Beyond Shylock: How Jews are portrayed in Egyptian cinema

Images of a seductive Jewish belly dancer move across the screen. After spending her evening entertaining rich tribal sheiks, Sarah returns home to her father, who complains she didn’t bring home enough money.

“Did the blood of your people escape from your veins?”

“I spent the money inciting men against Muhammad!”

The scene is from the 1960s Egyptian film “Immigration of the Prophet.” Although the story takes place in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, no references to such a scene can be found in traditional Islamic sources, said Sariel Birnbaum, a visiting Israeli scholar at San Diego State University. Birnbaum, who translated the film’s Arabic passages into English, spoke May 3 about the depiction of Jews in Egyptian cinema at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach as a guest of the California State University Long Beach Speaker Series, hosted by the Alpert JCC. 

The film’s story is purely fictional, Birnbuam said.

As early as 1926, Egyptian filmmakers have wanted to depict the Prophet Muhammad, but Sunni clerics wouldn’t allow it. Stories of his female companions, contemporaries and the first four caliphs were also off limits.

Egyptian filmmakers developed a formula that would allow them to depict the time of the prophet without offending Sunni clerics: They decided to show the rise of Islam from the perspective of enemies of the faith — the Jews.

“When they want to tell the story of the beginning of Islam, they go to the big European repertoire of anti-Semitism and take what they want,” Birnbaum said. In this case, it was the connection between Jews and money.

In another example taken from the 1953 film “Belal Moaazen El Rasoul,” the freed Muslim slave Belal borrows money from a Jew on the condition that if he cannot repay, he will become a slave again. This depiction of the Jew as usurer has obvious links to the Shylock character in William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” The Jew in this film has a hook nose, a shrill voice and, of course, a bagful of money. Even his hat looks like Shylock’s. 

Other Egyptian films showed Jews involved in espionage and intrigue.

“A Crime in the Quiet Neighborhood,” another Egyptian film from the 1960s, takes a slightly different approach: The film distorts historical accounts of the Stern Gang, the underground Jewish Zionist group that assassinated British resident minister Lord Moyne in 1944. At the time, Egyptians demonstrated in support of the Zionists’ actions because the country was still under the yoke of British colonialism, Birnbaum said. 

The gang in the film kidnaps the daughter of an Egyptian police officer charged with investigating the assassination. The female architect of the kidnapping is another dancer; in addition to being a kidnapper and a murderer, she’s shown lacking sexual morality.

In the decades that followed, European anti-Semitic depictions became less common in Egyptian cinema, Birnbaum said. 

The 1979 film “Alexandria … Why?” features a Jewish family fleeing the port city before the Nazis arrive. When the family arrives in Palestine, they encounter fighting. Although devoid of the sort of European anti-Semitism found in films from decades before, “Alexandria … Why?” propagates the idea espoused by the Palestine Liberation Organization during that time that the Jewish state is illegitimate, Birnbaum said.

Later films have shown Israelis as Egyptian adversaries.

For example, the 1993 film “The Day of Glory” depicts the sinking of the Israeli ship Eilat at the conclusion of the Six-Day War. The film points to the arrogance of Israeli naval officers, who casually smoke cigars and disobey orders. Although the portrayal is negative, it is nonetheless based on historical accounts, Birnbaum said, including the commander’s own memoirs.

Fast forward to 2005 and the narrative becomes more complex.

In “The Embassy in the Building,” protagonist Sherif finds himself in a predicament when he returns to Egypt from working abroad: The Israeli Embassy has moved into his building. Comedy ensues as Sherif encounters various individuals — an opinionated prostitute, a Marxist woman and Islamic terrorists — all of whom harbor some form of anti-Israeli sentiments and object to his living in the same building as the embassy. 

When Sherif gets kidnapped by the terrorists, he professes his allegiance only to Allah (as opposed to Egyptian authorities). The terrorists strap a bomb belt around his waist and tell him he has a special destiny. Birnbaum provided a translation: “So, you will stay down here and I will go up?” The terrorist nods and points heavenward, indicating Sherif will enter paradise with other martyrs. Sherif is chagrined.

“The Islamists and those that really want to explode the embassy are the bad guys here,” Birnbaum said. “Of course, they were also the ideological enemies of the regime of that time.”

Sherif does not explode the bomb but later befriends the Israelis. Then a Palestinian boy he knows dies in the intifada, and he throws the Israelis out of his building.

