Religion and violence: another look at Islamophobia and anti-Semitism

Hussein Ibish

Posted Jul 20, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Religion and violence: another look at Islamophobia and anti-Semitism

by Hussein Ibish

It can’t, and it shouldn’t be, all Gaza flotilla all the time, and forcing a change of subject momentarily, an Ibishblog reader, somewhat out of the blue, poses the following question: “Muslims swear allegiance to the Koran and I read in one chapter about 13 statements instructing followers to kill, silence or destroy people who did not agree with Muslim teachings. Do you really think these people are peace loving and tolerant of others? Have you read the Koran?”

Obviously, this should be answered, since it’s representative of an entire and rather dangerous school of thought in our country today. First of all, whatever this individual thinks they know, it has led them deeply astray. Muslims do not swear allegiance to the Quran, whatever that might mean. In Islamic theology, the Quran is many things, most importantly, by supposedly being God’s literal words, it is above all the sole trace of the divine essence in the profane realm of creation (to be best compared in this sense to the role of the divine person of Jesus in Christianity, and not therefore to the Bible). One may swear allegiance, in a sense, to God, and really that is the essence of Islam (literally “submission,” to the will of God) but not to the Quran which is not itself God, or an actor of any kind. The reader claims that because he read in the Quran some violent, intolerant passages that Muslims (or should I say, excuse me, “these people”) can therefore never be peace loving and tolerant of others. If that’s true, all the world’s religions are in deep trouble, and none of their followers could be assumed to be anything other than dangerous, because virtually all of the holy books I have ever glanced through have plenty of violence and intolerance in them.

Let me turn it around and ask the reader: have you read the Bible? Personally, and as an agnostic with no particular dog in this fight, I find the Quran to contain a great many passages with which I am uncomfortable for many different reasons, including some which are disturbingly violent, but I have to say it really can’t compete in this regard with the Bible. Prof. Philip Jenkins’ upcoming book, “Dark Passages,” based on his 2004 Sunday Boston Globe article of the same name, I think will make this case most powerfully. This doesn’t mean that Christianity and Christians are more violent than Islam and Muslims, but it means that this whole discourse about religion and violence is not only based on logical fallacies, it’s based on false assumptions. I don’t know if people in the Christian West simply fail to carefully read their Bibles, or are in some cases incapable of reading them in the same way they read the Quran, as an outsider skeptically looking at each passage line by line, and outside of the context of the mainstream religious traditions through which they are interpreted. People in Christian societies understand that the extraordinarily violent, intolerant and draconian passages in the Bible, which are much more elaborate, baroque, far-reaching and lengthy than anything similar to be found in the Quran, don’t represent what Christians think of the world because they understand the traditions through which these passages are interpreted (If anybody wants to challenge me and force me to get into where you can find all of that juicy stuff in the Bible, go right ahead, but you’re wasting your time, since if you just pick it up and start reading from beginning you’ll get to it pretty darn quickly). Yet there seems to be an assumption that the Quran can, by contrast, simply be picked up and read like the New York Times, and that from its passages randomly strewn about here and there, the mindset of over 1 billion people and huge chunks of humanity across enormous sweeps of space and time can be deduced.

If the past 1500 years of world history is anything to judge by, neither Christian nor Muslim societies are in any position to take a superior attitude about being “peace loving” or “tolerant of other people.” Obviously you can find plenty of examples in societies, informed by both faiths, of people generally behaving well, and plenty of them generally behaving badly. An argument about which has generally behaved worse is absolutely pointless because so many people and peoples throughout human history, informed by any number of legitimating doctrines and religions, have taken it upon themselves to bully, abuse and slaughter others. There are no clean hands, and adopting an attitude of unjustifiable superiority in this regard, or, worse, giving into a chauvinistic and paranoid worldview (as many Islamists and western ultra right-wingers do), is intellectually and morally unjustifiable and politically dangerous. I think it’s very clear that religion has been a major, if not the major, source of violence throughout human history, but also a major source of tolerance and reconciliation, and that all religions have shown themselves capable of inspiring and legitimating both.

