How to challenge Islamic Antisemitism?
antisemitism is a major foreign policy issue: Only governments can stop the
flow of hate messages by denouncing and punishing state- and non-state actors .
By Matthias Küntzel
Islamic antisemitism, though it is not limited to the
Islamist movements, is a key factor in the Islamists’ war against the modern
It triggers Tehran’s desire to destroy the “cancerous
tumor” of Israel and motivated the most recent Iranian attack on Israel by an
armed drone. It inspires Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threat that Israelis won’t be
able “to find a tree to hide behind”, a clear allusion to a hadith that demands
the killing of Jews. It causes Mahmoud Abbas to deny any connection between
Jerusalem and the Jews3 and transforms the political conflict between Israel
and the Arabs into a religious struggle between right and wrong.
Islamic antisemitism mobilizes the terrorists of the
Islamic State to murder Jews in Europe and it ensures that not only in Jordan,
but also in Berlin and Malmo Arabs threaten Jews with this particular war cry:
“Khaybar, Khaybar, O Jews; the army of Muhammad will return.” Khaybar was an
oasis inhabited by Jews that Mohammed conquered in blood in 628. “Khaybar” is
also the name of an assault rifle made in Iran and of a type of rocket used by
Hezbollah to fire at Israeli cities in 2006.
In this paper, I would like to discuss four topics. 1. What
distinguishes Islamic antisemitism from other forms of Jew-hatred? 2. Why is it
so difficult to fight Islamic antisemitism? 3. How can we challenge Islamic
antisemitism? 4. Why is it especially important to challenge it?
1. What does the
term “Islamic antisemitism” mean?
This term is not intended as a general attack on Islam
(whose texts also include Jew-friendly passages) nor a general attack on
Muslims (quite a few of whom are against antisemitism).
Instead, it is about a specific expression of antisemitism
based on two sources: The anti-Judaism of early Islam and the conspiratorial
antisemitism of Europe.
As a rule, the Islamic anti-Judaism of the old days was not
determined by fear of Jewish conspiracy and domination, but rather by
condescension: Jews were perceived to stand below the Muslims and had to accept
their lower rank as dhimmis. Within Christianity, the image of the Jews was
different: Here, they were feared as a dark and overpowering force, accused of
spreading the plague in the Middle Ages and of masterminding casino capitalism
in modern times. The essence of Islamic antisemitism is the fusion of Islamic
anti-Judaism from the old scriptures with modern European antisemitism.
My first case in point is the Charter of Hamas. In Article
7, this Charter cites a hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad says that the
Muslims will kill the Jews “until the Jew hides behind stone and tree, and then
stone and tree say: O Muslim, O servant of God! There’s a Jew behind me. Come
and kill him.”
In contrast, Article 22 of the same Charter states that the
Jews “were behind the First World War … and behind the Second World War” and
“encouraged the formation of the … United Nations to rule the world.”
This text portrays the Jews on the one hand as degraded,
fleeing and hiding behind trees and stones, and simultaneously as the secret
and true rulers of the world. It combines the worst old Islamic and the worst
modern Christian images of the Jews.
Through this mixture, both components become radicalized:
European antisemitism is recharged by the religious and fanatical moment of
radical Islam, while the old anti-Judaism of the Koran – supplemented by the
world conspiracy theory – receives a new and eliminatory quality.
My second case in point is the widespread belief that Jews
everywhere, in league with Israel, are behind a sinister plot to undermine and
eradicate Islam. Let me quote Sayyid Qutb’s famous pamphlet “Our Struggle With
the Jews”: The “bitter war which the Jews launched against Islam … has not been
extinguished, even for one moment, for close on fourteen centuries until this
moment, its blaze raging in all corners of the earth.”
The seventh century is here again associated with the
twentieth century and Koranic statements about Jews mixed with the phantasm of
a worldwide conspiracy. This is a view of Muslims and Jews locked in a timeless
and total confrontation until one completely subjugates the other.
Islamic antisemitism is not simply a continuation of
tradition or a response to injustice; in fact it is the product of a process of
deliberate fusion of old Islamic scriptures and new conspiracy theories which
started 80 years ago.
Surprisingly, Nazi Germany’s Arabic-speaking propaganda
played an important role. This fact is little known, but has been confirmed by
recent seminal studies such as Jeffrey Herf’s “Nazi Propaganda in the Arab
World” of 2009 and David Motadel’s “Islam and Nazi Germany’s War” of 2014.