Birnbaum concluded that anti-Semitism largely has disappeared from mainstream Egyptian cinema in the last couple of decades. The trope of the Jewish seductress is a popular one, however, and remains in the Egyptian consciousness to this day.

Nous Sommes Charlie: This week we are Jewish Hebdo

In 2008, I had a chance to make a statement in defense of satire, and I passed.

This was when some Muslim leaders issued a fatwa against Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten for 12 cartoons it published in 2005 depicting the prophet Muhammad. To say many Muslims found those cartoons offensive is an understatement: The Muslim world went nuts. The focus of most of its anger was one cartoon drawn by Kurt Westergaard that showed Muhammad with his turban drawn as a lit bomb. Riots broke out around the world against the cartoons, resulting in more than 200 deaths. The Danish papers’ editors were subject to ongoing death threats and Westergaard himself survived at least one assassination attempt. 

It was a big story about Islamic fundamentalism and the limits of free speech, but even though we ran a story about it, I chose not to print the cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb for a turban, even by way of illustration. For one, I found it crude and offensive — I never would have published it had the cartoonist submitted it to me cold. At too many painful times in our history, Jews had been the subject of caricatures that ascribed negative traits to all Jews, that impugned our entire people in one stereotypical stroke, and actually fueled bigotry and incited attacks. There is a line between satire and incitement. Nothing is wrong with provocative or controversial, but the “turban bomb” cartoon in question struck me as just racist and — worse — not that funny.

And because I didn’t love the cartoon, the very real threat that accompanied reprinting it — no matter how remote — didn’t seem worth it.

I now see I was wrong. 

Last week, nine members of the brave current and former staff and affiliates of the French satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly) paid with their lives for the right to offend, along with a maintenance worker and two police officers, when two Muslim extremists stormed the weekly’s Paris offices and murdered them in cold blood. Two days later, as the gunmen were still at large, a crazed compatriot of the terrorists burst into Hyper Cacher, a kosher supermarket in the Porte de Vincennes neighborhood of Paris, taking innocent shoppers hostage, killing four of them. Altogether, 17 innocent people — Jews, Muslims and Christians — were slaughtered by the Islamic fanatics.  

The outpouring of grief and outrage and solidarity resulted in the biggest rally in France since the end of World War II. Some 3.7 million people gathered in peaceful rallies of support on the streets of Paris and throughout France, Europe and even at Los Angeles City Hall. They made no demands and there was no violence, but they sent a single, loud message: Enough

Enough tiptoeing around terrorists’ sensibilities. Enough kowtowing to the craziest elements among us. Enough pretending that Israel or Israel’s policies in the West Bank or Gaza are somehow the cause of the dysfunction in the Muslim world. Enough thinking that attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions are only a Jewish problem. Enough thinking that it’s OK to mock Christianity or Jews, but not, God forbid, Islam. Enough

It’s OK to mock everybody and everything. No, it’s not just OK: It’s a matter of life and death. That’s why this week we reprinted the covers from Charlie Hebdo on and in these pages, along with essays on the essential importance of satire. And that’s why we changed our masthead this week, for the first time in the paper’s nearly three decades. This week, we are not Jewish Journal. We are Jewish Hebdo. 

The events of the past week are yet more proof that the world is in the midst of a long and unfinished struggle against Islamic extremism. All of us who want to live in a free, tolerant society — Muslims, Jews, Christians and all the rest — must find ways to fight back against suppression whenever and wherever we can. If the extremists declare some goofy cartoons of Muhammad as their battleground, then those cartoons must become our battleground. We must defend them, if not on their merits, then on the right of artists in a free society to draw what they want and of publishers to distribute those images. We now see what happens when we cede any freedoms out of fear of retribution or of offending religious sensibilities — the extremists claim our refusal as victory and find new victims to intimidate. By taking up the cause of publishing these so-called offensive works, we are defending not just law, but also morality. We are saying that nothing — no cartoon, no blasphemy, no joke, no satire — is more offensive than the taking of innocent human lives. All humans have a right to offend and to take offense, but never to take a life just because they feel offended. 

So when fanatics try to shut down free speech with violence, one of the best ways to fight back is to amplify exactly what they find offensive. If that’s what those cartoonists were killed for, that’s what we’ll stand for.

