One of the biggest confusions in relation to contemporary anti-Semitism is the distinction between Islam and Islamism. The former is a long-established faith with about two billion followers while the latter is essentially an extreme political movement wrapped in religious language. Although there have historically been elements of anti-Semitism in Islam – as there have in Christianity – it is much more central to Islamism.
The key point to note at the start is that many deny that the distinction between Islamism and Islam exists. These include, among others, both Islamists themselves and anti-Muslim bigots.
For example, Islamist movements such as the Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood see themselves as true Muslims. They do not differentiate between themselves and the religion of Islam.
Similarly those hostile to Muslims tend to eschew the distinction too. For them terrorist actions by Islamist groups directly follow from the religion itself. In this view all Muslims share at least some responsibility for such atrocities.
A notable point here is that the deeply flawed concept of Islamophobia deliberately muddles together Islam as a religion, hatred of Muslims and hostility to Islamist movements. From this perspective there is no clear moral distinction between anti-Muslim hatred – which is clearly despicable – and legitimate criticism of Islamist trends. It is also hostile to criticism of Islam even though criticism of religious ideas – including Christian and Jewish principles - is central to free speech.
The historical record of Islam in relation to Jews is hotly disputed. Bernard Lewis (1916-2018) was one of the world’s foremost experts on this topic and on Islamic history generally and in my view one of the most authoritative (although almost inevitably he was dismissed as a “notorious Islamophobe” by some). In his classic study on The Jews of Islam (original edition published in 1984) he argued that: “On the whole, in contrast to Christian anti-Semitism, the Muslim attitude towards non-Muslims is one not of hate or envy but simply of contempt” (p33 of 2014 Princeton edition). (For an alternative view see this piece by Mark Durie in Middle East Quarterly ).
A frequently adduced example of historical discrimination against Jews in Muslim lands is, together with some other minorities, their dhimmi status. This meant they were granted a certain degree of toleration but in return they had to unequivocally respect the primacy of Islam (p21 of Lewis).
Although Lewis did not use the term ‘Islamism’ in that work he describes how it began to develop towards the end of the book. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, under the influence of developments in Europe, attitudes started to change. “From the late nineteenth century, as a direct result of European influence, movements appear among Muslims which for the first time one can legitimately use the term anti-Semitic.” (p185).
Indeed Lewis argues that local Christians played a key role in the transmission of anti-Semitism to the Middle East: “a specific campaign against Jews, expressed in the unmistakable language of European Christian anti-Semitism, first appeared among Christians in the nineteenth century and then Muslims in the twentieth” (P185).
He then goes on to argue: “The first anti-Semitic tracts in Arabic appeared toward the end of the nineteenth century. They were translated from French originals – part of the literature of the Dreyfus controversy. Most of the translations were made by Arab Catholics, Maronites or other Uniate Christians. The first Arabic translation of the most famous of all anti-Semitic forgeries, the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was published in Cairo in 1927” (p185).
This is a good place to switch to a consideration of Bassam Tibi’s key book on Islamism and Islam. Tibi, a German political scientist of Syrian origin, dates the birth of Islamism as in 1928 with the foundation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt by. Hassan al-Banna. From the start it had a genocidal attitude towards anti-Semitism at its core. Tibi, who is highly influenced by Hannah Arendt and in particular her writings on totalitarianism, likens this to her argument that a genocidal modern anti-Semitism emerged in Europe in the late nineteenth century. That was in contrast with the older religious anti-Semitism informed by the Christianity.
The chief ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, had an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory at the centre of his world view. He was the author, among other texts, of Our Fight with the Jews (from the 1950s, the title is translated as Our Struggle with the Jews). Qutb was highly influenced by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903) and he in turn influenced the 1988 covenant of the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza.
There are of course other branches of Islamism including a Shiite form backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran since its foundation in 1979. That too it should be noted has an avowedly genocidal stance towards Israel. The Hezbollah movement in Lebanon is highly influenced by the Iranian regime.
Once the distinction between Islam and Islamism is established it still leaves the question of what defines the latter. For Tibi it is a form of ‘religionised politics’: “Islamism emanates from a political interpretation of Islam: it is based not on the religious faith of Islam but on an ideological use of religion within the political realm.” (pvii). He goes on to outline five key features of Islamism in addition to its genocidal anti-Semitism. These include its reactionary vision of the world political order, its predicament with democracy, its use of violence, the sharia-isation of law, and the search for authenticity within a largely invented Islamic tradition.
Within Islamism there is a distinction between jihadism and what Tibi calls institutional Islamism (others sometimes refer to the latter as participationist Islam or Islamic revivalism). The difference is not over goals – which are the same – but over means. jihadis openly espouse violence whereas institutional Islamism includes political means such as elections. However, it does not follow, at least according to Tibi, that institutional Islamists believe in democracy. Their participation in elections is simply pragmatic rather than an expression of a belief in democratic values.
This helps explain why Tibi dislikes the labels ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ Islam. For him what some people refer to as ‘moderate Islam’ is often characterised by extreme beliefs even if some movements may use non-violent political methods. And what some people call ‘radical Islam’ is better seen as part of an Islamist political movement. That is rather than being described in a way which could be taken to imply it is simply an extreme of a religion.
It should be noted that from Tibi’s perspective the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a traditional tribal monarchy rather than an Islamist state. It does use Islam as a source of legitimacy but it does not conform to his definition of Islamism. Similarly traditional forms of Islam such as Salafism and its offshoot Wahhabism (centred on Saudi Arabia) are not in themselves Islamist.
I have focused here on Tibi’s views because they seem particularly lucid to me; particularly in the relationship between anti-Semitism and Islamism. But there are other writers who maintain the distinction between Islamism and Islam but use a different taxonomy. For example, Kenan Malik in his From Fatwa to Jihad (originally published in 2009) does use the term ‘radical Islam’ which he sees as an offshoots of fundamentalism. There are both differences and similarities with Tibi’s argument but there is not space to go into them here.
The character of Islamism will need further investigation if contemporary anti-Semitism is going to be fully understood. Its strange affinity with identity politics in the West will also need to be considered.
Photo: "Hassan al-Banna" by bismikaallahuma is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.