support around its dissatisfaction with the state-controlled Islamic institutions. Most scholarship of the movement has focused on its political and social mobilization of the Muslim minority population; however, one of its most significant achievements has been its sustained campaign to gain control over Islamic institutions such as waqf (plural awqaf, charitable endowments), holy places, and religious education. In recent years, the Islamist movement has succeeded in bringing the backwater issue of Israel's Islamic policy to the forefront of the minority political agenda and has escalated its challenge by successfully introducing its own set of parallel, autonomous institutions wherever possible.1

The most prominent case to date involves a dispute over land in Nazareth, which gained international attention in the months preceding Pope John Paul II's visit to the city in March 2000. The struggle centers on the land directly adjacent to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, one of Christianity's most important holy places. Leaders of the Islamist movement have declared the land to be waqf, or Muslim religious trust land, and insist on building a mosque at the site. Whatever the final outcome of this potentially explosive dispute, it exemplifies the Islamist movement's effective use of Israel's Islamic policy as a rallying point for political mobilization. Examining the escalating struggle for control over Islamic institutions in Israel provides some insight into the Islamist movement's ultimate goals concerning communal autonomy and the potential response of the state in addition to providing an additional dimension for understanding the emergence and development of the movement.


Scholars mark the 1967 Arab-Israeli War as a major source of the wave of religious resurgence in the Arab world, when military defeat diminished popular support for secular nationalism.2 For the Muslim citizens of Israel, the subsequent Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip initiated a dual process of Palestinization and Islamization. In light of growing frustration with continued discrimination and a perceived second-class citizen status, the Arabs in Israel embraced the nationalist identity articulated by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). In addition, for the Muslim community in Israel, less than inspired by its own state-controlled religious establishment, renewed access to the holy sites in Jerusalem and the well-organized West Bank Islamic establishment sparked a religious revival.3

Mounting contact with the religious institutions of the West Bank and Gaza also directly exposed Israel's Muslim citizens to Islamist ideologies.

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Towards Autonomy? the Islamist Movement's Quest for Control of Islamic Institutions in Israel


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