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War on Sacred Grounds (review)
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War on Sacred Grounds, by Ron E. Hassner. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 2009. xvii + 179 pages. Acknowledgments to p. 182. Notes to p. 216. Index to p. 222. $29.95.

I write this review from Jerusalem, where during the past few months (fall 2009), I have witnessed firsthand the ongoing rumblings of potential war on sacred grounds. During the weeks spanning from Ramadan to Succoth, Palestinian Muslims expressed fear (real or rumored depending on whom you ask) of Jewish advances on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which in turn lead to Israel limiting access of Muslim males to the mosques in order to protect Jews praying at the Western Wall, which in turn led to greater Arab protests and condemnation. It was with great interest then that I read Ron Hassner’s important and engaging work.

He approaches the topic of sacred turf with refreshing new insights and perspectives and, while not offering any concrete solutions, he does propose new approaches that could prove fruitful. While the main case studies are Middle Eastern, Hassner is to be complimented for his inclusion of sites from many different religious traditions and countries. Hassner begins with introductory chapters in which he analyzes conflicts over sacred sites, explores from a political science perspective why sacred places are contested, and then examines why the “indivisibility” of sacred sites makes them more problematic to solve than common territorial disputes.

Hassner then turns to case studies of successful and not-successful approaches to the management of disputed sacred sites. His examples of mismanagement of sacred space come from India and Israel/Palestine. He uses the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem as examples of how forced partition does not lead to peaceful sharing. Ayodha, India, where Hindus and Muslims contend over a destroyed mosque at the birth site of the Hindu God Ram, serves as an example of failed conflict resolution due to the “absence of strict neutrality and overwhelming power preponderance” (p. 76). According to Hassner, the Camp David meetings in 2000 collapsed because of the contentious Temple Mount issue. This, he suggests, happened because of the “failure to incorporate religious actors and experts in preparing for the negotiations,” which meant that negotiators were “caught off guard by the demands [of opponents] concerning sacred space” and because religious leaders excluded from the process hampered the progress from without (p. 82).

The primary focus of the book then turns to the theory and practice of successful sharing of sacred space as a result of the direct involvement and input of religious leaders — something Hassner sees as missing [End Page 302] from most negotiations — who in turn must work with their religious constituencies and with the political elite in reconfiguring sacred space. The first case study of successful conflict management revolves around the 1967 Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem. Hassner describes the inner workings of the Israeli government and Jewish leaders who opted to prevent Israeli/Jewish control of the Temple Mount in order to avoid increased conflict with the Muslim world. Allowing Muslims to continue to control the Haram al-Sharif was facilitated by an October 1967 rabbinic ruling (by 56 rabbis with the eventual endorsement of 300 additional rabbis) that forbade Jewish entry on the Mount because of purification issues and the possibility of desecrating the unknown site of the Holy of Holies. According to Hassner, the “genius of the rabbinical ruling” was that it was done not through redefining rules, but in “convincing the public that no redefinition had taken place.” The success of the rabbis is such that to this day “the majority of Jews from across the religious spectrum accept the ruling as the natural extension of an ancient tradition that barred Jewish access to the Mount” (p. 126).

A second example of success is illustrated by the thwarted attempt in 1979 by Muslim insurgents to take over the Grand Mosque of Mecca. Once again religious leaders (this time the ‘ulama’) played a key role as they offered a reinterpretation of Muslim law that allowed for the use of force in the sacred precincts...