As I’ve argued many times in the past, people are people, and while cultures differ, the tendency towards violence, bigotry and oppression is universal. One can find more or less of it in any given society at any given time, but the general tendency is always there. The essential virtues and flaws of humanity are remarkably consistent across space and time, and in freer or more oppressive societies. Obviously if we apply this to governments, it’s much easier and more reasonable to make distinctions, but the reader has asked me about “these people,” based on the presumed religious beliefs of 1.25 billion human beings all over the world. So obviously, we’re not talking about governments, or even cultures. When talking about an identity category as large and diverse as that of “Muslim,” which in its broadest sense applies to about one fifth of humanity, it becomes very difficult to distinguish between the category Muslim and the category human. I mean that every element of human experience can be identified in some part or other of the Muslim experience. We are, after all, talking about people, and this is such a gigantic and heterogeneous group that, taken on its own, the category “Muslim” tells us virtually nothing more than the category “human.” So, do I really think that “these people are peace loving and tolerant of others?” Some of them are and some of them aren’t. And, the fact that they happen to be somewhere in the general category of “Muslims” doesn’t tell me anything at all that can help me guess whether they’re more or less likely to be peace loving and tolerant of others.

There is, of course, a cottage industry of bigots and holy warriors in the United States agitating furiously against Islam in an effort to denigrate, exclude and marginalize the Muslim Americans and make sure that they are subjected to the maximal possible discomfort and that their ability to establish a thriving, vibrant community in our country and other Western societies is thwarted. There are several reasons that motivate this desire to promote bigotry, including religious or cultural chauvinism; a sense of religious competition between Christianity and Islam; a genuinely phobic, hysterical pathology of raw, irrational fear; and a desire by certain right-wing supporters of Israel to prevent the empowerment of a community that could, over time, begin to shift the discourse on Middle East policy in the United States. I’m sure there are more, but these are some obvious motivations that are readily identifiable in the attitudes of some of the more famous Islamophobes (if anybody wants a more detailed breakdown of this, you’ll have to ask). The reader’s question strongly suggests that he is familiar with some of this discourse.

In the past, I’ve argued strongly that the best way to understand the structure, strategies and mechanisms of Islamophobia is to study the essential elements of anti-Semitic rhetoric, because the parallels between the two are uncanny and exact and because Americans are familiar with the ugliness and unfairness of anti-Semitism. Since it can easily be shown that Islamophobia is without doubt in most instances a virtually exact replication of anti-Semitism, this ought to prove a decisive platform for exposing and counteracting its pernicious effects. As it happens, last week, completely coincidentally, I was reading with amazement anti-Semitic tracts that attempted to demonstrate all kinds of evils about Judaism and the Jews based on tendentious and malicious quotation and interpretation from Jewish holy books. I refuse to link to any of them, because they are poisonous, but anyone who seeks them out online should unfortunately have no difficulty finding them. In fact, the Quran, the Bible, and certainly also the Talmud, contain passages that, if read literally, out of context and especially outside of the mainstream of both traditional and contemporary interpretation, could be seen as quite alarming. Indeed, in all three cases, especially in the past, their effects upon the “righteous true believers” have been alarming, and in some cases, at the moment especially among Muslim extremists, they continue to be. However, what these anti-Semitic polemical tracts attempt to do is to suggest that contemporary and mainstream Jews around the world have a mentality and mindset defined by the literal or maliciously interpreted meanings of these passages, mainstream Jewish understandings of them notwithstanding. This is precisely what many of the worst of the Islamophobes do to the Muslims.