Since 1937, the Nazis sought to radicalize the latent
anti-Judaism of Muslims in order to destroy the British plan for a two-state
solution for Palestine – the so-called Peel Plan, which provided for the
creation of a small Jewish state. However, initial Nazi attempts to export
their racist antisemitism into the Islamic world failed. As a consequence, the
Nazis discovered the Islamic creed as a door opener to gain access to the
Muslim masses. To quote David Motadel:
explicit use of religious rhetoric, terminology, and imagery and sought to
engage with and reinterpret religious doctrine and concepts. … Sacred texts
such as the Qur’an … were politicized to incite religious violence against
alleged common enemies. … German propaganda combined Islam with anti-Jewish
agitation to an extent that had not hitherto been known in the modern Muslim
There is indeed a great antisemitic potential in Islamic
scriptures if you read them selectively. Nazi Germany exploited the Arabs’
rejection of Zionism and used this antisemitic potential in pamphlets and radio
programs in the Arabic language that were broadcast three times a day and seven
times a week between April 1939 and April 1945. This ongoing propaganda strengthened
an exclusively anti-Jewish reading of the Islamic scriptures, popularized
European conspiracy theories and agitated in an antisemitic manner against the
These efforts, heavily supported by the Mufti of Jerusalem,
Hajj Amin el-Husseini, and his entourage, gradually changed the perception of
Jews within Islamic societies. They contributed to the fact that Jews were more
and more seen as a kind of “race” and that hostility to Jews became far more
intense than in past eras of Islamic history.
The 31-page pamphlet “Islam – Judaism: Call by Grand Mufti
to the Islamic World” of 1937 was the first important document of Islamic
antisemitism. During the Second World War, the Nazis distributed this text in
several languages within the Arab-Islamic world. This was followed in the early
1950s by Sayyid Qutb’s “Our Struggle with the Jews” – a deeply religious
pamphlet denouncing the temptations of modernity which Saudi Arabia
disseminated in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. Then, in 1988, came the
Charter of Hamas.
One might think that an ideology that developed only 80
years ago would be easy to defeat. But this is not the case.
2. Why is it so
difficult to fight this particular form of antisemitism?
One main reason is obvious: Islamic antisemitism is
connected to the Muslim creed. Western societies, however, are split when it
comes to the question of Islam. One side tends to downplay Islamism and Islamic
antisemitism, while the other side seeks to demonize Islam as a whole.
Let me start with the demonizers: The successes of Donald
Trump, Marine le Pen, Geert Wilders and Germany’s AfD have shown that racism
against Muslims has become a mass phenomenon. These movements mix up Islamism
and Islam in a populist way and use it to place every dark-skinned Muslim under
We shouldn’t make the mistake and expect these movements to
help in the fight against Islamic Jew-hatred. They create, on the contrary,
detrimental effects because, first of all, they lead this alleged fight under a
racist banner and tend to label all Muslims as potential or real antisemites.
They thus endorse “the Islamist claim that Islamists alone are true Muslims,
while waving away the modernizers [among them] as outliers, fabulists, and
frauds,” to quote Daniel Pipes.
Second, they want to “liberate” their own countries from
Muslims, but not the Muslims in other parts of the world from the terror of
Islamism and the idiocy of antisemitism. Third, they tolerate and even support
antisemites within their own ranks.
We criticize so-called anti-racists who turn a blind eye to
antisemitism among Muslims. It would be just as wrong if we, as opponents of
antisemitism, tolerated or even accepted racism.
The emergence of these racist movements is linked to the
downplaying of Islamism and Islamic antisemitism by the political and media
elite in the West. This leads us to the second stupid approach to Islamic
antisemitism – to treat it with “ignorance, avoidance, minimization, denial or
misinterpretation.” Neil J. Kressel wrote a whole book about this
“conspiracy of silence”.
Few would openly say that they are willing to tolerate or
ignore Jew-hatred among Muslims. Instead, as an excuse they claim “that whatever
happens now in the Muslim and Arab world by definition bears no resemblance to
the … history of Jew-hatred in the Christian world.”
A case in point is Gilbert Achcar, a professor at the
London School of Oriental and African Studies. Achcar does not deny that
“antisemitism … has grown spectacularly in Arab political statements and Arab
media.” Yet, he then goes on to excuse it by asking rhetorically: “Is the
fantasy-based hatred of the Jews that was and still is typical of European
racists … the equivalent of the hatred felt by Arabs enraged by the occupation
and/or destruction of Arab lands…?”
His answer is a definite no. “The antisemitic statements
now heard in Arab countries”, he maintains, “are fantasy-laden expressions –
due, as a rule to cultural backwardness – of an intense national frustration
and oppression for which ’the Jews’ of Palestine in their majority, as well as
Israel, the ‘Jewish state’ they founded, must, in fact, be held
This statement presents a two-pronged apology for Islamic
antisemitism. The first is the idea that such antisemitism is the antisemitism
of the oppressed and that, since Israel is responsible for the oppression, it
is responsible for this antisemitism as well.
