On Jan. 1, 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi gave a speech at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and what he said stunned the religious leaders who were in attendance. It was the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, and the leadership of the most important educational institution in Sunni Islam was eager to hear what el-Sissi had to say.

"It is unacceptable that the ideology we have sanctified become a source of worry, of danger, of killing and destruction among other peoples," the Egyptian president said.

"It is unacceptable that 1.6 billion Muslims should have to kill the rest of the populations of the world, which number some 7 billion, in order to live…"

The problem, el-Sissi said, "lies in ideology. Not with faith."

In his unusual speech, which was forgotten after a few months, the Egyptian president was making a direct appeal to religious officials in his country. He called on them to "reexamine Islamic philosophy from a more enlightened point of view," with the goal being to "shape the right religious discourse."

El-Sissi was speaking after waves of major Islamist terrorist attacks all over the world. Israel was engulfed by "lone wolf" terrorism, as it was called at the time. Technically, the attacks were being perpetrated by individuals without known ties to terrorist organizations. But an overwhelming percentage of them were inspired by common beliefs and ideas – in 93% of the attacks carried out in Jerusalem from August 2014 to May 2016, the story of the Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa played a part, either as a sole motivation or one of the motivations that prompted the terrorists to take action. All the "lone wolf attackers" were Muslim, although not all were devout.

They took to the streets to murder Jews because they had been incited to believe that "Al-Aqsa was in danger;" that Israel was about to demolish the mosques on the Temple Mount; or even change the status quo on the Mount. They believed that murdering Jews would help them "liberate Al-Aqsa" and free it from the "Jews who defile its Muslimhood." They planned major attacks on Jewish visitors to the Mount, as well, to keep them away. The fiction "Al-Aqsa is in danger" ceased to be false propaganda and became a catalyst for terrorism. Many members of the Palestinian national and religious leadership made frequent use of the libel, and put a public face on it.

A twisted interpretation of Islam

El-Sissi, however, gave voice to a much more enlightened and moderate version of Islam. He spoke on behalf of others among the Palestinians and in the Arab and Muslim world who condemned Palestinian terrorism in general and "Al-Aqsa terrorism" in particular. There weren't too many of them, and they stood out. But they represented hope.

Some of them were convinced that Islamic zealots are perverting their religion and giving it a twisted interpretation. Others thought that Islam was inherently perverse and from its inception had invited violence, terrorism, and bloodshed and that the religion itself needed reform. Some found legitimacy for the Jewish presence in Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount in the Quran and were even able to appreciate the religious autonomy Israel gives Muslims there. Others espoused the Palestinian national issue but rejected terrorism entirely. These rare voices were shunned, and frequently condemned and persecuted in their communities. But they represented an expectation of change and goodness, and should be recognized.

Salman Masalha, a poet, translator, and columnist who is a member of the editorial board of the journal Masharef – which has won the President's Prize for Literature – was one of these voices. Masalha isn't an observant Muslim, he is Druze (who defines himself as Arab), but still it took plenty of courage for him to say in January 2015 that "the roots of terror lie in Islam."

Masalha published his statements in Haaretz. He said that when Islamic terrorism had appeared in the world these past few decades, Muslims were alarmed and said it tainted Islam. "These terrorists have hijacked Islam," they said. But according to Masalha, the question is who hijacked what? And wouldn't it be more probable that Islamic texts had hijacked the terrorists?

After analyzing original texts by radical fundamentalist figures and organizations "who draw their power and inspiration from the same basic texts of Islam itself," Masalha reached the conclusion that "Islam needs a serious ideological shake-up… a revolution that will adapt it to the modern world."

Egyptian-German intellectual Hamad Abdel-Samad, the son of an Egyptian imam exiled to Germany, has been saying similar things for years. Samad became one of the most notable critics of Islam in Germany and in 2015 published his bestselling book Muhammad – A Final Reckoning. Samad holds the prophet to account and notes that Muhammad had two problems with the Jews: his failure to get them to acknowledge that he was a divine prophet, and the prohibition against murder to which the Jews clung.

"The fact that in the Quran it is written that Jews are monkeys and pigs," Samad wrote, shows "total dehumanization of the rival; such that makes it allowable to annihilate them." He writes that Mohammed himself "beheaded hundreds of members of a Jewish tribe that surrendered to him, the day they surrendered … the people today who cut off the heads of their prisoners take Mohammad as an example, so it is important to hold him to account and it needs to be said that he must not be a symbol of politics or principles."

