Israeli aggression in Sheikh Jarrah has cast the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood into the international spotlight. Videos celebrating Palestinian resistance tactics, capturing the horrors of airstrikes in Gaza, and detailing intrusions upon Masjid al-Aqsa have since proliferated across social media. These scenes have reignited long-standing contestations over how to narrate Palestinian dispossession and struggle. One such debate orbits around an ambiguous question: “Is Palestine an Islamic issue?”
Those who answer in the affirmative emphasize Jerusalem’s standing as a holy site in the Islamic tradition. Such accounts point to the city’s status as the first qibla (direction of prayer) and cite the Prophet’s miraculous night journey and subsequent ascension to heaven from the Dome of the Rock. However, the very terms of this inquiry provoke internal disagreement. For example, does the designation “Islamic issue” exclude the analytical frame of settler-colonialism? Does it position non-Muslim Palestinians as peripheral to the anti-colonial struggle? Does it merely remind believers of their collective obligation to enjoin what is just?
Because of these uncertainties and other consequential reasons, a general distaste for “religious” claims prevails in Euro-American organizing around Palestine. Most commonly, this aversion stems from a critique of orientalist narratives that depict Israel’s settler-colonial project as a primordial feud between Muslims and Jews. Critics aptly highlight that this civilizational portrayal only serves a brutal status quo by representing the occupation as intractable. It also bolsters Israel’s self-representation as the geopolitical face of Judaism — an assertion contested by anti-Zionist Jews as well as the historical record, which discloses the secularism of Israel’s founders (and indeed the nation-state form itself).
Dominant voices within the Palestine advocacy world and NGO sector decisively extend these points, with one viral Instagram post recently asserting that Israeli settler-colonialism is “about anything but religion.”
This is a familiar refrain that punctuates much support for Palestinian resistance in the West, whether in the setting of the non-profit, university campus, or streets. Indeed, skepticism towards “religious” claims serves as a common thread uniting disparate analyses: for example, that Palestinian suffering is first and foremost a humanitarian concern, or — for those attuned to critiques of humanitarianism — that Palestinian subjugation is primarily an issue of human rights violations. Or the most sophisticated of such arguments: that discussions of “religion” only distract from the real antagonism between colonizer and colonized.
Though these correctives respond primarily to the Zionist appropriation of “religious” discourse, they also serve to manage and discipline someone else: the unruly Muslim, whose disorderly anti-colonialism partakes in a different, longer genealogy than that of human rights or national liberation. The habits of this troublesome figure defy a linear, progressivist concept of political maturity, in which the parochial subject who calls upon Allah gradually gives way to the professional advocate who calls upon the international community. Such accounts of political development subtly echo Eurocentric theses of secularization, which tie the passage of time to the gradual disappearance of “religion” from public life.
Within this frame, the rebellious “Allahu Akbar!” that escapes from the young Muslim protestor’s mouth signals two types of failure. First: a public relations failure. Swift admonitions like “You’re giving the media what they want!” scold the riotous believer and crystallize the idea that Muslim zeal derails movements. If overt displays of Islamic sentiment do, in fact, discredit a cause (or in the case of Palestine itself, render a people deserving of death), these rebukes rarely oppose or interrogate how this has come to be. Instead, they merely extend Islamophobic oversight, transforming activists themselves into forces of microsurveillance.
Second, and perhaps more significantly, the utterance of the takbir is read as a failure to recognize the true, political nature of the occupation. Thus religion — understood as a realm of private belief, ritual practice, inner experience, and affective attachments — is presented not only as anti-political, but also as an active agent of depoliticization. These vernacular theories are conversant with academic calls to “de-sacralize” the Middle East and think “beyond Islam.”  Prevalent in Middle East Studies, such calls suggest that the analytical foregrounding of religion (sometimes framed as “religious ideology”) takes place at the expense of historical context. It is also assumed that the sheer empirical diversity of the Muslim world empties Islam of any coherent analytic status. Samira Haj demonstrates how this orientation, despite its anti-essentialist commitments, reproduces notions of Islam as temporally fixed. She attributes this to a lingering attachment to liberal humanism and observes, “…this self-reflexive, theoretical genre of postorientalist and postmodernist scholarship, continues to be encumbered by a notion of religion informed and shaped by the modern experience of Western societies.”
Secular Power and the Invention of Religion
Like Haj, Salman Sayyid argues that this hegemonic conception of religion is “heavily reliant on the use of western Christianity as the model of what a religion is.” Further, it positions Islam as one variety of a generic problem. Here, “religion” assumes a transhistorical essence, leveling the differences between various projects that invoke God. As a result, Islamic ethico-political claims and Israeli invocations of religion — despite their markedly divergent aspirations — can be cast as parallel objects of suspicion. In other words, the “Islamist” comes to appear the mirror image of the Zionist settler. What grammar of concepts animates these presumptions about religion, politics, and Islam? And what forms of being do they (re)produce or render inadmissible?
