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The Problem Of Muslim Anti-Semitism By: Irfan Khawaja
Pakistan Today | Wednesday, January 22, 2003


If you raise the issue of Arab or Muslim anti-Semitism with the average Arab/Muslim leader, you will, with just a few exceptions, get a predictable set of responses. Some of them will shamefacedly acknowledge that the problem exists, and having done so, will then abruptly change the subject to racial profiling, American imperialism, or the evils of Israel. Others will admit the existence of the problem, but insist that it survives only on the "fringes" of Arab/Muslim society, and is thus an issue of marginal concern. Some will simply fall silent. And others will tell you with disarming candor that the "problem" of anti-Semitism is no "problem" at all, because the Jews are after all a scheming and diabolical race who deserve all the abuse that can be directed at them. Multiply such leaders by the hundreds, and do so over the course of decades, and you will get some sense of why the problem of anti-Semitism has assumed the proportions it currently has in the Arab-Muslim community.

So how big a problem is Arab/Muslim anti-Semitism? Reasonable people may reasonably disagree about its scope, but no reasonable person, I think, can claim that the problem is a marginal one. As Bernard Lewis of Princeton put the point in his book Semites and Anti-Semites (1986):

"The volume of anti-Semitic books and articles published, the size and number of editions and impressions, the eminence and authority of those who write, publish and sponsor them, their place in school and college curricula, their role in the mass media, would all seem to suggest that classical anti-Semitism is an essential part of Arab [and I would add, Muslim] intellectual life at the present time…"

Lewis's assessment tallies well with my own personal experience. Contempt for Jews was a ubiquitous and inescapable phenomenon in the Arab/Muslim community in which I grew up in New Jersey in the 1970s and 1980s; the bigotry there was such that my brother jokingly referred to the community as "The Fourth Reich." And such attitudes remain in place today. Recently, The Arab Voice, an Arab-language newspaper in Paterson, N.J., was discovered serializing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a notorious anti-Semitic forgery) in its pages. To the best of my knowledge, not a single local Arab/Muslim leader condemned them for it. To make matters worse, local leaders not only defended the newspaper, but openly affirmed their belief in the Protocols! A depressing example, but not a unique one: I could multiply such examples further if I had the space.

Are my experiences unique? I don't think so, but those unwilling to trust mere anecdotes can consult the ample resources of the documentary record. Besides Lewis's book mentioned above, the interested reader can consult the last third of Robert Wistrich's Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred (1991), the Arab Antisemitism Documentation Project of the Middle East Research Institute:

(http://www.memri.org/antisemitism.html), or the various relevant publications of the Anti-Defamation League (http://www.adl.org/main_as_arab.asp).

There are, in addition, several important essays on the subject by the Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes:

http://www.danielpipes.com/art/cat/4

http://www.danielpipes.com/art/cat/4,

http://www.danielpipes.com/art/cat/18,

and several in recent issues of Commentary (http://www.commentarymagazine.com),

The New Republic (http://www.tnr.com),

The New York Times (http://www.hvk.org/articles/0402/239.html),

and the Christian Science Monitor (http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0417/p06s01-woeu.htm).

Yet another resource is the website of the British cultural historian Richard Webster, which includes ten major essays on the subject: http://www.richardwebster.net/israelpalestine.html.

Though most of the criticism of Muslim anti-Semitism has come from non-Muslims, it's heartening to report that some Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians have begun to acknowledge the problem and to combat it. Richard Webster's site includes important essays by such Muslim writers as Qais Saleh and Tariq Ramadan , who condemn anti-Semitism while providing eloquent testimony from "the inside" as to the extent of the problem.

Equally notable are essays and statements on the subject by the journalist Asma Agbarieh http://www.hanitzotz.com/challenge/67/asma.html; by scholars Harun Yahya:
http://www.harunyahya.com/32terrorism_antisemitism_soc06.php, Sayyid Hossain Nasr, and Ibn Warraq; by Salman Rushdie http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/02/opinion/02RUSH.html; and by James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute http://www.danielpipes.org/499.php.

