What is the relationship between anti-Semites who claim to act in the name of Islam and the religion itself? This article will examine two possible answers to this question.
A common response is that anti-Semitism is intrinsic to Islam. It is embedded, it argues, in Islam’s history and holy texts. Typically those who support this view attach great importance to the distinction between moderate and radical Islam. In this account the moderates do not take all of Islam’s bigoted ideas at face value while the extremists do. The fundamentalists, so the argument goes, take Islam’s long-established anti-Semitic doctrines to their logical conclusion.
An alternative answer, the one to which I subscribe, is that Islamist anti-Semitism should be understood in primarily political rather than religious terms. Islamism is best seen as a form of religionised politics rather than an expression of the religion. It uses the language of Islam but that does not mean it can be simply understood with reference to holy texts or Islamic history. The key question that needs to be answered, from this point of view, is why political radicalism nowadays often takes an Islamic form.
From the latter perspective it is vital to distinguish between the modern period (however that is precisely defined) and the pre-modern one. The point is not to deny that there was any enmity, perhaps extreme, towards Jews in pre-modern times. But the advent of Islamism was relatively recent and modern anti-Semitism should not be compared to religious hostility towards Jews in medieval times.
I have spelt out my view that Islamism should be seen as a form of politics in earlier articles on this site. In this piece I want to go back to examine the first argument in relation to anti-Semitism in more detail. How convincing is the case that anti-Semitism in the name of Islam derives from the religion itself?
My focus here is on the broader political movements that often support jihadi violence rather than the jihadis themselves. They are sometimes called non-violent or participationist Islamists: keeping within the law themselves but often backing those who do not. This trend operates not only in the Middle East but around the world including increasingly in the West.
Since this article will be relatively long I will spell out in advance the course it will follow. First, it will examine the argument that anti-Semitism is intrinsic to Islam with a special focus on the work of Andrew Bostom. Second, it will outline my objections to Bostom’s arguments. Perhaps the most important is that they are profoundly ahistorical. They fails to understand the difference between old religious enmities and modern forms of racial thinking of which anti-Semitism is an expression. Finally, it will sketch an alternative view of how anti-Semitism is better understood in relation to Islamism, that is to an Islamised form of politics. The conclusions here are highly tentative. A key motivation behind the exercise is to highlight important points for further study.
The anti-Semitism as intrinsic to Islam school
Many experts in the field do not make a clear distinction between Islam as a religion and Islamism as a form of politics. Gilles Kepel, a French specialist, is perhaps the best known in this area. There is also a school of new atheists, including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, who blame many social conflicts on religion itself including Islam. More broadly still, Samuel Huntingdon argued that international conflicts in the post Cold War period were cultural / religious. He famously described this at “the clash of civilisations”.
But here my focus specifically on the argument that anti-Semitism is intrinsic to Islam as a religion. Its advocates include Daniel Pipes (a historian and the publisher of Middle East Forum), Bat Ye’or (the pen name of an Egyptian-born British author) and Ibn Warraq (the pen name of an author critical of Islam) are experts in the field. British conservatives such as Douglas Murray and Melanie Phillips have broader interests but are also sympathetic to this perspective. Martin Gilbert, the late historian, also seems at least to have broadly shared this view.
At a later date I intend to examine the literature more broadly. Here my focus in on a key article by Andrew Bostom, a medical doctor and expert on Islam. That is because I decided to write this article when a well-informed person on such matters sent me a 2008 interview in Dissent arguing that Islam is intrinsicially anti-Semitic. In it, Bostom was quizzed by Alan Johnson, the editor of Fathom Journal ( for those who are not familiar with this publication it is well worth reading).
Bostom is a research physician who became interested in Islam after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America in 2001. He has written three books: The Legacy of Jihad (2005), The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism (2008) and Sharia versus Freedom (2015). Each of these books, from what I can tell, contain writing by Bostom as well as republished and newly translated source material. I should emphasise that my critique here is based solely on the interview cited above. I have not yet read any of Bostom’s books so I may need to revise my views when I examine them more closely. Any criticisms of his arguments should therefore be regarded as provisional.
In Bostom’s view the claim that Islamism is distinct from anti-Semitism is based on two false pillars: that Islam is devoid of theological anti-Semitism and the idea that dhimmitide is a myth. The meaning of the first claim should be clear but the second needs to be explained for those unfamiliar with the concept of the dhimmi.
The dhimmi status was given to Christian and Jewish residents of the Ottoman empire. Oficially they were protected, as long as they remained loyal to the regime, but in practice they suffered discrimination. Bostom argues that the dhimmi were the subject of severe mistreatment whereas some others, with a more benign view of Islam, claim their status was relatively favourable.
In relation to Bostom’s first claim he produces ample material to make the case that theological anti-Semitism was rampant in the Ottoman empire and in the Muslim world more generally. He points as evidence to Islamic sacred texts – including the Koran, the hadith (the prophet’s sayings) and the sira (Muslim pious biographies of the prophet) - as well as to judicial texts. In his view conspiratorial Jew hatred is readily identifiable in these works.
