Saturday, January 1, 2011
Why can't we all just get along?
Two books trace the history of the relationship between Muslims and Jews, and the anti-Semitism that seems to be part of it
By PAULA NEWBERG
The Globe and Mail, Toronto
Tarek Fatah is a man on a mission. His bold title, The Jew is Not My Enemy, begins with a frontal assault on Muslim anti-Semitism; a bit like Sisyphus, Fatah climbs steep hills to prove not only that anti-Semitism is wrong, but also that it is wrongly conceived.
He uses every arrow in his quiver of arguments, piled one atop the other, to make a case for the irrationality of anti-Semitism among Muslims. It's hard not to admire him, however blunt his argumentative instruments (including unfortunate cover art that gives rise to the spectre of 20th-century European fascism): Fatah seeks to rescue the future from a violent past with an arsenal of scriptural interpretation, personal experience and a deep commitment to a better world.
The Jew is Not My Enemy has a simple premise: Anti-Semitism among Muslims is an irrational but growing movement, purveying two false, dangerous and mutually reinforcing ideas. Fatah argues against the notions that the roots of enmity between Jews and Muslims date to the time of Mohammed, are inexorably tied to the theology of Islam and are therefore legitimate. And he skewers the incorrect belief common among many Muslims that Jews dominate international politics and finance, and that this threatens Islam, Muslims and the world as a whole.
Although Fatah devotes much of his book to the first point, the second is a theme that weaves through his narrative. By virtue of rapid communications, an idea that was once the province of a small group of ideologues has grown exponentially, one website, blog and opinion at a time. This is not the cause of malicious tribalism, but is certainly one of its consequences.
Fatah is unsparing in his indictment of those who publish theories about Jewish conspiracies against the Muslim ummah: "The Muslim world seems frozen in time," he notes, "obsessed with the past ... left paralyzed in the quagmire of stagnation." His broad-brush sociology may lack for nuance - the worlds in which Muslims live is diverse and lively, even (as the United Nations has documented) if its human security lags behind in many regions - but his description of "the global Muslim community's false sense of victimhood, which is leaving a deep scar on our consciousness," is written with dismay more than rancour.
Fatah doesn't push his argument as far as it could go, however. Just as the globe seems closer at hand to so many more people - whether through migration, communications or commerce - schism, misunderstanding and social division seem to draw closer as well. But it is not only the pressures of contemporary globalization that provoke contests between and among peoples and politics. Families, clans and tribes, races and religions, friends and strangers: All are prisms through which differences are refracted, redefining winners and losers, allies and enemies and, sadly, persecutors and their victims.
The pursuit of the other is certainly not unique to our time; major economic and political transformations have often triggered conflicts for wealth and cultures, and that continues today. Among the most enduring dislocations are those between religions, as contests of belief and as justifications for political and economic domination. The "why" of anti-Semitism is a hard nut to crack. Like others, Fatah explores this through the Koranic texts and contemporary interpretations, countering arguments as they arise and lamenting the ways that misapprehension turns into doctrine. It is the intersection of religious instruction with contemporary politics that is the nub of Fatah's book.
His first example is the terrorist attack in 2009 in Mumbai - a place known for cultural pluralism and otherwise immune to anti-Semitism - that focused in part on the city's Jewish centre as an emblem of its diversity. The idea of jihad in such a place is, in Fatah's terms, the result of misguided theology combined with equally misguided politics. And two incidents in 2003 cement his argument: former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad's public diatribe that Jews "rule the world by proxy," and the courtroom declamation of Bali Bomber Amrozi bin Nurhasyim - referring to the Battle of Khaibar in seventh-century Arabia - that "the army of Mohammed is coming back to defeat you [Jews]."
The difficult encounters between Jews and Muslims that began as political and armed conflict in Arabia have become pernicious counterpoints to contemporary global politics. The history that informs The Jew is Not My Enemy can be found in Martin Gilbert's In Ishmael's House, which chronicles the rise of Islam through the eyes of Jews living under Muslim domination. Its story of conquest, persecution and discrimination is tempered by complex political histories. "From the time of Mohammed until today, Jews have often found greater opportunities, respect and recognition under Islam than under Christianity. They have also been subjected to the worst excesses of hostility, hatred and persecution."
Bernard Lewis has noted that European anti-Semitism was "essentially alien" to Islamic traditions, culture and thinking. Acknowledging this, Gilbert nonetheless amasses an unremitting history of humiliation and defeat among Jews living within Muslim states.
Islam, after all, has thrived not only on battlefield victories, but also on its syncretism. Islam has prospered across Arabia, North Africa and large portions of Asia, all the while absorbing (as well as conquering) vastly different cultures. Some Jewish communities initially welcomed Islam as relief from a pernicious anti-Semitism in Europe. At times, Jews and Muslims lived together in relative peace; at other times, the increasing power of Islam forfeited amity for abuse.
At each historical juncture, Gilbert describes changing norms: In early 20th-century North Africa, as in Andalusia earlier, the Jewish community was protected by a sultan who saw strength in diversity (if not equality); this protection ended in the Arab struggle against the encroachments of France. Despite the proximity of some Jewish communities to power in lands where they were subjects, they were never accorded equality, and never identified with the state. When the tide turned with the founding of Israel, Gilbert suggests, anti-Zionism became a new focus for the anti-Semitism of old.
To their credit, neither Fatah nor Gilbert restricts his analysis to the problematic Israel-Palestine dispute. Both are concerned with far broader questions; both seek to understand the background to ethnic, racial and religious hatreds, even if solutions are far from accessible. This month's survey from the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center suggests that relations between the West and the so-called Muslim world are still deeply in need of repair, from all sides. The larger challenge - what happens to modern internationalism and our system of states if social fragmentation at a time of fiscal constraint fractures the political landscape more deeply - remains open to further inquiry.
Paula Newberg is the Marshall B. Coyne Director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.
- THE JEW IS NOT MY ENEMY
Unveiling the Myths that Fuel Muslim Anti-Semitism
By Tarek Fatah
McClelland & Stewart, 243 pages. $26.99
- IN ISHMAEL'S HOUSE
A History of Jews in Muslim Lands
By Martin Gilbert
McClelland & Stewart, 424 pages, $34.99