Posts Tagged Islamism
Posted by Martin Kramer in on February 4, 2016
This is an excerpt of the section on Syria from my 1980 monograph Political Islam (pp. 66-70).
Syria, once an example of post-colonial instability, has now known nearly a decade of continuous rule by President Hafiz al-Asad and his Baath Party. It is a remarkable achievement, unprecedented in the modern history of Syria. And yet few regimes are so vulnerable to the Muslim appeal; the foundation of Asad’s rule is constant vigilance.
Asad and many of his lieutenants hail from a religious minority. The Alawis, centered in Latakia in western Syria, are an underdeveloped community that constitutes roughly 11 percent of Syria’s population. Like many other provincial Syrian minorities after World War I, the Alawis had been encouraged by the French to press for separate statehood, and at several points Alawis did resist integration into the Syrian state. Eventually they gave up any separatist ambitions, but they were not to be ruled by others. Their rise to disproportionate power in the united Syrian state is a result of their primacy in the armed forces, to which they flocked (earlier with French encouragement) in order to escape the dead end of a depressed and static community. As Syrian politics increasingly fell within the military domain, the Alawi quest for upward mobility was richly rewarded: Alawis stand at the summit of the Syrian political structure.
This sudden and unanticipated rise bred resentment. For at the forefront of the struggle for independence had been the Sunni Muslims populating the major cities of Syria’s heartland. They had enjoyed the preference accorded Sunnis under Sunni Ottoman rule; they had fought for greater privileges in the Arab Revolt; they resisted the French; they, along with Syrian Christian intellectuals, had developed the guiding principles of Arab nationalism; and they had stepped into positions of authority with the departure of the French. Then—following a series of coups d’etat—Sunnis found themselves on the political doorstep as the prime qualification for political leadership became military rank.
The injustice in Sunni eyes was compounded by the fact that Alawis had emerged on top after the bloodletting had ended. Syria’s Sunni ulama had considered the Alawis heretical, beyond the Muslim pale; Alawi beliefs and doctrines were ridiculed, and were no more than tolerated under Ottoman rule. This should not have mattered: Sunni Arab nationalists had long avowed their secularism. That avowal, however, was at least partially a device to reconcile others to Sunni rule, while now it was being used to reconcile Sunnis to the rule of others. Enough Sunnis had identified their nationalist aspirations with their Islam and confused Syrian independence with the rule of their own community to leave a bitter taste of disappointment with this ironic turn of events.
These are the sorts of prejudices with which Asad has had to cope. His predecessors in power faced Sunni disturbances during the 1960s, but Asad hoped to avoid the same problems by adhering to a judicious Muslim policy. Despite his own secularist disposition, Asad made public displays of piety: he prayed at a major Sunni mosque in Latakia, where he kissed the Quran; his portrait was inserted in a government edition of the Quran (the famous “Asad Quran”); he trekked to the Lahore Islamic Summit in 1974 where he publicly prayed alongside the other Muslim heads-of-state; and he made the pilgrimage. The Alawis, too, were rehabilitated. The regime circulated theological tracts which declared that Alawis constituted an integral segment of the Islamic community. Since the more ecumenical Sunni ulama recognize Shi‘is to be Muslims, the regime went to the trouble of having a notable Shi‘i dignitary in Lebanon declare that the Alawi faith was, in fact, a branch of the Shi‘a. Finally, Asad took pains to assure Sunnis of ministerial portfolios and positions in the civil bureaucracy.
This did not, however, prevent a recurrence of the violence that plagued Asad’s predecessors. The Sunni merchants in the bazaars of Damascus, Aleppo, Hamah, and Homs were being made to feel the pinch of socialist policies they found spokesmen in those Sunni ulama who remained independent of state control, in an alliance not unlike that in Iran. Their resentment was touched off in January 1973 when the government released the text of a new draft constitution that omitted the customary article prescribing Islam as the religion of state—almost certainly a triumph for secularist ideologues in inner-Baathist circles. A group of Sunni ulama proclaimed, however, that the new constitution wiped out fourteen centuries during which Syria had been the pride of Islam, a theme that they repeated in the mosques. Asad could not retreat—he might have caused too much ill-feeling within the Party—but he did attempt to reach a compromise by proposing that the new constitution require a president of the Muslim faith. In accord with this decision, a public referendum was scheduled on the proposed amendment. But the situation actually deteriorated after Asad’s offer: at issue was not the constitution, but Alawi primacy.
