by Rabbi David Zaslow
Recently I posted the following response to two esteemed colleagues of mine…teacher’s whose Torah insights I study and often quote. Yet, regarding the dangers of Islamic extremism to Jews, Christians, and to mainstream, peace-loving Muslims, we have important disagreements.
One colleague wrote, “Are there some Muslims who claim the authority of God to kill and destroy? Yes. Are there some Jews who claim this? Yes. And Christians? Yes. What do we do about this?” A second colleague wrote in a separate posting, “Yes, there is obviously a grave and dangerously threatening element in the Islamic world, just as there are a number of other extremely dangerous “isms” and powers threatening us in the world today.”
1) DISPROPORTIONATE COMPARISONS: The above statements are prime examples of why I disagree with my colleagues on the question of Islamic extremism. I believe that the good rabbis are repeating a popular mistake of making implied comparisons that are disproportionate to the facts. I plead with my esteemed colleagues to consider that all things are not equal concerning all “isms” or when comparing the extreme wings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For example, when we think of “Jewish terrorists” we have to dig back more than a decade to name criminally insane individuals like Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir, both of whom acted alone. They certainly emerged from extremist religious environments where hatred was tolerated and spread, but certainly not where murder, terrorism, or assassination was ever preached from the bimah. I know of a very small number of religious Jews in Israel and America whose bigotry appalls me. Yet, I know of no Jews who claim “God’s authority” to “kill and destroy.” Israeli self-defense, properly or even improperly executed is something completely different from carrying out the demands of Islamic extremists who openly and publicly call for the destruction of an entire nation (Israel) and the conversion of the world to their brand of Islam. Further, we cannot forget that the vast majority of victims of Islamic-extremism are moderate, normative Muslims from every branch of Islam.
I have heard the preaching of Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah where he calls for the death, murder, assassination of Israeli civilians. I have heard first hand the late spiritual leader of Hamas, Ahmed Yassin, justify suicide murder against Israeli children – while teaching his own children how to strap bombs on their bodies to carry out Hamas’ evil deeds. Whether we approve of Jewish settlements or not in the disputed territories there simply are no Jewish or Christian militias who preach and demand the kind of sociopathic, homicidal behavior we hear from Hamas and Hezbollah. Am I preaching prejudice against Islam here? G-d forbid! Am I preaching fear of Hamas and Hezbollah? I certainly am! They are to be both feared and militarily defended against.
When we compare two insane, psychopathic Jewish criminals (Goldstein and Amir) who acted more than ten years ago to the literally tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands? a few million?) of Muslim terrorists commanded to be violent by literally dozens of well funded and well armed militias (e.g., Hamas and Hezbollah) we can hardly make a proportional comparison to Jewish extremists with any degree of intellectual integrity. Fact: there is a massive amount of worldwide terrorism sponsored and/or condoned by Jihadists that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians (mostly Muslim) in the last fifty years.
Fact: there are NO Jewish terrorists sponsored by well funded militias or nations. And if there are Jewish terrorists, G-d forbid, they are almost definitely criminally sociopathic individuals acting under no denominational, sect, or leader’s command. Fact: there are Muslim nations (e.g. Iran) who officially sponsor and fund terrorism and/or military jihad in the name of Islam. Fact: there is no Jewish nation or even synagogue that sponsors or funds violence of any kind against Muslim, Christian, or Bahai civilians in the name of Judaism. When we go to airports and get our bodies and possessions searched and scanned it is not because of the threat posed by Jewish or Christian extremists. It is, however, because of the ever-present threats of war and violence made by Islamic extremists.
2) TERMINOLOGY: When scholars and Christians speak of the far right wing of Christianity (e.g., David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan, etc.) they often use the term “Christian Identity Movement.” There is not an iota of disparagement to liberal, mainstream, or conservative Christianity intended by the use of this term. It is simply a term that describes how a series of cults are trying to hijack Christianity for their own evil intentions. That is the context in which terms like Islamic extremism, Islamism, Jihadism, or even Islamo-Fascism arise from. I’m less concerned with the politically correct terminology than I am with the impact of Muslim extremists preaching death and murder in their mosques against other Muslims, gays, Jews, and anyone they perceive to be agents of Satan.
I would however, be quite concerned if these terms led people to believe that all of Islam or Arab culture condoned extremist hatred. I don’t see that happening in our nation or in Isreal. To our shame, many Americans were prejudiced against German-Americans and Italian-Americans during World War II. To our greater shame we rounded up Japanese-Americans and put them in internment camps during World War II. Since 9/11 I have been satisfied to see a somewhat “eager to learn” attitude by most Americans concerning Islam and Muslim-Americans. I live in a fairly conservative, Anglo, fundamentalist Christian region of the country, and yet most people get the difference between Muslims and Muslim extremists, and they generally go out of their way to distinguish Islam from Islamic extremism in their public statements.
3) WORDS MATTER: Certainly words matter. But because the term “Islamo-Fascism” is not a term directed at normative Islam, or most of Islam – this doesn’t mean the phenomenon does not exist. I have personally not heard the term misused to apply to Islam in general, and neither have I heard the term “Christian Identity Movement” misused to apply to all of Christianity. If I used the term “German fascism” it certainly does not mean that most German people are fascists But it would foolish not to use such a term for fear of its misuse.