A 2003 report from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), The Talmud in Anti-Semitic Polemics, explains how this process of selectively quoting from and misrepresenting Jewish scripture is being used by anti-Jewish bigots in their campaigns of defamation in exactly the same way in which Islamophobes use the Quran and Hadith to slander and systematically misrepresent Islam and Muslims. The report opens with this telling passage: Recently there has been a renewal of attacks on Judaism and Jews through recycling of old accusations and distortions about the Talmud. Anti-Talmud tracts were originally developed in the Middle Ages as Christian polemics against Judaism, but today they emanate from a variety of Christian, Moslem and secular sources. Sometimes such “studies” have blatantly anti-Semitic tones; sometimes they are more subtle. Yet all of them remain as false and pernicious today as they did in the Middle Ages.

Obviously, all it takes is a simple transposition of nouns to find in this a precise and exact description of the way in which Islamophobes like Robert Spencer, Andrew Bostom and the like go about casting Islam and Muslims in the worst possible light. As the ADL’s report points out, In distorting the normative meanings of rabbinic texts, anti-Talmud writers frequently remove passages from their textual and historical contexts. Even when they present their citations accurately, they judge the passages based on contemporary moral standards, ignoring the fact that the majority of these passages were composed close to two thousand years ago by people living in cultures radically different from our own. They are thus able to ignore Judaism’s long history of social progress and paint it instead as a primitive and parochial religion. Those who attack the Talmud frequently cite ancient rabbinic sources without noting subsequent developments in Jewish thought, and without making a good-faith effort to consult with contemporary Jewish authorities who can explain the role of these sources in normative Jewish thought and practice.

I don’t think there can be a better description of the methods used by contemporary American Islamophobes to defame Muslims, as exemplified in the dispute I had with Robert Spencer about whether or not the Quran calls Christians and Jews apes and swine, and whether or not therefore Muslims view their fellow monotheists in this light. The passage in the Quran in question does not contain the words Christians or Jews, and while both Islamophobes and Muslim extremists have interpreted it in this intolerant, mean-spirited manner it plainly requires an interpretive leap since it simply does not literally say anything of the kind. Moreover, it’s certainly and obviously not the case by any means that mainstream Islam or anything but a tiny fraction of Muslims in our era and historically have viewed Christians and Jews as apes and swine. The total disregard for both mainstream and traditional interpretations of Islamic doctrine by most Muslim scholars and commentators is the hallmark of the work of Spencer and his ilk, who present passages of scripture ripped from their context and traditional meaning as proof of Islam being violent, intolerant and bent on world domination. This is why, of course, their work garners absolutely no respect whatsoever from the qualified and trained academic and intellectual communities that actually study Islam, and can only appeal to the ignorant or the enraged. Unfortunately, that’s a significant constituency.

“Are the polemicists anti-Semites?” the ADL report asks, and answers, quite rightly, “by and large, yes” (they are clearly leaving themselves some wiggle room on the issue of Israel Shahak, who is cited in the report but is almost certainly not vulnerable to such an accusation). It cites as tell-tale signs of bigotry and malevolence, their systematic distortions of the ancient texts, always in the direction of portraying Judaism negatively, their lack of interest in good-faith efforts to understand contemporary Judaism from contemporary Jews, and their dismissal of any voices opposing their own, [which] suggests that their goal in reading ancient rabbinic literature is to produce the Frankenstein version of Judaism that they invariably claim to have uncovered.

In just this manner, Islamophobes dismiss what contemporary and mainstream Muslims say their faith means to them and systematically misrepresent the common understanding of complex ancient texts written in both a language and a style very foreign to the present-day American manner of expression. They too dismiss any voices other than their own, such as renowned academic experts on Islam, even non-Muslims scholars and experts, and denounce them as “apologists” and supporters of extremism. In these cases too, it is clear to any impartial observer that the goal is in no way a good-faith effort to examine honestly what Muslims believe but rather to create “the Frankenstein version of Islam.”

