Israel and Zionism Commentary
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Books, articles, and TV documentaries about anti-Semitism abound. Yet, in almost all of these and in public understanding generally, the problem is defined as a Western Christian prejudice that later gave way to extreme right-wing bigotry that reached its full flowering in the Holocaust and exists today in small pockets within the far-right and, in a milder form, among the less well educated sections of society. And that's about it.
Not only does this portrayal miss the growing evil of left-wing anti-Semitism in the West, more importantly it leaves most people — including many Jews — in blissful ignorance of the massive range of Muslim anti-Semitism in the Middle East and beyond. No Islamic society is wholly free of this problem, and in some countries it is so ubiquitous as to form a major part of social discourse. Muslim anti-Semitism can be found in the mainstream press, on national TV channels, and in books and pamphlets on sale everywhere. How did this start, and how did it take its present form?
Modern radical Islam, particularly in the form developed by its two most prominent exponents, the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and the Indian/Pakistani Abu'l-A'la Mawdudi, is most often termed Salafi. The Salaf were the first generation of Muslims, and modern Salafis aim to reconstruct society in imitation of their practice. Above all, the Qur'an, the Hadith (pl. ahadith), and the life of the Prophet (described in the Qur'an as a perfect model for mankind) serve as the primary inspiration for all aspeects of human behaviour. In essence, this is what most Muslims believe anyway, but the Salafiyun aim to create a new society, whose government, laws, and social interactions will conform perfectly to the first-generation template. It's worth adding here that development in Muslim societies has regularly been held back because of a deeply ingrained belief that innovation (bid'a) is, by definition, a form of heresy.
Let's begin (and I ask your indulgence in doing so, but this is all entirely relevant) by pointing out a basic factor in any commentary on the Qur'an: the book is organized achronologically. Its earliest redactors adopted a simple solution to the collection of verses that had been written (Muslims would say 'revealed') over a period of 22 years: they put the longest chapters (suras) first and the shortest last (with the exception of the very first, a short sura called al-Fatiha, the Opening). The only concession to chronology is in the sub-heading of chapters as 'Meccan' or 'Medinan', referring to the Prophet's residence in Mecca (up to 622 CE) and Medina (to 632, the year of his death).
Later commentators (and, more recently, some Western scholars) attempted to refine this crude division. What they did was to refer to what was known of the Prophet's life and identify this verse or that (or, often, whole suras) according to the 'Occasions of Revelation'. This isn't an exact science, since there are remarkably few historical references in the Qur'an. But once it was done, scholars were able to say that this late verse abrogated an early one, or that this early verse was abrogated by a later.
This has an immense bearing on practical issues. For our present purposes, it explains why you will find in the Qur'an both positive and negative references to Jews (and Christians).
As his prophetic career developed, Muhammad fell under the influence of Arabian Jews and Christians, including the Jews in and around the city of Yathrib, to which he fled in 622, and which he came to control within a few years (since when it has been known as Madinat al-Nabi, the city of the Prophet, or, more simply, Madina). The Jews and Christians possessed scriptures that were claimed to be the Word of God, and Muhammad, who had been formulating a monotheism of his own, was deeply impressed by this. From this, he came to see himself as a prophet to the Arabs, a 'middle' people who had not previously received a divine revelation. He saw himself, too, as the latest (and last) in a long line of prophets, beginning with Adam, down through Noah, Abraham and Moses, then Jesus. Oddly enough, most of the lesser prophets don't get a look in.
As time passed, however, Muhammad (who was by now growing in political and military strength) came to resent the Jews and Christians for their obduracy in face of his revelation. They were People of the Book (Ahl al-Kitab) because they had been sent scriptures, and, as such, were to be protected by the new guys in town. But there is a distinct move from verses that describe the former scriptuaries as the best friends of Muslims to those that condemn them for their rejection of the prophets, and that claim they have corrupted their own scriptures by distorting the words (tahrif). It seems quite possible that this position owes something to early Christian versions of supersessionist/replacement theology. It remains to be seen how modern Christian exponents of supersessionism, who see the Palestinians as the new Jews and the Israeli state as a 'crucifixion apparatus' will find theological partners in Muslims.
Muhammad's growing animosity towards the Jews is mirrored, first in the Qur'anic text, and secondly, in actions taken by the Prophet against Jewish tribes, culminating in their complete expulsion (along with all Christians) from the Arabian Peninsula. When Muhammad arrived in Yathrib/Medina in 622 , he chose for the qibla (the direction of formal prayer) the city of Jerusalem, thereby identifying himself strongly with the Jewish prophetic tradition. Within two years of his arrival (February 624), he abruptly shifted the qibla in the midst of prayers, turning towards his home town of Mecca and the cube-shaped building in its centre, the Ka'ba.