And we have to stand together. The murder of four innocent Jews at Hyper Cacher following the Hebdo attacks reminds us that Islamic terror, so often directed at Jews and Israel, is not an Israeli or a Jewish problem, but the world’s problem. Fanaticism is the most dangerous –ism, and its iteration in the Muslim world no longer can be disguised as the righteous reaction against oppression in Palestine or discrimination in France or blasphemy in Denmark.  

It is a disease that has taken root in a great religion, and it must be rooted out.

Here is the full cover from this week's Jewish Journal issue:

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

An accidental theologist tackles Muhammad bio

In 2010, Lesley Hazleton was asked to give a brief talk about the Quran. 

“As far as I was concerned, I was talking to those several hundred people in the hall,” Hazleton said in a recent phone interview. “I certainly had no idea that a nine-minute video about reading the Quran would go viral. … I mean, I’m in my 60s, so the words ‘Lesley’ and ‘viral’ don’t even belong in the same sentence.”

Hazleton said that if you total up all the places where her lecture about the Quran subsequently appeared — TED, YouTube, etc. — it’s gotten about a million hits.

The main reason for the wide dissemination of Hazleton’s lively and informative lecture is that it raised alarm bells: She mentioned that her delving deeply into the Quran was prep work for a book she was working on: a biography of Muhammad. 

That’s right: the prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam. 

A decade earlier, Hazleton had written a historical exploration of Mary, mother of Jesus, based on what life would have been like for a Jewish peasant woman in the Galilee 2,000 years ago, so she’s used to writing about a revered figure who — like Muhammad — has a billion people deeply concerned about the portrayal. 

But nothing prepared her for the barrage of messages she received after it became known that an agnostic Jewish woman was now writing about Muhammad.

“Suddenly, it’s as if there were a million Muslims looking over my shoulder wanting to make sure I got it right,” Hazleton said. 

“Every morning I’d get messages — through e-mail, Facebook, on my blog — and I’d answer back: ‘Thank you for your concern. It will probably not be the biography you want — it will be a historical one, not a devotional one, so all I can do is ask you to trust me to find my own way.’ ”

Writing an accurate, credible biography of Muhammad is a tricky challenge for anyone, but the difficulties are compounded if you’re a woman, Jewish, and have lived in Israel for many years. 

Hazleton is used to taking on tough challenges and facing them with a quick wit and self-deprecating humor: she named her blog — which deals with the interface of religion, society and politics — “The Accidental Theologist.”

In her early 20s, she left her native England and moved to Jerusalem, where she lived for 13 years, studying psychology and later becoming a Middle East correspondent for Time magazine. While living there, she wrote books about Israeli women, about the Negev and the Sinai, and about Jerusalem.  

From 1979 to 1992, she lived in New York and wrote on a variety of subjects, including cars and race-driving, which led to a book with the captivating title “Confessions of a Fast Woman.” Then she moved to Seattle, got her pilot’s license — her “hardest-earned possession” — and has remained there, living on a houseboat.

Psychologist by training, journalist by experience, for more than a decade Hazleton has been writing about figures and events important to the world’s monotheisms.

After her biography of Mary, Hazleton wrote a book about the biblical character Jezebel, digging into the struggle between the “harlot queen” and the prophet Elijah. After that, she delved into the origins of the Shi’a-Sunni split in early Islam.

“The First Muslim” is full of great, accessible stories. And it introduces non-Muslims to an extraordinary life with which they’re probably unfamiliar.

“Here’s a man [Muhammad] who carved a huge profile in history,” Hazleton said, “a man who radically changed his world and, in a sense, is still changing ours — and the question to me was: Who was this person, really? This is what drives me, this intense curiosity, the need to know who was really there.”

Hazleton writes about how, at 40, Muhammad had a revelation on Mount Hira near Mecca. Based on what was revealed to him, he preached monotheism as well as a radical program of social and economic justice.

“It was correctly seen by the powers-that-be in Mecca as a challenge to them,” Hazleton said, “as radical and subversive.” As a result, Muhammad was forced to flee Mecca. 

“But it was with that exile,” Hazleton said, “when he was thrown out of Mecca and took refuge 200 miles to the north in Medina and set up this extraordinary idealistic community which included Jewish tribes, that he realizes he’s become a political leader, not just a spiritual leader, not just a preacher. 

“And along with that comes what’s expected of a political governing authority of the time: How do you establish your power? Do we fight? What happens when we fight?”

In her book, Hazleton describes how, in Muhammad’s struggle to gain both political and religious power while in Medina, some Jewish tribes paid the price.

