As this article appears, tens of millions of Muslims throughout the Arab world have almost finished marking the holy month of Ramadan in the manner that has now become customary. Not only have they been fasting from dawn to dusk, but they have also been watching a great deal of television. This year, a 41-part series shown during Ramadan has ignited international controversy.
Knight Without a Horse tells how in 1906 an Egyptian, fighting the British occupation, stumbles on a document that reveals an international Jewish conspiracy for global domination. The document is none other than the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Although this was long ago exposed in the west as a 19th-century anti-Semitic forgery, created by the Russian secret police, the TV drama treats it as genuine.
The series went ahead despite international protests, thus strengthening the arguments of those who, like Christopher Hitchens on the left and Andrew Sullivan on the right, have portrayed militant Islam as the new fascism. "Fanatical anti-Semitism," Sullivan has written, ". . . is . . . the acrid glue that unites Saddam, Arafat, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Iran and the Saudis. They all hate the Jews and want to see them destroyed."
Is it true that extremist Islam is inherently anti-Semitic? My impression is that this question tends to be avoided (or at least not adequately addressed) by the commentators, such as John Pilger, Robert Fisk and Noam Chomsky, who have written most critically about the war on terrorism. If so, the omission is dangerous, for it leaves extraordinarily powerful ammunition in the sole possession of those who are the advocates of war. Those advocates sometimes seem, on this issue, to be seeing reality more clearly than their opponents do.
The case of Osama Bin Laden is itself instructive. In interviews that he gave before 11 September, he made it clear that the jihad he supports is directed against a shadowy alliance of "Jews and crusaders". America is a target because he see it as the puppet of the Jews. "The leaders in America," Bin Laden said, "have fallen victim to Jewish Zionist blackmail." Inside the Pentagon and the CIA, "the Jews have the upper hand. . . . They make use of America to further their plans for the world, especially the Islamic world."
Bin Laden's world-view here echoes that of the protocols. The forged document's pervasive influence in the Muslim world is nothing new. Egypt's President Nasser used it in his war against Israel. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia would present visiting diplomats (including Henry Kissinger) with a copy. The Palestinian group Hamas invokes the protocols in its charter. At its worst, extremist Islamic discourse depicts the Jewish people not only as the enemies of Muhammad, but as the friends and allies of Satan.
One reason we hear so little about Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism, except from pro-Israeli commentators, is that it may seem unjust to accuse of vilifying their enemies the very group of people who are among the most vilified in the world: leading Israeli politicians have described the Palestinians as "cockroaches in a glass jar", "two-legged beasts", "lice" and a "cancer".
No less importantly, some commentators and pressure groups have used the charge of anti-Semitism in an attempt to silence journalists who make legitimate criticisms of the Israeli government or military. So frequently have pro-Israeli factions cried wolf in this fashion that they have made it easier for Palestinians and their sympathisers to exploit the mythology of anti-Semitism without attracting censure from western liberals. Yet demonological anti-Semitism, which is almost a religion in itself, remains essentially destructive, however seemingly just the cause in which it is deployed. To demonise your enemy is to confuse issues, destroy moral judgement and block rational analysis. Such demonisation, which invisibly justifies terrible acts of destruction, will poison and corrupt any cause; we have seen the results in the mutilated bodies of Israelis blown up by suicide bombers, in the mass slaughters in Manhattan and Bali. As Eduardo Galeano has written, "In the battle between good and evil, it is always the people who get killed."