Decades of scholarship have demonstrated how these notions of religion and politics are not natural, neutral, or timeless. Rather, they partake in a genealogy of secularism that permeates these concepts with meaning in the first place. This is of little consequence if one adopts a colloquial understanding of secularism as the mere absence of religion, or a separation between pre-existing domains (public, private, political, religious). But as Saba Mahmood emphasizes, secularism is a normative project that “generates these very spheres, establishes their boundaries, and suffuses them with content, such that they come to acquire a natural quality for those living within its terms.” Stated differently, secularism is neither a default state nor the culmination of historical progress, but rather, a mode of political rule that sanctions particular sensibilities, forms of reasoning, and attitudes while rendering others deviant. Thus, the designation “religious” is not simply descriptive; it also performs the secular operation of prescribing, limiting, and regulating Islam’s “proper” place.
Why does this matter? Because it is not only the immediate and brutal encounter between colonizer and colonized, but also the global force of secular power that disciplines, governs, and remakes Palestinians. The Israeli state’s leading role in the Islamophobia industry, coupled with its development of key tactics, discourses, and technologies in the War on Terror attest to this concretely. Further, Zionist propaganda strategically deploys an image of secular tolerance to garner international support, depicting Israel as a bastion of freely exchanged ideas, sexual equality, and democratic principles in an otherwise authoritarian Middle East.
Tolerance-Talk and the Non-Muslim Palestinian
Israel’s cultivated national image stands in stark contrast with its Other: the homogeneous universe of the Palestinian, comprised of unquestioning and intolerant masses who are capable of neither peaceful coexistence nor dialogue. In recent comments, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even framed Zionist escalations in East Jerusalem as “a struggle between intolerance and tolerance,” representing Israel as a forceful beacon of secular values on one hand, and a victimized entity harmed by the intolerant (i.e., Palestinians) on the other. Not only do such claims fabricate an association between anti-colonial resistance and bigotry, but they also fuel a dangerous civilizational logic.
As Wendy Brown argues in her analysis of tolerance discourse, “The native, the fanatic, the fundamentalist, and the bigot are what must be overcome [emphasis added] by the society committed to tolerance; from the perspective of the tolerant, these figures are pre-modern or at least have not been thoroughly washed by modernity.” It is in this sense that the trope of Palestinian intolerance is inextricably tied to secular anxieties over the Islamic “fundamentalist” — the archetypal symbol of backwardness. And insofar as “overcoming” intolerance requires re-engineering or eliminating the fanatical Palestinian Everyman, Israeli tolerance-talk carries a sinister, genocidal subtext.
It is for these reasons that seemingly innocuous questions like “What about Palestinian Christians?” operate within a complex and highly charged field of power. In isolation, such a query may simply convey awareness that non-Muslims also experience settler-colonial violence, or that they too resist the occupation in meaningful ways alongside Islamic practitioners. And for practical reasons, citing the dispossession of the non-Muslim Palestinian may even capture the attention of those who have become apathetic to Muslim death over the long course of the War on Terror (a project with a worldwide body count significantly over half a million).
However, when deployed as a rebuke — a response to expressions of transregional Islamic kinship or devotion to the Muslim umma — this question performs a different kind of political work. Its rhetorical might lies not in the sincerity of the well-meaning inquirer but in a wider discursive climate that casts Muslims as innately prejudiced and uniquely averse to the rights of minorities. Within this broader frame, non-Muslim Palestinians are rendered a vulnerable population in need of defense from domineering Muslim masses. This theme of minorities-in-crisis has regularly surfaced in the War on Terror, serving as justification for colonial management and intervention abroad. However, this script long precedes the invasions that followed September 11th. Western imperialist powers also described the Muslim-majority world in this register during the Interwar Period, when colonial bordermaking rendered some non-Muslim groups (Maronite Christians in Lebanon) sacrosanct populations.
The modern concept of the “national minority” itself grows from this historical moment, being closely tied to the human rights regime birthed out of the League of Nations. In fact, the declaration that Palestine is not a “religious issue” frequently prefaces a larger assertion: that it is a question of human rights. Though this claim may possess pragmatic appeal, it assumes that unlike the concerns of the Muslim — understood as tainted by the baggage of divisive theological attachments — those of the human rights worker are universal, capacious, and inclusive of the non-Muslim Palestinian. In the same move that this account denies Islam a capacity for the universal, it exalts human rights (and the secular politics of humanity in which they are embedded) as devoid of particularist commitments.
