The Palestinian Struggle for Independence and the So-Called “Muslim World”

*Submitted anonymously with permission of instructor.

From the early days of political Zionist intentions to establish a Jewish homeland in the historic land of Palestine, there was widespread support from Muslim majority nation-states in regards to Palestinian independence and retention of their land. Nevertheless, as over 100 years has passed since the infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917, Muslim majority nation-states’ support of the Palestinians has largely waned due to a change in the balance of power and territory. This post will analyze this transition in terms of the initial framing of the Palestinian struggle for independence as a central cause of the imagined Muslim world, towards the current world order in which most of the Muslim-majority nation-states which previously backed the Palestinian cause (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia), have moved away from active support of the Palestinians—and in contrast, have actually signed peace agreements with Israel. In understanding the discussion that follows, it is important to recognize the distinction between references to a so-called “Muslim world” which is intended to represent the interests of Muslims worldwide, and the decisions of specific Muslim-majority nation state’s governments.

To understand the current world order, one must first look back at the early days of the Palestinian struggle and where the major Muslim majority nation-states stood on the issue at the time. Following the Ottoman defeat in World War 1, and the subsequent allocation of Muslim-majority lands to Western allied nations under the mandate system, there was a significant rise in pan-Islamic mobilization (Aydin, 101). This reaction generated a widespread unity among Muslims of a variety of geopolitical regions as they could mobilize, “in the name of saving and empowering the Muslim world” (Aydin, 101). This perceived unity was crucial to fomenting the Palestinian struggle as a central cause of the imagined Muslim world because it not only contained the third holiest site for Muslims (Haram al-Sharif), but it also served as a global symbol of resistance to the imperialism and colonialism which Muslim communities worldwide were facing. With the release of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, there was an affirmation of Western imperialism directed towards Palestine, and a feeling among Muslim-majority communities that the Palestinian struggle was symbolic of the greater struggle of Muslim and non-aligned communities against colonialism and imperialism (Aydin, 137).

Following World War 1, the advancement of the Palestinian cause as a centerpiece of the imagined Muslim world was propelled by the actions of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Al-Husseini saw the threat of Western imperialism and Zionism to the future of an Arab state in Palestine, and thus, he worked to make Jerusalem a pan-Islamic hub in order to highlight the importance of the Palestinian struggle for the imagined Muslim world (Aydin, 156-157). Al-Husseini worked to unite broad Muslim public opinion behind the plight of the Palestinians, which proved quite successful during the interwar period; however, the events of World War 2 and the following Arab-Israeli Wars dramatically shifted the focus and importance of the Palestinian cause to the imagined Muslim world.

The so-called Muslim world made significant efforts to defend the Palestinian people and the future of a Palestinian state in terms of the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1948 and 1967. However, following the immense humiliation for the Arab nation-states due to the significant loss of territory, including Jerusalem in the 1967 War, there was a significant transition in Muslim-majority nation-state political support for the Palestinians (Aydin, 173). Prior to 1967, Arab nation-state support for the Palestinians was not centered so much around the idea of a Palestinian state, but instead, was focused on Palestine as “the heart of a bigger Arab nation” (Telhami).

Following the 1967 War there were some attempts by Muslim majority nation-states to “take-back” the Palestinian cause, such as King Faisal of Saudi Arabia positioning himself as the spokesperson of the imagined Muslim world, and in doing so placing a particular emphasis on the Palestinian struggle (Aydin, 177). Nevertheless, he was assassinated in 1975 and the reclamation of the Palestinian cause by Muslim majority nation-states seemed lost (Aydin, 177). Compounding this loss of Saudi support for the Palestinians, three years after King Faisal’s assassination, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with Israel largely due to a perceived need to retrieve the Sinai Peninsula which had been lost during the 1967 war (Telhami). Thus, following the 1967 War the Palestinian cause had lost two of its significant allies in terms of Muslim-majority nation states—Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Meanwhile, several other Muslim-majority nation states, notably Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, were pursuing modernizing and westernizing reforms and were subsequently sympathetic to the US cause—which was closely tied to the Israeli cause (Aydin, 187).

