I recently spoke on Islam and my new book at a local senior center. As
members trickled in, a white-haired man approached me and announced, “I
have never known an Arab or a Muslim who wasn’t anti-Semitic.”
I replied, “I’m not anti-Semitic and I have many Jewish friends.”
“Congratulations,” he said sardonically.
I sighed and smiled wryly.
“You know, ” I said, “when Arab Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 638,
they invited the Jews – who’d been banished by the former Christian
rulers – back to live and worship in the city. They left the Christians
free to live and visit the holy places, too.”
Seeing no response on his still face, I continued. “In the seventh
century, Muhammad urged his followers to fast on Yom Kippur, in
solidarity with the Jews. The Qur’an states that fasting is prescribed
for Muslims, just as it was prescribed for those (the Jews) before
After a pause, he said, “Thank you. I didn’t know that.” Turning, he shuffled to his seat.
I couldn’t spare the time then, but later I grieved that Islam is
perceived as anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism has no place is Islam, just as
Islamophobia has no place in Judaism. For their time, these two
religions sought to decrease violence and bigotry in the world. The
weight of history, if we can but remember it, is on the side of
Ali-Karamali then goes on to point to specific examples throughout history of muslim tolerance, especially towards Jews, often in stark contrast to the Christian realms. The point here is not to point to the forgotten glories of pluralism in the past, but to recognize that the admitted fact of modern anti-Semitism by muslims is a function of the modern age and not, as her interlocutor implied, something embedded within the fabric of Islam itself.
Self-styled experts on Islam will point to various pieces of evidence from the Qur’an or historical record, of course. The most often-invoked example is the famed verse from the Qur’an which allegedly refers to Jews as “apes and pigs” (5:60). However, a simple look at the surrounding verses, even in common translation, reveals that the Qur’an makes no such insult whatsoever. Much is also made of a single Jewish tribe, the Banu Qurayza, who the Prophet SAW is said to have slaughtered; in reality, the Qurayza betrayed Muhammad SAW in an wartime alliance and conspired with his enemies to have him killed. The Prophet SAW left their fate in the hands of an arbitrator, whom the Qurayza approved. That arbitrator decided the Qurayza men would be beheaded and the women and children spared. It was brutal by our modern standards – but considering the fate of Dresden or Hiroshima, perhaps not as brutal as it could have been.
The evidence of historical muslim tolerance and pluralism, especially in contrast to Christendom, is not a matter of debate. The historical record of Islamic tolerance towards the Jews is important to reiterate and emphasize, because it shows that a modern articulation of religious pluralism can be made within an Islamic context, and provides ammunition against those muslims who seek to use hatred and fear of Jews to their own evil ends. This is a battle you would expect Jews to support, as we mainstream muslims seek to reclaim the language of faith from an extremist minority.
Unfortunately, in that battle against muslim anti-Semitism, Jewish Islamophobia plays an obstructing role. A great example is the response to Ali-Karamali’s piece by my Beliefnet colleague, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, who accuses her of whitewashing Islamic history:
Even if one makes a solid case for the relative merits of Islam over
Christianity vis a vis the past treatment of Jews, which is entirely
appropriate, we can not ignore the second-class status imposed upon
Jews even under the crescent. Of course, as Ali-Karamali proudly points
out, Jews were honored as people of the book, but they were hardly
equal citizens. Jews were also relegated to the status of protected
minorities forced to pay a Jewish head tax.
good comparison may be to the status of Black Americans living under
Jim Crow laws in more tolerant communities. Her failure to point that
out turns her reflections on Muslim anti-Semitism into little more than
patting her own tradition on the back, and misses an important
opportunity for the kind of balanced exploration which is needed if she
wants to be heard by those she hopes to convince.
