Posts Tagged Islamism

Bernard Lewis and the return of Islam

Bernard Lewis: London yearsYesterday was the 100th birthday of Bernard Lewis, preeminent historian of the Middle East and Islam. Today, Mosaic Magazine has published my essay for the occasion. I take as my point of departure an article Lewis wrote for the January 1976 issue of Commentary, entitled “The Return of Islam.” That article defied conventional wisdom and heralded the advent of a new era in the history of the Middle East. Lewis was pilloried for writing it, but subsequent events, from the Iranian revolution to 9/11, utterly vindicated him. Mine is the monthly essay at Mosaic Magazine, which means that responses will be published there throughout June, and I’ll have the final word at the end of the month.

The latest manifestation of “the return of Islam” is the Islamic State, and one wonders what Lewis would write about it were he still an active scholar. The Islamic State, with its deliberate attempts to mimic the early Islamic conquests, would provide a rich lode. It isn’t hard to imagine the themes Lewis would elucidate: the jihad mode of warfare, the meaning of the caliphate, the restoration of slavery, the symbolism of beheading and other forms of execution in Islamic history, the Islamic concept of the apocalypse, and on and on.

It would be the sort of exercise he accomplished in 1967, when he published a lively and lightly erudite book on the medieval Assassins, a group whose violence became so infamous that it gave us our word for murderous treachery. The Assassins sold more briskly, in many editions and translations, than just about any work on early Islamic history, and for an obvious reason: the back jacket of one new edition described it as “particularly insightful in light of the rise of the terrorist attacks in the U.S. and in Israel.”

In the original book, Lewis drew no comparisons, but he added a preface to later editions, in which he cautiously did just that, pointing to “interesting resemblances and contrasts.” Most of these related to Iran and its Shi’ite extensions, an obvious parallel. (The Assassins were an offshoot of Isma’ili Shi’ism, with bases in Iran and Syria.) But no resemblance appears closer than that between the Assassins and the Islamic State today.

“Of all the lessons to be learnt from the Assassins,” Lewis concluded,

perhaps the most important is their final and total failure. They did not overthrow the existing order; they did not even succeed in holding a single city of any size. Even their castle domains became no more than petty principalities, which in time were overwhelmed by conquest.

If that’s the main lesson, then it’s sobering to realize that the Islamic State, entrenched for the last two years in the cities of Raqqa and Mosul, has already achieved more than the medieval Assassins, against a much more formidable alliance than the Assassins ever faced. While the Obama administration has vowed to defeat the Islamic State, most analysts are busy explaining why inflicting “final and total failure” on the Islamic State is impossible, at least for now.

The Assassins didn’t peter out. Their enemies decided to extirpate them. That the Islamic State has managed to carve out its own principality on such a scale, and hold it for so long, doesn’t speak well of the resolve of its enemies. At some point, it will probably suffer a blow from which it won’t recover (although one doubts that its leftovers will become “small and peaceful communities of peasants and merchants,” as was the case with the Isma’ili descendants of the Assassins). But by that time, it may well have metastasized to many other places.

All of which is to emphasize, if any emphasis were needed, that the writings of Bernard Lewis remain a useful stimulus for thinking and lesson-learning about the Middle East, still in the throes of the “return of Islam.” Events will prompt readers to consult his works again and again.

Happy birthday, Bernard! To 120, and then some.

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    Political Islam in Syria

    This is an excerpt of the section on Syria from my 1980 monograph Political Islam (pp. 66-70).

    24517931800_011db22af8_nSyria, 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.

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      The NIC of time

      The National Intelligence Council (NIC) has just published its fifth long-term prognostication, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds. This is an officially sponsored guessing game, but much of what government does has long lead times, so long-term projections need to be made by somebody.

      By their nature, these hedged predictions say as much about present politics as future probabilities. One prediction (p. 71) is particularly striking, touching as it does on the drivers of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world:

      Although al-Qa’ida and others have focused on the United States [as] a clear enemy, the appeal of the United States as the “great enemy” is declining. The impending withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and decreases in US forces in Afghanistan help to reduce the extent to which terrorists can draw on the United States as a lightning rod for anger. Soon, US support for Israel could be the last remaining major focus of Muslim anger.

      It’s a peculiar assessment. After all, when al-Qa’ida attacked the United States on 9/11, there were no US forces in Iraq or Afghanistan. The 9/11 attacks undoubtedly did resonate in the Muslim world, and that couldn’t have been the result of an American boots-on-the-ground presence in the region. So what drove anti-Americanism back then? Is there a suggestion here that US support for Israel was already the “major focus”? What about American support for authoritarian regimes? We are told again and again how deeply Muslims have resented such support, and they could resent it even more in 2030, should the oil-saturated monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf last that long.

      And what happened to the assessments in past reports, which cited “globalization” as the source of Muslim anger against the West in general, and the United States in particular? The report issued in 2000, anticipating 2015, offered this: “Popular resentment of globalization as a Western intrusion will be widespread. Political Islam in various forms will be an attractive alternative for millions of Muslims throughout the region, and some radical variants will continue to be divisive social and political forces.” Right on the mark, as evidenced by events unfolding before our eyes. Why isn’t such “intrusion” likely to continue to inflame the Muslim world?

