Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Muslim Anti-Semitism and the Arab Spring
Western columnists eager to bestow their blessing on the democratic impulses of the Arab Spring are troubled by its darker side, the bigotry, the sexual violence and religious fanaticism. Rather than admit that they may have gotten the Arab Spring wrong, they look at its dark side as an external factor, rather than an internal one.
Case in point, Jeffrey Goldberg's recitation of Anti-Semitism in the Arab Spring leads to the same baffled attempts to understand. "On the surface this makes no sense: Arabs are rising up against Arabs, so what does this have to do with the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”?" he asks.
The question isn't all that baffling if you look back at the historical context of the Protocols which emerged from the poison pens of two secret police agents of two different countries seeking ways to stifle reform by associating their opponents with a vast Jewish conspiracy. It took place in a century where the left and the right spent a good deal of time accusing each other of working for the Jews. That century gave way to the next one where they stopped writing essays and began running death camps. The Muslim world is still backward enough to be besotted with the worst lunacy of the period, the Masonic conspiracy is an article of faith for most Islamists, right up there with the Koran, Mein Kampf is a bestseller and Fascism and Communism are admired in a way that horrifies the Eurocrats who visit from time to time. Grand conspiracy theories explain everything and everyone is assumed to have a complex secret agenda.
But those aren't the sources of the Anti-Semitism in the Arab Spring. Nor is Israel. The fundamental error that is made over and over again is to assume that Muslim attitudes toward the Jews emerge out of politics rather than theology. While Israel certainly looms large in the Muslim imagination, the image of the Jews as the nemesis of Islam is of ancient theological provenance dating back to Mohammed's efforts to ethnically cleanse the region of non-Muslim minorities.
When Arab Spring mobs paint the Star of David on pictures of dictators or call them Jews, they are using an old insult. To call someone a "Jew" in the Arab world is the equivalent of calling him a dog. There is no special racial slur needed, "Jew" is already enough.
The reason for this isn't Israel or Gaza or Lebanon-- it's that Jews were a minority in the Muslim world. While the Islamists and the Arab Nationalists, along with their Western useful idiots, insist on spreading their revisionist history of a golden age of tolerance and brotherhood that ended abruptly in 1948, the truth is that being a minority in the Arab Muslim world was dangerous and degrading. And long after the Muslim world has been emptied of Jews, "Yahood" still remains an insult.
When Thomas Friedman heard that a nickname for many American soldiers in Iraq was "The Jews", in his usual clueless fashion he wrote up an extended column about Sharon, Israel and the peace process. But Friedman missed the point. Arab Muslims have been calling people they don't like "Jews" long before the modern State of Israel.
But in a conspiracy rich environment, "Yahood" is also often meant a literal accusation that someone actually is a Jew. Forcible and the occasional voluntary conversion of Jews to Islam created its own paranoid obsession with "Secret Jews" in the Muslim world. And some forcibly converted Jewish communities such as the "Jedid Al-Islam" did remain secretly Jewish while pretending outwardly to be Muslim. This is a special obsession in Turkey where the conversion of cult members known as the Donmeh led to accusations that the Young Turk movement was a Jewish conspiracy.
The prototype for the accusations that the dictators are Jewish was the light-skinned and blue-eyed Kemal Ataturk. His supposed Jewishness remains a special obsession for Turkish Islamists, albeit one that is still illegal for them to articulate. That obsession also spells out the difference between the United States and the Muslim world. If it were to be discovered that George Washington had a Jewish father, it wouldn't delegitimize the United States. But Muslim states are still based on ethnic or religious grounds. And the best way to undermine Ataturk's attempt to drag Turkey into the modern age is to not merely claim that Ataturk wasn't a Turk and an enemy of Islam (both true)... but that he was a Jew.
The utility of accusing Ataturk of being a Jew is obvious. It's a charge that bypasses the need to attack his ideas or debate their legitimacy. Once he is a Jew then it is a given that he was part of a vast conspiracy and that everything he did was wrong. "Jew" is not only shorthand for dog, it's also shorthand for enemy.