Samad thinks that it is vital to "confront our forefathers and their religious texts. We have to open the complex problems once and for all … (But) every time we try to free ourselves and move our thinking forward, we are pulled back to where we started by our fears, the taboo, the bans, and the fear of being punished … there can be no enlightenment where there is fear!"

Only a few have managed to break through the barrier of fear. One was Sandra Solomon, a Christian who was born Muslim, the daughter of a family of terrorists in Ramallah. She was educated to hate Israel and admire terrorists. Her uncle, Sahar Habash, one of the founders of the Fatah movement, was close to former PLO leader Yasser Arafat and considered the author of the organization's ideology. Solomon was once a supporter of terrorism.

"We learned to hate Jews and glorify Hitler and the Holocaust. We were happy every time we heard about a successful terrorist attack, because then they would hand out candy … From the age of five I recited the Quran constantly. Even today I know the verses by heart. These were the poems of my childhood. They taught us that the Jews are the descendants of monkeys and pigs. They said they were the dirtiest people in the world of infidels, that they needed to die … what was most important to us was to free Al-Aqsa Mosque, liberate Jerusalem, and destroy Israel," she said.

Solomon's eyes were opened only after she researched the Quran and the rules of Islam by herself, and even read the Bible. She was forced into marriage, and when her husband found work in Canada, she used the opportunity to divorce him there. Today she is demanding that the Palestinians condemn terrorism, take down pictures of "martyrs" and also stop calling to "redeem Jerusalem through spirit and blood."

"The story about Muhammad's journey on a winged horse named Buraq to a place called Al-Aqsa was added to Islam much later," she claims. "And in any case, it has nothing to do with Al-Aqsa Mosque, which stands in Jerusalem today, because it didn't exist at the time."

Even if we take into account that faith doesn't necessarily have anything to do with facts, and that millions of Muslims around the world take the story of Muhammad and Buraq as the truth, Solomon's comments are important because they show first-hand that hatred of Israel doesn't stem purely from a territorial dispute.

"It comes from the Quran, and the hadiths, that tell about the time when the Muslims will kill all the Jews, and the stone and the tree will week and reveal that 'A Jew is hiding behind the tree, come kill him,'" she says.

"I lived that hatred and I am willing to debate any religious official and prove to him that the Muslims hate the Jews because they are Jews, and not because of the state of Israel."

Walid Shueiba, who was once active in the PLO's military wing and even recruited to a Muslim Brotherhood cell in the US, had a similar journey to Suleiman's. Eventually, after he delved into the Bible, he converted to Christianity. His grandfather, who was the mufti of the town of Beit Sahour, was a friend of Hajj Amin and Abdel al-Husseini, the leaders of the struggle against Zionism and Judaism prior to 1948. Shueiba says that as a child, he had been brainwashed.

"They taught us songs about killing Jews," he says. "From the age of five, you're recruited and learn to hate the Jews. As the years go by, you also learn racist ideology and Holocaust denial. My Muslim father and environment expected me to kill Jews and become a shahid [martyr] so I could go to paradise."

Opinions like those of Solomon, Shueiba, or Noor Dahri – who joined a terrorist organization in Pakistan after having been taught that "Jews are worse than animals," but eventually had his eyes opened – are unusual. Sometimes they are voiced by researchers of Islam who are themselves Muslim, so the words carry extra weight.

Two Turkish religious officials, Dr. Hayat Gundogan and Oktar Babuna, visited Israel in January 2016, a time when Jews were being stabbed and run over in the streets to "defend Al-Aqsa." Gundogan made it clear that he had come to sound the alarm that "In Islam, there is no hatred of Jews" and that "Islam opposes terrorism." Muslims, he says, "Cannot object to Jews praying on the Temple Mount, because Solomon declared it a place of prayer, and Islam honors him."

His colleague notes that "the main victims of Muslim terrorism are the Muslims – since the state of Israel was founded, it has killed 35,000 Muslims, but in the same time period Muslims have killed 11 million Muslims."

Another such voice is Saudi thinker Abdel Hamid al-Hakim, who until 2018 served as the director of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah. After the US Embassy relocated to Jerusalem, Al-Hakim did not hesitate to note that "Israeli society respects its holy capital and the culture of freedom of religion there."