But the argument about demonisation cuts both ways. Rather than anathematising Islamic terrorists as "evil", one of the questions we should be asking is why anti-Semitism has taken root within Islam. For demonological anti-Semitism is not an Islamic tradition; it is a specifically western, Christian invention, of which the racial anti-Semitism that emerged at the end of the 19th century was simply a secularised version. "Possibly," wrote the theologian Rosemary Ruether, "anti-Judaism is too deeply embedded in the foundations of Christianity to be rooted out entirely without destroying the whole structure." But whereas Christianity, from the Gospel of John onward, always placed the Jews, as Christ-killers, at the very heart of its demonology, Islam, while revering Jesus as a prophet, actually rejects the view that Jesus was crucified. This does not mean that Islam has been immune to anti-Jewish prejudice. At times, Muslims have subjected Jews to discrimination and persecution. But Islam has never, until recently, showed signs of succumbing to the kind of demonological Jew-hatred that has been endemic in so many versions of Christianity.
It was not until around 1900, with the growing influence of Europeans in the Middle East, and with the active dissemination of anti-Semitism by European colonists, that extreme anti-Semitism spread both among Arab Christians and among Muslims. Western, and particularly British, support for a Zionist state in Palestine made such bigotry more appealing.
The creation of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East was, in part at least, itself an anti-Semitic project. In 1905 (when he was prime minister), Arthur Balfour (whose declaration of 1917 supported the creation of a Jewish homeland) himself had introduced the Aliens Bill to limit Jewish immigration to Britain. Later, having met and talked to Cosima Wagner, he confessed to sharing many of her anti-Semitic views. The only Jewish member of the British cabinet at the time of the Balfour Declaration, Edwin Samuel Montagu, opposed it: "The policy of His Majesty's Government", he wrote, "is anti-Semitic . . . and will prove a rallying ground for anti-Semites in every country of the world."
Montagu may never have anticipated the extent to which European anti-Semitism, having played such a significant role in providing the new Zionist colony with its population, would be adopted by Palestinian Arabs. Yet from the 1920s onward, this is what happened. At first, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, tried to rally both the Muslim masses and Islamic leaders by claiming that the Zionists intended to rebuild Solomon's temples on the ruins of the great mosques. Then during the 1930s, a large part of the Arab world was naturally drawn towards Germany. The Middle East had in effect been taken over by Britain and France since 1918. Now, Germany, which had itself been humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles, seemed ready to humiliate the humiliators. German anti-Semitic propaganda almost immediately began to be used by Arab campaigners against the Zionist colony, which British anti-Semitism had helped to establish. Throughout the war, Haj Amin remained in touch with the Germans, and in 1941, having fled to Berlin, he held talks with Hitler in which he thanked him for the "unequivocal support" he had shown for the Palestinians. Anti-Semitic propaganda broadcast in Arabic from Berlin had a significant effect in Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Tunisia and other Arab countries.
Although such propaganda disappeared from Europe after the end of the war, it continued to circulate in the Arab world. In Egypt, anti-Semitism was taken up not only by Nasser, but also, in a particularly violent form, by Sayyid Qutb, the western-influenced ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood whom Nasser executed and who more than anyone else shaped the thinking of modern, militant Islam, including that of Bin Laden. In Qutb's view, Jews, who had always rebelled against God, were inherently evil: "From such creatures who kill, massacre and defame prophets, one can only expect the spilling of human blood and dirty means which would further their machinations and evilness."
The destructive form that anti-Semitism has now assumed within militant Islam is not, therefore, Islamic at all in its origins; it is quintessentially western. Certainly, the dreams of world domination which drive radical Islamists have been there from the beginning. But neither those dreams nor their violent righteousness are unique to Islam. They are the common property of all three Abrahamic faiths; Judaism, Christianity and Islam have always been, at their scriptural core, ideologies of world domination. It was in the Christian tradition alone that the fantasy of world domination was denied and projected on to the Jewish people. This is why it is simplistic to refer, as Hitchens has done, to "fascism with an Islamic face". By using this formula, Hitchens - like George Bush announcing a war against "evil" - intensifies the progressive demonisation of radical Islam, which has been going on for many years. And Hitchens's solution is as chilling as that of the Arab anti-Semites. "It is impossible," he writes, "to compromise with proponents of sacrificial killing of civilians, with the disseminators of anti-Semitic filth, with the violators of women and the cheerful murderers of children . . . In confronting such people, the crucial thing is to be willing and able, if not in fact eager, to kill them without pity before they can get started."
