Al-Aqsa Mosque and Haram al-Sharif stand on top of a pre-Islamic and non-Islamic religious structure. Like the Islamic identity that was superimposed upon Abraham centuries later, al-Aqsa Mosque/Haram al-Sharif was superimposed upon the ruins of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.
While Islam considers itself to be a part of the Abrahamic faiths and the completion of the process of revelations, accepting a similar position vis-à-vis Jerusalem is problematic. Such a position would imply and recognize that al-Aqsa was built on top of the pre-Islamic Jewish religious site. Therefore, mainstream voices in the Arab and the Islamic world consistently reject the presence of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Even after the Oslo accords, the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat dismissed the suggestions of any Jewish link to the city.
The parochial approach towards Jerusalem is part of the larger Islamic approach towards non-Muslims. Under the concept of People of the Book or Dhimmi, Islam offers limited protection to the followers of Judaism and Christianity (to Zoroastrianism in Iran) as they accept the supremacy of Islam in return . Even fourteen centuries later Dhimmi is the only legal and theological framework available in Islam vis-à-vis the religions recognized by it.
Unfortunately, ‘protection’ is no longer a virtue in the modern era and the people of different faiths, races, colors, cultures, castes, gender and nations are no longer content with the patronizing concept of ‘protection’ but demand equality. Furthermore, theologically even this limited protection is non-available to non-Abrahamic faiths, namely, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and other heterodox sects of Islam.
The central issue, therefore, is not endorsing Israel’s claims or condoning its omissions and commissions vis-à-vis Jerusalem but the ahistorical framing of the old city. Jerusalem is not Berlin or the Korean Peninsula, divided over ideological differences and where once bloc politics fails, walls and barbed wires could be replaced by union and unification. Jerusalem is a complex pheromone with varying layers of theological claims and contested histories.
Therefore, by voting in favor of the UNESCO resolution, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has opened a Pandora’s box not only over India’s understanding of the complexities but also its historical friendship towards the Jewish people that can be traced even before the destruction of the Second Temple. A multi-religious society like India should understand the complexities better than any other country in the world. Having failed to resolve the administrative responsibilities of the city of Chandigarh for half a century, mandarins of the South Block should have been more reflective of India’s own predicaments before prescribing solutions to other problems.
Modi has to confront a century-old legacy. Since the early twentieth century, ironically coinciding with the Khilafat struggle, the Indian nationalists perceived Jewish nationalism only through an Islamic prism and endorsed the Islamic claims over Jerusalem to the neglect of other narratives. This parochial view has led to India’s endorsement of the Islamic exclusivism over the city, including its support for East Jerusalem (including Jewish holy sites) being the capital of the future Palestinian state.