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It's not on the fringe

Reader comment on item: How Central Is Muslim Anti-Semitism?

Submitted by Irfan Khawaja (United States), Jul 7, 2002 at 13:52

I have written a short memoir-essay that deals with Islamic anti-Semitism in a forthcoming book edited by Ibn Warraq. Suffice it to say this: I grew up in a Pakistani American Muslim household in northern New Jersey in the 1970s and 1990s. Anti-Semitism was part of the very air we breathed as we grew up. There was NO escaping it. Every reference to Jews was pejorative. Everything said about them denigrated them. We were taught to hate them. We were punished for befriending them. This remains the status quo in many, many households here and abroad.

The same is true of my cousins in Pakistan. One of them explicitly admires Hitler--an admiration he nourished at school where he was taught that Hitler was a freedom-loving nationalist. Two cousins, members of the former Nawaz Sharif government, are raving anti-Semites who once tried to convince me that the "Jews were the worst of all people ('kawm') on earth" because it says so in the Quran. These are standard-issue views among the Muslims of the present generation. They are not on the fringe, and it is about time that propagandists like Sarah Eltantawi emerge from their despicable state of denial and start to deal honestly with this fact.

There is no bigger lie than the claim that anti-Semitism is a "fringe" phenomenon among Muslims. It is part of the mainstream. Take it from someone who's been there and seen it from the inside. My brother and I used to call the Muslim American community "The Fourth Reich." It was supposed to be a sick joke, but we regarded it as a joke only because unlike the self-appointed Muslim spokespeople, we were never brazen enough to deny the fact of anti-Semitism in that community--we just had no other way of dealing with it but to make fun of it. It's no longer funny when prominent media personalities deny its existence on the air for public consumption. Then it becomes mere sickness.

What the Muslim spokespeople are denying are the experiences of those of us who had to endure this anti-Semitism all of our lives, who had to have friendships with Jewish friends on the sly, who had to watch in motification as our elders spouted anti-Semitic venom in front of our friends and in front of us. It is impossible to describe what torture it was to live through that. Imagine having to tell a friend that you can't go to his bar mitzvah because "Islam prohibits it." Why would Islam prohibit such a thing? Answer: because Jews are unclean, that's why, and we wouldn't want their uncleanliness to rub off onto us. What other reason could there be? No one had to state the reason out loud. Everyone knew what it was. Only a fool could fail to notice that that is exactly how bigotry works. Only a fool or a propagandist would try to pretend that it was a fringe phenomenon. This is what so many of us had to grow up with. It is also what some of us refuse to forgive or forget.

The question of whether anti-Semitism is intrinsic to Islamic theology is a separate issue. I'm only dealing here with the sociological issue of the prevalence of anti-Semitism among Muslims, especially Muslim Americans, and especially middle class Pakistanis. I would challenge Sarah Eltantawi to tell me that what I experienced for twenty years did not exist. I would like her to explain to me how it was all a fringe phenomenon, even though I never found a way to escape it except to escape the Muslim American community as such. I'd like her to explain why it is that every time I deal with that community, I'm forced to cringe at its anti-Semitism. I'd like her to explain to me why this never changes, whether I go to Pakistani communities or Arab ones, whether it's in the US or in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. She can't explain it, because she hasn't had the courage to look the phenomenon straight in the face. To paraphrase Galileo: nevertheless, it exists!

Let me add in passing that we Muslims were the subject of a great deal of bigotry ourselves at the hands of Jews--no question about that. Those who deplore Muslim anti-Semitism would come across more credibly if they spent some time exploring this fact. But be that as it may, Muslims have a great deal to answer for on this subject, and it is about time they started with the task of doing so.

A good place to start would be to start ignoring the Sarah Eltantawis of the world, who stand for nothing but official ignorance, official denial, and plain old official lies.
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