The parallels with Iran’s violence are striking. The uprising—“a crisis that shook the regime almost to its foundations,” according to Abbas Kelidar—began in the urban mosques with sermons by ulama. The congregations moved from the mosques to the streets. Clashes with police led to exchanges of gunfire, leaving casualties in both ranks. Baath offices (like those of the official Rastakhiz party in Iran) became the target of attacks. The merchants shut their shops in general strikes that affected Hamah, Homs, and Aleppo. In Damascus, a general strike was averted only by last-minute intervention of ulama. The principal shari‘a court judge was arrested for advocating a boycott of the referendum the Shari‘a Judicial Council went on strike in protest. Aleppo College went on strike; Syrian soldiers took the campus and, evoking a charge that later often reverberated in Iran, were rumored to have shaved the beards of arrested theology students before sending them to prison. Slogans proliferated on public buildings: “Islam is the road to victory,” “religion to God is Islam,” and “Islam is our constitution.” The uprising ended only with the despatch of armored units into the cities.
In subsequent years, Asad was far more cautious, and his opponents were driven underground. They began a campaign of assassination directed against Alawi officials and officers, in streets and homes. In June 1979 this campaign reached new heights: a Muslim group engineered an attack on a military school in Aleppo, killing over 60 officers, the great majority of whom were almost certainly Alawis. Asad responded with a spate of executions—not of the perpetrators, but of those convicted of similarly-motivated offenses on earlier occasions. The shift to this kind of operation by Sunni recalcitrants is almost certainly a sign of weakness; it is difficult to imagine any Syrian regime being brought down by terrorism, but the Muslim opposition has managed to create an atmosphere of public insecurity that may embolden others better poised to act.
In any case, the Sunni-Alawi issue has already had a telling effect upon the government’s policy. Eager for wider acceptance, Asad has sought consensus through the Arab nationalist war with Israel. The military ability of the Alawis is their political mandate, and in moments of crisis the regime issues appropriate reminders. In 1967, before Asad’s rise to power, his Alawi predecessor (Salah Jadid) had distracted Syrians from a similar spate of internal violence by aerial duels with Israel which charged the atmosphere for the subsequent June war. In 1973, semi-official Syrian sources announced that the Sunni riots were coming at a time when the Israelis were planning a “new aggression.” In 1979, the attack on the Aleppo school was quickly followed by the Syrian air force’s unsuccessful intervention in an Israeli air raid over Lebanon. The need for this sort of outlet and the pursuit of legitimacy through military achievement have sustained Asad, but have kept Syria out of the “peace process.” Without the conflict with Israel, Asad would be forced to emphasize even further a secular Arab nationalism that remains compelling for many Syrians but leaves a permanent pocket of violent dissent. In Syria, for an Alawi amid Sunnis, Islam remains a rigid constraint, a source of legitimacy upon which Asad cannot draw. He must continue to turn elsewhere.
A Muslim Brother, Muhammad Morsi, has entered Egypt’s presidential palace and taken his seat in the chair once occupied by Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. This is a stunning development—a slow-motion Islamic revolution that few envisioned back in January 2011, when the crowds filled Tahrir Square.
The experts systematically underestimated the Muslim Brotherhood for a simple reason: they saw the revolution as they wanted it to be, not as it was. The distorted optic of the Tahrir stage seduced and misled them. But it was even more than that: the Muslim Brotherhood itself conducted a campaign of deliberate deception. They claimed they wouldn’t try to dominate the parliament, that they wouldn’t run candidates for every seat—and then they did. They said they wouldn’t run a presidential candidate of their own—and then they did. The credulous believed these reassurances—they seemed so rational and pragmatic. Marc Lynch, an estimable expert on these matters, actually chided the Brotherhood when it defied his analysis of its best interests and nominated a presidential candidate. It was, in his words, a “strategic blunder.”
In fact, it was a strategic master-stroke. From the beginning of the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood has understood that the fluid situation created by the fall of Mubarak won’t last forever, and that now is the time to seize every possible position they can, before alternatives take form. They want power, they crave power, and they won’t let it slip through their fingers by sitting out even a single contest. At the end of the day, all of the arguments for holding back have fallen by the wayside. They’re going for broke.