Those on the right who have taken up the chant of "Islamo- fascism" repeatedly enjoin us to "forget the root causes". Yet the point of the military and political decisions being taken now is to eliminate or lessen the perils facing us. If we ignore history in doing this, we may increase those perils. We should recognise that the direct responsibility for the transfer of a murderous form of anti-Semitism from Christianity to Islam lies with the decision of the great powers, and above all of Britain, to back the Zionist project.
By underwriting a Jewish colony in Palestine, whose continued existence depended upon evicting Palestinians from their homes, expropriating their land and ruthlessly crushing any resistance, we created in the Middle East a cauldron of hatred. In conferring statehood upon this colony and in watching silently, or with insufficient protests, as the artificial Jewish nation became an expansionist power, enforcing its colonial designs by war, by the application of terror against civilians, by bullying and intimidation or by "targeted killings", we have allowed that hatred to deepen inexorably. And by failing to recognise the extent to which, over a period of almost a century, the poison of western anti-Semitism was being stirred into this deadly brew and disseminated throughout the Middle East and beyond, we have produced one of the most lethal conflicts in history.
What makes the conflict so dangerous is that the creation of the state of Israel overlapped with the establishment throughout the Middle East of western-led or western-inspired regimes that set out to marginalise or crush traditional religious observance. In Egypt, in Tunisia, in Iran and elsewhere, such secularist regimes enraged devout Muslims. In Iran, for example, Britain and America directly sponsored the regimes of two westernising tyrants, the Shah and his father, who used torture and terror in their efforts to undermine ordinary Muslim piety. The result was a brutal Islamic revolution that unleashed anti-Israeli and anti-American terrorism on an unprecedented scale.
Militant Islam has now provided America with the perfect justification to intensify the policy of world domination it has long pursued. By adopting a strategy of murderous terror and by striking principally against American citizens, it has enabled the US to make its imperial ambitions seem reasonable. By embracing extreme forms of anti-Semitism which are un-Islamic, and a medieval form of sharia law that is not supported by millions of moderate Muslims, it has assisted its own demonisation. A US foreign policy strategy - many elements of which were formulated before 11 September, and which would once have aroused substantial opposition even inside America - has been made to appear ethically respectable.
Hitchens, the quondam leftist, and Sullivan, the Catholic Republican, stress the repressiveness of radical Islam, its misogyny, its anti-Semitism and its religious dreams of world domination. A grasp of these is essential to any understanding of our present predicament. Yet they have often been absent from the left's analysis of 11 September and its aftermath. The danger of this omission is that Hitchens, Sullivan and all those commentators who have characterised their opponents as "Islamofascist" are currently succeeding in persuading many people of what is false by urging upon them what is true. Contrary to what they suggest, the greatest threat to world peace is not that posed by Islamist dreams of world domination. It is that posed by the corresponding American dreams, which are much nearer to being realised, but which, precisely because the imperialism of the United States is the habitual environment in which we live, have been rendered, like the ocean to the fish, all but invisible to us.
The idea that there is some kind of autonomous "Islamofascism" that can be crushed, or that the west may defend itself against the terrorists who threaten it by cultivating that eagerness to kill militant Muslims which Hitchens urges upon us, is a dangerous delusion. The symptoms that have led some to apply the label of "Islamofascism" are not reasons to forget root causes. They are reasons for us to examine even more carefully what those root causes actually are.
When we do so, we find that the key to the problem remains in the history of western colonialism in the Middle East, and above all in Palestine. It is there, and not in Iraq or Iran or Syria, that our main political energies and our strategic intelligence should now be deployed.
Richard Webster is the author of A Brief History of Blasphemy: liberalism, censorship and 'The Satanic Verses'. A fuller version of this essay can be found at www.richardwebster.net