The attempt by an Australian tourist to commit arson at al-Aqsa mosque in Israeli-occupied Jerusalem on 21 August 1969 fired up passions in the Muslim world. This stinging indignity and open wound quickly became instrumentalized by various political actors in service to diverse objectives. Saudi King Faisal and Morocco’s King Hassan II joined forces to address the mosque fire at an Islamic Conference in Rabat which welcomed non-Arab Islamic states such as Iran and Turkey, as well as African and Asian Muslim-majority states. The arson had produced a ripe moment for Saudi Arabia to push back against the Nasser-led pan-Arab solidarity framework and reframe regional cooperation along new lines within which the Saudi Kingdom could play a more significant role. Pakistan’s propensity to champion Muslim causes as a means of reinforcing and constructing Hindu-Muslim binaries on the Indian subcontinent was manifested in its vociferous call for the UN Security Council to intervene in Jerusalem, as well as its threat to quit the Islamic summit in Rabat over the inclusion of India. Still recovering from its stinging defeat in 1967, Jordan cast the destruction of al-Aqsa as a core tenet of Zionism; Israel underscored the ways in which inaccurate and malicious messaging refracted the endemic saturation of anti-Semitism in the Arab world, while wider swathes of the international community linked the heinous fire with a breach of international norms and stressed the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.
Non-state actors joined the fray, cloaking their calls to action in the vestment of al-Aqsa. Thousands marched in Amman calling for jihad to avenge the fire, feeding suspicions that Jordan’s commitment to the liberation of Palestine was in question, and underscoring the growing confrontation between the Jordanian state and the Palestine Liberation Organization. From his exile in Najaf, Ayatollah Khomeini charged that Iranian oil tankers steamed toward Israel even as the occupying regime set fire to al-Aqsa mosque. He cast the Shah’s reconstruction funding initiative as a plot to help the Zionists cover up their deed and urged Muslim leaders to leave al-Aqsa half-burned to the ground. Using sources in Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew and English, this paper treats al-Aqsa as a transnational and transcultural issue area by widening the frame to include a multiplicity of actors and stakeholders, and exploring their relationships of cooperation, coordination and contestation in the aftermath of the 1969 al-Aqsa fire.
All Middle East