“Muhammad’s relationship with the Jews was extremely fraught,” Hazleton said. “Medina, where Mohammed sought refuge, had been, until a few generations before, largely controlled by Jewish tribes. By the year 600, however, Jewish tribes were the minority and therefore vulnerable. …

“[Muhammad] confronted three Jewish tribes, all relatively powerless. One tribe was exiled from Medina, then a second one [was exiled], and the third was massacred.”

Hazleton said that the massacre was a “ruthless” decision, but — given the time and place in which Muhammad lived and the obstacles he faced — a “pragmatic” and “effective” one. 

“I think it was a way for Muhammad to establish his political authority. I don’t really think it had to do with anti-Jewish animus. … It had to do with the dynamics of power, and it’s the only time something like that happened.”

Hazleton pointed out that two of Muhammad’s wives were Jewish and added that “Muhammad clearly saw himself as part of the Jewish tradition. … Islam was a radical call back to the basic values of the Torah and even talmudic stories. Many people are amazed when they actually do read the Quran that one-third is devoted to reprising biblical stories, that so many prophets of Islam are Hebrew prophets.”

“The First Muslim” is Hazleton’s seventh book about the Middle East, a place she left 34 years ago. Or did she?

“In some ways, I’ve never actually left [the Middle East]. It never lets go of you, not if you’ve spent any time there. By writing about it, I lead a double life: On the one hand, I’m here in 21st century Seattle; on the other, I spend my days in the ancient Middle East.

“This sense of place for me, the Middle East, is very vivid. You’re talking with someone who has an olive tree in her floating garden here in Seattle. The olive tree is my little piece of the Middle East in this misty outpost in the Northwest.”

Criticism is not Islamophobia

Criticism is the oxygen of journalism. Here at the Jewish Journal, we will criticize anything that we believe deserves criticism, including religion. We will criticize preachers who use Christianity to express hatred and bigotry toward gays as much as we will criticize religious Jews who use the Torah to humiliate women rabbis wearing prayer shawls at the Western Wall.

Personally, I’ve shown my revulsion at some of the stuff written in the Torah — like the admonition to stone your son to death if he desecrates the Sabbath—and I’ve railed against missionary Christians who twist the Torah in order to convert Jews.

But I have to confess — like most of the mainstream media in America, I’ve been very reluctant to criticize Islam.

When, several years ago, virtually every American paper refused to publish satirical cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, I should have criticized that response. I understood that fear and intimidation probably played a role, given the riots that followed their publication in a Danish paper.

But it’s not as if the media has ever been afraid to publish cartoons that make fun of Jesus or Moses or Buddha — so why should they single out Muhammad for special treatment?

If you ask me, I think it’s time we stop walking on eggshells with Islam.

It’s not healthy. This notion that any critique of Islam equates to Islamophobia is absurd and patronizing. It says to Muslims: “We criticize Judaism and Christianity because we think they can handle it, but we don’t think you can.” That’s insulting to Islam and to Muslims.

Every religion needs a good dose of criticism. That’s how they improve and become more human. That’s how they shed their outdated and immoral layers, like slavery and oppression of women. Where would Judaism be today without the centuries of relentless self-reflection and self-criticism that goes on to this day?

How could it be wrong or Islamophobic to criticize a religious text that might justify the stoning to death of women or the killing of infidels?

After terror attacks that appear to have an Islamic connection, such as last week’s Boston massacre, we often hear defensive talk about how Islam is a “religion of peace.” To back this up, Muslim commentators like to quote a verse in the Koran (Surah 5, verse 32) that mentions the Talmudic idea that if you kill one human being, it is as if you have killed an entire world.

The problem, though, is that commentators usually fail to mention the verse that immediately follows, which is anything but peaceful: “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement.”

Verse 32 works for me. Verse 33 turns my stomach.

The way I see it, the future of Islam and its reputation in the world will hinge on which verse will win out—verse 32 or verse 33.

So far, it looks like the wrong verse is winning. Since 9/11, close to 20,000 acts of terrorism have been recorded throughout the world under the name of Islam, many of those against Muslims themselves.

It’s suicidal and counterproductive for the world to pretend that violence-prone religious texts like verse 33 do not exist, especially if those texts are used to instigate violence against “infidels” and other mischief-makers.

Religions shouldn’t get an automatic pass at respect. They have to earn it. If you’re a member of a religion where some members use the religion as an excuse to kill people, your job is not to convince me that you’re a religion of peace, but to convince your co-religionists who are actually doing the killing.