This deeply saddens me. For a learned man such as Rabbi Hirschfield to equate the flowering of Jewish civilization in the classical Islamic period with the barbaric Jim Crow laws of the 20th century, is to betray a shocking ignorance of Jewish and American histories alike. It seems that the rabbi has been reading too many polemics by Bat Ye’or instead of gripping historical memoirs like Memories of Eden, the story of the Jews of Baghdad (recently and expertly reviewed in the London Review of Books by Adam Shatz – highly recommended). Far from Rabbi Hirschfield’s grim invocation of the dreaded Dhimmitude, Shatz points out that that the Jewish community played an outsized and prosperous role in Iraqi society:
Recent polemics – and pro-Israeli websites – have made much of the
indignities of Jewish life under Ottoman rule, seeking to expose the
‘myth’ of Muslim tolerance. This tolerance, it’s argued, is a euphemism
for dependence on the goodwill of capricious, if not cruel Muslim
overlords. The memoirs of Iraqi Jews, however, tell a very different
story: Shamash, who was born in 1912 and spent the last twenty years of
her life recording her memories of ‘my Baghdad, my native land’, is not
alone in describing her family’s life before the arrival of British
troops in World War One as ‘paradise’. Memories of Eden provides as sumptuous an account of the world of the Baghdadi Jewish elite as we’re likely to get.
Jewish life under the Ottomans wasn’t without its hardships: few
Jews lived in palaces like the Shamash family, and as members of a
non-Muslim ‘millet’ community they were obliged to pay a discriminatory
tax, but they were mostly left to look after their own affairs, and
further advance seemed inevitable. The vast majority lived in cities,
apart from a handful of Kurdish Jews. As bankers, traders and
money-lenders the wealthier members of the community had made
themselves indispensable: so much so that Baghdad’s markets shut down
on the Jewish Sabbath, rather than the Muslim day of rest. By the 19th
century, Baghdad was famous for its Jewish dynasties – the Sassoons,
the Abrahams, the Ezras, the Kadouries – with their empires in finance
and imports (cotton, tobacco, silk, tea, opium) that stretched all the
way to Manchester, Bombay, Calcutta, Singapore, Rangoon, Shanghai and
When Balfour announced Britain’s support for the
creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, leaving Mesopotamia for the
kibbutz was the furthest thing from the minds of Baghdad’s Jews. ‘The
announcement aroused no interest in Mesopotamia, nor did it leave a
ripple on the surface of local political thought in Baghdad,’ Arnold
Wilson, the civil commissioner in Baghdad, reported to the Foreign
Office after a meeting with a group of Iraqi Jewish notables.
Palestine, they had said, ‘is a poor country and Jerusalem a bad town
to live in’
What of Dhimmitude, then? was it really second-class status as the good rabbi claims? Any number of excellent historical and academic resources are available for the casual reader to inform themselves and draw their own judgments. But even the worst excesses of the dhimmi system can not, in conscience or honest sincerity, be equated even remotely to the true barbaric evil that was Jim Crow.
The truth of why the muslim world today is host to the infection of anti-Semitism is a complex one. Anti-Semitism is a European import, and the complex interplay of post-colonialism, the fall of the Ottomans, and the founding of Israel all play a role in its transmission to the muslim polity. However, while no one can or should deny that anti-Semitism is a modern problem that must be faced head-on without apology, those who insist on tying it to the Islamic faith are themselves, in a way, perpetuating this status quo. Islamophobia is no answer to anti-Semitism, but rather its ally. In this, Jews and muslims must stand together in opposition.
Talk Islam and City of Brass seem to have been the first to report on Iranian blogfather Hossein Derakshan’s arrest in Tehran last week, but the A-list bloggers are now awakening to the story, as are some of the journalist bloggers, which bodes well. There’s a great short piece in the IHT about Derakshan, also known as Hoder (amalgam of his first/last names), that provides more detail on Derakshan’s views – excerpt:
Derakhshan also favored a nuclear-armed Iran. “We need it as a
deterrent,” he argued, not against Israel, but against the United
States, which organized a coup in Iran in 1953 and which still
maintained a strong military presence in the region. (But he opposed,
on environmental grounds, Iran developing nuclear power plants.) If war
were to break out between Iran and the United Statse, he said, he would
fly home to fight for his country.