At that time, there were about twenty Jewish clans in the vicinity of Medina or in the citry itself, of which three were pre-eminent: the Banu Nadir, the Banu Qaynuqa' and the Banu Qurayza. Before long, both the Nadir and the Qaynuqa' had been banished. In March 627, for their alleged treachery prior to the Battle of al-Khandaq, Muhammad had all the men (between 700 and 900) of the Qurayza executed and the women and children sold into slavery. (For a reasonable account of these events, go to:
http://answering-islam.org.uk/Authors/Arlandson/jews.htm For a more academic study, read W. M. Watt Muhammad at Medina.)
By now, the Qur'an had nothing good to say about the Jews. 'The most implacable of men in their enmity to the faithful are the Jews' (Qur'an 5:82)
What exactly were the Jews meant to be guilty of? For a full answer, I suggest you read the following list, taken from the fatwa database of a well-known Islamic website, Islam Online. I have never seen a more complete (or more disturbing) tabulation of the Qur'anic case against the Jews.
'Dear Sheikh! As-Salam `Alaykum. What, according to the Qur’an, are the main characteristics and qualities of Jews?
In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
All thanks and praise are due to Allah and peace and blessings be upon His Messenger.
Dear questioner, we are really pleased to have your question and we pray to Allah to make our humble efforts, exerted solely for His Sake, come up to your expectation.
As regards the question you posed, the following is the fatwa issued by Sheikh `Atiyyah Saqr, former Head of Al-Azhar Fatwa Committee, in which he states the following:
“The Qur’an has specified a considerable deal of its verses to talking about Jews, their personal qualities and characteristics. The Qur’anic description of Jews is quite impartial; praising them in some occasions where they deserve praise and condemning them in other occasions where they practice blameworthy acts. Yet, the latter occasions outnumbered the former, due to their bad qualities and the heinous acts they used to commit.
The Qur’an praises them on the verse that reads: “ And verily We gave the Children of Israel the Scripture and the Command and the Prophethood, and provided them with good things and favored them above (all) peoples.” (Al-Jathiyah:16) i.e. the peoples of their time.
Among the bad qualities they were characterized with are the following:
1. They used to fabricate things and falsely ascribe them to Allah. Allah Almighty says: “ That is because they say: We have no duty to the Gentiles. They speak a lie concerning Allah knowingly.” (Al-`Imran:75) Also: “The Jews say: Allah's hand is fettered. Their hands are fettered and they are accursed for saying so. Nay, but both His hands are spread out wide in bounty. He bestoweth as He will.” (Al-Ma`idah:64)
In another verse Almighty Allah says: “Verily Allah heard the saying of those who said, (when asked for contributions to the war): "Allah, forsooth, is poor, and we are rich! We shall record their saying with their slaying of the Prophets wrongfully and We shall say: Taste ye the punishment of burning!” (Al-`Imran:181)
2. They love to listen to lies. Concerning this Allah says: “and of the Jews: listeners for the sake of falsehood, listeners on behalf of other folk” (Al-Ma’idah: 41)
3. Disobeying Almighty Allah and never observing His commands. Allah says: “And because of their breaking their covenant, We have cursed them and made hard their hearts.” (Al-Ma’idah: 13)
4. Disputing and quarreling. This is clear in the verse that reads: “Their Prophet said unto them: Lo! Allah hath raised up Saul to be a king for you. They said: How can he have kingdom over us when we are more deserving of the kingdom than he is, since he hath not been given wealth enough?” (Al-Baqarah: 247)
5. Hiding the truth and standing for misleading. This can be understood from the verse that reads: “…distort the Scripture with their tongues, that ye may think that what they say is from the Scripture, when it is not from the Scripture.” (Al-`Imran: 78)
6. Staging rebellion against the Prophets and rejecting their guidance. This is clear in the verse: “And when ye said: O Moses! We will not believe in thee till we see Allah plainly.” (Al-Baqarah: 55)
7. Hypocrisy. In a verse, we read: “And when they fall in with those who believe, they say: We believe; but when they go apart to their devils they declare: Lo! we are with you; verily we did but mock.” (Al-Baqarah: 14) In another verse, we read: “Enjoin ye righteousness upon mankind while ye yourselves forget (to practice it)? And ye are readers of the Scripture! Have ye then no sense?” (Al-Baqarah: 44)
8. Giving preference to their own interests over the rulings of religion and the dictates of truth. Allah says: “…when there cometh unto you a messenger (from Allah) with that which ye yourselves desire not, ye grow arrogant, and some ye disbelieve and some ye slay?” (Al-Baqarah: 87)
