It's not just about Israel, but neither is it the nature of Islam.
The Salience of Islamic Antisemitism
Institute of Jewish Affairs Reports
In the Institute
of Jewish Affair's Anti-Semitism World Report for 1992, it was determined
that "Jewish security throughout the world is perhaps affected most seriously
of all by Islamic fundamentalist groups." Yet at the same time, the report
admitted that "this is an area about which there is more speculation than
hard evidence." Since then, the bombing of the AMIA building in Argentina
in July 1994 has lifted any lingering doubt as to where the most serious
threat to Jewish security lies. Hard evidence is rapidly replacing speculation.
It is evidence we can no longer ignore or deny.
Taking a hard look at hard evidence and assessing it soberly means breaking
the long habit of emphasizing only the tolerance of Islam—a tolerance
which drew so many Jewish scholars to study it in the first place. Islam
today is not what it was, and nostalgia is not a very practical sentiment.
Today there is Islamic antisemitism—a belief among many Muslims that Jews
everywhere, in league with Israel, are behind a sinister plot to destroy
Islam. Some of these Muslims believe the battleground is anywhere on the
globe where Jews are organized to assist and aid in this plot. As I wrote
last year in my Commentary article, "The Jihad Against the Jews," this
antisemitism seems to me so widespread and potentially violent that it
could eclipse all other forms of antisemitism over the next decade.
It is not my intention here to repeat my article in Commentary. Nor
is it possible, in this short space, to cover the entire panorama of antisemitism
in the Islamic world, or even pursue any single case in depth. What I want
to do is offer my own answers to three questions which I think should command
our special attention, and which relate to the overall salience of Islamic
antisemitism. What are the origins of this antisemitism? How widespread
is it now? Is it likely to grow in the future?
What Are the Origins of Islamic Antisemitism?
The question poses many of the same analytical dilemmas posed by antisemitism
elsewhere. How much of it is the legacy of religious prejudice? How much
is the product of modern theories of nation and race? How much is root
in contemporary society, economics and politics? As any historian will
tell you, it is extremely difficult to establish intellectual origins.
We can only look at contemporary ideas and try to draw lines to earlier
ideas, knowing that none of these lines is straight.
The two most common answers—which do draw straight lines—locate the
source of this antisemitism either in the essence of Islam, or in the creation
of Israel. Let me begin with the first: the idea that Islamic prejudice
against the Jews goes back fourteen centuries, that Islamic theology is
ipso facto antisemitic. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, relates the
Qur'an, some Jews engaged in treachery against him. This is recorded in
the Qur'an as God's word. Speaking to Jewish audiences, I am often asked
by those who have read certain passages of the Qur'an whether Jew-hatred
is not endemic to Islam. Is it possible for any Muslim who goes back to
these sources to read them as anything other than an indictment of Jewish
treachery? There is a view that Islam in its very essence is antisemitic,
and that the roots of the antisemitism we see today are authentically Islamic.
This answer touches on some truths, yet it misses many others. One is
that the Islamic tradition did not hold up those Jews who practiced treachery
against Muhammad as archetypes—as the embodiment of Jews in all times
and places. This makes for a striking contrast with a certain Christian
concept of the eternal Jew, who forever bears the mark of the betrayer
of Jesus. The Qur'an also includes certain verses which attest to the Prophet's
amicable relations with some Jews, and while religious supremacism always
coloured the traditional Islamic view of the Jews, it also coloured the
Islamic view of Christians and all other non-Muslims. In the Islamic tradition,
the Jews are regarded as members of a legitimate community of believers
in God, "people of the Book," legally entitled to sufferance. The overall
record of Islamic civilization's tolerance of Jews is not a bad one, especially
when compared with the record of Christendom in most periods.
Does that mean that today's Islamic antisemitism has no grounding of
Islam? No; there is no doubt whatsoever that the Islamic tradition provides
sources on which Islamic antisemitism now feeds. Here is the mentor of
Hizbullah in Lebanon, Ayatollah Fadlallah, pointing to the Qur'an as just
such a source: "In the vocabulary of the Qur'an," he says, "Islamists have
much of what they need to awaken the consciousness of Muslims, relying
on the literal text of the Qur'an, because the Qur'an speaks about the
Jews in a negative way, concerning both their historical conduct and future
Today's Muslim antisemites make very effective use of the Qur'an and
Tradition of the Prophet. But it is also a selective and distorting use.
For Muslims to arrive at the idea of an eternal Jew in Islam, for them
to portray the Jews as "enemies of God," some additional influence must
be at work.
Perhaps it is the creation and policies of Israel? Here we come to the
second straight line, sometimes drawn from Israel to anti-Zionism, which
may become blurred at the edges into antisemitism. Akbar Ahmed has put
it this way:
The loss of land for the Palestinians and the loss of the
holy places in Jerusalem are viewed with a sense of injustice and anger
among Muslims. In the rhetoric of confrontation, many themselves blur the
distinctions between anti-Judaism, antisemitism, and anti-Zionism. Such
Muslims thus make the mistake they accuse others of making about them—seeing
all Jews as homogenous, monolithic and threatening.