And have no doubt about the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood seeks to restore Egypt to the glory it once knew, by implementing Islamic social and legal norms. The translation of Islamic ideology into practice is the point of holding political power. The Brotherhood might not be able to effect an exact translation—that would be difficult—but a translation of ideology into practice it will be. This worries secular Egyptians, the international community, and Israel. At this early stage, many will say that such worries are overblown, that the Brotherhood will adapt and compromise. To consolidate power, it might. But at a later stage, many may regret having been so nonchalant.
No one can stop Brotherhood. You say: what about the military chiefs? The military, at times, has appeared to be winning. The revolution got rid of Gamal Mubarak, Husni Mubarak’s son and presumed successor, and that suited the military fine. The parliamentary elections, won by Islamists, demolished the liberals by revealing their weakness. That suited the military fine.
This left standing the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. Everyone assumed that they wouldn’t dare put forth a candidate for the presidency. The new president was to have been a consensus personality above party politics—an ElBaradei or Amr Musa. It was the Brotherhood’s decision to run a presidential candidate that threw the military off-balance, and they have been scrambling ever since. The first Brotherhood candidate, the formidable deputy-guide Khayrat ash-Shater, was disqualified—he would have won a sweeping victory. His replacement, Muhammad Morsi, basically a stand-in, had less appeal, and against him, the unlikely Ahmad Shafik stood a chance. But it gradually became evident that even the stand-in might defeat Shafik, hence the drastic measures by the military chiefs, stripping the presidency of most of its powers even before the first ballot was counted.
The military’s efforts to contain the Muslim Brotherhood, at this late date, can only buy limited time. The parliament has been dissolved, but it will have to be reconstituted, and then what? The rewriting of the constitution can be delayed, but the constitution will have to be written and approved by the legislature, and then what? And if the president isn’t to be the supreme commander of the Egyptian armed forces, then who will be? The simple truth is that Egypt isn’t going to revert to military rule—it’s too late, the polls show that a vast majority of Egyptians want a transition to civilian, constitutional rule. For the military, the question is, what are the terms of this transition? What will guarantee their economic enterprises? What will assure them that they won’t be prosecuted and purged? This is now the core of Egyptian domestic politics: the terms on which the military will exit. And with each passing day, the hand of the Muslim Brotherhood is strengthened in this negotiation, because it grows more legitimate and the generals grow less legitimate. There are those who think that the Muslim Brotherhood can still be outmaneuvered by gerrymandering the system. In the long term, it can’t. Egypt is headed toward populist Islamist rule, and it is just a matter of time before the Brotherhood checkmates its opponents.
So how will the Muslim Brotherhood rule? It is the misfortune of the Muslim Brotherhood that, having waited more than 80 years for power, they have come to it at perhaps the lowest point in the modern history of Egypt. The country teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, the result of decades of bad decisions, corruption, and the absence of the rule of law. The Muslim Brotherhood is in a bind, because it has to deliver. For the masses of people who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, the revolution wasn’t about democracy and freedom. It was about bread and social justice.
The Brotherhood has a so-called “Renaissance” plan for the overhaul of the Egyptian economy. I won’t pretend to judge its feasibility. Could modernization of tax collection double or triple tax revenues? Can Egypt double the number of arriving tourists, even while contemplating limits on alcohol and bikinis? Can a renovation of the Suez Canal raise transit revenues from $6 billion a year to $100 billion? Can Egypt’s economy surpass the economies of Turkey and Malaysia within seven years? These are all claims made at various times by the economic thinkers of the Muslim Brotherhood, who trumpet Egypt’s supposed potential for self-sufficiency.
If you think this is pie in the sky, then it isn’t difficult to imagine the “Plan B” of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is to find ways to raise the rent Egypt collects from the West and rich Arabs for its geopolitical position. Call it a shakedown, call it a bailout, it doesn’t matter. The message Egypt is sending is that it’s too big to fail, and that the world, and especially the United States, owes it. The deputy guide, Khayrat ash-Shater, put it directly: “We strongly advise the Americans and the Europeans to support Egypt during this critical period as compensation for the many years they supported a brutal dictatorship.” Egypt, which is one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, is thus owed compensation.
A key part of this narrative is that Mubarak sold peace with Israel on the cheap. In Egypt it is believed that the $1.3 billion that Egypt receives a year in military aid, and hundreds of millions more in economic aid, are just a portion of what Egypt’s adherence to peace is worth. To get more, the plan of the Muslim Brotherhood is to persuade Washington that it can’t take Egypt for granted. The strategy will be to stimulate crises that will be amenable to resolution by the transfer of resources. No one can predict what those crises will look like. It’s hard to imagine that some of them won’t involve Israel.