Another significant factor which played into the isolation of the Palestinian cause from the framing of the Muslim world’s cause following the War of 1967, were the events of the Khartoum conference. At this conference, the “hardline” factions including several Palestinian groups, the Syrians, and the Algerians, were largely excluded from the discussion (Tessler, 409). Instead, the “mainstream” representatives, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan lead the events. In turn, the conference produced what appeared to many outsiders as a radical stance (I.e. the famous “three no’s”), but in reality, the “mainstream” leaders pushed for political rather than military action due to their difficult losses in the ‘67 War (Tessler 410-411).

Furthermore, a reflection of the geopolitical motivations which caused Egypt and Jordan to sign their peace agreements with Israel in 1978 and 1984 respectively, can be seen in the contemporary relationship and negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Israel (Wehrey, 85). Due to the perceived danger of Hamas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel and Saudi Arabia have a shared concern which has found them on a path toward rapprochement—particularly in regards to the Saudi Arabian 2002 peace initiative (Wehrey, 86-88). The role of Hamas in uniting Israeli and Saudi Arabian foreign policy is largely centered around a shared fear that Hamas will demonstrate support for, and be supported by countries such as Iran, and groups such as Hezbollah—which both remain enemies of the Saudi and Israeli governments. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has been influenced in its increasingly open policies towards Israel due to the Saudi government’s strong ties to the United States and its need to come out strongly against any “terrorist” organizations targeted by the United States following the 9/11 attacks—demonstrated most prominently by their policies towards Hamas in recent years.

While much of the discourse surrounding Palestinian independence has centered around international influence and actions, this discourse misses the Palestinian mentality surrounding their struggle. As evidenced by the image above and based on my personal experience in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, there is a recurring theme of isolation felt by many Palestinians not only in the sense that their freedom of movement and freedom of information is intensely restricted by the Israeli government, but also in that they feel little international support for their liberation from Occupation. This feeling of isolation and singularity which is depicted in the image of a single Palestinian reaching to mount the Palestinian flag, is a shared experience among Palestinians, particularly in reference to the support of Muslim majority nation-states. While Palestinians initially received widespread economic and military support from Muslim majority nation-states beginning with the Balfour Declaration of 1917, this support has largely waned in subsequent decades. This isolation, and to a certain extent betrayal, runs deep in the Palestinian psyche as nowadays there is widespread acceptance of international support when and if it comes; but, there are no misguided beliefs that the Palestinians will be led to liberation. Now, there is an established rhetoric that the Palestinians, and only the Palestinians, will be the ones to achieve liberation and recognition for their people. Thus, despite 70 years of political uncertainty for the Palestinian people, today, this statue stands as a symbol of the resilience and persistence of the Palestinian people in achieving their liberation.


Aydin, Cemil. “The Battle of Geopolitical Illusions (1814-1878).” Chap. 4 in The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Aydin, Cemil. “Muslim Politics of the Interwar Period (1924-1945).” Chap. 5 in The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Aydin, Cemil. “Resurrecting Muslim Internationalism (1945-1988).” Chap. 6 in The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Image: Photo by author. “Someday.” 7/20/17. Yasser Arafat Square, Ramallah, Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Telhami, Shibley. Brookings Institute. “The dual effects of the 1967 War on Palestinians reverberate 50 years later.” May 31, 2017. 

Tessler, Mark. “Postwar Diplomacy and the Palestine Resistance Movement.” Chap. 7 in A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Wehrey, Frederic et al. “Contention on the Periphery: Saudi-Iranian Relations and the Conflicts in Lebanon and Palestine.” In Saudi-Iranian Relations Since the Fall of Saddam: Rivalry, Cooperation, and Implications for U.S. Policy, 77-92. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2009.


About Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst

Assistant Professor of Religion
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