Editorial: The Perils of Self-Deception

Colin Rubenstein

The US Ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, addressing a conference on antisemitism on November 30, controversially insisted that Muslim “hatred and indeed sometimes… violence directed at Jews generally [is] a result of the continuing tensions between Israel and the Palestinian territories” and should therefore not be seen as the same thing as “real” antisemitism. He went on to insist that a Mideast peace deal would see a “huge reduction of this form of labeled ‘antisemitism’.”

Aside from the immorality of, effectively, rationalising a form of racism as due to the alleged behaviour of its targets, Gutman’s comments were factually indefensible. There are clearly elements of strong, even eliminationist, antisemitism within the Muslim tradition predating Zionism by centuries.

A good example is the hadith [a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammed] which was quoted by various figures associated with the Muslim Brotherhood at an election rally in Cairo on Nov. 26. It states: “The Hour [of judgement] will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them. When a Jew hides behind a rock or a tree, it will say, ‘O Muslim, O servant of Allah! There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him!'”

This hadith is among the most quoted passages about Jews in certain Islamic traditions. It is certainly part of the Hamas Charter and utilised by al-Qaeda as well as the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is true that, in medieval times, Jews in Muslim societies tended on the whole to be better off than in Christian Europe, but this is hardly to suggest that their human rights were fully respected. Further, Muslim antisemitism became more vicious and dangerous in the 19th and 20th centuries primarily due to the influence of modern European ideologies, including Nazism, which often came to be perceived through the lens of problematic anti-Jewish Islamic sources.

As a result, Jews across the Middle East began to suffer heightened violent hatred well before Israel and Zionism emerged on the agenda. In 1912, the Jewish quarter in Fez was almost destroyed in a mob attack. In the 1930s and 1940s pogroms and other attacks on the Jews were widespread in Iraq and Libya. Pro-Nazi Arabs slaughtered dozens of Jews in the “Farhoud” pogrom in Baghdad in 1941.

A good exhibit of the contemporary reality of this racist ideology was one of the speakers at the Nov. 26 Cairo Muslim Brotherhood rally – Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, probably the most popular Sunni cleric in the Arab world. He has previously described the Holocaust as “divine punishment” for the Jews and expressed the hope that “Allah willing, the next time will be at the hands of the [Muslim] believers.” He also stated he wants to die a martyr in the process of killing “Allah’s enemies, the Jews.”

To imagine this ugly and pervasive amalgam of traditional regional and European antisemitism is all going to evaporate if Israel signs a peace deal with the Palestinians is fantasy. So why do people like Ambassador Gutman utter such fallacies?

Perhaps because it would make reality so much easier if it were true. The pervasiveness of Muslim and Arab antisemitism is a significant barrier to a lasting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours. If we can fantasise that it will all disappear the minute a deal is signed, advocating a peace deal becomes so much more urgent, straightforward and uncomplicated compared to preparing a basis for peace by eradicating the inculcation of hatred and building an ethos of coexistence and compromise.

A similar phenomenon appears to be occurring today with respect to the increasing Islamist takeover of the Arab Spring democratisation movements, in Tunisia, in Libya and above all, Egypt.

Like Arab-Israeli peace, genuine democracy in the long run can only benefit the peoples of the Middle East. But what if undemocratic, intolerant, or totalitarian elements use democratic elections to take power, as occurred even in “sophisticated” Weimar Germany? For publics and policymakers, this creates complications, conflicts and doubts in pursuing democracy for the region. For pundits, it is so much easer to pontificate that anti-democratic exploitation of democratic institutions is unlikely, even impossible.

So editorialists, commentators and columnists are rushing to reassure Western publics that the election of the Muslim Brotherhood and even more extreme Salafists in Egypt is nothing to worry about – they will be tolerant democrats respecting human rights, and keen to encourage peaceful coexistence. These states will be democratic Turkey, not theocratic, revolutionary Iran, we are assured.

These predictions are neither certain, nor, if true, that reassuring. The states in question – Egypt, Libya and Tunisia – have none of the recent democratic traditions that Turkey has developed over decades. Moreover, given the way the current, admittedly non-violent, but Islamist AKP Government of Turkey has made widespread use of the judicial system to intimidate or even jail political opponents and media critics, it remains unclear if genuine Turkish democracy can survive.

The Muslim Brotherhood is tactically very different from al-Qaeda – much more sophisticated and patient concerning the tools and methods they will use to reach their goals, and prepared to use the language of democracy to placate both Western and Arab publics about their intentions. However, they share a belief that the Sharia legal system is not only the blueprint for a perfect society given by God but provides a political and religious obligation to create such a society. Yet the implementation of this Islamist political ideology is obviously incompatible with both democracy and human rights. Moreover, as noted, antisemitism and other forms of intolerance are deeply embedded in these same circles.

Authentic change and maintaining realistic hope for a better future are vital. But pinning hope on a refusal to face reality – on blinding oneself to the existence and prevalence of both antisemitism and totalitarian worldviews – amounts to self-delusion. Western policymakers cannot develop effective policies to encourage Middle East peace and much-needed democratisation across the region without understanding and confronting, unflinchingly, the real barriers to progress.