Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Islamic antisemitism "as if it were there from the start"

An intense debate has raged in recent years over the nature of Islamic antisemitism. Leaving aside the vulgar apologias that deny its very existence, the debate is rather more nuanced than it first appears. It is not whether present day Islam is deeply infected with antisemitism but whether it is inherent in Islam.  Historian Marc R. Cohen is one of the leading proponents of the view that antisemitism was less severe in the Muslim than in the Christian world in the Middle Ages and that Islam is not theological or inherently antisemitic.

In a 2009 paper, Cohen made an astute observation. "Christian antisemitism has since become absorbed into the fabric of Islam as if it were there from the start, when it was never there from the start at all."

In a little larger context
The idea that modern Arab antisemitism comes from a medieval, irrational hatred of the Jews, similar to the antisemitism of Christianity, with its medieval origins, cannot be sustained. Understood as a religiously-based complex of irrational, mythical, and stereotypical beliefs about the diabolical, malevolent, and all-powerful Jew, infused in its modern, secular form with racism and belief in a Jewish conspiracy against mankind-- antisemitism is not an indigenous or inherent phenomenon in Islam. It was first encountered by Muslims at the time of the Ottoman expansion into Europe, which resulted in the absorption of large numbers of Greek Orthodox Christians. This Christian antisemitism became more firmly implanted in the Muslim Middle East in the nineteenth century as part of the discourse of nationalism. Seeking greater acceptance in a fledgling pan-Arab nation constituted by a majority of Muslims, Christians in the Arab world, aided, among other things, by European Christian missionaries, began to use western-style antisemitism to focus Arab/Muslim enmity away from themselves and onto a new and, to them, familiar enemy.
This Christian antisemitism has since become absorbed into the fabric of Islam as if it were there from the start, when it was never there from the start at all. The widely read Arabic translations of the late-nineteenth century Russian-Christian forgery, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," seems to many Muslims almost an Islamic text, echoing old themes in the Qur'ān and elsewhere of Jewish treachery toward Muhammad and his biblical prophetic predecessors. The "Protocols" seem all the more credible in the light of the political, economic and military success of Israel. Sadly, the pluralism and largely non-violent attitude towards the Jews that existed in early and classical Islam seems to have lost its public face. Equally sad, age-old Jewish empathy with Islamic society among Jews from Muslim lands, and memory of decent relations with Muslim neighbors in Muslim lands in relatively recent times, have similarly recede,

Mark R. Cohen Princeton University

Personally, I don't find Cohen formulation of a radical distinction between Christian and Islamic antisemitism to be entirely convincing.  And, in this passage he paints entirely too benign a picture of the Islamic treatment of Jews.  Elsewhere Cohen comments
The interfaith utopia was to a certain extent a myth; it ignored, or left unmentioned, the legal inferiority of the Jews (and all non-Muslim “People of the Book”) and periodic outbursts of violence.
If antisemitism has been absorbed into Islam "as  if it were there from the start," that is an elementary fact of global politics that must be appreciated.

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