"I thanked God that Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem are under the rule of regimes that respect the holiness of these cities and made them some of the most beautiful in the world. Be reasonable, Jerusalem is a holy city to the Jews and they have a historic right to it, just like Mecca and Medina are holy to Islam. It is best that Jerusalem be under the management of Israel, which will allow Muslims to visit Al-Aqsa, than under Arab management, which will turn it into a third world city…" Al-Hakim said.

Discussing the phenomenon of terrorist attacks and the Palestinians' glorification of terrorists, Al-Hakim said that the Palestinian Authority need to decide which side it was on – the side of peace, or terrorism: "The lives of Palestinians are more precious than territory or the stones of a mosque," he said.

Religion and politics create terrorism

Different voices sometimes emerge from the Arab Israeli sector, too. They are notable for their moderation, especially in light of the radicalism of the Islamic Movement in Israel and its ties to Hamas, or the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement's involvement in terrorist attacks. Take, for example, Nail Zoabi, the principal of a school in the Galilee village Tamra, who says, "Our public is fed lies. The leaders sell them [the story] that Al-Aqsa is in danger and the Jews want to harm it. But I don't accept these things…"

Dr. Ramadan Dabash, chairman of the community council of Zur Baher in east Jerusalem, and an Israeli citizen, also warns that "the combination of religion and politics is a combination that creates terrorism." He and Zoabi choose to describe the Quran as a "book of peace." They suggest "taking the things that connect us."

After two members of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement carried out a terrorist shooting on the Temple Mount in July 2017, more people spoke out in the Arab media. Saudi writer Mujahad al-Muthaalit argued that "Solidarity with the refugee camps … takes priority over solidarity with Al-Aqsa, because people are more important than stones."

Hamid al-Sharifi, the founder of Liberal Muslims group, which works on liberal and moderate interpretations of Quran verses to adapt them to current times, spoke out even more forcefully. Al-Sharifi, a former Iraqi diplomat who currently works in London, survived three attempts to assassinate him because of his opinions. In 2015, when the wave of terrorist stabbings by "Al-Aqsa" fanatics was at its heights, he defined himself as "a blind man whose eyes had been opened."

In an interview to Maya Pollak from Israel's Makor Rishon, he said, "I understand a 13-year-old Muslim boy who grabs a knife and goes out to stab Jews. If I'd had a chance to do that when I was young, I'm not certain I'd let it go by. When you're young, religious officials come and read a few verses from the Quran and that's it, you're a walking time bomb.

"They'll say, for example, 'Who is the enemy of God? The Jews. Don't think. Kill as many of them as possible and paradise is yours.' They promise you you'll go to a beautiful place. They taught us not to use our minds when we see a text from the Quran, just read it and implement it, and it doesn't matter how many years have gone by since it was written. Slowly, as my mind developed, I realized it was all deceit, that it was all a mistake … I understood that everything they had taught us was nonsense," he says.

Al-Sharifi explains that the Quran is like a double-edged sword: "I can read you content to make you a fanatic, and I can read you content to make you calm and serene… Those who oppose me will say that the Quran is for every ear, all the time… The Quran says to honor your parents and not to eat pork, and that's still in effect today, but the Quran also says to buy and sell slaves and beat women. Am I supposed to beat my wife?"

Al-Sharifi stopped attending Friday prayers at mosques, which he says is the main source of incitement to killing. He does not want to be a part of it. "Friday prayers have been taken over by the radical Islamic countries … From prayer and worship of God, they have turned into cheap propaganda designed to spread hatred. The Jumah, as these prayers are called, are an opportunity for the imam to reach people through his speeches and it is customary for him to be holding a weapon."

Kasim Hafeez, a young Muslim from Birmingham in the UK, also thought for himself. Hafeez, the son of an immigrant from Pakistan (his father admired Hitler), was exposed to heavy incitement from Hamas and Hezbollah.

According to Hafeez, "The conflict is a political one, over a piece of land, but Sheikh Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem during the British Mandate, brought religion into it. He was a Nazi who cultivated hatred for years, who met with Adolf Hitler. He was the one who created the volatile mix of religion and politics. His radicalization won, unfortunately. Today the situation is that not all Muslims are terrorists, but a lot of them espouse zealous and violent hatred…"

From Al-Aqsa Terrorism: From Libel to Blood, by Nadav Shragai.