The following is the second and last part of a talk given at the annual meeting of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, June 4, 2004:
But, as one often hears, anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. The final ingredient needed to create a truly postmodern Islamic antisemitism is globalization. In this regard, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s notorious speech last October 16 to the Islamic Summit Conference is worth examining closely.
The central theme of the talk, which is divided into 59 numbered sections, is Islam’s backwardness and its need to unify itself and defend itself against the West. Following the usual introductory remarks, the speech begins in victimary mode: “8. I will not enumerate the instances of our humiliation and oppression.” Mahathir is addressing a global problem, the backwardness, disunity, and consequent humiliation of, to use his figures, 1.3 billion Muslims. But the very next section makes Palestine the central focus:
9. . . . the Governments of all the Muslim countries can close ranks and have a common stand if not on all issues, at least on some major ones, such as on Palestine. We are all Muslims. We are all oppressed. We are all being humiliated. But we . . . have never really tried to act in concert in order to exhibit at our level the brotherhood and unity that Islam enjoins upon us.
The umma is divided, and must be unified. Although it cannot take a common stand on “all issues,” the one major issue it can certainly find common ground on is Palestine. Further on, the creation of Israel is cited as the indication that even the end of colonialism per se did not grant Muslims equality with Europeans:
20. . . .the umma and the Muslim civilisation became so weak that at one time there was not a single Muslim country which was not colonised or hegemonised by the Europeans. But regaining independence did not help to strengthen the Muslims. Their states were weak and badly administered, constantly in a state of turmoil. The Europeans could do what they liked with Muslim territories. It is not surprising that they should excise Muslim land to create the state of Israel to solve their Jewish problem. Divided, the Muslims could do nothing effective to stop the Balfour and Zionist transgression.
The chronological order of events is less important here than the ontological order. Colonization is followed by independence, but the creation of Israel exemplifies continued hegemony. Here we have a model for the distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. The “Jewish problem,” which is the sine qua non of antisemitism (do we have an Italian problem? A Catholic problem?), is attributed to the European Other; in his explanatory remarks the following day, Mahathir pointed out that “historically, Jews had sought refuge in Muslim lands to escape persecution in Europe.”
Yet this distinction is not maintained, and after some further flights of victimary rhetoric:
27 … Today we, the whole Muslim umma are treated with contempt and dishonour. Our religion is denigrated. Our holy places desecrated. Our countries are occupied. Our people starved and killed. / 28. None of our countries are truly independent. We are under pressure to conform to our oppressors’ wishes about how we should behave, how we should govern our lands, how we should think even. / 29. Today if they want to raid our country, kill our people, destroy our villages and towns, there is nothing substantial that we can do.
it is set aside:
34. It cannot be that there is no other way. 1.3 billion Muslims cannot be defeated by a few million Jews. …
39. We are actually very strong. 1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out. The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them.
This is the crux of the speech. 1.3 billion Muslims aren’t fighting 450 million Europeans or 300 million Americans, but a few million Jews. The glissement is extraordinary; whereas at first the Palestinian cause was an example of the need for Muslim unity, the struggle against Israel and the struggle against global hegemony are now one and the same.
There is nothing new in this rhetoric; one hears it, for example, in La France juive of Edouard Drumont. Antisemitism always emphasizes the vast numerical superiority of the victims of the Jews, who have only to bestir themselves to dethrone their rulers. Where we can observe the crucial difference between the old Western nationalist antisemitism and the new Islamic globalist antisemitism is in the burden of this rhetoric. The Jews are presumed to control the world in either case. But in the first, we and the Jews are parts of the same world, two rivals, of whom only one is fully aware of the rivalry. We are duped into seeing the French Jew as a Frenchman, where he and his fellows see themselves as Jews. Expose the Jews, drive them out, kill them if necessary, and the society will be a community once more, purified but substantially the same; all the ingredients are already there.
In Mahathir’s world, on the contrary, the Jews occupy a different world from us, and their hidden domination of that world is at the root of that world’s open domination of Islam. By setting up the Jews as the all-powerful enemy, he is encouraging Muslims to forget their military and economic inferiority to the West and focus on the infinitesimal number of their “real” masters. The only thing our billions need in order to vanquish these few million Jews is a collective will to power.
Mahathir is not an Al Qaeda militant or a Wahhabi cleric, nor is he speaking for himself alone. If anything deserves to be called Muslim public opinion it is a position articulated at “a summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the world’s largest Muslim body” (LA Times, 10/23/03) and supported by the entire membership; far from condemning the antisemitic elements of the speech, the other participants praised Mahathir for “telling it like it is.” Whatever we think of the Muslim religion, we must face the fact that as a political community, mainstream Islam today is the vector of a virulent global antisemitism with which non-Islamic resenters of the market system increasingly identify. The humiliation inflicted by Israel on the nations that have been trying for two generations to “drive the Jews into the sea” has given rise to an “Islamic” world-view that is in fact pieced together from the tawdriest scraps of Western thought. Mahathir presents as empirical truth and his fellow Muslims hasten to confirm by their own experience the hoary mythology of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
There is a strategic appeal here to Western antisemites, like the Mufti of Jerusalem allying himself with Hitler in days of old. But there is more to it than that. Unlike Christianity, which is a universal religion of “Gentile” nations, Islam is a global religion. Each individual Muslim is part of the umma without mediation by any intermediate body. The Mecca pilgrimage impressed Malcolm X because he saw people of all races and national origins come together as one community. The ultimate political expressions of the glory days of Islam were the Baghdad Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire, not any set of nation-states.