It’s ironic that verse 32 borrows from Jewish texts. Muslims who believe in that peaceful verse might want to borrow something else from the Jews: a big mouth.

These Muslims of verse 32 have been too quiet for too long. If they want the world to show more respect for their cherished religion, they must rise up and make more noise against their violent minority who believe in verse 33.

There’s no dishonor in self-criticism. Jews do it all the time. Maybe that’s why you don’t see much criticism of Islam in Jewish papers—we’re too busy criticizing ourselves.

But criticism is not an end in itself– it must lead to results. The Muslims of verse 32 must win the moral battle against the Muslims of verse 33, even if it takes a century. And they must not recoil at criticism that may come from outsiders who have good intentions. In fact, they must use it to shame their violent cohorts.

Constructive criticism of violent texts is not Islamophobia. It’s the beginning of positive change. Painting all criticism of Islam with the Islamophobic brush is just as wrong as painting all Muslims with a violent brush. It suffocates debate and the very process of evolution.

To borrow from another Jewish mantra, constructive criticism is good for the Jews, good for the Muslims and good for the world.

Living in a mash, not a ‘clash,’ of civilizations

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as farce. The riots and Iranian fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, which forced the British-Kashmiri author into hiding for 13 years, can only be described as tragic — for him and for the cause of freedom and tolerance.

In the years since the 1989 fatwa, the rage expressed at perceived Western “insults” to Islam and its prophet, Muhammad, have transcended tragedy to become farcical, with often tragic consequences. Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” — which, as those who have actually read it are aware, betrays a profound admiration and respect for the person of Muhammed, despite its criticism of religion and human nature — at least had the merit of artistic and literary quality.

In contrast, most subsequent targets of this brand of outrage have been crude and amateurish, such as the Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad, and consciously out to provoke a reaction, like the poorly scripted and badly acted “Innocence of Muslims,” which those “pre-incited,” “pre-programmed” Muslim protesters, as the film’s spokesperson Steve Klein described them, obligingly did.

At a certain level, I can understand, though I am personally not a believer, why Muslims would find offensive the infantile suggestions contained in the film that their prophet got the inspiration to establish his faith by performing oral sex on his first wife, Khadijah, or that the Quran was authored for him by a Coptic monk.

To my mind, the best reaction to this so-called “film” — which looks like it cost about $10 to make over a weekend, but was alleged to have cost $5 million — would have been not to dignify it with a response, so its makers would have been left to wallow in the bitter realization that their endeavor did not capture an audience beyond the 10 people who turned up to watch its one and only public screening.

The Muslims who expressed their outrage peacefully had every right to do so, since freedom of expression guarantees not only the right to cause offense but also the right to take offense. However, the minority that chose violence not only went against liberal, secular values, but also against the teachings of their own prophet and an ancient tradition of mockery of religion in their own societies.

Moreover, the protesters triggered widespread disapproval and disbelief across the Arab world. “The only thing that seems to mobilize the Arab street is a movie, a cartoon or an insult, but not the pool of blood in Syria,” tweeted one dismayed Syrian activist.

So why did a production so out there that it wouldn’t even qualify as the lunatic fringe provoke such outrage and violence?

Part of the reason is a simple case of ignorance. Many Muslim conservatives fail or refuse to understand that the United States and many other Western countries hold freedom of speech, at least in principle, in higher regard than religious sensibilities. That would help explain why so many protesters called on the United States to apologize for the film and ban it, despite the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech.

But before Westerners take too much of a holier-than-thou attitude toward their commitment to free speech, they would do well to remember that, up until very recently, Christian conservatives had a powerful influence on constraining freedom of expression. This shows that it is religion in general (or rigid secular ideological orthodoxy) that is a significant barrier to free thought and inquiry, not just Islam.

In fact, a number of European countries with a Christian majority, as well as Israel, still have laws against blasphemy or insulting religion on their books, and though most no longer apply them, some still do, such as Poland and Greece. Meanwhile, nearby Albania is a majority Muslim country that has a long history of atheism and no laws against blasphemy or insulting religion, and has never prosecuted anyone for such a crime.

In Russia, the punk-rock band Pussy Riot was recently convicted for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” How their “punk prayer” was offensive to Christianity is unclear, though it was highly insulting to Russia’s earthly deity, President Vladimir Putin.