He also criticises other notions that are often favoured by those who take a more positive view of Islam. For example, he argues that the concept of a “jihad war” is at the heart of Islam. He rejects those who say the true meaning of Jihad is an internal spiritual struggle – even if they concede it may be perverted by extremists. He also criticises those who point to medieval Spain as a golden age where Jews enjoyed toleration under Islamic rule.
Bostom accepts that there are European influences on contemporary Islamic anti-Semitism. However, he argues they are not significant. In his view the notable point is that, even today, popular Islamic anti-Semitism is based mainly on Islamic sources rather than imported ones.
He is also aware of influential Islamist thinkers. Although he does not devote much time to them he refers to Ayatollah Khomeini, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Sayyid Qutb. For Bostom these are better seen as politically motivated Islamic theologians.
Bostom proposes as mass movement of radical enlightenment among Muslims as a solution to the problem of anti-Semitism. He sees the possibility of such a movement in Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born Dutch-American human rights activist and writer. Ali herself has made the case that Islam needs a Reformation, making a broad comparison with the Reformation in 16th century Europe. That was the time when Christianity split with the emergence of Protestant movements from within the Catholic church. She echoes Bostom in arguing that “it is foolish to insist that the violent acts of Islamic extremists can be divorced from the religious doctrine that inspires them.”
Bostom’s ahistorical approach
The key problem with Bostom’s argument is that it is profoundly ahistorical. It does not help to takes quotes written in the Middle Ages and apply them to contemporary conditions in such an unmediated way. The huge differences between the Middle East at that time and contemporary societies, both in the region and beyond, need to be taken into account.
My disagreements are informed by the way Hannah Arendt, perhaps the greatest political theorist of the twentieth century, treated the difference between religious Jew-hatred and modern anti-Semitism. The first was a form of enmity that existed in Europe until the nineteenth century. The latter emerged in the nineteenth century as a form of racial thinking.
This emergence of a new form of anti-Jewish enmity was in line with important social changes. Before the nineteenth century Jews in Europe tended to live at the margins of Christian society. Jews were often hated by Christians who saw them as part of a rival and inferior religion. Modern anti-Semitism, in contrast, emerged as Jews were moving towards emancipation in central and western Europe. In these conditions, Jews were hated not because they were marginalised but because they were attempting integration into mainstream society.
Modern anti-Semitism is a particular form of racial thinking. As Kenan Malik has argued this way of understanding the world only became possible with the European Enlightenment of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Enlightenment embodied the then revolutionary idea that human beings could be treated as equals. But, in another terrible paradox, the idea of race emerged as a way of explaining the persistence of inequality despite the ideal of equality. In other words, racial thinking held that certain groups of people could not achieve equality because they were naturally inferior. There could therefore by no racial conception of Jew-hatred in Europe until the notion of equality became widespread.
Arendt went on to argue that modern anti-Semitism, as opposed to religious Jew-hatred, was annihilationist in character. Of course medieval Jew haters did sometimes kill Jews but modern anti-Semitism was far more systematic in its orientation. It opened the way for the attempt to systematically exterminate the Jewish people.
Note that I am not arguing that anti-Semitism in the Muslim world exactly mirrored the development of anti-Semitism in the Christian world. On the contrary, the situation was substantially different. However, I do think it is necessary to go beyond religious texts and anti-Jewish tropes to take into account the emergence of radically different forms of societies.
The Middle East in the nineteenth and clearly twentieth century clearly differed vastly from that in Europe. Islamism emerged there when much of the region was occupied by the Ottoman empire. It was in competition with rival ideologies, also with a strong foreingn influence, such as pan-Arabism and nationalism. The objective situation then changed with its collapse at the end of the first world war, with Britain and France playing a greater role ( I should note that I have not yet examined Islamism in the Indian sub-continent). It changed again during the decolonisation period and with the emergence of the state of Israel.
The exact timing of Islamism’s emergence is open for debate but it occurred roughly in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries It involved, among other things, the importation of backward ideas from the West including a deep cultural pessimism and modern anti-Semitism. Some of those responsible for transmitting these ideas in the earliest wave were in fact Christian rather than Muslim.
Moving further into the twentieth century a key relationship to examine in the Middle East would be the changing relationship between Islamism, nationalism and pan-Arabism. Often setbacks to one outlook benefited an opposing worldview. The devastating defeat that pan-Arabism suffered in the 1967 Six Day War is a striking of example of how the balance between different ideologies changed.
Later on, with the migration of Muslims to the West, Islamist ideas were also transmitted to western nations. Of course only a minority of Muslim migrants were Islamists but Islamist movements have come to play a significant role in western societies.
Additional objections to Bostom’s argument
There are several additional reasons why I am not convinced by the argument that anti-Semitism is intrinsic to Islam.