Thus where the Christian antisemite resents the power of the “international Jew” over his national economy, or in Hannah Arendt’s analysis, resents the power his nation gave to the Jews precisely because they were the only sources of international finance, the Islamic antisemite confronts from without an entire world economy run for the benefit of the Jews. In such a view the scandal is not that the Jews are international, but that they are a national group dominating—with their American allies—a supposedly global system. The assertion that “1.3 billion people cannot be defeated by a few million Jews” is less about quantity than quality: why should we, who are “everyone,” submit to a tiny tribe?
This brings me to the most significant, and ominous, difference between Christian and Islamic antisemitism. The former, horrible as it was, was a problem only for the Jews. Had Hitler been content to eliminate the Jews under his control without triggering war by invading Poland, it is hard to believe that the Western powers would have gone to war to protect them. As we all know, stopping the Holocaust was not a priority during WWII.
The Christian-Jewish rivalry is ultimately a national rivalry whose importance is diminished in the global era; Israel and the Christian nations participate as equals in the world economy. In contrast, Muslim antisemitism is a rallying-cry for war on the global economy and the political order that sustains it. The central contradiction of the global market is that it cannot, yet inevitably does, have an outside and an inside. In the kind of world economics envisioned by Smith and Ricardo, each nation does what it does best, and all prosper. This sounds like utopia, perhaps more today than 41 years ago when René Dumont wrote L’Afrique noire est mal partie; yet there is no conceivable alternative to moving in this direction. Islam was the religion of the outsiders of Western civilization in the 7th century, and after an interval of triumph in which it seemed to be establishing a successor civilization of its own, it plays a similar role today. But the difference between now and then is that Islam has no real hopes of competing with the West in the technology-driven market system. The most attractive option in the short term is to seek to destroy this system, using the periphery’s chief weapon—the relative insignificance of individual life within it. Perhaps we should not be so fast to condemn Mahathir’s brand of antisemitism; it may well offer the only alternative to the bombings and beheadings of al Quaeda.
Antisemitism is increasingly present not only in the Middle East or in Europe but right here at home. I was recently rather painfully reminded of this when I mentioned to a colleague that I was delivering a talk on antisemitism at this conference, which he interpreted as a conference on antisemitism. This gentleman is a distinguished scholar, author of a few dozen books, retired from a major university in New York City. Here is the relevant portion of his reply:
In the conference on anti-Semitism, I presume you’re against it. I am too—but does anyone ever speak out FOR anti-Semitism? Do they ever include any Palestinians (or Neo-Nazi’s?). I know, I know, that’s not amusing (though—and here we might well part company), but I do see what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians, admittedly on a smaller, and somewhat—but ONLY somewhat—more haphazard scale, as a mini-holocaust, and for my mind Sharon is a terrorist almost comparable to Bin Laden. But I expect we, you and I, ought not to go there.
No, I guess we ought indeed not to go there; but what is fascinating in this little paragraph is how much he wants to go there. Knowing he is writing to a Jew, he feels no compunction about suggesting that the partisans of antisemitism deserve something like “equal time.” And no nonsense here about distinguishing between antisemitism and anti-Zionism; my message said nothing about Israel or the Palestinians. It is shocking and dismaying that an educated New Yorker can so glibly compare Sharon and Bin Laden, Israel’s actions and those of the Nazis, and then, in an unconsciously insulting gesture, suggest that we “ought not to go there” because we might quarrel, as though his remarks were not already a statement of his half of the quarrel.
Shocking, dismaying, yet all too familiar; when we speak of “Islamic” as opposed to “Christian” antisemitism, this little incident should remind us that, with the exception of the “neo-Nazis” my friend thinks deserve a hearing, Christian antisemitism today is Islamic. It partakes of the same global nihilism, without the global-religious context that makes bin Laden’s outlook (at least) coherent. A New Yorker who lived through 9/11 has more sympathy for those who cheered at the death of 3000 of his fellow citizens than for Israel, and by extension, for the Jewish people. Why? Although he is blithely indifferent to the proliferation of antisemitic propaganda (“but does anyone ever speak out FOR antisemitism?”), surely not because he believes Jews use Christian blood to make matzoth, or because he thinks of them as vulgar, dishonest, evil-smelling, or what have you. No, his antisemitism resembles that of the plurality of Europeans who consider Israel “the country that is the greatest danger to world peace.” Such people do not believe in the Protocols, but they respect the right of Muslims to believe in them. Just as Mahathir sees the Jewish state, rather than the billion-odd members of industrialized societies, as the linchpin of the Western-global economy–a few millions who cannot long hold off 1.3 billion Muslims–so does my friend see the Jewish state, rather than those 1.3 billion Muslims, as the chief obstacle to global integration. Muslims, whatever they do, are not members of a nation defined by its exclusive firstness; whatever their difficulties, they are potential subjects of a global world. We too are citizens of nations, but in Israel we repudiate whatever in the national dream might pose an obstacle to globalization. In the Palestinian people we see ourselves; in their suicide bombers, even Bin Laden’s planes, the expression of our rage at the Jews as the originary source of national exclusiveness. We would all live in peace as equals in a global world if we could only, by murder or transcendence, get past this singularity.
The fatal paradox of monotheism is parallel to that of globalization; if God is one and societies are plural, then the particular enunciation of the monotheist doctrine is inconsistent with its universal substance. The Jews have long paid the price for this paradox. The Jewish people has been the world’s exemplary model of a group irrationally privileged by history: unlike the privilege of men over women, Westerners over “Orientals,” the bourgeoisie over the proletariat, industrialized countries over the developing world, that of the Jews is conveniently vulnerable to attack, yet never effectively reversible.
The perfect world will come when the Jews are but one people among many, as they have largely been in the United States since WWII. But the world will never be perfect; antisemitism will always be with us. Each generation will have to win its own way to understanding the Jews’ historical priority as being in the service of universal humanity’s ontological equality.