Jews, Muslims and free speech

Earlier this week, Leeds University cancelled a talk and a two-day workshop which was due to be delivered by the German academic and former adviser to his country’s Green Party, Matthias Küntzel, on what he calls “Islamic Antisemitism” in the Arab world and Iran, which he argues is a legacy of Nazi propaganda (reports: Times, Telegraph; blogs: Harry’s Place, Drink Soaked Trots). The talks were cancelled for security reasons, according to the University, “because - contrary to our rules - no assessment of risk to people or property has been carried out, no stewarding arrangements are in place and we were not given sufficient notice to ensure safety and public order”. Others are saying they bowed to protests from Muslim students; the president of the college’s Islamic society remarked that he had searched for his writings on the internet and found them “not very pleasant”.

Clearly, the university has its rules and if people organising a talk do not abide by them, they run the risk of having the talk cancelled. However, the impression given is that the event was part of a whole series at the German department and it is only this one that has been cancelled, so perhaps the college do feel that this is a sensitive topic which requires more serious consideration with regard to security. It should be said that the response from Muslims was of a protestatory rather than threatening nature, as Küntzel acknowledged. Another talk was due to be given on Tuesday evening, by Ronit Ben-Dor, the Director of Public Affairs at the Israeli embassy in London, which also drew Muslim protest, organised by the college’s Jewish Society.

A draft of the talk can be found here, and having read through it, I cannot call it racist or inflammatory. There are, however, a number of oversights in the piece, which could have been put to the speaker if he had been allowed to deliver the talk. For example:

(1) The paper begins with a brief description of the July 2006 Lebanon war, with no acknowledgement of how it really started (the capture of Israeli soldiers) and how disproportionate the Israeli response (the bombing of Lebanese civilian targets) was. He then diverges into describing the anti-Semitic propaganda of Hezbollah’s TV station al-Manar, including a serialisation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in which a group of Jews are shown cutting a Christian child’s throat in order to make unleavaned bread for Passover, a scene which, he suggests, would be recalled by anyone who saw “the pictures of the dead civilians in Lebanon and of the children of Beit Hanoun, killed by a stray Israeli shell”. The recycling of imported propaganda from Europe with its tissue of lies, which had never been believed in the Muslim world until very recently, is indefensible, but I would suggest that no such propaganda is needed to inspire a severe response in anyone who saw, or indeed knew of, the result of the bombing of Lebanon last year.

(2) He notes that, in the 1920s, Jews were not regarded as a threat to the Arab world by its politicians, but as an economic asset, and the Arab élite of Egypt, for example, welcomed the arrival of Jews for this reason. There are two problems here. First, these were precisely the élite, and were often either the clients of a colonial or effectively colonial régime, as in Egypt, or were a small, unpresentative westernised clique which had seized power, as in Iran. They were not the great mass of the population; indeed, they often oppressed the mass of the population by such means as prohibiting their normal garments, as they do in Turkey and Tunisia to this day. Second, in regarding the “return” of Jews from Europe to be beneficial, they may not have considered that Zionism would lead to the seizure by Jews of a tract of Arab land, with the result of most of its inhabitants being expelled and being replaced with Jewish emigrants from Syria and Egypt; they may have expected Jews settling as equals throughout greater Syria and Egypt.

(3) He alleges that Rashid Rida, whom he names as a teacher of Hassan al-Banna (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood), Shaikh Izz al-Deen al-Qassaam and the mufti Amin al-Husseini, was an “Islamic traditionalist” and “a religious scholar heavily influenced by the Saudi Wahhabites”. He was in fact a modernist, and the movement towards “re-opening the gates of ijtihaad” (i.e. allowing for fresh reasoning on matters of Islamic law) originate with him and his associates and teachers. The movement is widely rejected by Muslim traditionalists, many of whom consider it heretical.

As for Hassan al-Banna, he was certainly not a Wahhabi and not an anti-Semite either. Indeed, an anti-Ikhwaan Wahhabi group based in Birmingham (in England) calls the movement he founded the “Bankrupt Brotherhood” (Ikhwaan al-Muflisoon) and cites the following from him (see this PDF) by way of denunciation:

And then there is the statement of Hasan al-Banna, “And I affirm here that our dispute with the Jews is not one concerning the religion because the Qur’an has encouraged us to befriend them and be cordial with them. And Islam is Shari’ah for humankind before it is a Shari’ah for a specific group of people. And it has praised them (the Jews) and has placed agreement between us and them, “And do not dispute with the People of the Book except by that which is best”.

And they cite this, from Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi:

He says, in addition to the enormity of al-Banna, “We do not fight the Jews for the sake of aqida (i.e. religion)!! We are fighting them for the sake of land!! We do not fight them because they are kuffaar!! We fight them because they have occupied our land and have taken it without due right”.

Yes, there are sections of the Muslim Brotherhood which are Wahhabi-inclined and Wahhabis who are Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers, but al-Banna was, nonetheless, not one of them, even if one (among many) of his teachers was influenced by them (again, among many other things, including other modernists at al-Azhar).

(4) Küntzel concludes:

The historical record gives the lie to the assumption that Islamic antisemitism is caused by Zionism or Israeli policy. In fact, it is not the escalation of the Middle East conflict that has given rise to antisemitism; it is rather antisemitism that has given rise to the escalation of the Middle East conflict.

There is a sure way of identifying the real roots of such antisemitism, and that is to look at the current attitude in this part of the world to Hitler and the Nazis. When Germans in Beirut, Damascus or Amman find themselves inundated with compliments on account of Hitler, what does this have to do with Israel? When Iranian cartoons show Anne Frank in bed with Adolf Hitler, what on earth has this to do with Zionism?

What it has to do with Zionism is that Nazi Germany was the enemy both of the Jews and of the British and French colonial régimes at the time when the plan to seize part of Palestine was afoot. The Holocaust denial which is prevalent is significant: most Arabs may not believe that Hitler murdered as many Jews as he is known to have done in the West. Of course, there were those in the Arab élite who supported the colonisers because they got rich and had a good time, and Palestinians who did not fight Israel because they preferred to work for the Jews on their citrus groves.

The vast majority of Arabs, however, were either religious or nationalistic, as might be expected: they wanted their land - all of it - for themselves, and many of them wanted a return to classical religious rule. I would add that, with or without Zionism, there would have been a religious rebellion against secular rule in the Arab world, and with or without Nazi propaganda, there would have been opposition to Zionism. The idea of Jews settling in Egypt, Syria or even Palestine would have been acceptable, but the idea of them being yet another foreign aggressor, ruling over and forcing out a group of Arab Muslims from a tract of land which had been Arab and predominantly Muslim for centuries, would certainly not have been.

“Exposing” Arab anti-Semitic prejudice is a common line of pro-Zionist propaganda, of course; we see MEMRI clips of children talking about martyrdom or repeating abusive phrases about Jews they learned from some adult who should know better, such as this one, recently blogged at Harry’s Place, on Palestinian TV - as if Muslims have a monopoly on such behaviour or of putting their children in harm’s way; but it is no more than a self-serving delusion to see Muslim hostility to Israel’s existence as no more than a product of anti-Semitism or the influence of Nazi propaganda. I think it better that he be able to give this talk in a couple of other places where his ludicrous thesis can be challenged, rather than censored with threats, complaints and bureaucratic nit-picking.

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