This assumption is highly problematic since those
“fantasy-laden” expressions are directed at the destruction of the Jews or
Israel. They, as a rule, do not address real deeds or misdeeds of Israel’s
governments. Otherwise, the response would not be antisemitism aimed at annihilation,
but justified or unjustified indignation over a misguided policy aimed at
Achcar’s second excuse is that Arab antisemitism is “due …
to cultural backwardness.” This is, firstly, factually wrong: the message of
hate is spread by members of the cultural elite such as academics, journalists,
publishers and clerics.
It has, secondly, a racist undertone. Achcar claims that,
when Arabs deny the Holocaust, “it has nothing to do with any conviction. It’s
just a way of people venting their anger, venting their frustration, in the
only means that they feel is available to them.” Achcar thus gives the
antisemites, as long as they belong to what he considers an oppressed group, a
moral carte blanche.
Achcar, like many of his colleagues, infantilizes Muslims
by branding them as essentially stupid people who cannot be held to Western
standards of decency and who cannot be expected to know what they are doing.
Maajid Nawaz, a prominent British Muslim, derides this undertone: “A credible
Muslim can only be inarticulate” and “requires an intermediary to ‘explain’ his
We are dealing here with what I would call the
“orientalization” of antisemitism in the Arab or Muslim world which is of
course a kind of racism in itself – albeit an apparently benevolent type of
racism in the eyes of its upholders. Some might call it a “racism of low
expectations,” as if a Muslim person is supposed to uphold appalling views,
while others might call it “paternalistic racism.”
In addition, there is the charge of Islamophobia. This term
is highly misleading because it mixes two different phenomena – unjust hatred
against Muslims and necessary criticism of Islamism, Islam and the Koran – and
condemns both equally. Words are crucial; this word was promoted in order to
counter the critique of Islamic antisemitism – first by intimidating those who
refuse to ignore or downplay the hatred of Jews among Muslims and second by
introducing a counter-term to antisemitism.
The invention of opposite terms in order to parallel and
downplay Nazism, antisemitism or the Holocaust is nothing new. Some always
combine the word “Nazism” with “Zionism”, others do not mention the term
“Holocaust” without the counter- term “nakba” while the opposite term to
antisemitism is, of course, Islamophobia.
It is true that racism is a component of antisemitism.
Antisemitism, however, is not a component of racism, but a specific ideology
with elements not known in the field of racism. This peculiarity is ignored in
the listing of “antisemitism” and “Islamophobia”. It was, by the way, Recep
Tayyip Erdogan, who more than anyone else made sure that the term
“antisemitism” was always followed by the term “Islamophobia” in declarations
by the Council of Europe or the OSCE.
Both – the downplayers of Islamism and the demonizers of
each and every Muslim – have a biased point of view. The influence of one side,
however, strengthens the influence of the other side and vice versa. Both
betray the minority of modern Muslims who actively oppose Islamism and Islamic
antisemitism. This betrayal is inexcusable since Islamists fight this minority
of modern Muslims tooth and nail.
3. What needs to
be done to break out of this vicious circle?
My first suggestion is easier said than done: We need to
develop a political movement against right-wing populists and against appeasers
of the Left; a movement which brings together those Muslims, ex-Muslims and
non-Muslims, who want to fight Islamic antisemitism and Islamism and who want
to change the attitudes of governments and media in this respect. An
international conference somewhere in Europe together with individuals from the
MENA-region could be a starting point.
Today, Muslims who seek good relations with Jews are often
treated as lepers. This has to end. It is therefore the first and most
important step “to make the world safe for Muslim critics of antisemitism –
physically safe, socially safe, organizationally safe, even academically
safe.” These critics must not exclude the Qur’an. The Tunisian philosopher
Mezri Haddad, for example, refuses to gloss over what the Qur’an says. Since
“Islamic thinkers … cannot purge the Qur’an of its potentially antisemitic
dross” wrote Haddad, “they must closely examine this corpus with hermeneutical reason”
and have to “show intellectual audacity.”
The time is ripe for this kind of endeavor. The
intellectual climate within the Arab world has partly changed. More and more
people have recognized that the dangers that threaten this region do not come
from Israel, but from Sunni jihadists and Iran’s theocracy. This experience
seems today to be triggering a period of thaw in parts of the Arab world, and
notably Saudi Arabia, not only with respect to Israel and the Jews, but also
with regard to the debate about political and religious affairs.
This dynamic contradicts both the malignant and the
benevolent racists who try to construct a kind of homo islamicus to keep
Muslims trapped in the cage of an immutable culture. It creates at the same
time an opportunity to promote an alliance between Islamic and non-Islamic
critics of Islamic antisemitism.
My second suggestion relates to the state level. Whether we
are successful or unsuccessful in our fight against Islamic antisemitism
depends crucially on the actions of governments.