· The distinction between Islamism and Islam does not rest on romanticising the religion. In that sense Bostom’s premise is not as solid as he assumes. It is true that there are many, including non-Muslims, who idealise Islam as the religion of peace. Some indeed downplay derogatory references to Jews in Islamic writings and see the dhimmi status as relatively benign. I do not know enough about this area to make firm judgements on these questions. My stance is agnostic in that respect. However, the claim that Islamism is distinct from Islam is not dependent on such assumptions. On the contrary, it is possible to acknowledge problems in Islamic texts and history – as with other religions too – while maintaining the distinction with Islamism. Here the analogy with Arendt’s argument in relation to Christian Europe is instructive. She accepted that religious Jew hatred was real but she nevertheless argued that modern anti-Semitism was a distinct phenomenon.
· Examining Islamic texts in isolation is misleading. There are multiple ways in which religious texts can be interpreted. Indeed Judaism provides a good example of how this works. Contemporary Jewish groups range from the wokest of woke to extreme social conservatives. Each of them interprets the canon of religious texts in a different way. Some chose to ignore particular texts or take them metaphorically rather than literally. The works themselves do not determine what people believe. And, going back to Islamism, it is necessary to explain why Islamists hark back to particular religious texts rather than others. Contemporary arguments can be framed by selectively picking out passages from old texts.
· The downplaying of foreign influence is questionable. For example, it is widely accepted that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903), a notorious tsarist anti-Semitic forgery, is by many accounts widely popular in the Arab world. It also clearly had a substantial influence on the Hamas Covenant (1988). Among the many Islamic references there are also clear echoes of the Protocols. For example, in relation to the Jews it says that: “With their money, they took control of the world media, news agencies, the press, publishing houses, broadcasting stations, and others. With their money they stirred revolutions in various parts of the world with the purpose of achieving their interests and reaping the fruit therein. They were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there. With their money they formed secret societies, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, the Lions and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests.”
· Bostom does not examine Islamist doctrine. Although Bostom refers to Islamists in passing he does not examine how they conceive of politics. It is true that they seem themselves as authentic Muslims but they also regard themselves as offering an alternative to political ideologies such as liberalism and nationalism. Of course it is possible Bostom examines this question in his books so I will have to reserve judgement in that respect.
· Bostom’s proposed solution of an Islamic Enlightenment seems contradictory. If he truly believes that anti-Semitism is so deeply rooted in Islamic texts it is hard to see how, from that perspective, it can be overcome. But if Islam is flexible and capable of modernisation that calls into question his depiction of it as inherently anti-Semitic.
An alternative view
· At an intellectual level I am most convinced by those authors who tend to distinguish between Islam and Islamism. These include John Calvert, Faisal Devji, Evin Ismail, John Jenkins, Matthias Küntzel, Bernard Lewis, Pierre-Andre Taguieff, Bassam Tibi and Esther Webman. The French debate, with Olivier Roy taking a view similar to mine and Gilles Kepel arguing the opposite, looks particularly instructive. Florence Bergeaud-Blackler, a French anthropologist also looks interesting. She talks about “Brotherism” (Frérisme) which she describes as “an intellectual politico-religious project aimed at establishing an Islamic world.” The book by Fawaz Gerges on how the tension between Islamism and secular nationalism shaped the Middle East also looks worth reading.
· It is important to recognises that there are Muslims who want to challenge the influence of Islamism within their communities. It should be acknowledged that such people show immense courage as they are likely to be met with extreme hostility by Islamists. Although Islamists are a minority among Muslims they see themselves as the authentic voice of Islam. Islamists reserve a particular ire for the majority of their co-religionists who disagree with them.
· The broader challenge is a political one. The form that takes will depend on the particular circumstances. Islamist movements need to be challenged politically wherever they operate. This can be tricky as they often work in covert and semi-covert ways. They often operate through front organisations or within other campaigns such as anti-war and anti-Israel movements. Many are also active on social media. Partly for these reasons the western public tends to have little knowledge or understanding of their existence. More generally it is necessary to build attractive alternatives to what passes for contemporary politics. These could divert potential Islamist recruits into positive directions.
· Although it is not the subject of this piece I have written elsewhere on the strange affinity between Islamism and identity politics. Despite some differences the two sets of ideas both embody an identitarian way of understanding the world.
· Jihadi violence should be met with physical force. Those who cross the line from Islamist politics to engaging in terrorism should be met with the full force of the law.
· The importance of Islamist movements to contemporary anti-Semitism needs to be recognised. This applies in the West as well as in poorer parts of the world. Typically Israel is the focus of their efforts. They see it as far more than a state that is worthy of criticism. In their view it is an expression of cosmic Jewish evil that that needs to be annihilated. This is viewed as a necessary precondition in the move towards their ultimate goal of an international Islamic order.
As I mentioned at the start this is only a tentative take. This is a complex subject which is little discussed or understood by the wider public. Any comments on the arguments made here are welcome. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org