So the question the United States faces will be this: is Egypt indeed too big to fail? Is the United States now not only going to talk the Muslim Brotherhood—which it is already doing—but actively work to help it succeed? The question comes at a time when the United States has become frugal. And there is no superpower rivalry that Egypt can exploit. When John Foster Dulles informed Nasser in 1956 that the United States wouldn’t finance his great dam at Aswan, Nasser went to Moscow. Today there aren’t any alternatives to the United States.
That being the case, the only way for Egypt to get the attention of Washington is to threaten to spin out of American orbit and into the opposing sphere of radical Islam. At no point will it be indisputable that the United States has “lost Egypt.” But at every point, Egypt’s loss will seem imminent. In that respect, the Muslim Brotherhood has already made its mark on history: from this day forward, Egypt can’t ever be taken for granted again.
For future reference, Marc Lynch stands by his analysis:
— Marc Lynch (@abuaardvark) June 24, 2012
— Marc Lynch (@abuaardvark) June 29, 2012
Martin Kramer, The Salience of Islamic Antisemitism, Institute of Jewish Affairs Report (London), no. 2, October 1995.
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 schemes.”
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 lost.
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 plot.”
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, “The Jihad Against the Jews,” Commentary, October 1994, pp. 38-42.
ON JULY 18, 1994 a ferocious bomb explosion ripped through the seven-story building at 633 Pasteur Street, in the traditionally Jewish quarter of Buenos Aires. The building completely collapsed, and the final death count reached 85 persons. It was Argentina’s worst terrorist attack.
In many ways this strike resembled the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in March 1992, which left 29 people dead. That earlier bombing immediately followed Israel’s assassination in south Lebanon of the secretary-general of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite “Party of God.” Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah’s clandestine branch, made a convincing claim of responsibility for the embassy bombing, although the Argentine authorities never picked up its trail.
The attack in July, as the chief U.S. counter-terrorism official later put it, also had “the hallmarks of a Hezbollah operation.” It likewise seemed to be an act of revenge, perhaps for an accumulation of grievances: the massacre of Muslim worshippers in Hebron’s mosque by an Israeli settler; or Israel’s June raid on a Hezbollah base deep in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, which killed nearly 30 trainees.
The technique of the massive car bomb, so reminiscent of Beirut, was also identical in both instances, and pointed in the direction of Muslim extremists generally, and Hezbollah in particular. While Argentina has over 30 neo-Nazi and far-Right movements, which presumably would wish Israel and the Jews harm, the quantity of explosives and the method of delivery guaranteed that the dying would be indiscriminate. Indeed, nearly a third of those killed were non-Jewish passersby. Resort to such a technique required not only a determination to destroy the target, but a total lack of regard for the inevitable “collateral damage.” It seemed probable that only complete outsiders would be willing to kill Argentines so randomly in order to get at their target.
Yet for all their similarities, this latest bombing differed in a crucial respect from its predecessor: it was directed not at Israelis but at Jews as such. No Israeli agencies operated from the building on Pasteur Street. The devastated structure housed the Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), the main organizational body of the Buenos Aires Jewish Community, which had just marked its centennial; and the Delegacion de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas (DAIA), the organizational umbrella of Argentine Jewry, established over 60 years ago. The building included everything from social-aid offices, where the elderly collected pensions, to the archives of AMIA and the records of the city’s hevra kedisha, its burial society.
The choice of a Jewish target was no mistake. It came as the culmination of a shift in the thinking of many Muslim fundamentalists. Today they are in thrall to the idea that Jews everywhere, in league with Israel, are behind a sinister plot to destroy Islam. The battleground is anywhere Jews are organized to assist and aid in this plot.
This is a new concept even for Islamic fundamentalism, and it represents an especially virulent form of anti-Semitism, one so widespread and potentially violent that it could eclipse all other forms of anti-Semitism over the next decade.
RELIGIOUS prejudice always colored the traditional Islamic view of the Jews, but it also affected Muslim attitudes to Christians and all other nonbelievers. Most importantly, Muslims did not consider Jews a race apart. They regarded Jews as forming a community of belief—an errant belief, to be sure, but one entitled to a large measure of toleration.