Refuting the universality of human rights has become a banal exercise. Commentators within and beyond the academy have pointed to the limitations, contradictions, and distinctly European genealogy of the paradigm for decades, identifying it as a powerful iteration of what Salman Sayyid terms “Westernese.” Some critics illustrate how human rights operate in an asymmetrical world, in which actors necessarily deploy rights claims with unequal success. Others emphasize how the deep malleability of the human rights framework allows for it to be taken up by counter-intuitive forces. For example, Israeli settler NGOs like Regavim and the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel successfully utilize the vocabulary of human rights to facilitate Palestinian displacement.
However, the Zionist movement’s reliance on human rights rhetoric reaches even farther back to a more foundational moment. In the 1940s, Zionists allied with Britain presented the Israeli state as both a humanitarian solution to anti-Semitism in Europe and reparation for human rights violations against Jews. Against the general tendency to view such uses of human rights as distortions or misappropriations, Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon emphasize that liberal and illiberal mobilizations of rights claims “demarcate the borders of the human in ways that often advance the political objectives of the dominant.” Here the authors invoke Samera Esmeir’s incisive critique of modern law and its conventional framing as a means of human protection. In her study of the “colonial career of the human” in Egypt, Samera Esmeir argues that colonialism not only subjugates through exclusion from humanity, but also through modern law’s incorporative “power of humanization.”
Common (mis)conceptions of human rights echo and reproduce broader assumptions about the secular, often lauded as a project uniquely capable of breeding coexistence and accommodation, and the only means to cultivate a capacity to reach out to the Other. Although secularism tells a story of its own universality, what if forcibly secularizing the question of Palestine is to mistakenly provincialize a worldwide struggle — one vitalized by Islamic aspiration, conceptions of divine justice, and the unbroken enthusiasm of devoted Muslim masses across the Global South? Indeed, believers in Palestine, like their co-religionists elsewhere, situate their opposition to colonial domination not only in the flattening idioms of humanitarian compassion or the politico-juridical register of rights, but also with reference to the moral universe of the umma, a concept traversing multiple temporalities and attached to dynamic notions of divine order, dignity, endurance, death, and victory. What modalities of resistance and affiliation might reflect this dynamism and allow for a total critique of Israeli settler-colonialism, which disrupts not only the bodies and infrastructure of the colonized, but also their ethical lives?
 Special thanks to the generous and committed Ibn Yunan for his feedback. Gratitude to Fatima, Jalil, Jamil, Leena, Obaidallah, Omnia, Rajbir, Sahar, and Tarek as well.
 The securitization of Muslim support for the Palestinian struggle also generates much ambivalence towards overt displays of Islamic belonging. In Britain, for example, questionnaires used to craft Counter Terrorism Local Profiles (CTLPs) specifically inquire about “Anti-Israeli/Pro-Palestinian activity” in designated localities. Further, under the UK’s PREVENT counter-terrorism strategy, gestures of solidarity with Palestinians continue to provoke state scrutiny over so-called “Islamist extremism.” Similar trends exist in the United States, where Palestine demonstrations have resulted in surveillance and harassment from the FBI and possible placement on government watchlists.
 Muslims in America have contributed to this important critique by popularizing the term “faith-washing.” The expression first gained traction in 2014, when many in the United States first learned of the betrayals of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI).
 Miriam Ticktin’s study of undocumented immigrants in France distinguishes humanitarianism from human rights claims. She argues, “Rights entail a concept of justice, which includes standards of obligation and implies equality between individuals. Humanitarianism is about the exception rather than the rule, about generosity rather than entitlement” (45). More common critiques of humanitarian projects point to their neoliberal logics, or the ways humanitarian assistance may actually reproduce global asymmetries of power and wealth. See also Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 127-158.
 Nasser Abufarha’s analysis of Muslim political violence challenges the tradition-modernity binary underpinning this linear narrative. In his study of the rise of the the istishhadi as a new Palestinian icon, he illustrates both the modern character of martyrdom operations (’amaliyyat istishhadiyya) as well as their opposition to bureaucratic and neo-liberal logics introduced during the Oslo “peace process.” He writes, “Martyrdom operations challenge the ‘internationally’ established rules of engagement as enshrined in international human rights, international law, and global agencies’ frames of reference by bringing the battlefield into new sites in the public spaces” (235).
 Sami Zubaida, Beyond Islam: A New Understanding of the Middle East (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011).
 In her study of Arab intellectual history, however, Omnia El Shakry demonstrates that this notion of context is a narrow one, admitting only the sociopolitical while neglecting “the longue durée of discursive traditions” (20). Thus, at best, the anti-historicist claims of the believer come to appear as second-order “expressions” of regional belonging, colonial strife, class conflict, or racialization. And at worst, they become the mere flipside of a single orientalist coin.