It's also something of a relief to hear that some repentant ulema have publicly confessed to their past anti-Jewish indulgences (e.g., Cleveland's Fawaz Damra
http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2002/jan/imam/020118.imam.html and Hamza Yusuf http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,564960,00.html of the Zeytouna Institute in California). On the other hand, those of us who have heard our share of anti-Jewish rhetoric over the years at the Eid khutbah may also wonder how many of the ulema have indulged in the vice without bothering to confess it.

I'll therefore take for granted that there is a problem here requiring a solution. Obviously, then, to solve it, we need to identify its sources. I'll mention just three. The first, and most delicate, is the text of the Quran. Any thinking Muslim must wrestle with the fact that the Quran occasionally refers to Jews in a negative light, and acknowledge that Muslims have exploited these Quranic verses for anti-Semitic purposes. The question then becomes one of ijtihad—the proper interpretation of the relevant verses.

There are two possible interpretations.

(1) The first is to see the Quran as condemning the Jews collectively and eternally for their failure to embrace Islam. On this interpretation, the differences between Judaism and Islam are more important than any similarities; thus, we should ignore the similarities and focus on the differences, regarding the Jews as enemies of Islam, whom Muslims are commanded to fight until the Day of Judgment.

(2) A second, more traditional interpretation holds that in criticizing Jews, the Quran is condemning specific transgressions by specific Jewish individuals or tribes, not collective sins committed by a race, ethnicity or creed. On this interpretation, the similarities between Judaism and Islam outweigh the differences; thus, Muslims should use the similarities as the basis for harmony between the two faiths, settling any remaining differences by discourse rather than violence. Obviously, these two interpretations of the Quran contradict one another, and Muslims must choose between them.

A second source of Arab/Muslim anti-Semitism is a skewed understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Far too many Arabs and Muslims grow up with the belief that God commands them to side with the Palestinians against the Israelis in that conflict. Thus without bothering to acquaint themselves with facts or context, such people come to believe that the history of the dispute consists of nothing but Israeli atrocities against Arabs.

In this view of things, the Arabs are nothing but victims, and the Israelis nothing but aggressors; the Arabs are responsible for nothing, and the Israelis are responsible for everything. From such a view, it's easy enough to slide into conspiracy theorizing, and from there to the belief that the Jews are a corrupt and diabolical race, while the Arabs are a noble and pure one. Unfortunately, this view of history has less to do with the pursuit of Palestinian rights than it does with role-playing, and does no one any real good, much less the Palestinians.

A third source of Muslim anti-Semitism is what I call "retaliatory bigotry," i.e., Arab/Muslim retaliation for bigotry suffered at the hands of Jews. In raising this issue, I don't mean to be making excuses for Muslim anti-Semites or to be blaming their victims. Bigotry is a moral failing for which its practitioners alone are responsible; nothing excuses it, and no one deserves it. But in criticizing Arabs and Muslims for their failings, we should not imagine that the sources of Arab/Muslim anti-Semitism lie exclusively within the Arab/Muslim community.

In thirty-odd years of life, I've been on the receiving end of a good deal of bigotry, much of it directed at me by Jews. As both victim of and witness to such bigotry, I resolved not to fall into the cycle of responding in kind to those who had perpetrated it. I did, however, watch others fail in that struggle, succumbing to the need to hit back at bigots by becoming bigots themselves. It's clear to me that such "retaliatory bigotry" is a large source of Arab/Muslim anti-Semitism. To combat it, we must see—and get others to see—that anti-Semitism does not exist in a vacuum; it's part of a vicious cycle in which anti-Muslim bigotry plays a role. We should, then, commit no trespasses against others, but overlook none against ourselves. Our task is to fight anti-Semitism from a spirit of justice, not of turning the other cheek.

Bigotry is a dispiriting thing, but I remain an optimist about the prospects of eradicating it. Anti-Semitism will, I think, finally wither away when those who indulge it are refused the tolerance they have so long enjoyed, and those who tolerate it recognize that the malice and stupidity that motivates it are a threat to all of us. We should remember that a moral environment can suffer from pollution, as can a physical one. Anti-Semitism has fouled our moral environment for far too long—and done so with our acquiescence. Self-respect, justice, and sheer safety demand that we drive it from our homes, our neighborhoods, and above all, our hearts.




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