Modern anti-Semitism in Muslim lands dates only from about the beginning of this century, following the spread of European racial theories. The idea of the Jews as a band of conspirators came to Muslim lands largely through the translation of anti-Semitic texts into Arabic, and above all The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Europe’s anti-Semitism, like its nationalism, had an immense impact on Muslim thinking, persuading many Muslims that the Jews did constitute a distinct race, whose members had always been treacherous in all places and at all times, because it was in their fundamental nature to be so.
Not surprisingly, European-inspired racial anti-Semitism reached the height of its influence with the genocidal Nazi war against the Jews. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Arab-nationalist leaders found support and then refuge in Berlin, and Arabic translations of Mein Kampf and the Protocols enjoyed their widest circulation.
These ideas persisted into the postwar period, when Jews were forced from Arab lands. Despite their deep roots in these lands, Arab nationalist dogma drew on the anti-Semitic doctrines of Europe to portray the Jews as aliens in every place, at every time. The Arab nationalists claimed that the hearts and minds of all Jews belonged ultimately to the new state of Israel, and so any Jew could be held accountable for the supposed sins of the Jewish state. This provided the legitimation for the mass expulsion of Jews from Arab lands in the 1950’s. There were once 800,000 Jews in the Arab world; today there are only about 20,000, most of them in Morocco.
Arab anti-Semitism took on a new guise in the 1960’s and 1970’s, under the impact of the fashionable anti-Zionism of the Left. While denying any anti-Semitic prejudice, the new “anti-Zionists” also denied Jews the right to self-definition as a nation. The Jews had wronged all mankind by deciding that they constituted a nation, and then by creating Israel in the heartland of another nation.
It followed that the only solution to the Jewish problem was denationalization, to be achieved by the defeat and dismantlement of the state of Israel and the return of the Jews whence they came. It was an idea that dovetailed nicely with the growing influence of Soviet and New Left anti-Zionism, and reached its apex with the “Zionism is racism” resolution of the UN General Assembly.
Throughout these many changing fads of Arab anti-Semitism, however, an earlier generation of Muslim fundamentalists still adhered to a strict reading of the Islamic tradition. Their attitude to the Jews rested not upon the imported European doctrines of race and nation, which they rejected, but upon religion. As careful readers of their own texts, they knew that the Qur’an faulted the Jews of Muhammad’s time for failing to recognize his prophethood. But they did not understand this as a lesson on the character of Jews in all times and places.
Nor did these more traditional fundamentalists hold the Jews to be a conspiratorial race, or subscribe to any of the various solutions, from expulsion to extermination, held out by European example. In their view, Islam provided the perfect solution to the Jewish problem: the creation of an Islamic state, which would accord Jews the status of an autonomous, protected religious community. Their model was the dhimma, the covenant of submission and protection offered to Jews and Christians during the first Islamic conquests.
This view still allowed for a distinction between Judaism and Zionism and, by extension, between Jews and Israelis. An example of fundamentalist rigor on this point could be found in the thought of the late Ismail Faruqi of Temple University in Philadelphia, a Palestinian fundamentalist of the old school. Faruqi regarded anti-Semitism as one more European disease which Muslims had caught by sleeping with the West, and which a return to true Islam would eradicate. “There cannot be any doubt that the Jew is a sufferer of injustice at the hands of the Christian West,” admitted Faruqi, rejecting the idea that the Jews were everywhere evil and deserving of retribution. As Faruqi saw it, “Islam offers a perfect solution to the Jewish problem which has beset the Jews and the West for two millennia,” since it would allow Jews complete communal and religious autonomy, and the right to reside anywhere in the ideal Islamic state.
Of course, Faruqi went on to add a crucial punch line: “The Islamic position leaves no chance for the Zionist state but to be dismantled and destroyed, and its wealth confiscated to pay off its liabilities.” But Faruqi never would have conceived of the conflict with Israel as entailing a global struggle between Islam and Judaism.
FARUQI’S idea that “the relation of Islam to Judaism is one of sympathy, even identity” would appall the new generation of Muslim fundamentalists who have emerged since the 1980’s. Many of them have been thoroughly imbued with imported doctrines of anti-Semitism. Some are born-again Muslims, ill-acquainted with Islamic tradition, who often see Islam only as an ideology of power.