Further West, cinematic classics, such as Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” elicited angry protests across the Christian world, including the firebombing of a Paris movie theater, and was banned outright in Mexico, Chile and Argentina.

Likewise, “The Life of Brian” also elicited widespread protest — despite Monty Python’s respectful portrayal of Jesus and its insistence that the film is not blasphemous but only lampoons modern organized religion and the sheeplike mentality it inspires in followers — was banned in parts of the U.K., Norway and Ireland, and British television declined to show it.

The current protests are paradoxically both about Muhammad and have absolutely nothing to do with him. The insult to Muhammad was just an issue of convenience and, had it been absent, another cause would have emerged for popular frustration and fury.

This is not because, as some Westerners seem to believe, rage and fury are full-time occupations for Muslims, but because they are fed up with American hegemony (and local corruption) and dominance over their lives —– from the bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the decades spent supporting and propping up corrupt and brutal dictators, while paying lip service to the haughty ideals of freedom and democracy.

This fact has been conveniently overlooked by Pax Americana’s cheerleaders, who, despite having been thrown off kilter by the revolutionary wave that has swept the Middle East, are now returning to business as usual with their suggestions that the fury unleashed by the anti-Muhammad film is incontrovertible proof of the irreconcilability of Western and Islamic values.

Describing herself as a “combatant in the clash of civilizations,” Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch feminist, atheist and advocate of neo-con policies, uses the latest flare-up to call for more, not less, U.S. intervention in the region to bring down political Islam “in the same way we helped bring about the demise of the former Soviet Union.”

Although I admire Hirsi Ali’s courage in standing by her convictions despite death threats, I cannot abide her politics, her willful myopia to the destructiveness of much of America’s interventions and her insistence that there is a “clash of civilizations.”

In my view, there are clashes of many things in this world — trivializations, idiocies, fundamentalisms — but no clash of civilizations. Although culture and ideology can on rare occasions lead to conflict, for the most part, societies enter into conflicts due to a clash of interests.

That would explain, for instance, why the United States decided to invade Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraq, even though it was a sworn enemy of Al-Qaeda and jihadist Islam, yet is bosom buddies with Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of reactionary Wahhabism and the home of most of the hijackers who took part in the 9/11 attacks. It also sheds light on why Israel once shortsightedly backed Islamist Hamas as a counterweight against the secular Palestinian Liberation Organization.

Despite the mutually exclusive historical narratives of Dar al-Islam and Christendom, of crusades and jihads promoted by extremists, any deeper reading of history will soon reveal that conflicts within self-identified cultural or civilizational groups are greater than those between them. Christians and Muslims have gone to war and killed more of their co-religionists than each other. Take, for example, World War II, whose Christian-on-Christian carnage far surpassed anything the Muslims had ever inflicted. Moreover, the mutual hatred of Catholics and Protestants and Sunnis and Shias has often surpassed the rivalry between Islam and Christianity.

Add to that the fact that alliances regularly cut across presumed civilizational lines, such as the Arabs allying themselves with the British and the French against the Turks, or the Ottomans fighting alongside the Germans against the British, French and Russians. In fact, throughout its centuries as a major power, the Ottoman Empire’s alliances shifted between various Christian European states, including France and Poland, as well as the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic House of Habsburg.

More fundamentally, despite popular references to a “Judeo-Christian” civilization, Islam actually also belongs to the same civilizational group, with common roots in the Abrahamic tradition, not to mention the Greek and Hellenistic, Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences. In fact, Europe and the Middle East, especially the Mediterranean countries, have more in common with each other than they do with their co-religionists in Africa and farther east in Asia.

Some will undoubtedly protest that, even if this is true, the Enlightenment and its values, such as freedom of expression, have largely passed the Arab and Muslim world by. But the reality is far more complex and nuanced. Although Arabs and Muslims generally lag behind scientifically, this is not just due to local cultural factors. There are plenty of geopolitical and economic factors that are beyond their control holding them back.

More important, the values of the Enlightenment have been an integral part of the secularizing and modernizing reform project in the Middle East that began in Turkey and Egypt in the 19th century. More recently, it was the desire for freedom and democracy — as well as economic justice — that lured millions of protesters onto the streets, and even if mainstream Islamists have made the biggest gains for now, they have had to adapt their discourse to suit this public mood.

What all this demonstrates is that the clash of civilizations exists mostly in the fevered imaginations of extremists on both sides. But we are in danger of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy if we allow ourselves to fall for the divisive, though alluringly simplistic, logic of the prophets of doom. To remedy and challenge this, moderates on all sides must join forces to highlight the reality and benefits of the mash of civilizations in which we really live.

