Islamism is one of the least understood forms of anti-Semitism. Leave to one side those who foolishly romanticise Islamist groups as fighting a heroic anti-colonial struggle against Israel and the West. Even those who, quite rightly, condemn Jihadi violence all too often lack a broader understanding of the Islamist world view. Being appalled by terrorist atrocities is not the same as grappling with the ideas of the broader political movement that motivates them.
Opponents of Islamism most often see it as essentially an extreme form of Islam as a religion. Such a conclusion is understandable as it is possible to selectively pull-out quotes from the Koran showing antipathy towards Jews. It is also important to note that Islamists present themselves as representing the true face of Islam. But the fact that Islamists identify themselves in these terms is a reason to question the claim rather than take it as a given.
Reducing Islamism to a form of extremist religion is hard to maintain once it is examined more closely. For a start, empirical studies of Jihadis and Islamist activists tend to suggest most have a skimpy knowledge of the religion. Their reading of Islamic texts tends to be highly tendentious. It is also insufficiently well recognised how much they are influenced by the most backward forms of European thought. For example, The Protocols of The Elders of Zion (1903), the notorious tsarist forgery outlining a supposed global Jewish conspiracy, is seminal in Islamist literature.
To be sure there is a relatively small number of formidable academics who do see Islamism as a form of political ideology rather than an extremist religion. For example, Olivier Roy, a leading French expert, argues that: ‘We must understand that terrorism does not arise from the radicalisation of Islam, but from the Islamisation of radicalism’. In other words, Islamism is an outlook that frames radical politics in Islamic language. The Islamist worldview extends well beyond Jihadi terrorists to include what are sometimes called ‘participationist’ Islamists. Such militants engage in Islamist politics but do not themselves engage in acts of violence. Other experts who see Islamism as essentially a form of political ideology, albeit one that uses an Islamic idiom, include Matthias Küntzel and Bassam Tibi. These authors are all well worth reading but sadly they have so far had relatively little influence on the public debate.
Evin Ismail, a senior lecturer in political science at the Swedish Defence University, has added to this important but insufficiently well-known literature with her Uppsala University doctorate. It examines the centrality of anti-Semitism to the outlook of the Muslim Brotherhood – which has spawned numerous organisations around the world – and Islamic State.
She draws on a variety of sources to help understand the Islamist world view and the centrality of Islamism in particular. These include a discussion of Islamic sources such as the Koran and the hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhamad), the writings of Sayyid Qutb (the most influential Islamist ideologue), Dabiq (an Islamic State newsletter) and case studies of various Islamist terrorists.
Ismail argues that anti-Semitism has played a central part in the Islamist outlook since its inception with the foundation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928. That is, it should be noted, 20 years before the founding of the state of Israel. So, seeing Islamist anti-Semitism as simply a reaction to Israel’s actions is not tenable.
Several factors contributed to the rise of Islamism and its anti-Semitism in particular. In the 1930s and early 1940s the Nazis promoted the Muslim Brotherhood as a counterweight to Britain, which then dominated Egypt, and France. Naturally the Nazis brought their poisonous anti-Semitic baggage with them. But even before the rise of the Nazis other pernicious European influences, most notably the Protocols, were having an influence on sections of Egyptian society.
The most influential Muslim Brotherhood ideologue, whose influence later spread worldwide, was Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966). Ismail draws on two of his works to help reconstruct his anti-Semitic worldview, The first was Our Struggle Against the Jews, a short pamphlet which describes Jews as a ‘cosmic Satanic evil’. The other is In the Shade of the Koran, Qutb’s multi-volume great work.
Qutb’s outlook still provides the core of Islamist ideology. In his view Muslims had suffered from the machinations of Jews and double dealing since the inception of Islam in the year 610. Jews had waged a constant war against the ummah (the Muslim community of believers) as part of their conspiratorial drive to dominate the world. The survival of Islam from this perspective depended on waging a religious war – in which killing was morally sanctioned – to defeat the cosmic evil of the Jews. Qutb argued that an elite cadre of Islamic revolutionaries was needed to achieve this goal. He also popularised the idea of takfir – the idea of excommunicating Muslims regarded as apostates.
Qutb’s worldview has been extended and adapted by numerous Islamist groups around the world. For example, Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has translated four of Qutb’s books into Farsi . Islamism has therefore crossed an important divide from the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organisation, to the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran.
Ismail’s focus though is Islamic State and how its doctrine developed via the Sahwa movement, an important organisation although little known in the West.
The Sahwa movement emerged in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. It was established by exiled Muslim Brotherhood activists from Egypt and Syria. These included Mohammed Qutb, the brother of Sayyid, who was also inspired by the Protocols. Mohammed Qutb in turn inspired Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born leader of Al-Qaeda until he was killed by American forces in 2011.
Ismail argues that Sahwa combined apolitical Wahhabism – the austere from of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia – with the Muslim Brotherhood’s organisational methods and political worldview. A key intellectual innovation was its addition of anti-Shiism into the mix. This was already prevalent among Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members as they were already in a conflict with the Assad regime, dominated by the Alawites, a sect within Shiite Islam. The Sunni state of Saudi Arabia was also a regional geopolitical rival of the predominantly Shiite Iran.
ISIS took this anti-Shiism a step further by linking it to their anti-Semitism. It developed the idea that Shiites were not really Muslims at all but – astonishingly – undercover Jews as they reject the true teaching of Islam. This in turn, in the view of ISIS, justified its systematic killing of Shiites in Iraq.
This is perhaps the most surprising example of the paranoid conspiratorial anti-Semitism that is central to the Islamist worldview. For example, ISIS – like most other Islamists – believes that America is controlled by Jews and Israel. It has also referred to Kurdish troops as representing ‘Peshmergen Zionism’. In addition, ISIS has claimed that Sunni leaders, especially monarchs, are ‘apostate rulers’ who act as ‘the slaves of the Jews and the Christians’.
Once the grotesque assumptions of the Islamist world view are accepted, its outlook makes sense. Jews are, from this warped perspective, engaged in an evil conspiracy against the entire global Muslim community. The conclusion Islamists draw is that it is necessary to wage a religious war against the Jews to counter this supposed threat. Killing Jews is, in this view, morally justified.
Tackling Islamism effectively means developing a better understand of it as a radical political ideology rather than as an extreme of the religion. Its doctrine needs to be carefully studied and understood. Evin Ismail’s book is an important contribution towards that urgent task.
Daniel Ben-Ami runs the Radicalism of Fools website on rethinking anti-Semitism.