In Germany, for example, we have various attempts to
contain Islamic antisemitism with a mixture of pedagogy and state prohibitions.
These attempts are honorable, but they remain pointless as long as this
antisemitism is not contained at its source – that is in Tehran, Beirut, Gaza
or Ankara. They remain pointless as long as Jew-hatred incessantly manipulates
the Muslims in Germany via social networks in the Turkish, Arabic or Persian
This proves: Islamic antisemitism is a major foreign policy
issue. Only governments can stop this flow of hate messages by denouncing and
punishing state or non-state actors that allow Islamic antisemitism to spread
in textbooks, mosques, and media.
Regrettably, most Western governments ignore Islamic
antisemitism in other parts of the world. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel,
for example, does not want to jeopardize Germany’s privileged relations with
Ankara and Tehran.
4. Why is it
especially important to challenge Islamic antisemitism?
Today, we are witnessing an antisemitic war, led by
Islamists. The intention to kill any Jew expresses the essence of antisemitic
While conventional war – such as the ongoing war in the
Ukraine or the many wars in Syria – is aimed at gaining territory and
influence, the antisemitic war is aimed at extermination.
Take as an example the jihad warriors of the Islamic State:
In Europe they especially target Jewish institutions such as the Jewish school
in Toulouse, the kosher market in Paris, the Jewish museum in Brussels or the
synagogue in Copenhagen. They want to kill Jews. It does not matter if those
Jews are Zionists or anti-Zionists, if they are supporters or opponents of
Israeli policies. The only thing that matters is that Jews are killed.
The same is true with Israel. For Hezbollah or Hamas, it
does not matter if the Qassam rocket or a suicide bomber kills a baby or an old
person, a supporter of Netanyahu or a foe. What matters is that Jews are being
killed. More than a few Islamists today believe that if you annihilate the
Jewish state you will redeem the world. To quote just a few recent statements
by officials of the Iranian regime: “We will raze the Zionist regime in less
than eight minutes”, “Israel must be wiped off the earth!”, “In 25 years Israel
will no longer be on the map.”
Let us assume for a moment that a nuclear power such as
Pakistan told another nuclear power, such as India: “In 25 years, India will no
longer be on the map.” There would be an outcry all over the world. For it
would be clear to everyone: Whoever threatens a nuclear power with destruction
is provoking a nuclear exchange, a nuclear disaster.
Israel is certainly a nuclear power and Iran has the
ability to construct a nuclear weapon as well. Amazingly, there was no outcry
when Teheran proclaimed: “Israel must be wiped off the earth!” This battle cry,
however, confronts us with a new kind of total war: the antisemitic nuclear
Thus, challenging Islamic antisemitism effectively is not
only about protecting the Jewish communities in Europe and the Middle East. It
is crucial to peace in the world.
 Some of the
ideas in this text were first presented on February 19, 2018 at the Vienna
conference “An End to Antisemitism!”, organized by the European Jewish Congress
together with New York University, Tel Aviv University and the University of
Vienna from 18th to 22nd February 2018.
Gruber, ‘Erdogans Erlösungsantisemitismus: „Kein Baum wird die Juden schützen“,
MENA-WATCH, December 15, 2017.
 In December
2017, Mahmoud Abbas claimed at a conference of the Organization of Islamic
Cooperation: “Jerusalem is a Palestinian Arab Muslim Christian city, the
eternal capital of the state of Palestine.” See: Israel‘s violations absolve us
from our commitments, WAFA-News-Agency, Dec. 13, 2017.
 Ronald L.
Nettler, Past Trials and Present Tribulations. A Muslim Fundamentalist’s View
of the Jews (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1987, pp. 83-4.
 Jeffrey Herf,
Nazi Propaganda in the Arab World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009);
David Motadel, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press
of Harvard University Press, 2014).
 Motadel, op.
cit., pp. 76 and 97.
 Daniel Pipes,
‘Foreword’, in: Christine Douglass-Williams, The Challenge of Modernizing Islam
(New York: Encounter Books, 2017), p. vii.
 Neil J.
Kressel, ‘The Sons Of Pigs and Apes’. Muslim Antisemitism and the Conspiracy of
Silence, Dulles/VA (Potomac Books) 2012, p. 57.
 Kressel, op.
cit., p. 100.
 Gilbert Achcar,
The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, New York
(Metropolitan Books) 2009, p. 248.
 Achcar, op.
cit., p. 275.
 Achcar, op.
cit., p. 256.
Propaganda War: Blame the Grand Mufti’. Gilbert Achcar Interviewed by George
Nawaz, “The British Left’s Hypocritical Embrace of Islamism,” Daily Beast, 8
 Kressel, op.
cit., p. 201.
 Middle East
Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Special Dispatch Series No. 1362, November