This is obviously true as far as it goes. There is a sense of injustice
and loss which runs deep, and in which Israel today occupies a prime place.
There is little doubt that in some contexts, Muslims really mean to condemn
the Israelis for their polices when they condemn the Jews for their perfidy.
But what Akbar Ahmed calls a rhetorical mistake is really much more
than that. It has become a conscious and deliberate ideological affirmation,
even a tenet of belief. The approach of a growing number of Islamists has
been to see Israel as a symptom of some larger conspiracy against them—either
Western, or Jewish, or a sinister combination of the two. Many Islamists
today do not look at Israel or its policies as their irritant. They look
beyond, either to America, symbol today of the power of the West, or to
the Jews, dispersed throughout the West, where they exercise a malignant
influence. These are deemed be the real forces driving history.
When this logic is taken to its most extreme Islamist conclusion, it
will attribute almost any misfortune to the secret machinations of the
Jews everywhere. They become the secret force behind Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and the fall of the Muslim-owned Bank of Credit and Commerce International.
Wherever they may be, the Jews are linked together in a sinister plot,
not merely to maintain the state of Israel, but to undermine and eradicate
Islam. Rashid al-Ghannushi, the Tunisian Islamist who now lives in London,
has spoken of "a Jewish-American plan encompassing the entire region,
which would cleanse it of all resistance and open it to Jewish hegemony
from Marrakesh to Kazakhstan." Note that Ghannushi did not speak of an
Israeli-American plan. In this view, the state of Israel is simply one
arm of a wider Jewish conspiracy.
Listen to Ayatollah Fadlallah, the oracle of Hizbullah in Lebanon, who
puts it even better. There is, he says, "a world Jewish movement working
to deprive Islam of its positions of actual power—spiritually, on the
question of Jerusalem; geographically, on the question of Palestine; politically,
by bringing pressures to block Islam's movement at more than one place;
and economically, in an effort to control Islam's economic potential and
resources, in production and consumption."
The motive of the Jews, says Fadlallah, is that they "want to be a world
superpower." Israel is intended to be "the nucleus for spreading their
economic and cultural domination." Behind this effort there is no people
or community of belief, but what Fadlallah darkly calls "a group." He points
out that this is "not merely a group that established a state at the expense
of a people. It is a group which wants to establish Jewish culture at the
expense of Islamic culture." At stake here, then, is not Palestinian land
or even Jerusalem, but Islamic culture itself. Here is a view of Muslim
and Jew locked in a total confrontation which will continue until one side
completely subjugates the other.
It would appear, therefore, that for Muslims to portray the Jew as the
eternal Jew, for Muslims to portray the Jew as the arch conspirator, there
must be more at work than Islamic tradition and Israeli policy. If these
themes seem distressingly familiar, it is quite likely because they are
borrowings from the canon of Western religious and racial antisemitism.
The antisemitism we see today in the Islamic world owes a crucial debt
to the antisemitism of the West. Like so much else in Islamist thought,
it is derivative of Western ideological excess. How did it reach Muslims?
I think it is highly relevant that many Islamist thinkers of the present
generation have spent time in the West, collecting advanced degrees at
the universities of London and Paris. There they seem to have absorbed
the antisemitism of the extreme Left and Right, which they now retail as
a comprehensive indictment of the Jews extending far beyond anti-Zionism.
In this indictment, which purports to be the authentic voice of Islam,
all manner of themes and sources jostle one another. Verses from the Qur'an
mingle with quotations from the Protocols. The role of the Jews in Arabia
of the seventh century is compared with the alleged international power
of the Jews in the late twentieth. In this collapsing of sources and history,
another distinction—between anti-Zionism and antisemitism—is deliberately
Islamism, then, like the foreign ideologies whose forms it mimics, requires
the existence of a conspiracy. The existence of this conspiracy is necessary
if Muslims are to find some external reason for Muslim weakness and dependence.
In the foreign ideologies Islamism mimics—which are also antisemitic—Jews
fill the role of conspirator, sapping societies of their vitality. Islamism
looks at the tradition of Islam and the policies of Israel through this
ideological prism—and sees a world Jewish conspiracy. Without this ideological
prism, there can be no Islamic antisemitism. Islam is not inherently antisemitic.
But Islamism is, and anyone viewing the world through its prism will inevitably
see conspiring Jews.
The AMIA bombing is the disturbing evidence that we are no longer dealing
here with a rhetorical flourish or ideological daydreaming. I believe that
this bombing was meant to deter the State of Israel from taking certain
actions in Lebanon. But only someone persuaded of the existence of a world
Jewish conspiracy against Islam could consider achieving this purpose by
killing Argentine Jews at random.
On the question of origins, then, Islamic antisemitism is not simply
a continuation of tradition or a response to injustice. Like other antisemitism,
it has its origins in the anti-rational ideologies of modern Europe, which
have now infected the Islamic world. If this is so, then neither a break
with tradition, nor a diminishing of the injustice, will stop it. It exists
above all because it is needed to complete an irrational logic.