These new fundamentalists deemphasize the long history of Islamic tolerance of the Jews across centuries and continents, fixating instead upon the early conflict between Muhammad and the Jewish tribes of 7th-century Arabia. The Jews who clashed with Muhammad are presented as archetypes of a universal Jew, treacherous by nature, whose perfidy threatens not only Islam but all humanity.
In this discourse, which purports to be the authentic voice of Islam, all manner of themes and sources intermingle. Verses from the Qur’an abut quotations from the Protocols. The role of the Jews in Arabia of the 7th century is compared with the alleged international power of the Jews in the late 20th. And in this collapsing of sources and history, another distinction—between anti-Zionism and anti-Judaism—is lost. The fundamentalist arguments mobilized against the state of Israel are invariably arguments against the Jews in general.
In short, the Islamic fundamentalist position has now been thoroughly penetrated by classic European anti-Semitism. This has been facilitated by the fact that so many fundamentalist thinkers of the present generation have spent time in the West, collecting advanced degrees at the universities of London and Paris. There they internalized the anti-Semitism of the extreme Left and Right, and they now retail a comprehensive indictment of the Jews which goes far beyond anti-Zionism. Their tales of unbridled Jewish power enjoy even more credibility among their listeners at home, since they can claim to have seen and experienced it firsthand. They wax persuasive when they declare that an international Jewish conspiracy stands behind Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, or the fall of the Muslim-owned Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI).
Consider the spiritual mentor of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah, whose teeming flock overflows into Beirut’s streets to hear his mosque sermon each Friday. According to Fadlallah, “The struggle against the Jewish state, in which the Muslims are engaged, is a continuation of the old struggle of the Muslims against the Jews’ conspiracy against Islam.” Muslims now face
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.
Fadlallah thus rejects the argument, which is still made by some nationalists and fundamentalists, that Israel is but an instrument of American imperialism. “The Jews want to be a world superpower….No one should imagine that the Jews act on behalf of any super or minor power. It is their personality to make for themselves a future world presence.” The very purpose of Israel is to bring “all the Jews in the world to this region, to make it the nucleus for spreading their economic and cultural domination.”
For Fadlallah, then, Israel 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.” Here is a view of Muslims and Jews locked in a timeless and total confrontation, until one completely subjugates the other.
Along with this notion has come the idea that Jews everywhere are Israel’s co-conspirators in a plot against Islam. A leading protagonist of this idea is Rashid al-Ghannushi, the exiled leader of al-Nahda, the banned Tunisian fundamentalist movement.
Last year, Ghannushi was granted political asylum in Britain, and he is now the foremost fundamentalist ideologue in the West. From the belly of the beast, he has contended that the Jews everywhere are behind a worldwide campaign against Islam. Islam and the West could reach an accommodation, he says, were it not for the worldwide machinations of the Jews, who fan the fires of mistrust. Beware the Jews, he admonishes the West: “We Islamists hope that the West is not carried away by the Jewish strategy of linking the future of its relationship with the Islamic world with a war against Islam.”
THE recent agreement between Israel and the PLO, and Israel’s continuing negotiations with Arab states, have, if anything, exacerbated fundamentalist anti-Semitism. Opposed to any negotiated agreement, the fundamentalists now seek to frighten Islamic opinion by warning that peace will subject the Muslim world to complete Jewish domination.
Since the expulsion of the Jews from the Arab world over a generation ago, domestic Jewish influence has not been a major issue, either for nationalists or fundamentalists. But now the fundamentalists are declaring that the “normalization” provisions of any peace treaty will mean a massive influx of Jews into Arab countries—as diplomats, journalists, businessmen, and tourists. Their objective, say the fundamentalists, will be to dominate and corrupt the Islamic world.
This is the line now being taken by the leading spokesman of the Palestinian Hamas, Ibrahim Ghawsha, who resides in Jordan. Ghawsha subscribes to the concept that the conflict with the Jews is not over territory but truth, and is therefore eternal: “We think the conflict between the Arabs and Jews, between the Muslims and the Jews, is a cultural conflict that will continue to rage throughout all time.” With peace, he warns, the Jews will gain the upper hand in that conflict; the return of Arab territory is a clever Jewish ruse, which will allow Israel to extend its hegemony over the entire region. Israel’s economic resources, he reminds Muslims,
are extremely advanced technologically and scientifically. 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 as Japan dominates Southeast Asia, and the Arabs will all become employees of the Jews.
