Yehudit Barsky, senior research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), spoke to a September 18 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) hosted by Benjamin Baird, director of the Middle East Forum's MEF Action. The following is a summary of her comments:
Islamist antisemitic movements base their Jew-hatred on their interpretation of Islam's medieval scriptural texts regarding Jews as the "enemies of God [and] the religion of Islam." Modern Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, have their roots in the early twentieth century. One of the MB's leading figures, Sayyid Qutb, advocated jihad against the West. Qutb expanded upon the theology of Islamic text-based medieval antisemitism by encouraging his followers to "finish the job Hitler started" and destroy the Jews and Israel. Islamist movements claim to be the exclusive legitimate representatives of the Islamic religion, despite the tolerant climate in Muslim countries engaged in the Abraham Accords, whose leaders eschew the promotion of Islamist ideology against Jews.
Antisemitic beliefs in the Muslim world "dovetailed" with twentieth century European antisemitism. Broadcasting the virulent Jew-hatred depicted in Nazi propaganda to the Arab and Muslim world furthered the spread of sermons and images fueling Islamic antisemitism. To promote conspiracy theories against the Jews throughout the Mideast, the Soviet Union in the 1970s republished in Arabic the 1905 work of antisemitic propaganda The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, the development of the internet has enabled the dissemination of antisemitic tropes that originated in Europe, along with those from medieval Islamic sources, to the point that many "can't tell the difference between" the two.
American Islamism primarily spread with the proliferation of Muslim Student Association (MSA) campus clubs populated by Islamists who came to the US as followers of MB ideology, as well as those connected to Jama'at-e-Islami, its affiliate in South Asia. Campus graduates entered society as professionals who organized into an expanding variety of MB-affiliated groups that today are under one large umbrella group, the US Council of Muslim Organizations. The goal of uniting American Islamist organizations is to "project more unity . . . gain more legitimacy, and ultimately gain more political influence, as well as societal influence in the United States."
American Islamist organizations embrace a variety of specific issues, such as the Kashmir conflict or the Palestinian Arab conflict with Israel. Understanding the breadth of influence that Islamist organizations wield in the US "to gain more legitimacy" requires a "holistic" approach to the Islamist threat matrix. Some engage in political activity, while others, such as the Islamic Society of North America, engage in interfaith activity. Still others align themselves with US grassroots organizations.
The Biden administration recently appointed partners to join its National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism. One partner is the Islamist group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The administration's unlikely inclusion of CAIR legitimizes the group as a resource for media looking for a response to antisemitic vandalism or violent attacks, but "never antisemitism committed by Islamists or Muslims." Mainstream media, liking the idea of one minority defending another, misses the contradiction in embracing "parallelism" when including Islamist organizations like CAIR. While CAIR and similar organizations comment on antisemitism to the media, they simultaneously delegitimize mainstream Jewish organizations by denying their right to define antisemitism — an audacious act that would not be tolerated by any other minority experiencing persecution.
Media turn a blind eye to the Islamic organizations' boycott and delegitimization campaign directed against American Jewish community leaders, which Islamists wage to further marginalize Jewish organizations. Alongside the "red-green alliance," in which many followers of Islamist movements have Communist and Marxist backgrounds, Islamists are now resuming the courtship of conservatives they initiated prior to 9/11, pausing only due to post-9/11 security measures. Capitalizing on its success with progressives in the Democratic Party, Islamists now apply a similar strategy to empower themselves within Republican groups, aligning on issues concerning family, sexuality, and religious liberties.
Islamist infiltration into both political parties affords their organizations an opportunity to influence and change the nature of party policies. Duplicitous Islamic leaders defend their antisemitic comments by claiming they are "only" anti-Zionist, not anti-Jewish. However, Islamist organizations that republish and distribute Muslim Brotherhood texts whose ideologues hold Jews in contempt promote antisemitism. Islamist spokespersons who make genocidal pronouncements to destroy Israel, the sole Jewish country in the world, are no longer "only" criticizing Israeli government policy, but also "cross the line" into antisemitism.
The remedy for thwarting the long-term aims of Islamists groups is education. Journalists and media lack the background to fully understand the anti-democratic and antisemitic ideology that birthed Islamist organizations. The American Jewish community needs to cultivate and educate allies committed to fighting antisemitism as part of the larger cause of protecting America's democracy.
An encouraging indicator was a 2011 Abu Dhabi Gallup poll of Muslim Americans. It found that more than half of male and almost half of female respondents said, "no Muslim organization represents us." Such promising results are openings to counter antisemitism in the Muslim world. Educating those Muslims who do not support Islamist ideology, particularly since the establishment of the Abraham Accords, is part of the solution that Daniel Pipes, the founder and president of the Middle East Forum, has maintained throughout. Jewish community members working together with those in the Muslim community who reject Islamist ideology can build a united coalition and speak out against antisemitism and in support of human rights.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.