      Such resentment has a long history, and so does its neglect by Western analysts. The British historian Arnold Toynbee, in his 1922 book The Western Question in Greece and Turkey: A Study in the Contact of Civilisations, offered a striking allegory to illustrate the West’s effect upon the East:

      Savages are distressed at the waning of the moon and attempt to counteract it by magical remedies. They do not realise that the shadow which creeps forward till it blots out all but a fragment of the shining disc, is cast by their world. In much the same way we civilised people of the West glance with pity or contempt at our non-Western contemporaries lying under the shadow of some stronger power, which seems to paralyse their energies by depriving them of light. Generally we are too deeply engrossed in our own business to look closer, and we pass by on the other side—conjecturing (if our curiosity is sufficiently aroused to demand an explanation) that the shadow which oppresses these sickly forms is the ghost of their own past. Yet if we paused to examine that dim gigantic overshadowing figure standing, apparently unconscious, with its back to its victims, we should be startled to find that its features are ours…

      It is difficult for us to realise the profound influence on the East which we actually, though unconsciously, exercise… and the relationship described in my allegory cannot permanently continue. Either the overshadowing figure must turn its head, perceive the harm that unintentionally it has been doing, and move out of the light; or its victims, after vain attempts to arouse its attention and request it to change its posture, must stagger to their feet and stab it in the back.

      The attacks of 9/11 were just such a stab in the back, and the confusion that ensued over Muslim enthusiasm for them arose precisely from America’s failure to grasp how thoroughly its revolutionary example undermines traditional orders everywhere. Where Toynbee erred, of course, was in his assumption that the West could simply “move out of the light,” thus liberating those in its shadow. No doubt there are still those who believe that if only we were to stand aside or step back, our profile would diminish, and with it the resentment against us. It was the historian and political thinker Elie Kedourie—a relentless critic of Toynbee as historian and seer—who added the necessary refinement.

      In his view, the damaging effect of the West upon the East had nothing to do with what the West did. It was an inevitable effect of what the West was, and no amount of sidestepping or backtracking could mitigate the consequences. The West, Kedourie asserted, “cannot help being what it is. By the very fact of its existence, it was a destabilizing force for the Middle East.” And he employed a different allegory: “Someone who has influenza is not really responsible for the fact that someone else catches his disease.” The West could not be blamed for being what it is: the carrier of an aggressive virus that ravages all traditions.

      So the suggestion in the NIC report, that Muslim anger against the United States might soon be reduced to a kernel of resentment over US support for Israel, is a species of wishful thinking. The United States will continue to infect the Muslim world, even if its willingness or ability to project hard power declines. The so-called “Arab Spring,” which is so often hailed as the product of indigenous processes, is in fact an inflammation produced by the most contagious of all viruses: the idea of freedom, now linked inseparably to American-style democracy. As long as Muslim societies remain internally divided over freedom and democracy, there will be governments and factions that will stoke hatred of America. In some places, American flags will be waved, but in others American embassies will be burned. In either case, the United States will be regarded, favorably or unfavorably, as the grinding wheel of change in the world.

      There is another odd assertion in the report (p. 75):

      Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have dramatic consequences for the region over the next two decades. For Israel, a permanent resolution to the conflict could open the door to regional relationships unthinkable today. The end of Palestinian conflict would provide a strategic setback to Iran and its resistance camp and over time undermine public support for militant groups such as Hizballah and Hamas.

      This is the myth of linkage, and it echoes almost precisely a claim made by President Obama when he was still a candidate in 2008. “All these issues are connected,” Obama said.

      If we can solve the Israeli-Palestinian process, then that will make it easier for Arab states and the Gulf states to support us when it comes to issues like Iraq and Afghanistan. It will also weaken Iran, which has been using Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to stir up mischief in the region.

      This thesis (the theatrical NIC version reads like “New Middle East” circa 1995) seems less persuasive with each passing month, as many other “dramatic consequences” unfold, eclipsing or competing with the long-running Israel-Palestine show. The reassertion of linkage here is thoroughly political. It is not a measured assessment, but it is the sort of statement that stands a chance of being echoed by a high administration official, if not by the President himself. And it draws rebuttals from people like me—which helps to keep the NIC, a poor cousin to the agencies that deal in hard intelligence, in the limelight and on a budget line. After all, this was an agency that the Obama administration first thought to entrust to the ministrations of Chas Freeman (click here in case you’ve forgotten). That wasn’t exactly a token of high regard for the institution.

      But if one really does believe in linkage, and in the “dramatic consequences” that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would have for the region, why not reverse it? If such an agreement promises to be so transformative, shouldn’t its pursuit justify delivering hammer blows to Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, to keep them from obstructing it? The linkage thesis has dual uses—and abuses—which make it the favorite concept behind all sorts of reductionist approaches to the Middle East. It’s a pity to see it surface in a report that pretends to nuance and sophistication.

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        Worst-case scenario in Egypt

        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:

         

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          The Salience of Islamic Antisemitism

          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.

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