The image of the Jew is thus transformed, from a ruthless enemy on the battlefield to a ruthless boss on the factory floor. In the same spirit, Ghannushi has called the Israel-PLO accord “a Jewish-American plan encompassing the entire region, which would cleanse it of all resistance and open it to Jewish economic and cultural activity, culminating in complete Jewish hegemony from Marrakesh to Kazakhstan.”
This Jewish hegemony would extend even into Arabia, to the sacred precincts of Islam, from which Muhammad expelled the Jews. “The Jews are planning to return to Khaybar,” warns Ghawsha, referring to the town near Medina which was the largest Jewish settlement in Arabia at the time of Muhammad, and against which Muhammad waged war. “Actually, by this accord, they will go there. They will go back peacefully. They will ask for the houses of their grandfathers.”
From the fundamentalist vantage point, this scenario of Jews penetrating their world, demanding a return even to Arabia, is the nightmarish prelude to the ultimate eradication of Islam by its most intractable enemy.
And so fundamentalists must now proceed to the task of portraying the Jews in their true light. Hezbollah’s Fadlallah takes for granted that agreements will be reached between Israel and weak Arab governments. Their implementation therefore must be combated at the popular level. And Fadlallah points to the source from which Muslims can draw inspiration:
In the vocabulary of the Qur’an, 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 schemes.
THIS species of anti-Semitism is intended by its creators to amplify a genuine apprehension. As more accords are reached, Jews are appearing in Arab countries either where they were never present, or where they disappeared over a millennium ago, or whence they fled a generation ago. Fear of subjugation runs deep in Arab societies, and it will not be surprising if this shrill anti-Semitism gains a widespread hearing.
But the invigorated anti-Semitism of Muslim fundamentalists is a threat not only in the Middle East. Muslim immigrants and visitors have arrived in ever greater numbers to the West, in countries where Jews are long established: Britain, France, the U.S., Argentina, and Australia. Today virtually every trend in Islamic thought and activism is represented in the Americas and Europe, including the most militant forms of extremism. Britain, for example, is home to organizations of Iran’s supporters, especially around the so-called “Muslim Parliament”; 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.
In recent years, the Jews have not been at the top of the agenda of Muslim fundamentalists in the West, who have been much more preoccupied with two other objectives. First, they have tried to purge Muslim ranks of “deviants,” to create an atmosphere of intellectual intimidation so that only their ideas can be safely aired. This was the portent of the Rushdie affair in Britain. Second, they have tried, often through violence, to compel Western governments to abandon support for secular, pro-Western regimes in the Islamic world. This was the apparent motive behind the World Trade Center bombing. Until now, the Jews have been marginal to the quest for purity and power; and until Buenos Aires, Jews as such had not been singled out for death threats or bomb attacks.
But the progress of the Arab-Israeli peace process has altered fundamentalist priorities. If the peace process cannot be stopped on Middle Eastern ground, then perhaps its momentum can be checked by a counteroffensive on foreign ground. And for those fundamentalists who have thoroughly refined their theory of a world Jewish conspiracy against Islam, a Jewish target will do as well as an Israeli one. Indeed, the message of Buenos Aires is that Jewish targets, because they are so numerous and indefensible, might even be preferred under certain circumstances.
The upshot is that all of Jewry is held hostage against the conduct of Israel. The choice probably fell first on Argentina because it has no effective investigative apparatus of its own—a weakness demonstrated by its failure to solve the Israeli embassy bombing of 1992. But a similar strike could be delivered just as readily in any other country. The infrastructure is already in place.
FORTUNATELY, against this temptation to strike soft Jewish targets, there are also ideological and practical constraints. On one plane, the distinction between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora is vital to fundamentalists. Here is the secretary-general of Hezbollah, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, in an interview last year:
I wish to send a message to all the Jews who came to Palestine I want to tell them that their ambitions, dreams, and aggression can never provide them with the security, stability, and regional power they want. If they truly want security, peace, and stability, they must return from where they came. I believe the climate in Paris is better than in Palestine. Let them return to Paris, London, Australia, from wherever they were before.
Yet now, by threatening all of world Jewry, Islam’s fundamentalists have contradicted this logic, strengthening the perception that it is the Jews of Israel who are the most secure of all. Moreover, when Israel’s Jews do “return,” it is from a position of strength—in the tragic case of Buenos Aires, not only to help dig bodies out of the rubble, but also to assist the Argentine government in its investigation. An international carte blanche for the Mossad is a risk not all fundamentalists are prepared to run.
