Islamism is one of the most important forms of contemporary anti-Semitism yet it receives relatively little attention. Discussions on Jew-hatred tend to be more comfortable talking about the far right and the far left.
One of the main goals of this site is to counteract this one-sidedness. So far it has included a book review of a book on Muslims in Britain and an account of an important webinar involving Muslims against Anti-Semitism.
However, this is only skimming the surface of what is a large, complex and diffuse subject. Here I want to give a brief sketch of areas that need further examination including notes on further reading. The focus will be mainly, although not exclusively, on Islamism in relation to anti-Semitism.
There will be a little overlap with references that have been mentioned earlier for the sake of completeness. The references here are in no particular order. It should also be noted that this is a highly contentious area. So the expert take by one specialist will often be rubbished by another.
One of the most difficult questions of all in this area is the relationship between Islamism (also referred to as Islamic fundamentalism, political Islam and radicalism) and Islam as a religion. The common sense view in the West is that Islamism is simply a radical political form of the Muslim religion.
To help disentangle the two it no doubt helps to have some knowledge of Islam itself. In that respect Fitzroy Morrissey’s A Short History of Islamic Thought looks like a useful primer.
However, the relationship between Islamism and radicalism is not as straightforward as many assume. For example, Olivier Roy, one of the foremost French experts on Islamism, talks about the “Islamisation of radicalism” as opposed to the “radicalisation of Islam”. In other words, in his view, political radicalism has for some reason taken on an Islamist form in many cases.
Roy’s insight certainly seems to have some merit. For example, pan-Arabism was to the fore in much of the Middle East in the 1950s and 1960s. But this seems to have been supplanted by Islamism from the 1990s onwards. Support for the movements representing a Palestinian national liberation struggle seems to have fallen away too. Instead the struggle for Palestine, and the Islamic holy city of Jerusalem in particular, is widely seen as a broader Islamist struggle.
A related discussion is whether Islamist ideas originated in the Islamic world or in the West. Some like, Bernard Lewis for many years a doyen of Islamic studies in the West, argued that anti-Semitism was imported into Islam from Europe. Although Judeophobia – meaning prejudice against Jews - has long existed in the Muslim world full-blooded anti-Semitism was, in his view, imported from outside. This looks to be most fully examined in his The Jews of Islam.
The origins of Islamist thought is of course a contentious area but Bassam Tibbi’s Islamism and Islam looks like an authoritative general guide. It includes a chapter on Islamism and anti-Semitism. His work is influenced by Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.
Some, such as Matthias Küntzel in his Jihad and Jew Hatred, have drawn a direct link between Nazi Germany and the rise of Islamism.
France has seen a virulent debate on the nature of Islamism. That is probably because of the large Muslim population in the country and the French tradition of secularism. Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel are the main expert antagonists in this debate but other high profile intellectuals have weighed in. More specifically, Pierre-André Taguieff, director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, has written what looks like an important 2002 book on “La nouvelle Judéophobie”. It was published in English in 2004 as Rising from the Muck: The New Anti-Semitism in Europe.
The strange affinity between Islamism and sections of the left is an important theme in Taguieff’s work. It kicked off a significant debate on what became known as Islamo-gauschisme (Islamo-lefitism). In Britain, John Jenkins, formerly the top Arabist in Britain’s foreign ministry, has written an essay on this subject for Policy Exchange, a think tank.
Of course the discussion of Israel and the Palestinians is a key focus for Islamism. In that respect it is important to read the Hamas covenant / charter of 1988. Despite the moderation of language for foreign consumption this has not been rescinded. Hizbollah open letter, also from 1988, plays a similar role.
Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2006, is itself an offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949) in Egypt (the Gaza strip was controlled by Egypt from 1948 to 1967). And the main ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood, with a particular emphasis on anti-Semitism was Sayyid Qutb (1906-96) (One of his key works was a pamphlet entitled The Battle Against the Jews).
Whereas the Muslim Brotherhood is associated with the majority Sunni branch of Islam there is also anti-Semitism in Shiite Islam too. The latter is backed by Iran and finds expression in Hezbollah in Lebanon. There are many books on this subject but Amal Saad-Ghorayeb's Hizbu'llah: Politics and Religion includes chapter on attitudes to Jews. However, it should be noted that are overlaps between the two branches. For example, Iran backs Hamas despite the former being a Shiite state the latter being based on a Sunni population.
Islamism is commonly associated with the concept of Jihad – often taken to mean violent struggle - although there is debate about its proper meaning. Faisal Devji's Landscapes of the Jihad, a study of al-Qaeda, is meant to be one of the best books on this theme. However, it is important to note there are other forms of Islamism. For example, participationism aims to promote Islamist ideas through longer-term political struggle.
The dubious concept of Islamophobia is often used to silence critics of Islamist anti-Semitism. But the notion is itself flawed since it muddles together hostility to Muslims, criticism of Islam as a religion and criticism of Islamism. So, for example, someone criticising an Islamist movement can be accused of Islamophobia. The Runnymede Trust, a think tank, played a key part in developing this concept with a report in 1997. It was followed up by another report in 2016. Deepa Kumar’s Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire is an example of a text that goes along with this approach.
However, there are also critics of the concept. Kenan Malik, the author of an important text on Islamism, From Fatwa to Jihad: How the world changed from the Satanic Verses to Charlie Hebdo, is among those who have criticised it as an oversimplification. Douglas Murray, a conservative British writer, has gone ever further with a book on what he calls Islamophilia. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an activist and writer, has written on woke Islamism for Unherd, an online publication.
For the sake of completeness it should be emphasised that there are lots of themes I have not even mentioned here. For example, there are important debates on Islamism in relation to Africa, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.
- For the sake of comparison I have also written a brief reading guide on woke anti-Semitism.
Note on transliteration: In relation to spellings it should be noted that there are different ways of translating languages such as Arabic and Farsi into English. That explains, for example, why some sources talk about Hezbollah while others refer to Hizbullah or Hizballah. Similarly Sayyid Qutb is sometimes written as Syed Qutb.