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SCHOLARS WHO STUDY GENOCIDE AND MASS ATROCITIES have identified considerable danger in dehumanizing rhetoric of the sort that has become common across much of the Arab world. (1) Few people, after all, would accept peaceful coexistence with a pestilence or malignancy, when they have an alternative.
Conclusive quantitative data about the extent and distribution of hostile ideology are unavoidably lacking, but it appears likely that segments of the billion-strong Arab and Muslim population--probably large segments--now endorse a full-blown antisemitism, replete with indigenous Islamic themes, new and old, as well as imported hate imagery from elements of the Western world. This often intensely-experienced hatred is not restricted to fringe elements, not a mere outgrowth of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and not constrained by the geographical confines of the Middle East.
The Muslim and Arab world during the past few years has witnessed an exponential increase in conspiracy theorizing about Jews. The most widely shared fiction, of course, blames them for perpetrating the attacks of September 11. Sometimes the villain is the Israeli secret service, sometimes a vague Jewish cabal. (2)
Consider in this light an interviewer on an Arabic television broadcast, "The Muslim Woman Magazine," who queried a three-year-old guest on the matter of Jews. The purportedly unrehearsed little girl announced that she did not like them and, upon further probing, explained that they were "apes and pigs." Asked for the source of this insight, the youngster responded, "Our God ... in the Koran." No correction, clarification, or rebuke was offered but, at the conclusion of the segment, the obviously pleased adult interviewer declared: "No [parents] could wish for Allah to give them a more believing girl than she ... May Allah bless her, her father and mother. The next generation of children must be true Muslims ..." What is, perhaps, most noteworthy about this exchange is that it took place on Iqraa, a joint Saudi-Egyptian satellite network which purportedly aims to highlight a "true and tolerant picture of Islam," to refute "the accusations directed against Islam," and to open "channels of cultural connection with the cultures of other nations." (3)
What is less noteworthy about the brief interview is its reference to Jews as apes and pigs. In recent years, such allusions--which, indeed, have roots in several (arguably misunderstood) Koranic verses--have become commonplace in many parts of the Muslim world. For example, in April 2002, about a month before the little girl offered her views on satellite television, Egyptian Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, one of the most important Sunni clerics, described Jews in his weekly sermon as "the enemies of Allah, descendants of apes and pigs." Sheikh Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sudayyis, the imam of the most important mosque in Mecca, similarly sermonized that the Jews are "the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the violators of pacts and agreements, the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs." The imam further advised Arabs to abandon all peace initiatives with the Jews and asked Allah to annihilate them. (4)
Physician Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a top leader of Hamas' non-military, "political" wing agrees with the sheikh. In June 2003, he told reporters: "I swear we will not leave one Jew in Palestine." And Ayatollah Khamenei, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran--knowingly or unknowingly--borrowed some imagery from Hitler's Mein Kampf, describing Israel as a "cancerous tumor." (5)
Similar sentiments can be found among Muslims at the grass-roots level, including those residing outside the Middle East. In Derby, England, for example, eighteen-year-old Basu Hussain, a fast food worker at Lick'n Chick'n, was asked his views concerning a Muslim from his city who had bombed a Tel Aviv nightclub. He answered: "What he's done is very good, and they won't ever find him ... We should all get together and kill all the Jews." (6)
As in the case of its historic Western counterparts, Islamic antisemitism's greatest enthusiasts often consider themselves devout--but Jew-hatred can be readily detected among many secular Arabs and even among some dubbed moderates in the West. An example is Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen), briefly hailed in 2003 as the great hope for a Middle East peace process but also the author of a work of Holocaust denial that he has never retracted. (7) The world's oldest and deadliest variety of mass hatred has once again proved that rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated.
A few commentators would go much further, drawing ominous comparisons with the 1930s. For example, the noted Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer argues that: "The radical Islamist attack on the Jews is a first, potentially genocidal, step." And Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic, wrote that: "Fanatical anti-semitism, as bad or even worse than Hitler's, is now a cultural norm across much of the Middle East." (8) Still, most political scholars and the mainstream mass media regard Muslim antisemitism as no more than a sideshow meriting little coverage.
Antisemitism, in my view, is only one of four virulent strains of mass hatred emanating from the Muslim and Arab world. The other three are anti-Zionism, anti-Hinduism, and anti-Americanism. Though they contain some distinctive conceptual, political, and moral elements, these forms of mass hatred may be empirically interrelated and may stem from common aspects of life in the Muslim and Arab world. Each of the four strains potentially endangers global peace, the Western way of life, and--most immediately--the lives and security of those who live in the Middle East. Each has inspired terrorism on a large scale and each has been associated with wars in the Middle East. Each is apt to be compounded as nations and non-state actors in the region acquire weapons of mass destruction.
Most of the remainder of this essay explores the extent and danger of antisemitism in the Muslim and Arab world, seeking some historical, social, and psychological insight into its causes. First, however, we must examine two preliminary issues: just what we mean by Muslim antisemitism and why it is that social psychologists and other social scientists have devoted so little attention to the topic.
Where's the Literature?
One might expect to find psychologists, sociologists, social psychologists, and other social scientists hard at work studying mass hatred in the Middle East. This is not the case. Recent years have seen investigations of the psycho-social and political origins of terrorism, and research has begun to explore the foundations of anti-Americanism around the world. But an examination of the research literature quickly reveals that few social scientists of any stripe have paid much attention to antisemitism in the Middle East. It is worth pausing for a moment to ask why.
The PSYCHINFO database, where much social scientific research is indexed, shows 458 entries on antisemitism since 1940, 99 of which appeared during the past ten years. These studies cover a broad range of topics, mainly using American subjects and/or reflecting on historical events. Not a single one deals directly with Jew-hatred in the contemporary Muslim and Arab world, arguably the most widespread and virulent type of mass hatred today. At best, a few psychologically-oriented authors have touched tangentially on Muslim antisemitism in studies focusing on Jew-hatred in other contexts and a few political writers on the topic have offered psychological speculation. An analysis of Sociological Abstracts tells much the same story. One-hundred-thirty entries since 1963 have dealt with antisemitism, but none center on Jew-hatred in the Middle East.
Social scientists who have become aware of the problem and wish to conduct empirical research on antisemitism in the Muslim and Arab world face nearly insurmountable obstacles, beginning with the critical problem of access. For starters, few Arab and Muslim countries welcome indigenous or Western interviewers--whether journalists or social scientists--who are apt to ask pesky questions. Recently, a Palestinian mob attacked a well-known Palestinian social scientist whose findings did not square with the local political agenda. (9) The region's regimes tend to be non-democratic and to place strict limits on journalists and social scientists. They are especially likely to prohibit Jews, and those suspected of sympathizing with Israel, from conducting their professional activities. Such people are, of course, the ones most likely to address antisemitism.
Assuming access, funding, and successful navigation of linguistic problems, there remains what might be called "the Daniel Pearl effect." (10) When probing questions are directed to the wrong people, dangerous consequences may ensue. It would require uncommon bravery for Western or indigenous social scientists, especially Jewish ones, not to pause once or twice before embarking on a serious empirical study of Jew-hatred in the Middle East. (Analysis from a distance is possible, but limited to assessment of print and …