Such attacks also corrode the moral underpinnings of the fundamentalists themselves. Jihad is a moral code of warfare, regulated by provisions of Islamic law. As adherents of that law, many fundamentalists know that such attacks stretch it too far. Hence the silence among Hezbollah’s clerics over the bombing, and the statement by one of them that, because the bombing killed women and children, “this act cannot be the work of those who are committed to Islam.”
True, Hezbollah has abducted and bombed innocents of various nationalities many times before. But those acts have always created a measure of internal discord between hard-nosed operatives and the guardians of the law. This is something Hezbollah usually seeks to avoid, and may serve as a brake on any rapid descent into all-out terror against Jewish targets worldwide.
More practically, Muslim fundamentalists are discovering again that attacks against Jews as such yield no benefits and provide no relief from Israel’s military strikes. This is a repeat lesson, since a decade ago, Hezbollah gained nothing from holding another Jewish community hostage against Israel’s conduct.
Thus, in 1984 and 1985, a group operating under the wing of Hezbollah and calling itself the “Organization of the Oppressed of the Earth” abducted one in every ten of the remaining 100 Jews in Lebanon, hoping to force the release of Shiites detained by an Israel-backed militia in south Lebanon. Hezbollah accused its Jewish hostages of espionage: “We did not take these people because they are Jewish.” The charge was dismissed even by Lebanese Shiites, most notably in the case of Elie Hallak, the “doctor of the poor,” who had ministered largely to Shiites in the Ein-el-Mreisse quarter of West Beirut.
In 1985, Hezbollah began to murder its Jewish hostages, ultimately killing all of them, including Dr. Hallak, in retaliation for Israeli strikes in south Lebanon. But Israel did not negotiate for their release. Nor did it retaliate for their murder.
Israel’s policy, then and now, remains one of no negotiation over Jewish hostages. It will not drop its own defense if enemies threaten Jews elsewhere. Nor is it obliged to retaliate when Jews elsewhere are struck. And so, although Israel extended a hand to the dazed Jewish community of Buenos Aires, it did not take any retaliatory action in Lebanon for the bombing. On the other hand, Israel still retaliates against every rocket fired in its own direction by Hezbollah, and can be expected to do so in the future.
Israel’s policy has been to signal that when Hezbollah attacks Israelis, Israel will invariably respond. But when it attacks Jews elsewhere, it must reckon not with Israel, but with the world. Today, many fundamentalist movements seek political legitimacy in the eyes of the world as they pursue power at home. If attacks on Jews fail to move Israel, but do move the world against them, their calculation becomes complicated.
BUT these constraints alone will not suffice to put an end to terrorism. There is now a great backwash of extreme fundamentalists into the West, the result of crackdowns in the Middle East and North Africa. They are gaining shelter, visas, and even political asylum. While some respect the laws of their host countries, some do not. There are fundamentalists who look upon the West as one more arena for the conduct of their jihad—against Western governments, their own governments, Israel, and the Jews.
If they are to be stopped, Western governments will have to show an absolute determination to keep their ground free of the violence that characterizes conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. This can best be done by preventing the entry of more fundamentalist standard bearers; by regarding those already in the West as potentially violent; and by employing every legal means of surveillance against them.
Jewish communities also must grow alert to the danger. The prescient introduction to the Anti-Semitism World Report for 1992, published by the Institute of Jewish Affairs in London, 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,” and that there is “an insufficient knowledge of the extent of [Muslim] anti-Jewish activity and propaganda” even in Britain and France.
The explanation for this failing is the obvious tendency to focus upon the heirs to the most destructive anti-Semitism of the past: neo-Nazis and the racist Right. Hence in the aftermath of the Buenos Aires bombings, there were many Argentine Jews who assumed that only the extreme Right could have been responsible for so heinous an assault.
This is a view of anti-Semitism that looks backward, not forward. For the greatest threat today comes not from neo-Nazis but from those fundamentalists of Islam who see in every Jew a political target in their war against Israel. Much more must be done by Jews to thwart them, including in-depth research, defensive measures, close cooperation with law-enforcement agencies, and dialogue with responsible Arab and Muslim organizations. If such activity is not made a priority, Buenos Aires may turn out to be only the first strike in a global jihad against the Jews.
© Martin Kramer
Commemorations on the 19th anniversary of the AMIA bombing, July 2013.