It will, of course, be objected that some extremist Muslims, such as Osama Bin Laden or many others of this radical ilk, do in fact preach an extreme version of Islam that in some cases does mirror the claims of Islamophobes like Spencer and others. This is not disputed. The question is not what fringe elements believe but what is mainstream. Similarly, there are in fact some Jewish extremists who do hold to readings of Jewish scripture and tradition that are similar to the claims made by anti-Semites to defame Judaism and Jews in general. Some extremists in the Israeli settler movement certainly qualify, such as Rabbi Yaacov Perrin who proclaimed that, “One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail” in his eulogy of the Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein, who conducted a massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque (within the Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron killing 29 worshipers and wounding another 150 in 1994. Goldstein’s tombstone, at his shrine-like grave in the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba in Hebron, reads: “Here lies the saint, Dr. Baruch Kappel Goldstein, blessed be the memory of the righteous and holy man, may the Lord avenge his blood, who devoted his soul to the Jews, Jewish religion and Jewish land. His hands are innocent and his heart is pure. He was killed as a martyr of God on the 14th of Adar, Purim, in the year 5754 (1994).” Goldstein is buried at the “Meir Kahane Memorial Park,” named in honor of the extremist Rabbi who advocated the ethnic cleansing of all non-Jews from historical Palestine and who was the leader of at least two organizations formally designated by the United States government as terrorist organizations. Goldstein, it should be noted, was one of his followers.

It is necessary and important to recognize that such political extremists exist among Jews and Muslims – and Christians, Hindus and others for that matter – who are happy to justify and rationalize their radical acts and opinions by performing eccentric, heterodox or anachronistic and atavistic readings of holy texts and traditions. The ADL report acknowledges that, “Judaism has had its share of bigots, racists and xenophobes, some of whom expressed their prejudices in religious terms.” Obviously no serious commentator can fail to recognize the undeniable phenomenon of extremist rhetoric and action among fanatical minorities of Muslims, not only historically, but certainly also in the present day. It is a critical problem that is currently confronting both Muslim and non-Muslim societies, and should not be trivialized or dismissed. The ugly side of holy books is almost always there and can be used by both external bashers and internal fanatics. But these radical ideas must be recognized as extreme views, which they almost always are, and not falsely posed as mainstream discourse or, worse still, characteristic of the attitudes of whole identity communities.

The parallels between the calumnies the ADL cites against Jews in anti-Semitic literature and those currently being promoting in contemporary American Islamophobia are striking indeed (all of the following in bold are direct quotes from the ADL report):

• “Jews are intent on subjugating non-Jews around the world and even on committing genocide against them” – this finds obvious and clear parallels in the constant refrain that Islam is bent on world conquest and the subjugation of all non-Muslims as “dhimmis” or worse, and in the frequent allegation that Islam has a genocidal attitude towards non-Muslims.

• “Jewish law enjoins or permits Jews to murder non-Jews whenever feasible” – one of the most familiar charges against Islam and Muslims is that “infidels” may or must be killed.

• “Jews are permitted to lie without moral or religious compunction” – Islamophobes frequently claim that Islam authorizes, permits or even encourages Muslims to deceive non-Muslims, as in the calumnies about taqiyyah I have written about in previous Ibishblog postings.

• “Judaism condones the sexual molestation of young girls” – obviously the charge of pedophilia against the Prophet Muhammad is closely echoed here, as are a whole slew of charges that Islam permits, mandates or does not forbid a wide range of sexual perversions and abuses. More on this from the Ibishblog will be forthcoming.

• “Judaism is ‘more of a crime syndicate than a religion.’” – in Islamophobic discourse, it is frequently alleged that Islam is “more of an extremist political movement” (recall statements to this effect by Ayaan Hirsi Ali cited In a recent Ibishblog post, for example) or some such bizarre formulation, than a religion.

I think I’ve made my point very clearly. Islamophobia is a barely warmed over, 20 seconds in the microwave, version of traditional anti-Semitism, and I’m sorry that the reader has fallen for it. If we were transported to the 1920s and 30s, I’m sure he’d be demanding to know if anyone really thought “those people” (the Jews) were really reasonable and decent given what they supposedly believe and what is supposedly in their holy books, etc. Can’t we ever learn our lesson?

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