Hatred and mistrust prevent Jews, Muslims from building intercultural bridges

This is the third and final installment in Reuven Firestone’s series for The Jewish Journal, “Bridging the Islamic-Jewish Divide.”  (click here for Part 1 or Part 2).

We humans have the peculiar habit of demonizing what we fear but don’t understand. When we are uncertain of the cause for our fear and anxiety, we typically make one up. As kids, it’s the monster in the closet. As we get older, we often learn to find the monster in other people, and sometimes we demonize entire communities or populations. Perhaps the most consistent victim of this unfortunate human habit has been the Jews.

We Jews continue to be demonized by some who release their anxiety by channeling fear into hatred and violence toward us. But we are also human, and, as such, we have the same peculiar habit. Our Jewish fear and anxiety today, along with that of many other Westerners, tends to be directed toward Muslims. Muslims and their religion are our current scapegoat for the world’s ills, the “doormat du jour” upon which we release much of our fear and anxiety. Ending our Islamophobia is not an easy task, since prejudice tends to be deeply embedded in culture and becomes instinctive and habitual. Yet our own Jewish wisdom counters this bad habit by teaching that humanity — all humanity — was created in the image of God. All humans derive from the “Original Adam” (adam haqadmon) who was formed naked of religion and culture and into whom God breathed a divine spirit.

Humans didn’t stay naked for long. We have clothed ourselves in cultures and languages from the moment we could be identified as humans, and we accepted religions understood to have originated from on high. But while Judaism teaches that we were created in the image of God, it also teaches that we are only flesh and blood. We are not the All-knowing who can plumb the depths of the heart to know what other people really think and feel, and we have the potential for stupidity and wicked behaviors. That goes for all of us — Jews, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists. Anyone.

One recurring expression of our human potential for foolishness is bigotry, racism and intolerance toward those we fear. I have noted in this journal our tendency as Jews to write off Muslims and Islam and to essentialize them as all the same — and all bad. But I’m not simply the bleeding-heart, self-flagellating type. I have written elsewhere about the culpability of many Muslims in objectifying Jews and blaming us for all the world’s ills. Anti-Semitism among Muslims is a very serious problem, and it needs to be confronted by Muslims in the same way that we Jews need to confront Islamophobia. 

Recently I spent a few couple of days with a Malaysian Muslim acquaintance who strongly identifies religiously and is resolute in his religious practice. Ahmad prays five times daily and unself-consciously peppers his conversation with spiritual aphorisms. He is not only careful about his ritual practice, but also about moral-ethical concerns. On the Jewish religious spectrum, he would appear somewhere around “Modern Orthodox.” He cares about democracy, about freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. He treats others with respect and is careful not to engage in lashon hara (evil speech toward others). He is concerned about the poor and about the environment. He criticized the unregulated logging of Malaysian forests, for example, and he also spoke strongly against government cronyism and corruption. I found him a soul mate in his aspiration to engage in good works and do the good even when it requires personal sacrifice, and I count him as a friend. Yet, at the same time, his views about Jews were so deeply (and innocently) prejudiced that I could not but label him as an anti-Semite.

I accompanied my friend on a drive from his home in Alor Setar, on the west coast of Malaysia, through three states as we traversed the spine of the Malay Peninsula to Kuala Terengganu on the South China Sea to the east. Before setting out, Ahmad showed me his garden with its many fruit trees and edible plants, and complained about a weed that takes over the garden but has no edible parts and no value. “We call this the ‘Israel plant,’ ” he said. On this first encounter, I remained silent, though not for long.

Overall, it was a glorious road-trip for me. We drove through the high jungle near the Thai border, where we had to keep our eyes peeled for elephants blocking the road. We stopped to watch an old man tapping the rubber trees surrounding his traditional stilted Malay house and to patronize a fruit stand of aboriginal peoples in the high mountains. Ahmad is an avid news junkie, but only through the Internet — he told me the Malaysian government controls the country’s newspapers and prevents accurate information from getting to the people. He is an active member of the opposition Islamic party and has advanced degrees in agriculture and administration, which, along the way, included living and studying in Scotland with his family. He is well-informed and deeply desirous of peace and harmony in the world. During our long drive, we had plenty of time to talk.

Our conversation glided between politics and religion and the flora and fauna of the Malay Peninsula. At one point, we heard a version of the reggae tune, “Rivers of Babylon” on the radio, which he believed was a Zionist anthem (“… when we remembered Zion”). Ahmad asked me how the Jews managed to control the world media (he believed Rupert Murdoch is Jewish), though he had just complained that the news outlets of Malaysia are controlled by the Malaysian government. When I asked him where he received his information about Jews, he cited Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic screed, “The International Jew.” That immediately reminded me of a recent sabbatical in Egypt, where I heard lots of Egyptians avow that Condoleezza Rice and President George W. Bush are Jews. Many in the Muslim world assume that Jews are the root cause of most of the world’s problems.