Derakhshan had first visited Israel the previous year and had been
invited back to address a conference on “Reform and Resistance in the
Middle East” at Ben-Gurion University. For Iran, he favored reform, not
resistance: “The system is democratic enough to permit change through
elections. We can gradually change Iran. We are already doing it.”
It is not clear why Derakhshan flew home this time, despite being
warned in the past that he might be arrested for his blogs. However,
those blogs have in the past year turned sharply pro-Iranian government
In the interview in Jerusalem two years ago, he said Ahmadinejad did
not have the intellect to convince people who can think. “He’s street
smart and has good social communication skills. But he can’t respond to
sophisticated questions,” he said.
But in a blog posted two months ago, he wrote: “Ahmadinejad’s
brilliant strategy of dismissing Israel and smiling to the U.S. has
divided the U.S. at all levels and that’s a big achievement compared to
(former President Mohammed) Khatami’s weak and failed U.S. strategy
that led to Iran being part of the ‘axis of evil.’ Now the same Bush
administration has officially opened the diplomatic line. Please get
over Ahmadinejad’s scruffy look, prayers, and plain language and see
An Iranian Web site reportedly close to that country’s intelligence
community, Jahan News, claimed that Derakhshan had admitted during
initial questioning to spying for Israel but said that his confession
included several “intricate points.”
I am greatly disturbed by the tidbit about him having confessed – which strongly suggests he’s been abused and possibly tortured. Of course for a regime that engages in torture, confessions for any crime come quite easily – which is why Obama’s pledge to stop all torture is so important in regaining our American moral authority, which would be very useful in applying pressure on Iran right now.
Make no mistake – Hoder’s life is in serious danger. Iran just executed a businessman on similar charges of spying.
I’m not particularly keen to judge another man’s faith, so I pass no judgement on Michael Jackson’s conversion to Islam. However, I will note that Islam is big enough to contain me and Jackson within itself.
Check out the discussion about Jackson’s conversion at Talk Islam.
UPDATE (2/13/09): Jackson’s lawyer denies it.
Celebrated blogger Hossein Derakshan is literally the godfather of the Iranian blogsphere. Iran is one of those countries where speaking out requires courage, and where speech is anything but free. He has been living in Canada recently, but returned to Iran just a few weeks ago – and now has been arrested, rather ironically, on charges of spying for Israel:
Travelling on a Canadian passport, he made a highly publicised trip to Israel
in 2006 on a mission to show his “20,000 daily Iranian readers what Israel
really looks like and how people live there”. He also wanted to “humanise”
Iranians for Israelis.
Mr Derakhshan was acutely aware that his efforts to foster understanding
between the two countries that are bitter enemies could jeopardise any
return to Iran. … Commentators in Israel, however, noted Mr Derakhshan recently had become
“vehemently anti-Israel in his blog”.
The 33-year-old techno-wizard has had a controversial and often turbulent
career. Bitterly disillusioned with the Iranian reformist leaders that he
once championed, he recently became a grudging admirer of Iran’s hardline
President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. … Mr Derakhshan has defended Iran’s right to nuclear weapons for defensive
purposes, and announced that he would return to defend his homeland if
America ever attacked. “I can’t let myself to sit down for a moment and
watch make a Baghdad out of Tehran,” he wrote.
Yet Iran’s thin-skinned regime apparently remained deeply suspicious.
According to Jahan News, a conservative website reputedly close to Tehran’s
intelligence community, Mr Derakhshan is under interrogation and during
initial questioning “admitted” to spying for Israel — a grave offence if
charges are pressed. The report, citing “credible sources”, claimed that Mr
Derakhshan’s alleged confession included several “intricate points”.
Derakshan’s views, as the article describes, are complex and informed as much by his genuine nationalism and pride in his country as they are in his principles and ideals. Reading his English-language weblog also shows that he’s passionate about what he believes, about right and wrong, and shares the same basic values as we do when it comes to freedom and justice. I don’t know what we in the blogsphere can do to try and help him, apart from spreading the word as widely as we can. So please do.