9. Wishing evil for people and trying to mislead them. This is clear in the verse that reads: “Many of the People of the Scripture long to make you disbelievers after your belief, through envy on their own account, after the truth hath become manifest unto them.” (Al-Baqarah: 109)
10. They feel pain to see others in happiness and are gleeful when others are afflicted with a calamity. This is clear in the verse that reads: “If a lucky chance befall you, it is evil unto them, and if disaster strike you they rejoice thereat.” (Al-`Imran:120)
11. They are known of their arrogance and haughtiness. They claimed to be the sons and of Allah and His beloved ones. Allah tells us about this in the verse that reads: “The Jews and Christians say: We are sons of Allah and His loved ones.” (Al-Ma’idah: 18)
12. Utilitarianism and opportunism are among their innate traits. This is clear in the verse that reads: “And of their taking usury when they were forbidden it, and of their devouring people's wealth by false pretences.” (An-Nisa’: 161)
13. Their impoliteness and indecent way of speech is beyond description. Referring to this, the Qur’anic verse reads: “Some of those who are Jews change words from their context and say: "We hear and disobey; hear thou as one who heareth not" and "Listen to us!" distorting with their tongues and slandering religion. If they had said: "We hear and we obey; hear thou, and look at us" it had been better for them, and more upright. But Allah hath cursed them for their disbelief, so they believe not, save a few.” (An-Nisa’:46)
14. It is easy for them to slay people and kill innocents. Nothing in the world is dear to their hearts than shedding blood and murdering human beings. They never give up this trait even with the Messengers and the Prophets. Allah says: “…and slew the prophets wrongfully.” (Al-Baqarah: 61)
15. They are merciless and heartless. In this meaning, the Qur’anic verse explains: “Then, even after that, your hearts were hardened and became as rocks, or worse than rocks, for hardness.” (Al-Baqarah: 74)
16. They never keep their promises or fulfill their words. Almighty Allah says: “Is it ever so that when ye make a covenant a party of you set it aside? The truth is, most of them believe not.” (Al-Baqarah: 100)
17. They rush hurriedly to sins and compete in transgression. Allah says: “They restrained not one another from the wickedness they did. Verily evil was that they used to do!” (Al-MA’idah:79)
18. Cowardice and their love for this worldly life are their undisputable traits. To this, the Qur’an refers when saying: “Ye are more awful as a fear in their bosoms than Allah. That is because they are a folk who understand not. They will not fight against you in a body save in fortified villages or from behind walls. Their adversity among themselves is very great. Ye think of them as a whole whereas their hearts are divers.” (Al-Hashr:13-14) Allah Almighty also says: “And thou wilt find them greediest of mankind for life and (greedier) than the idolaters.” (Al-Baqarah:96)
19. Miserliness runs deep in their hearts. Describing this, the Qur’an states: “Or have they even a share in the Sovereignty? Then in that case, they would not give mankind even the speck on a date stone.” (An-Nisa’:53)
20. Distorting Divine Revelation and Allah’s Sacred Books. Allah says in this regard: “Therefore woe be unto those who write the Scripture with their hands anthem say, "This is from Allah," that they may purchase a small gain therewith. Woe unto them for that their hands have written, and woe unto them for that they earn thereby.” (Al-Baqara: 79)
After this clear explanation, we would like to note that these are but some of the most famous traits of the Jews as described in the Qur’an. They have revolted against the Divine ordinances, distorted what has been revealed to them and invented new teachings which, they claimed, were much more better than what has been recorded in the Torah. It was for these traits that they found no warm reception in all countries where they tried to reside. Rather, they would either be driven out or live in isolation. It was Almighty Allah who placed on them His Wrath and made them den of humiliation due to their transgression. Almighty Allah told us that He’d send to them people who’d pour on them rain of severe punishment that would last till the Day of Resurrection. All this gives us glad tidings of the coming victory of Muslims over them once Muslims stick to strong faith and belief in Allah and adopt the modern means of technology.'
Because Jews and Christians were not full citizens of the Muslim state, they had few privileges and suffered many restrictions. The overall aim was to humiliate them in order to bring home to them the consequences of their obduracy, and in the hope they might convert to Islam. There are many cases of converts and slaves rising to the highest positions of state. In this respect, Islam is an unusual religion in its relative lack of racial prejudice and its willingness to embrace the newcomer. Becoming a Muslim opens everything to the convert, the main disadvantage being that the punishment for changing your mind is death.