The naiveté among Muslims can be shocking, and the combination of ignorance and bigotry leads to sometimes strange conclusions, not unlike some of the crazy ideas I hear from Jews about Muslims. Just this week, yet another Jewish friend enthusiastically recommended a video slandering Islam in response to a Muslim initiative to build a community center a few blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. Among the video’s slurs was the claim that Islam is nothing more than a fascist political ideology designed to control the world. Aside from the fascist part (substitute “communist”), this was exactly the kind of slur that was leveled against Jews in Germany (and occasionally the United States) in the 1930s. We Jews should know better than to fall for that one.

But many Muslims do have strange ideas about Jews. I happened to have been in Egypt for much of the aftermath of the 2005 cartoon controversy in which the prophet Muhammad was vilified in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. A month or so after the excitement over the caricatures had abated, I was at the American University in Cairo. Smack in the middle of one of the most public spaces was a cartoon blown up to poster size on a billboard. It featured a caricatured portrait of a conductor leading an orchestra. Each of the musicians represented a nation, and they were perspiring and expending great energy in their efforts to follow the lead of the conductor. One of the nations, however, was entirely out of sync with everyone else and causing a screeching, unpleasant sound. It was, in essence, playing its own tune as all the others were obeying the commands of the conductor. That errant nation was Palestine represented by Hamas. The conductor trying to control the orchestra of nations was a caricature of an Orthodox Jew.

Particularly puzzling was the timing so soon after the Danish cartoon controversy. The caricature remained in the public space for a full week. Despite the violent and deathly riots in many parts of the Muslim world over the slandering of Islam, no one, it seems, even in this American university, found the anti-Semitic caricature problematic enough to remove it.

Anti-Semitism in the Muslim world is a very serious problem, and it needs to be addressed by Muslims. Happily, I have Muslim colleagues who are as outraged by Muslim anti-Semitism as I am by Jewish Islamophobia, and we are working both together and separately in response to this dual problem. One thing we have learned from our involvement is that the bigotry and prejudice on both sides is a result of complex factors influenced by history, current events, and a big wallop of fear and ignorance. It will not be easy to fix, but it is irresponsible to ignore it. 

Some will read my complaint about anti-Semitism among many Muslims to confirm for themselves the simplistic and erroneous notion that Islam is a bad religion and that Muslims are bad people. This reaction is no different than some Muslims’ refusal to let go of anti-Semitism to explain their own fear and anxiety. Both are sad conclusions, but not unexpected, because fear is powerful. And yet, while simplistic answers to complex and frustrating problems can be a relief from anxiety, they can provide only temporary and inadequate relief, because simplistic answers to complex problems don’t fix anything.

Bigotry caused by fear is bad, but it is not evil. It is a natural human response to anxiety combined with a sense of powerlessness. Many of us fear Islam because we do not know Muslims personally and because we have been trained by self-appointed “experts” to believe the falsehood that Islam is the single, terrible problem that lies behind so much violence and suffering in the world today. Ironic and unfathomable to most of us, many Muslims are just as fearful of Jews — because they have no Jewish acquaintances and they have been fed the myth of extraordinary Jewish power and the bogus belief that Jews are behind so much violence and suffering in the world today.

There is a lot of distortion out there, and there is no possible way to know enough about our complex globalized world to always pick out truth from distortion. What to do? We can begin by following our own lesson from the Mishnah (which finds a parallel in Islam, by the way): “Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place.” (Avot 2:4). But because this generosity in spirit is interpreted by some to be limited only to fellow Jews (“your fellow”), an additional Jewish aphorism from the same ethical code explicitly relates this same idea to all humanity: “Judge all humans (kol ha’adam) charitably” (Avot 1:6). Such lessons are not easy to live by when we are angry and afraid. But I don’t recall any wisdom teaching that doing what is right is easy.

Reuven Firestone is professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and co-director of the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement at the University of Southern California (usc.edu/cmje).  His books include “An Introduction to Islam for Jews” (JPS, 2008) and “Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Judaism for Muslims” (Ktav, 2000), available free in Arabic at (http://www.altawasul.com/NR/rdonlyres/9052668D-41C6-4B91-8D57-16DD1BE5311C/0/dhariyatibrahim.pdf).