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Interrupting a history of tolerance - Part I

By Riaz Hassan - posted Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Two widely watched television series broadcast in recent years provide compelling examples of anti-Semitism in the Arab Muslim world.

In November 2002 Egyptian state television and other stations in neighbouring Arab countries began broadcasting a 41-part serial called Knight Without a Horse, based on the notoriously anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” document. One episode showed Jews meeting in a dark room decorated with symbols, discussing the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, arguing that Britain had an interest in establishing such a state to fracture Arab and Muslim unity.

A year later Hezbollah’s Al-Manar satellite television channel in Lebanon, with a worldwide audience of millions, broadcast 30 parts of a Syrian-produced series titled Al-Shatat, or Diaspora. The series purports to tell the story of Zionism from the beginning of the 19th century to the establishment of the state of Israel, depicting a secret global Jewish conspiracy. The series accused Jews of bringing death and destruction upon humanity, unleashing both world wars, discovering chemical weapons, and destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons.


Intriguingly, there is little evidence of deep-rooted anti-Semitism in the classical Islamic world. According to one leading Western scholar of Islamic history, Bernard Lewis, in contrast to Christian anti-Semitism, Muslim attitudes toward Jews historically did not include hate or fear, but rather a contempt expressed toward all non-believers. Unlike many European philosophers of the Enlightenment era who at one time or another gave vent to anti-Semitism, nothing comparable can be found in the writings of great philosophers of classical Islam.

Lewis attributes the absence of anti-Semitism in Islamic tradition to the rejection of deicide. In Islam, the Gospels have no place in education, and Muslim children are not brought up on stories of Jewish deicide. Indeed, the Koran rejects the notion of deicide as “blasphemous absurdity”.

After reviewing the history of Jewish-Muslim relations in his book Semites and Anti-Semites, Lewis concludes that, in general, Jewish and Muslim theology are far closer to each other than either is to Christianity. Jews lived under Islamic rule for 14 centuries and in many lands. Jews were never free from discrimination, but were rarely subjected to persecution as they were in Christendom. There were no fears of Jewish conspiracy and domination, no charges of diabolic evil.

Yet in modern times, Prophet Mohammed’s conflict with the Jews has been portrayed as a central theme in his career, their enmity given cosmic significance.

Al-Manar television bills itself as the global voice of Islamism. Popular among millions of its viewers for countless video clips that use stirring graphics and uplifting music to promote suicide bombing, the satellite channel not only pushes for terrorist acts against Israel but inspires, justifies and acclaims them.

In general, the Arab media dismiss Western accusations that programs like Al-Shatat and A Knight Without a Horse are vehicles of anti-Semitism. Most Arab leaders and intellectuals claim that such accusations are merely an attempt by the “Zionist lobby” in the US and Jewish organisations in Europe to silence legitimate criticism of Israel.


Analysts regard Hamas and al-Qaida, besides Hezbollah, as the most anti-Jewish Islamist groups. The Hamas Charter of Allah is grounded in the superiority of Islamic ideological tradition and regards capitalism, communism, the West, Zionism and Jewry as components of a multifaceted onslaught, acting in concert to destroy Islam and eliminate the Palestinian people from their homeland. The charter advocates the establishment of an Islamic state and approvingly cites the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, holding the Zionist movement and Jews in general responsible for every real or perceived ill that afflicts the modern world. Anti-Semitic rhetoric is a significant part of al-Qaida’s ideology, with Jews labelled as eternal enemies of Islam.

The penetration of modern-style anti-Semitism into the Islamic movements can be traced back to the Christian Arab minorities who had close contact with the West in the 19th century. European emissaries actively encouraged anti-Semitism, and Christian minorities had practical reasons to oppose Jews as their main economic competitors.

Translation by Christian Arabs of European anti-Semitic writings compounded the anti-Semitism. One example was the Arabic translation of a lengthy French book by Georges Corneilhan, first published in Paris in 1889, about the Jews in Egypt and Syria. Portraying the French anti-Semitic literature of the times, the book denounced the Jews as the source of corruption destroying France and the world.

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First published in YaleGlobal on July 19, 2007.

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About the Author

Riaz Hassan is Australian Professorial Fellow and Emeritus Professor at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia and Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies of National University of Singapore. His most recent books are: Islam and Society: Sociological Explorations (Melbourne University Press 2013) and, Life as a Weapon: The Global Rise of Suicide Bombings, (Routledge January 2014).

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Interrupting a history of tolerance - Part II - On Line Opinion

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