The Jew Is Not My Enemy:
Unveiling the Myths that Fuel Muslim Anti-Semitism
by Tarek Fatah
Mcclelland & Stewart, 272 pages, $24.95
In The Jew Is Not My Enemy, Tarek Fatah examines the history of Muslim anti-Semitism, identifying and challenging “the fundamental myths that sustain Judeophobia,” a pathology unfortunately widespread among Muslims today.
Fatah, a Canadian Muslim, avoids defensive slogans (“We’re a religion of peace, really!”). Instead, he addresses his fellow Muslims. He calls Muslim Holocaust denial a “moral crime” and views hatred of Jews as something corrosive, a “cancer” within Muslim believers themselves. Indeed, Fatah’s concern is so great that he considers this book part of his “jihad against Muslim anti-Semitism.” He begins with a note of horror at the targeted killing of Jews in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and writes with feeling of his revulsion over recurring encounters with Jew-hatred among his fellow Muslims.
To analyze Muslim anti-Semitism, which is rooted in the earliest years of Islam, Fatah first sets forth a context for its modern history, especially among Arab Muslims. He discusses the dissemination in the Middle East of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a late-nineteenth-century work of anti-Semitic propaganda from the West that enjoyed not one but two Arabic translations. Arab Christians played a prominent role in the effort. Fatah also draws attention to the continuing efforts, begun in the 1970s under Saudi auspices, to foster circulation of this false work.
The anti-Semitic impulse was fueled earlier in the twentieth century by the efforts of some Arab Muslim leaders to hold on to power by currying favor with whichever European regime served their self-interest at any given time. Eventually this led to alignment with the Nazis and the embracing of Nazi anti-Semitism. (This, of course, required finding a way to write Arabs, themselves Semites, out of the Nazi narrative.)
In the mid–twentieth century Egyptian Islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb took Jew-hatred to grotesque extremes. In his 1950s essay “Our Fight with the Jews,” Qutb accused Jews of trying to destroy Islam and blamed them for modern “atheistic materialism . . . animalistic sexuality . . . [and] the destruction of the family.” Hitler, he claimed, was sent by God to deal with the Jews. Reading history through his lens of Jew-hatred, Qutb asserted that the Jews founded the state of Israel as revenge for being defeated by Muslims thirteen centuries earlier.
Multifaceted financial backing and propaganda expanded the intermingling of Western and Arab anti-Semitism. The Nazis developed and supported an Arabic-language radio station to spread Nazi ideology in the Middle East. Later, Saudis used their oil wealth to encourage, through books and other media, further Jew-hatred among Muslims. Today, Islamist extremists following in the path of Qutb use the Internet to push their propaganda at no cost to online users.
Americans mostly ignored rising Islamist extremism during the era of the Cold War, and since the Cold War’s end the United States has made insufficient efforts to engage Muslim audiences and encourage pluralistic attitudes among them. The section of the State Department charged with public diplomacy operates on a tiny budget, and spreading ideas that promote our ideals and values is not their top priority. Fatah’s book is an important reminder that, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, ideas do matter. Neglecting the realm of information leaves Muslim cultures open to well-funded hatemongers.
Knowing that anti-Jewish attitudes among Muslims existed well before Israel’s existence, Fatah does not claim that the Jewish state is the reason for Islamic anti-Semitism. He does suggest, however, that the Israel–Palestine conflict provides the “most powerful excuse” for Muslims to indulge their obsessive Jew-hatred. Settlement of the conflict will not make Islamic Judeophobia disappear, he acknowledges, “but the oxygen that nourishes it will be cut off.”
Other sources of Muslim anti-Semitism will remain, of course. One of Fatah’s central theses is that historical myths from more than a thousand years ago play a decisive role in modern Muslim antipathy to Jews. The problem of anti-Semitism, argues Fatah, cannot be addressed adequately by sociological analysis; it must be dealt with at a fundamental theological level.
First, he examines the Qur’an. Most of the verses cited to support Jew-hatred make no actual mention of Jews or the tribe of Israel. Instead, commentaries written centuries after the Qur’an associate certain negative verses with Jews. Fatah challenges modern Muslims to question their blind acceptance of these commentaries, urging them to go to the text of the Qur’an itself. At the same time, he does not sweep disturbing verses away. Indeed, he openly admits that some verses leave him, as a Muslim, “deeply troubled.”
Fatah also considers anti-Jewish expressions in the hadith, the sayings and actions attributed to Muhammad that play an authoritative role in Islam. Here Fatah finds significantly more support for anti-Jewish attitudes. He points out contradictions between hadith passages that favor conflict and passages from the Qur’an that emphasize principles of tolerance. He argues that, for Muslims, the Qur’an’s authority ought to outweigh that of the hadith. He then goes further. In an argument that might put Christians in mind of Martin Luther, Fatah suggests that the Qur’an is sufficient for Muslim identity, and Islamic faith need not rely on any source of guidance outside the Qur’an. He acknowledges that this argument challenges the traditional structure of religious authority in Islam.
Finally, Fatah examines the story that in A.D. 627 Muhammad was involved in the killing of hundreds of Jews. This story, says Fatah, provides a core rationale for modern Muslim anti-Semitism. Fatah calls the story a myth and notes that it is present in neither the Qur’an nor the hadith. It first appeared in a biography of Muhammad written two hundred years after the presumed incident. Fatah dissects both the textual and physical evidence for the story and finds it unpersuasive. The problem, however, is that many Muslims are unaccustomed to arguments based on textual criticism and archaeology; because of this, it is unlikely that Fatah’s efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the story will be readily accepted.
Fatah believes Muslims have a moral obligation to challenge falsehood and hatred. He provides accounts of other Muslims who have sought to counter anti-Semitism, and he dedicates The Jew Is Not My Enemy to Noor Inayat Khan, a Muslim woman whose fight against the Nazis led to her execution in Dachau in 1944. Fatah’s challenges to traditional religious authority will in all likelihood limit the effectiveness of his arguments among Muslims, but he remains optimistic about the possibility of Muslim self-reform. At the end of his examination of Muslim hatred of Jews, he concludes with the hopeful sentiment that “Muslim history and heritage allow us to enter the modern era without the baggage of anti-Semitism.” One can only hope that his optimism is not misplaced.
Jennifer S. Bryson is director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.