The Dhimmi concept reached its apogee in the Ottoman millet (Ar. Milla, community) system, whereby Jews and Christians of numerous denominations were granted autonomy in personal matters (laying the basis for later religious courts in the Middle East). Despite this, Muslims continued to view Dhimmis as their religious and social inferiors, and to this day non-Muslims in Muslim countries are treated as second-class people, sometimes persecuted, and often denied basic civil rights. Groups like the Baha'is, who are neither Jews nor Christians, and who have broken decisively with Islam, have no rights at all.
But let me stress again: there is a huge difference between the Islamic treatment of the Jews and the type of anti-Semitism that developed in Europe from Gobineau onward. For Muslims, traditionally at least, there is a 'cure' for being Jewish: conversion. For the Nazis, there was only one 'final solution'.
And here's the rub. In the 1920s and 30s, many Muslims, inspired by Hajj Amin al-Husayni (see this website), the Mufti of Jerusalem, grew besotted with Nazi racist ideology and grafted it to the existing Muslim prejudice about Jews. With the influx of Jews to mandated Palestine and the establishment of the Israeli state, Muslims in the region and elsewhere were discombobulated out of all proportion and, in consequence, fell back even more heavily on the theories of European-style right-wing anti-Semitism.
Why was this different to what had gone before? A good starting-point for any understanding of this problem is Bernard Lewis's authoritative but readable guide to the predicament of Islam, What Went Wrong?.Up until the 16th century or so, Muslims had enjoyed the belief (correct, in the main) that theirs was the greatest civilization in the world, and that unbelievers were wretched creatures of the half-light. They knew little of conditions in Europe, and judged non-believers by the poor state of their own ahl al-dhimma. The first breaches in that perception came when Europeans showed up with superior military technology. By the 18th century, these Europeans were not just winning battles against Muslim armies, they were invading Muslim countries. Between then and the early 20th century, country after country fell to European arms. Even a country like Iran, which was never conquered, was in 1907 divided into two spheres of influence by the British and Russians. There could not have been a greater humiliation: to be conquered and ruled (directly, or as a protectorate) by the very people Muslims had for so many centuries despised.
Nor did it stop there. The Europeans, it gradually appeared, did not just have better arms and armies. They had modern science and medicine, rapidly-evolving technologies, factories from which all manner of products emerged in astounding quantities, printing presses, and, as time passed, motor cars, steel battleships, radios, TVs, movies — an entire Aladdin's cave of treasures that left Muslims far behind. Not only that, but the more reform-minded stood in open-mouthed admiration at European institutions: democratically-elected parliaments, constitutions, constitutional monarchies, secularized legal systems, law courts largely free of corruption, universities, military academies, and so on.
For many — and this is possibly more true today than it was one hundred years ago — the disparity between what was supposed to happen (Islam in the ascendancy, Muslims possessed of a civilization that would render all others insignificant and pointless) and where things actually stood was unbearable. Today, things are as bad as ever: Muslim nations among the world's least developed countries, rich Muslim countries that owe their wealth to oil and little else, no democracy to speak of, Western powers capable of invading and conquering parts of the Islamic world with relative ease.
As time passed, the Israelis fought off their enemies in a succession of wars. They possessed nuclear weapons. And their scientific and technological know-how put them in the front rank of developed nations. With a population of some 1.3 billion, Muslims number six Nobel prizewinners (one of them the well-known peacemaker Yassir Arafat). The Irish, with a population of about 4 million, had more. Not only that, Ireland, a poor and divided agricultural country, moved itself in a matter of years to third place among nations in respect of per capita income. And the Jews? Out of 12 million, they had over 230 Nobels.
The humiliation Muslims feel has to be intense. And, as anyone who has studied the rise of Nazism, it was humiliation that acted as a powerful goad towards the simplistic promises of National Socialism.
Nazi anti-Semitism was, of course, markedly different from traditional Christian or Muslim anti-Semitism, both of which had a religious basis. A Jew in Germany or conquered Europe could not escape deportation by converting to Christianity. The Nazis did not think that way, basing their definition of Jewishness on a naďve racist formula that created all the absurdities of mischlings and the rest. Muslims, as we have seen, took this Nazi anti-Semitism to their bosom, but they retained their own religious basis for Judeophobia.
For most Muslims today, anti-Semitic feeling centres in the existence of the state of Israel. From this perspective, there are only two solutions: the elimination of Israel (and, ideally, the slaughter of all Jewish Israelis) or the wholesale conversion of Israeli Jews to Islam, thereby bringing the land back within the fold of Islam.