If accusing Ataturk of being Jewish doesn't seem that crazy, try the Saudi royal family whom the Lebanese Minister of the Environment accused of secretly being the Jewish tribe that had been ethnically cleansed by Mohammed. From the standpoint of Islamic theology this makes perfect sense. It recycles the ancient Jewish enemy into a current foe.
Hate the Wahhabis? Then just go ahead and claim that Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab's grandfather wasn't really Suleyman but Shullman. What about Mubarak? He must have had a Jewish mother. Gaddafi's mother being a Jew is now a common belief in Libya. Those wonderful democratic Syrian protesters are shouting, "Alawi Jews" referring to the Alawi quasi-Shiite minority sect that rules the country. Even Ahmadinejad got hammered with accusations that he was a Jew.
No matter how rabidly Anti-Semitic a Muslim leader may be, he cannot escape the possibility that sooner or later someone will accuse him of being a secret Jew. If the Saudis and Ahmadinejad aren't safe, then no one is.
Goldberg and Friedman both mistake a preexisting situation for a new phenomenon. Conspiracy theories to explain everything have been widespread for a long time, not just as a tool of dictators. Blaming outsiders for whatever goes wrong and then connecting those outsiders to a political faction you hate is as common as sand.
But the larger mistake is that they fail to grasp what the Arab Spring is. It's a series of populist movements based around theocratic and nationalistic ideology. Such movements naturally position ethnic and religious minorities as outsiders and enemies. Which is why churches in Egypt began burning and friendly mobs showed up outside a synagogue in Tunis to recount what happened back when Mohammed began his campaign against the Jews.
Tyranny is a vague idea. The Jews are a very specific idea. Tyranny means illegitimate rule, but what makes it illegitimate? The Arab Spring activists will answer that it is undemocratic. Why is it undemocratic, because it fails to represent the majority. And how do they prove that the tyrant fails to represent the majority? By claiming that he really works for the Jews.
It's a fairly simple formula that isn't limited to the Muslim world. The left leaned heavily on it to charge that the Iraq War was illegitimate because it was a project of the Jews. Tomes on the Israel lobby attack foreign policy not on its merits, but on "Jewishness". And it's no coincidence that of all the Democratic senators who voted for the war, the one ruthlessly targeted for destruction by the left was Joe Lieberman.
Goldberg suggests that, "The Arab Spring should liberate people not only from oppressive rulers, but also from self-destructive and delusional patterns of belief." Having conceded that the Arab Spring is rotten with Anti-Semitism, his proposal is that the Arab Spring should liberate the Arab Spring from being the Arab Spring. And perhaps Goldberg should try to lift himself up by his own belt. That will work just as well.
All Arab and Muslim movements are founded on "self-destructive and delusional patterns of belief". Take those away and you're left with some spicy food and curious architecture. All of them also pretend to unify the people around a common identity and in opposition to outside forces that seek to undermine that identity.
From the time of Mohammed onward, the Jews have played the role of the "outside force" that is out to undermine Arab and Muslim unity. When Arab leaders tell Western diplomats that Israel is the source of regional instability, that is what they mean. In Islamic terms they are charging the Jews with "Fitna" and Western diplomats and journalists strip away the theology from the accusation and pretend that it's a serious policy statement.
The Sunni Muslim world still believes that it can form a secure common identity if only it could get rid of Israel, and then the Christians, Shiites, Alawis and all the other "outside forces" who are a barrier to the harmonious brotherhood of the Ummah. That combination of theology and politics is what drives the Anti-Semitism of the Muslim world and of its theological and nationalist movements including its latest one.
There is no reason to be surprised by Anti-Semitism in the Arab Spring. The Muslim Middle East has failed to break with the poisonous religious and ethnic politics of the past. The Arab Spring is a continuation of those same toxic politics under the banner of democracy. The fragility of Arab and Muslim identity, its insecurity and instability, the unworkability of its structure, always requires enemies to serve as a focus and shoulder the blame. And in every season, spring, summer, winter or fall, that group has been the Jews.