Islam's Jewish problem

Barbara Kay, National Post · Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010

According to Israeli literary lion Hillel Halkin, Islam is "an insult to human intelligence." That's a harsh assessment, but then Islam is also harsh in its assessment of Jews, so one might say it's a saw-off on the phobia front. What is to be done about Islam's Jewish problem, the source of so much of the world's tensions and misery?

Tarek Fatah, Canada's most outspoken reformist Muslim, would be the first to acknowledge and even sympathize with Halkin's contempt for Islam. In his new book, The Jew is Not My Enemy, to be released Oct. 19, Fatah summarizes the present situation between Jews and Muslims: Jews hate Islam, and Muslims hate Jews. "Even the most radical Islamist websites [attack Jews viciously but] do not have a single sentence attacking the Jewish faith," Fatah notes, while even the most rabidly anti-Islamist Jews "rarely attack Muslims, yet have little reservation in deriding Islam and the Koran."

By coincidence, Jonathan Kay's review of historian Martin Gilbert's In Ishmael's House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands, appeared in these pages yesterday. Gilbert's book leaves us with a depressing portrait of "a hateful pathology rooted in 14 centuries of Muslim history." But Gilbert is by no means the first, or even the most erudite scholar of Islam, to arrive at this glum and apparently hopeless conclusion.

Tarek Fatah is almost as savage a critic of Islam in its present manifestations as the others, but unlike the others-- whether non-Muslim like Gilbert, or a Muslim apostate like Ibn Warraq, whose new book Virgins? What Virgins? batters Islam to a polemical pulp -- he is also a deeply committed Muslim. He is guardedly optimistic, too. Fatah envisions a peaceful place where Jews' respect for the Koran and Muslims' respect for Jews can co-exist in harmony. His book attempts to take us there. Not on a flying carpet of wish fulfilment, but on a slow, steady train of facts, textual analysis and historical interpretation.

Tarek Fatah grew up in Pakistan. He does not remember any anti-Semitism in his youth. But on a 2006 visit home, he was revolted by the ubiquity and virulence of the anti-Semitism he met when socializing with even educated and wealthy Muslims. In a posh neighbourhood of Karachi he saw a banner over a grocery store announcing, "Bird flu is a Jewish conspiracy." He was dumbstruck to hear the store owner's theory that the "Yahoodis" wanted to destroy the poultry industry of Muslim Indonesia. The owner then pressed a free copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion on Fatah and told him it would explain everything, including how the 2004 tsunami was a joint venture by the Yahoodis and the United States.

Anti-Semitism spewed forth from every social and media spigot on this visit, from the Karachi Press Club to the upper crust's charity balls. In Pakistan today, Fatah sadly notes, "expressing hatred of the Jew... is the easiest way to establish one's intellectual credentials."

The visit and the horrific Mumbai terrorist attack of November 2008, with its entirely gratuitous bloody torture-massacre by Pakistani jihadis of Jews running an obscure community centre, spurred the writing of this book. Its purpose, Fatah tell us, is to answer the question, "Why do Muslims hate Jews?" More important, "How can we end this cancer before it consumes us Muslims?"

Fatah's basic arguments come down to this: The Koran itself -- the sacred text -- does not express a shred of anti-Semitism. The Hadith, though, were written by men centuries later, and certain Hadith verses "can best be described as hate literature." They can and should be revised or dumped. True anti-Semitism--the blood libel and the exterminationism -- are imports, Fatah says, from medieval Christian converts to Islam and Western fascism. The convergence of Arab and German enmities permitted Nazi-style anti-Semitism to penetrate and flourish amongst Arabs and then throughout the Muslim world. The Muslim Brotherhood is behind the successful transmogrification of the Jew into Islam's existential enemy.

None of these hate engines are inherent to Islam, Fatah insists. They should be extirpated from Islam, and a pluralist, democracy-friendly Islam reinstated.

A scholar by avocation, Fatah is a longtime journalist. His writing is crisp, fat-free and reader-friendly. His chapter refuting the story of Muhammad's AD 627 massacre of the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe, commonly adduced as proof of Islam's inherent Jew hatred, is particularly interesting. In Martin Gilbert's and other accounts, 700 Jews were taken to the Medina marketplace and slaughtered under the supervision of the Prophet himself. Fatah claims this is a legend, and that there is no evidence to back up the story.

I am not equipped to pronounce on the soundness of Fatah's argument, but I am equipped to judge the quality of a book's rhetorical energy. Fatah's deconstruction of the Banu Qurayza "legend" reads like a detective story ripped from today's headlines.

If there is to be a solution to curbing Islamism's anti-Semitism, Fatah concludes, it lies mainly with Muslim intellectuals, clerics and politicians on one side -- and Israel on the other. A viable Palestinian state would help matters: "Not that Islamist Judeophobia will disappear, but the oxygen that nourishes it will be cut off." The task for Israel is not easy, he says, "but compared to what the Muslim world must do to get its act together, it is simple and doable."

I think it is doable, but not as simple as Fatah seems to believe it is. But that's a small cavil. The real solution to the problem is to clone Tarek Fatah, a Muslim who really does count Jews as "some of my best friends," and who would prove to be a billion Muslims' best friend, if their elites would give this frank, humble and courageous book the time of day.