One of the chief characterstics of modern Islamic anti-Semitism is its all-pervasive character. For all that there is widespread anti-Semitism in the left-wing press in Europe and elsewhere, it is rare to find an anti-Semitic statement that is not dressed up as anti-Israelism. Ken Livingstone's comparison of a Jewish reporter to a concentration camp guard actually stands out in its ineptness. No-one but the far right calls for the death of Jews or the desecration of synagogues. Holocaust denial is a crime in many countries, and deniers have been successfully prosecuted. Things are very different in the Muslim world, where academics include outright anti-Jewish statements in their books and articles, the mainstream press portrays Jews in the vilest terms, national TV channels beam out soap operas based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and schools and universities teach the hatred of Jews as part of normative educational discourse.
This material is not hard to find. Any Arab bookshop will do. The collection at MEMRI is comprehensive. Israel's Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center has some excellent material on its website, and a CD entitled “The Hate Industry” can be obtained from them or the Israeli Embassy.
It remains a disgrace, not only that this material is virtually unknown outside Jewish communities in the West, but that someone like Ken Livingstone can go on record, saying that MEMRI is unreliable and inaccurate. For a non-Arabic-speaking politician to comment so 'authoritatively' on Arabic materials and get away with it is in itself a large indication of how simple-minded the public has become on the issue of anti-Semitism.
As the numbers of Muslims in Europe and North America grow, hate speech and literature grows at an equal pace. It remains to be seen what will happen in the UK if such material is challenged under the coming religious hatred law.
For change to take place, we have to depend on the possibility of reform. Salman Rushdie recently called for a Reformation within the Islamic world, and I think we would all back him in trying to stimulate the sort of thinking that might lead to one. There are, indeed, growing numbers of younger Muslims — including several courageous women — who have set out to work for the same goal.
But the history of Islamic reform so far has been less than glorious. Even today, after over a century of tentative efforts, the mildest suggestions for, say, a less literal interpretation of the Qur'anic, are met with opposition, not just from the Islamic clergy, the 'ulama, but from state bodies. In Egypt or Saudi Arabia, say, an academic or a reform-minded cleric takes his life in his hands if he (it's mainly a he) so much as a twitch of change to Qur'an-based legislation or traditional thought. Innovation, as I said, is heresy.
The only thing that has ever served to liberalize Islamic states has been the imposition of secularization from above. Atatürk did this with relative success in Turkey, and, for all the recent successes of Islamist parties there, the secularist principle remains strong and, should Turkey be admitted to the EU, may get stronger. Iran made considerable progress in a secular direction under Reza Shah and his son Muhammad Reza (the one who was deposed in 1979). What ruined it for Iranians were two things: both kings turned out to be despots, and the US and Great Britain interfered too readily in the country's internal affairs. Oppression and the weakness of the Left forced rebellion into religious channels, with frightening results, not just for Iran, but the rest of the world.
One major obstacle in the path of a secularized (and, one has to hope, democratized, tolerant, and human rights conscious) Islam is the lack of many of the factors that are generally thought to engender a secularist outlook: industrialization, freedom of speech, a higher education sector outside government or religious control, a free intelligentsia, an independent legal system, and so on. This presents us with a vicious circle that may prove very hard to break.
The great exception to the theory of secularization is, of course, the United States, which has much higher rates of religious attendance and belief than anywhere in Europe, say, or Japan. It may provide a better model in some ways, much as we may dislike the political influence of evangelical Christianity there. Americans (the evangelicals apart) seem to be capable of being religious without letting that interfere with the overall secularity of the state.
Unfortunately, the Christian (or neo-Christian, denominational) model doesn't work so well for Islam, where religion and politics sleep in the same bed — if not always in practice, certainly in theory.
In the end, the initiative has to rest with Western governments. They have, in the past, often turned a blind eye, not to just to Islamic anti-Semitism, but to human rights abuses in Muslim countries. Now, perhaps, they may see that many birds are coming home to roost. Muslim hatred of the West has been fuelled by many things, but it is, surely, undeniable that anti-Semitic words and images have played a large part. To whatever extent Western governments are serious about the war on terrorism, they have to get serious about human rights issues, including anti-Semitic hate speech. This will mean taking a tough attitude to Muslim governments who fail to take real action on women's rights, the rights of religious minorities, and much else. They should put suppression of anti-Semitism at the top of their agenda. Passing and implementing laws against hate speech (the sort of laws Muslims are keen on when Islamophobia is the target) won't cost governments much, compared to the benefits that might come their way. Pakistan would be an ideal place to start.
This article is copyright Denis MacEoin for Zionism On The Web.
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