Over the past decade many of us have had to learn many “terms of art” to describe both the brilliance and the shadow side that exist within the Islamic world. In our world today it is incumbent on all of us to learn the unique differences within that world, and to be able to distinguish their normative denominations (e.g. Suni, Shia, Sufi) from the armed extremist militias (e.g. Hamas, Hezbollah) from the extremist philosophical schools (e.g. Wahabism, Salafism on the Suni extremist side, and the Shiite extremism that arose from the Ayatollah Khomeni’s revolution in Iran in 1979).
4) THE FILM “OBSESSION:’ I have studied and fact-checked many of the major points made in the film “Obsession.” I have not found factual errors. The film interviews a moderate Muslim, a former Palestinian terrorist, the daughter of a Palestinian martyr, and other pundits – none of whom seem to have an ax to grind with Islam. The film begins by clearly stating that the subject is Islamic extremism and NOT Islam.
Did the film “scare the hell out of me” as one of my colleagues suggested in his posting? Yes, and I am as thankful for the wake up call. If, in the late 30’s, a “shockumentary” like “Obsession” woke people up to the world that was ahead of them many lives might have been saved in the 40’s. The good rabbi wrote that the film “…has no intention of presenting a balanced portrait of Muslims and Islamic culture….” He is correct since that was not the aim of the film. The rabbi then goes on to write that the film “…is meant to terrify Jews and Americans to such a degree that they will be more likely to support the Cheney-Bush program, including bombing and invading Iran (and possibly other Muslim countries as well).”
Wow! Where did he come up with that conclusion? The version of “Obsession” that our synagogue presented had no such explicit of implied meaning. There is not even a hint of getting Jews to support the bombing or invasion of Iran in the film. The Muslims who attended the presentation of the film in our synagogue were just as stunned by the facts and video clips of Jihadist clerics shown in the film as were the Jews, Christians, and members of the peace community who came.
5) ALL EVILS ARE NOT EQUAL: My colleague writes that there are other “isms” and “powers” that threaten the world. Of course there are, but not to violent degree that Islamic extremism threatens us in this day and age. I am a philo-Christian and yet do not hold back criticism of Replacement Theology within the Church (the Church is the true Israel) where it exists. I am also a philo-Muslim and do not hold back criticism of the Replacement Theology (e.g., the Jews never had a Temple in Jerusalem, Joseph was really a Muslim, there was no binding of Isaac, etc.) within Islam either. And I certainly do not hold back criticism of any religion where violence is preached from the pulpit. Today the pulpits where most of the violence is being preached comes from a significant minority (some estimate at between 15-25%) of mosques worldwide where radical Islamic theology (Wahabist, Salafist, Ayatollist, etc.) is promoted or at least tolerated. The Crusades ended hundreds of years ago. The genocide against Native Americans ended more than a hundred years ago. Colonialism ended eighty years ago. Racism, sexism, corporate greed, and consumerism are all too present in our society, but none of this compares to the immediate danger posed to all humanity by Islamic extremism. The greatest danger to the world today is no longer European colonialism. Corporate greed fed by consumerism is clearly a “power” to be tamed, but Islamism is a “power” that has declared violent and aggressive war on us. It cannot be negotiated with or tamed, but must be defeated and transformed as happened with Nazi Germany and Shinto Japan sixty years ago. In these two cases, America proved that is was not acting out of corporate greed, or ethnocentric and racist motives – our greatest enemies (Japan and Germany) became our greatest allies within a decade after the War. The same will be true, G-d willing, with all the Arab and Muslim nations. But first, the forces and groups behind the hatred and scapegoating of Israel, the West, moderate Muslims, and women must be soundly defeated.
The technologies used by the Jihadists include child abuse and forms of terrorism that have changed the very definition of war. Am I using scare tactics here? I don’t think so. Many of us are simply as scared as our fathers and mothers were before World War II. In 1938 the well intended Chamberlain naively declared “peace in our time” because of his pact trading “land for peace” with Heir Hitler. Mein Kamf literally means “My Struggle” and is the German equivalent of the word “Jihad” which literally means “struggle.” For G-d’s sake, let us not be fooled into inaction again as we were before World War II.
Jihadist theology, from whichever Shiite or Sunni extremist sect it comes from, is especially cruel to peace-loving Muslims. The greatest number of victims of Islamo-Fascism (call it what you want) are Muslims. In Gaza, in Syria, in Saadam’s Iraq, in Lebanon, in Iran, in Indonesia, in Sudan, in Chechnyia, in the Philippines, in Somalia the aberrant versions of true Islam are at war with moderate Muslims and the rest of the non-Muslim world. Their ideology is rooted in the most vile form of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia that has arisen since the Nazi era. There is a moderate, decent, quiet majority within Islam that is courageously working toward a pluralistic reformation within their faith. They deserve our full support. Confused and misguided (even when well intended) outside analysis of the ever-present danger of Islamic extremism only slows down that reformation from fully taking shape from within the Islamic world so that military intervention from Western nations will not be seen as necessary.
My synagogue produces programs on an ongoing bases that aims at demonstrating the innate brotherhood and sisterhood of Sarah and Hagar’s children. I wish I could believe in the potential for pacts with Hamas and Hezbollah, but I do not. In Torah it is just as much a mitzvah to hate evil as it is to love our neighbors. We can, and must, do both at the same time.
Please, Hashem, may the Israeli hostages kidnapped by Hamas and Hezbollah last year be returned to their families today! May the words of your prophets that give us so much hope for the reunion of Isaac and Ishamael, Jacob and Easu be fulfilled speedily in our time!