 Haj continues, “by collapsing modernity with secularism, radical Islamists are explained primarily as ‘epiphenomenal of social upheaval,’ a reaction to social and economic predicaments, a purely political phenomenon that draws on Islamic symbols and imagery to enflame the passions of the alienated and the disenfranchised” (195). She argues that this framework dismisses Islamists’ diligent critiques of Western modernity and profound discussions of “their vision of a society infused with Islamic ethics and practices” (196).
 Salman Sayyid, A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism (London: Zed Books, 1997), 14.
 I borrow this language from Gil Anidjar, Semites: Race, Religion, Literature (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), 51.
 Saba Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 3.
 Gil Anidjar aptly describes religion as a “polemical concept” (2009, 369). Timothy Fitzgerald echoes this, arguing that it is “at the heart of modern western capitalist ideology” and “mystifies by playing a crucial role in the construction of the secular” (20).
 One may note parallels between the anti-Muslim “science” of pre-crime developed in Britain’s domestic War on Terror (and exported globally) and the logic of preemptive annihilation Maya Mikdashi examines in her analysis of Israel’s gendered language of war. Mikdashi observes, “the killing of women and girls and pre-teen and underage boys is to be marked, but boys and men are presumed guilty of what they might do if allowed to live their lives. Furthermore, these boys and men are potentially dangerous not only to the militaries that occupy them, but to those womenandchildren who actually are civilians. The young boys, after all, may grow up to be violent extremists. Thus, kill the flesh—extinguish the potential.”
 Wendy Brown, “Tolerance as/in Civilizational Discourse,” Nomos 48 (2008): 414.
 Other minorities like Kurds and Armenians were largely rendered invisible in this colonial discourse.
 While humanitarianism has come to operate through processes of secularization, Talal Asad (2013) reminds us that the genealogy of humanitarianism is inseparable from claims to religious orthodoxy, specifically medieval Christians’ criticisms of those who ascribed an exclusively human nature to Jesus.
 Drawing from Lynn Festa, Talal Asad (2013) follows the genealogy of projects conducted in the name of humanity: “In Europe’s imperial centuries…encounters with strange peoples and places produced emotions that could threaten the integrity of the colonizing self. One way the latter could be reasserted or restored was by defining interpersonal relations in terms of the asymmetry of sympathy, articulating thereby an antithesis between the colonizing subject of sympathy and the colonized subject of suffering, each side dependent on the other for its identity.”
 Nicola Perugini and Neve Gordon, The Human Right to Dominate (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 22.
 Perugini and Gordon, The Human Right to Dominate, 24.
 Perugini and Gordon, The Human Right to Dominate, 23.
 Samera Esmeir, Juridical Humanity: A Colonial History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 12.
 Esmeir, Juridical Humanity, 2.
 Saba Mahmood argues the opposite with regard to the Egyptian state. She writes, “modern secular governance has contributed to the exacerbation of religious tension…hardening interfaith boundaries and polarizing religious differences” (1). This is also clear in the West, where heated debates over Muslim refugee and diaspora populations betray the limits of secular tolerance. Consider the policing of the headscarf in France, or counter-terrorism strategies in Britain that treat Muslims, in toto, as a suspect community.
Abufarha, Nasser. The Making of a Human Bomb: An Ethnography of Palestinian Resistance. Duke University Press, 2009.
Anidjar, Gil. Semites: Race, Religion, Literature. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.
Anidjar, Gil. “The Idea of an Anthropology of Christianity.” Interventions 11. no. 3 (2009): 367-393.
Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.
Asad, Talal. “Reflections on Violence, Law, and Humanitarianism.” Critical Inquiry (2013), https://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/reflections_on_violence_law_and_humanitarianism/.
Brown, Wendy. “Tolerance as/in Civilizational Discourse.” Nomos 48 (2008): 406-441.
El Shakry, Omnia. “Rethinking Arab Intellectual History: Epistemology, Historicism, Secularism.” Modern Intellectual History 18, no. 2 (2021): 547-72.
Esmeir, Samera. Juridical Humanity: A Colonial History. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012.
Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Haj, Samira. Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition: Reform, Rationalist, and Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009.
Hammami, Rema. “Palestinian NGOs Since Oslo: From NGO Politics to Social Movements?” Middle East Report 214 (2000): 16-48.
Mahmood, Saba. Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.
Mikdashi, Maya. “Can Palestinian Men be Victims? Gendering Israel’s War on Gaza.” Jadaliyya (2014), https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/30991.
Perugini, Nicola and Neve Gordon. The Human Right to Dominate. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.
Sayyid, Salman. A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism. London: Zed Books, 1997.
Zubaida, Sami. Beyond Islam: A New Understanding of the Middle East. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011.