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian-Belgian journalist, blogger and writer currently living in Jerusalem, who has spent about half his life in the Middle East and the other half in Europe. Follow him at @DiabolicalIdea. A version of this essay originally appeared at

Cartoon Tension at UC Irvine

The showing of three cartoons of the prophet Muhammad at a conference last week on radical Islam at UC Irvine attracted a near-capacity crowd of about 400, including leaders of some local Jewish groups, while protesters demonstrated outside.

A palpable tension descended on the audience at the unveiling of the three cartoons, including one that depicted a bomb in a turban on the prophet Muhammad’s head. The printing of these cartoons — and several others — in a Danish newspaper prompted some Muslim religious leaders and governments to incite violent protests, which have sometimes turned deadly. The display at UC Irvine also included three anti-Semitic cartoons that have run in the Arab press.

The conference’s co-sponsors, the College Republicans and the conservative United American Committee, said they wanted to affirm the First Amendment and to stimulate an important discussion about the growing threat of radical Islam.

“We believe unfettered speech is the only way we can come to a better understanding of what’s going on in the world,” said Francis Barraza, treasurer of the College Republicans. “Things that are obscene, things that are crazy, things that are uncomfortable should be exposed. And they can’t be exposed if they’re shrouded.”

The Muslim Student Union vehemently complained to university officials about the showing on the grounds that the cartoons are an affront to Islam. Instead they held a raucous protest outside, where more than 350 Muslims prayed and carried signs against hate speech and in praise of Muhammad.

“As a civilization and a society, we speak of spreading world peace, democracy and compassion,” said Osman Umarji, a former Muslim Student Union president who now advises the group. “Inciting religious hatred goes against that and only seeks to polarize a world in which we need more understanding and compassion.”

No violence was reported, although a Muslim heckler and another audience member nearly came to blows during the panel discussion.

Some of the Jews in attendance accused the Muslim Student Union (MSU) of hypocrisy. They asserted that, over the years, the MSU has invited speakers to campus — over the objections of Jewish students and groups — whose attacks on Zionism crossed the line into anti-Semitism. The Muslim group has denied the charge, saying it opposes Israel and its oppression of Palestinians — not Judaism.

Jewish leaders called that a double standard.

“When hate speech is aimed at Jews, it’s OK,” said Gary Ratner, executive director of the local chapter of the American Jewish Congress. “But when they perceive hate speech aimed at Muslims, it’s not OK.”

Security was tight, with metal barriers separating protesters from those lined up to enter.

Inside, the commentary was hardly all about conciliation. The Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, president and founder of the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, repeatedly called Islam an “evil religion,” although he said Muslims weren’t. Homeless activist Ted Hayes seemed to blame Muslims for selling Africans into slavery during a heated exchange with an audience member.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) declined an invitation to participate, citing the sponsorship by the United American Committee, which it finds objectionable, said CAIR spokeswoman Sabiha Khan.

Besides Ratner, other politically active Jews in attendance included Larry Greenfield, California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition; Roz Rothstein, executive director of the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, and Allyson Taylor, associate director of the American Jewish Congress, Western Region.


Don’t Ignore the Quiet Majority of Muslims

Most Muslims — and especially American Muslims — cannot fairly be accused of hypersensitivity when it comes to the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. That’s because most Muslims have not overreacted, despite the stereotypic images served up by the media. In fact, most Muslims have hardly reacted at all — even those who are profoundly offended by the images.

To put this in perspective, consider for a moment the frieze of Muhammad installed inside the picturesque building that houses the U.S. Supreme Court. Muhammad is pictured there to pay homage to his role as a significant lawmaker in world history. His statue stands next to that of Moses.

In a 1997 court case, some Muslims raised concerns about the religious insensitivities demonstrated, but Chief Justice William Rehnquist upheld a lower-court decision to preserve this artistic rendition of Muhammad as a major contributor to jurisprudence.

Muslim Americans did not go out on the streets to protest. In the cost-benefit analysis, American Muslims felt that the acknowledgment of Islam’s contributions to Western Civilization outweighed the concern over insensitivity.

Maybe it’s because of such experiences that American Muslims are not getting as riled up as some in other parts of the world. It’s also true that U.S. media outlets have acted with responsibility and restraint, while the American Muslim community has had the opportunity to voice its position through mainstream media channels and a few peaceful demonstrations.

