The obsession with exposing the ‘Muslim mindset’

After a decade of poor reportage, chaos in the region, and right-wing rule under Netanyahu, the Jewish Israeli public has hardened in its attitudes toward Islam.

By Daniel Amir

Zvi Yehezkeli. (Channel 10/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Zvi Yehezkeli. (Channel 10/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Zvi Yehezkeli is Israel’s Arabist par excellence. After over a decade as head of the Israel Channel 10’s Arab desk, Yehezkeli has become a trusted figure in Israel’s news-heavy culture. He speaks Arabic fluently, and leverages his looks and command of the language to easily blend into Muslim communities around the Middle East, Europe, and North America. In 2012, before the rise of ISIS, Yehezkeli starred in an undercover television documentary series, “Allah Islam,” purportedly exposing the real European ‘Islam’ and Muslims of Europe. The series, and its approach, was broadly panned as fear-mongering.

Yehezkeli’s new show, “Undercover,” aims to review the state of affairs in Islam half a decade later. Much has changed. Since 2012, we have witnessed the rise and decline (but not fall) of ISIS, a massive increase in refugee flows from the region, the Iran nuclear deal, and no progress on peace with Palestine. Yehezkeli’s target this time is the Muslim Brotherhood, featuring Yehezkeli himself as his Muslim alter-ego,  packaged with a beard, prayer beads, skullcap, and hidden camera. Over the course of the series, Yehezkeli travels under his false identity to give Israeli audiences a view inside ‘Islam.’

This kind of undercover work has a long history in the study of Arab affairs and Islam. To start, there was Dutch Orientalist Snouck Hurgronje, and the British Richard Francis Burton, both of whom sought a similar truth about Islam, one that could be easily encapsulated and relayed back to people who know little about it. In the series’ first episode, we see Yehezkeli in Israel visiting an imam, learning how to observe ritual purity before prayer and conduct himself in a mosque. He arrives incognito — and serious.

But the show is about a man leaning about his enemy — a threat — not a major world religion. Islam appears in the program as suspicious, secretive, mysterious — more like something to be leveraged than a religion. The show bills Yehezkeli as “putting his life in danger,” though, more often than not, he is simply wandering in and out of mosques and exchanging pleasantries in Arabic.

We must beware of this concept of “knowing” Islam as it is relayed to us by figures like Yehezkeli. Yehezkeli’s understanding is geared towards his own sense of advantage and power, and is set to control and influence. This is not an academic knowledge, it is a packaged set of crude reference points. Implicit in it is the idea of capturing a singular Muslim mentality, and the ability to use it to outmaneuver the enemy. It is all too common for an Israeli media narrative on Arab affairs to generalize and essentialize when it talks about Palestine or Syria. With a unitary focus on Islam as the sum-total of social and political motives of Muslims in Europe, we see this destructive narrative reinforced.

Driving through the suburban streets of Paris, Yehezkeli and his crew come across a teenage refugee boy, asking him in Arabic where he is from and whether or not he is Sunni. Not even a nod is made to the human suffering witnessed over the years since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Instead, we see crumbling French churches and mosques built in their places. Europe appears naïve and ignorant for underscoring rights for Muslims over the kind of scaremongering that brought the French far-right terrifyingly close to power last year.

Palestinian Muslim worshippers pray overnight during Laylat al-Qadr, outside the Dome of the Rock in the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, July 13, 2015. (Activestills.org)
Palestinian Muslim worshippers pray overnight during Laylat al-Qadr, outside the Dome of the Rock in the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, July 13, 2015. (Activestills.org)

But Yehezkeli and his viewers shouldn’t be so quick find confirmation of their biases and fears in what Yehezkeli claims to reveal about international Islam — whatever that may be. Scarier revelations about Israeli society lurk in his program. If Europe’s Arabs are like this, Yehezkeli’s work seems to argue, how can we trust them at home, in Israel, where they border us on all sides? When everything revolves around Islam, why look to political, social, or economic motivations to explain the actions of the Arabs and Muslims it mobilizes?

In the first episode of “Allah Islam” in 2012, Yehezkeli claims to begin his investigation with an open mind, wanting to hear stories told by Muslims in Europe about their lived experiences. By 2018, we find Yehezkeli, his head shaved, his beard trimmed, and his prayer beads in hand, looking perturbed at the sight of his “Arab” self in the mirror. “You couldn’t get through passport control looking like this,” he says cynically. He has been hardened over the past six years or so. After 10 years of poor reportage, chaotic politics in the region, and right-wing rule under Netanyahu, the Israeli public has hardened too. As much as Yehezkeli’s work is framed as a fascinating window into modern Muslim life, it seems to promote the very ignorance and intolerance that already prevail.

Daniel Amir is a graduate of the University of Oxford in Oriental Studies and a student at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has worked in foreign policy and counter-extremism in both London and Washington D.C. Twitter: @Daniel_Amir1.