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Sticks and stones

February 08, 2013

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WHEN President Morsi of Egypt was quoted calling Zionists the descendants of “apes and pigs”, there was not a ripple of comment or criticism in the Muslim world. And yet much of his recent visit to Germany was overshadowed by hostile questioning from the media.

His clarification that his words had been taken out of context cut little ice with his audience.

This silence in the Muslim world reflects the deep anti-Semitism rife in the Islamic world. To most Muslims, there is no difference between ‘Jew’, ‘Zionist’ and ‘Israeli’. This ignorance and prejudice is reinforced by the virtual absence of any personal contact between Muslims and Jews.

Morsi, in his 2010 statement, went on to urge Muslims to bring up their children and grandchildren to hate Zionists. Now being pressed by the United States and others to publicly repudiate his earlier rant, Morsi is caught between the demands of his position as president of an American ally and the dogma of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But among Muslim leaders, Morsi is hardly alone in his anti-Semitism. President Ahmadinejad of Iran has never made a secret of his views on Jews and Zionists. In September 2008, he assailed them at the United Nations General Assembly as “a small but deceitful number of people called Zionists” dominating financial and political centres in Europe and the US in “a deceitful, complex and furtive manner”.

This charge resonates deeply among many simple Muslims who see a secret Jewish plot to dominate the world. This has its roots in a document called Protocols of the Elders of Zion that was forged and disseminated by the czarist secret police in 1903. Despite being discredited decades ago, the Protocols continue to inform Muslim attitudes towards Jews.

However, it was not until the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 that Muslims across the world began to express their anger and hatred against Jews openly. Unfortunately, they draw no distinction between Jews and Zionists, although many Jews are not Zionists and many Zionists are not Jews.

Much of the support for Israel and the Zionist movement in the US, for example, comes not from Jews but from Christian Evangelists. They believe that the End of Days will come when the Jews have reclaimed the Promised Land pledged to them by God. The Chosen will then ascend to Heaven. Evangelists are convinced that they will be in this select band that, ironically, excludes Jews.

Muslims often argue that when Jews were persecuted across Europe, and were being exiled and subjected to bloody pogroms, they were protected in the Islamic world. There is much truth in this, although the record is mixed. Often, Jews were treated as dhimmis and forced to pay jaziya, a special tax levied on non-Muslims. As second-class citizens, they were often made to wear distinguishing marks.

But it is certainly true that compared to their lot in most of Europe, they were far better off in Muslim countries where many of them were very successful. However, following the creation of Israel, thousands of Arab Jews migrated to the new state. Now, very few live in Muslim countries.

This mass migration has meant that few Muslims have ever met a Jew, and are therefore willing to believe any slur applied to them. So when Morsi described them as “bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs”, few Muslims questioned his choice of words.

It is certainly true that the Palestinian conflict has fuelled the virulent anti-Semitism rife in the Muslim world today. Over the years, I have lost count of the many articles critical of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands that I have written. Indeed, many of my European and American friends have voiced their revulsion at Israeli policies in the West Bank.

I should mention here that several of these friends are Jewish. It would thus be a mistake to assume that all Jews blindly support Israel’s expansionist land grab and its oppression of the Palestinian people.

But while the Palestinian tragedy might explain some of the anti-Semitism rampant among Muslims, it’s not the whole story. I suspect there’s a strong element of envy that underlies these negative feelings: here is a small group of people who, despite being homeless and persecuted for centuries, has managed to achieve so much against all odds.

Muslims tend to credit American support for Israel’s success. While it is certainly true that US military equipment has been crucial to Israel’s domination, its soldiers have fought bravely and have been brilliantly led. Israeli high-tech factories export their state-of-the-art equipment across the world. Israeli agronomists have transformed the desert.

Jewish scientists and writers have won scores of Nobel prizes. Indeed, this tiny community has contributed to finance, the arts and the sciences out of all proportion to its numbers. But in our blind anger, we overlook these glittering achievements. Even in terms of Islamic texts, Jews are ‘ahle-kitab’, or ‘people of the Book’. While there are many negative references to them as well, the fact is that they are the followers of the oldest of the three major Abrahamic faiths.

So while Muslims can (and mostly do) oppose Israeli policies, this should not blind them to the dictates of common decency and good sense. Calling adversaries names might assuage our anger, but it does not change reality. I am reminded of the childhood rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones/But words will never harm me.”

Apart from moral considerations, practical politics demands a more mature approach. When people like Morsi and Ahmadinejad resort to such childish and hateful rhetoric, the rest of the world tends to be more, and not less, supportive of Israel. Israeli leaders like Netanyahu can underline this anti-Semitism to their friends and detractors in the West, and ask for their help against such implacable foes.

Israelis have long equated criticism of their country with anti-Semitism, seeking to use this ploy to silence its critics. Even Jewish detractors of Israel are subjected to this slur by the powerful Zionist lobby in the US. But by using shrill anti-Semitic rhetoric, Muslims have undercut their own credibility. Now, even rational criticism of Israel is ascribed to anti-Semitism. Ultimately, this has damaged the Palestinian cause.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.

irfan.husain@gmail.com