By Salim Mansur, professor of political science at the University of Western
Ontario. His column appears alternate Thursdays.
December 30, 2003.
Tribal politics and a willingness by Arab-Muslims to blame others for
their own problems are contributing factors to today’s anti-Semitism
Since 9/11, the roll call of cities across the world bombed by Muslim terrorists
in league with Osama bin Laden, or recruits of his organization, al-Qaida, keeps
One of the latest is Istanbul, Turkey, whose citizens were terrorized in a series
of suicide bombings within the span of a week.
In those attacks, Jews, long and peaceful residents of Turkey – with whose
history they share an ancient connection – were once again the victims of
anti-Semitism. An anti-Semitism which is now turning the Arab-Muslim world
into a version of what Europe became during the first half of the previous
century – a cesspool of hate where Jews were, and today are, blamed for all
things wrong in a culture hurtling toward self-destruction.
When U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl is murdered in Karachi, Pakistan, for being a
Jew, and when Neve Shalom, Istanbul’s main synagogue, is bombed for being
what it is and for its place in Turkey’s history, it represents a rising tide of
anti-Semitism among Arab Muslims that can no longer be denied by their
Can it be explained? Should it be?
Writing as a Muslim, I believe it must. For what is involved here in the
spreading slime of anti-Semitism among many Arabs and Muslims – as it once
was in Europe – is the wreckage of Islam.
A wreckage in the making by those committing crimes against humanity in
humanity’s name, while others, professing the faith, acquiesce by remaining
The Islamic civilization pre-dates the modern world, and the eclipse of that
civilization began with the making and the triumph of the modern, secular,
democratic and liberal world we now live in.
To understand the Islamic civilization of the past, it needs to be judged
according to the prevalent standards of the time. In the pre-modern world,
Islamic civilization, when compared to Europe, was relatively more advanced,
wealthier, more liberal, more tolerant and more assimilative. For all those
reasons, it was poised to become a far more innovative force in the modern
world than it ever did.
Jewish relations with Arabs and Muslims are as old as Islam, and as intimate as
were their relations with Christians in the foundational years of Christianity.
Jewish presence and contributions in the making of Islamic civilization were of
no lesser significance than in the making of the modern world. Jews in
pre-modern times were relatively more secure, as a people, within the domain
of Islam than they were in Europe.
Bernard Lewis and S.D. Goitein, just two of many Jewish scholars, have
explored this complex history with great care.
Lewis writes in The Jews of Islam, “For most of the Middle Ages the
Jews of Islam comprised the greater and more active part of the Jewish people
… With few exceptions, whatever was creative and significant in Jewish life,
happened in Islamic lands.”
Similarly, Goitein, in Jews and Arabs, admirably catalogues the intensive
contacts of the two Semitic peoples through the centuries in both good and bad
So what happened? How can the present situation be explained?
In the circumstances of 20th century history, a relationship of rivalry emerged
between the two peoples, layered with past history in which the Arab
self-perception was one of being superior to Jews, both politically and
That perception dramatically reversed over time.
Goitein writes, “The resurgence of the two peoples was effected after a
prolonged period of suffering and humiliation, a period during which neither
formed a nation in the ordinary sense of the word.”
But then, following World War II, Jews returned to Palestine after their longest
period of exile to found a state for themselves, and successfully defended it
against tremendous odds.
By contrast, noted Ibn Khaldun, the remarkable Arab philosopher from the 14th
century, Arabs were displaced in history from the position of prominence they
As he wrote in 1377, “The realm of the Arabs has been wiped out completely;
the power now rests in the hand of non-Arabs, such as the Turks in the East …
and the Franks (Europeans) in the North.”
In the modern post-colonial resurgence – the creation of Israel and the
emergence of independent Arab states – the success of the one contrasts with
the failures of the others.
From the point of view of many Arabs, Jews are today an even more
unbearable power than those who displaced them several centuries ago, as was
pointed out at the time by Ibn Khaldun.
Jews, as a people, despite the terrible injustices inflicted on them which finally
culminated in the Holocaust, survived and succeeded. Arabs, as a people,
despite the resources gifted them by nature and the support received from
others in modern times, on the whole displayed an incapacity to assimilate into
the modern world.
The widening gap between success and failure of the two peoples in meeting
their respective goals requires explaining.
One explanation would be that offered by Cassius to Brutus in another
circumstance, that the fault “is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
The contrary explanation is to blame the stars, or others, while avoiding at all
costs looking within “ourselves” and in “our” culture and history for the reasons
for failing to meet desired goals.
Tribalism persists as a characteristic of Arab politics and culture. Tribal politics
is a closed circle, and in such a system, insiders and outsiders are clearly
Jews are the perennial outsiders, instinctively held responsible for the problems
of the insiders. Within the closed circle of tribal politics, Jewish success grates
upon Arab thinking, sometimes in venomous forms.
To be sure, anti-Semitism is bound up with European history as well. But even
purged from its European locale, the plague of anti-Semitism found a breeding
ground in Arab resentment against Europe, and then America, for supporting
Jewish nationalism – Zionism – in the creation of Israel.
Anti-Semitic bile became a crutch to explain Arab failure as a vast machination
of Jewish conspiracy, abetted by the West, constant in its purpose to divide
and control the Arab world since the time of the Crusades.
This view of history has become the ur-text, or the holy grail, of Arab
nationalism, morphed into religious fundamentalism. It explains away any
responsibility Arabs owe to themselves for their failures.
While Arabs are a minority in the wider Muslim world, they have claimed a
position greater than others in interpreting Islam because of being native to the
language and culture into which Mohammed, the prophet, was born, and the
Koran was revealed.
In modern times, this has meant the experience of Arab politics in general, and
of the Palestinians in particular, has been ground into the lens by which Islam
as a faith and tradition is viewed within the wider Muslim world.
Consequently, while Arabs have sought to legitimize their politics with an
appeal to Islam, non-Arab Muslims have generally accepted Arab views and
interpretations as legitimately Islamic. That is the conduit through which Arab
anti-Semitism has spread into the wider Muslim world.
The situation in which the Arab-Muslim world now finds itself can only be
reversed with external assistance.
Here it is worth reminding ourselves that fascism and anti-Semitism in
Europe, which precipitated a world war and Holocaust, were only purged by
greater force intervening from the outside.