How Widespread is Islamic Antisemitism?
Let me quote a brief passage I read not long ago by the French scholar
Olivier Roy, who has written an important book on political Islam and did
his earlier work on its development in Afghanistan. He writes of what he
calls the evolution of the Afghan's image of the Jew: "Before the war in
Afghanistan, the Pakhtun tribes boasted of being descended from a lost
tribe of Israel; during the war, many traditionalist mullahs could be heard
extolling the virtues of the Torah (in opposition, of course, to the atheist
commmunists), but today many Afghan neofundamentalists harp on the Zionist
If, in the highlands of Afghanistan, the Pakhtuns are having second
thoughts about their descent, I think this speaks volumes about the extent
of antisemitism in Muslim lands, and particularly its dissemination by
Islamists. The existence of a Jewish conspiracy against Islam is integral
to the Islamist ideology, not tangential. Everywhere that ideology is preached,
everywhere it is embraced, the conspiracy of the Jews is included in the
package, which is to say that we should hardly be surprised when it surfaces
even in the most unlikely places in Asia and Africa.
But more importantly, it now exists in the West itself, among Muslim
immigrants and visitors who arrive in ever greater numbers to Britain,
France, the US, Argentina, and Australia—precisely the centres of the
Jewish Disapora. Today virtually every trend in Islamic thought and activism
is represented in the West, including the most militant forms of Islamism.
The UK provides an interesting example. It is home to several organizations
inspired by the Islamic Republic of Iran; to the Palestinian Hamas, which
publishes its flagship magazine in London; and to the Hizb al-Tahrir or
"Liberation Party," clandestine in the Middle East but highly visible on
British campuses. This is the kind of volatile mix one would be hard-pressed
to find in any single Middle Eastern country, and the mix of antisemitic
materials disseminated by these groups is just as varied.
It is still very difficult to measure the significance of these groups
and their materials. It may be impossible to predict how and when threats
might become deeds. The work of analysis has to be done in every instance
on the local level, by long-time watchers of the local Islamist scene.
My point is that there is no place in the West without an Islamist scene,
and no Islamist scene in the West that does not deserve close watching.
Is Islamic Antisemitism Likely to Grow in the Future?
I do not have a complete answer, but let me offer some insights that
might contribute to an answer.
As the Arab-Israeli peace process evolves, the Islamic world is becoming
immersed in an unprecedented debate on the Jews, and on whether Muslims can
or should ever live in peace with them. The outcome of this debate is impossible
to predict. In the course of it we will overhear words which will encourage
us, and words which will alarm us; the Islamists in particular will say
more and more to alarm us, because their very world view is at stake.
The Islamists now argue that any peace with Israel will subject the Muslim
world to complete Jewish domination. Even were Israel to permit the creation
of a Palestinian state, even were it to make concessions on Jerusalem,
it would still exist as a tool of cultural leverage against Islam. Any
"normalization" provisions of any peace agreement will mean a massive influx
of Jews into Islamic countries—as diplomats, journalists, businessmen,
and tourists. Their objective, say the Islamists, will be to dominate and
corrupt the Islamic world. Here is Ibrahim Ghawsha, the Hamas spokesmen:
God forbid, if by means of signing the peace accords the Arabs
and Israelis reach a compromise and they implement their plan for autonomy,
Arab economies will collapse because they will not be able to compete with
the Israelis' modern industries. Thus, Israel will dominate the region
like Japan dominates southeast Asia, and the Arabs will all become employees
of the Jews.
This scenario of the Jew as boss of Islam is just the beginning. We can
expect that if the peace process makes further progress, Islamists will
paint darker and darker scenarios, where the theme of Jewish domination
replaces that of Israeli usurpation.
But at the same time, we will hear other voices which will encourage
us. Over the past month, Islamists have been battling against a fatwa,
a legal edict, by the Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaykh Abd al-Aziz Bin Baz.
The fatwa permits negotiation of peace with Israel, and permits Muslims
to visit Jerusalem even now. There is no space here to go into the intricacies
of this debate, and Bin Baz's own circumlocutions, but at one point he
did say this:
The Prophet made absolute peace with the Jews of Medina when
he went there an an immigrant. That did not entail any love for them or
amiability with them. But the Prophet dealt with them, buying from them,
talking to them, calling them to God and Islam. When he died, his shield
was mortgaged to a Jew, for he had mortgaged it to buy food for his family.
We have here an explicit endorsement of normal relations with Jews, of
a kind no Muslim cleric would have made a few years ago.
So the Islamic debate is underway, and on the whole, we must welcome
the fact that it is taking place at all. But I would estimate that as it
intensifies, Islamists will be pushed to new extremes—certainly rhetorical
and, for all we know, operational as well. AMIA, I believe, will prove
to be a rare event. I am not as certain it will prove to be unique.
© Martin Kramer
|Martin Kramer, "The Salience of Islamic Antisemitism," Institute of Jewish Affairs Report (London), no. 2, October 1995.