But this civilized Muslim response also should not be misinterpreted. Many peaceful Muslims reject the idea that this controversy is about defending freedom of expression. The same editors who decided to run caricatures of Muhammad demonizing him as a sex-driven and a bloodthirsty terrorist rejected caricatures of Jesus.

While they dared cartoonists to draw the most vile images of Muslims and Islam, they were not ready to deal with a Christian outcry over their own beloved symbols. And while there is anti-Jewish and anti-Christian sentiment in the Muslim world, it has never reached the point of defiling the images of Jesus and Moses.

Instead, Islam accepts Jesus as the word of God and Moses as one of the most honorable messengers of God, equal to Muhammad. In fact, hundreds of millions of Muslims will fast the next few days in honor of Moses and the exodus of the Children of Israel from the oppression of the pharaoh.

The Quran documents the verbal assaults against Muhammad, as well as those against Jesus and Moses, and embraces their decision to turn away from the insults, the same action that the vast majority of Muslims have done today. The Quran further demands that its adherents follow the free exercise of religion clause in Islam: “Let there be no compulsion in matters of faith” (2:256).

Free thinking is a cornerstone of Islamic law, and securing freedom of faith and expression are paramount goals in classical Islamic law. What some Muslims do, however, can and does contradict Islamic principles.

A handful of reckless Muslims who riot over the caricatures have ruined the case for Danish Muslims and European Muslims in general by distorting what is rightfully an issue of injustice and double standards. But this handful, which represents a fraction of the Muslim world, are countered by the overwhelming majority of Muslim institutions worldwide that have called for calm and restraint.

The world’s leading Islamic body, the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Conference, also condemned the violence, saying, “Over-reactions surpassing the limits of peaceful democratic acts … are dangerous and detrimental to the efforts to defend the legitimate case of the Muslim world.”

In reality, it is Europe that has not accepted Islam and Muslims as an integral part of pluralism. Instead, European governments apply double standards not only in journalism, but in the workplace and everyday life, where the Muslims of Europe live in de facto ghettos and are part of the downtrodden and disenfranchised.

I attended a conference in Brussels with the U.S. ambassador to Belgium in November, and in that setting, the overwhelming response from Belgian and European Muslims was that they want to be integrated into their society, what they call home. Indeed, the issue is one of integrating Muslims into Western culture by moving beyond tolerance and dialogue to co-existence and partnership. We view the lampooning of Muhammad as a dehumanization of Muslims in Europe similar to the dehumanization of Jews in Europe that acted as a precursor to their persecution.

We, Muslim Americans in particular and Muslims of the West in general are in the midst of two struggles, one for the soul of Islam and one for the soul of the West.

For the soul of Islam, we battle Muslim extremists on our cultural front lines — the mosque and Muslim community gatherings, through books and other publications. For the soul of the West, we battle racism and bigotry, whether it’s blatant or disguised as freedom of expression or even democracy. We work for mutual acceptance and building mutual trust as a means of countering mutual fear and prejudice.

Salam Al-Marayati is executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (


Muslim Messages

Amid the profusion of billboards along Southern California freeways, motorists are being startled by a new one. It features seven smiling faces of various ethnicities, with one, a woman wearing a black headscarf, holding a small American flag.

Underneath, in bold letters, are the words, "Even a smile is Charity — a message from your Muslim neighbor." The sponsor of the soft-sell ad is the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the billboards are indicative of its increasing sophistication in presenting the benign and nonthreatening face of Islam.

The cost of each billboard rental ranges from $5,000 to $8,000 per month, and so far, only three carry the "smile" message. One is located near LAX and the other two are in Orange County.

But if they are deemed effective, similar signs are planned for other American cities, said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper in Washington.

The concept was developed by the Southern California chapter of CAIR, whose public relations coordinator, Sabiha Khan, said the slogan was based on a saying by the Prophet Muhammad, "Your smile for your brother is charity." Different positive messages will be posted each month, she said.

The higher profile comes even as CAIR weathers criticisms that it has served as a platform for people and groups that support terror against Israeli citizens. CAIR denies the charges — and keeps smiling.

Over the past year, and especially since Sept. 11, CAIR has evolved into an effective voice of the Muslim and Arab communities in the United States. Taking a leaf from Jewish defense organizations, any real or perceived slur or discriminatory act against a Muslim is instantly met with protests and barrages of news releases to the media.