This article is the third in our series of reflections from different perspectives on the Israel-Palestine conflict, one of the most complex, contentious and emotive conflicts of recent times, and one in which almost every alleged ‘fact’ is in dispute. Our first article was by Kunwar Khuldune Shahid on the role of Islamists and their far-left supporters. Our second formed part of an interview with Dr Taj Hargey, an imam and academic, in which he emphasised that the establishment of Israel was originally a ‘colonial settler’ project. The third one below, by Hina Husain, focuses on the cultivation of anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli sentiment among some (but of course, not all) Muslims. In due course we shall be publishing a fourth article to reflect further on the historic roots of the conflict.
~ Emma Park, Editor
In the month since Hamas attacked Israel, there have been dozens of pro-Palestine protests across the world. Where I live in Canada, a high profile rally in the city of Mississauga went viral when one of the attendees gave this interview where she claims, among other things, that Hamas would never behead babies because ‘they are a Muslim group’ and doing so would be ‘against Islam’. She says Hamas is a resistance, not a terrorist group, and everything they have done in Israel is justified. Many people who watched this clip were horrified to hear the atrocities against Israelis being so casually dismissed, and it did not help that the woman in the interview was sporting large, golden earrings made to look like machine guns while donning the hijab. So much for a ‘religion of peace’.
When I watched this interview, I was neither shocked nor surprised, but instead was reminded of my upbringing in Pakistan and what we were taught about Jews and Israel. Now, I am not an Islamic scholar, nor will I claim to know what the Quran really says about Jewish people and their history. All I know is that hatred of Jews is a very normal, accepted and even encouraged aspect of modern Islamic life and teachings. What we are seeing at these pro-Palestine rallies, I suspect, is more sinister than just fighting for the human rights of Palestinians, as so much of the mainstream media would like us to believe.
Here is a fact: on the top of every page of a Pakistani passport is the phrase, ‘This passport is valid for all countries of the world except Israel.’ Until 2021, Bangladesh’s passport also bore this text, prohibiting citizens from traveling to Israel. The Malaysian passport still has it. In total, over a dozen Muslim-majority countries do not admit those with an Israeli passport, six of which also do not admit people who have evidence of travel to Israel.
In contrast, according to Wikipedia, there are (or at least were before the present conflict) very few states, and none of the major Muslim ones, whose citizens are automatically refused entry to Israel – although citizens from most Muslim countries require confirmation from the Israeli Foreign Ministry before a visa can be issued, and it may be refused.
It is easy to assume that countries like Pakistan and Malaysia do not recognise the state of Israel because, like the hive-mind Borg from Star Trek, the Muslim ummah stands in solidarity with Palestinians and their liberation. But there is another reason why Muslim states are so opposed to the idea of Israel for Jews. Since as long as I can remember, I was taught, by my parents, teachers and faith leaders, that Jewish people were damned by God and, as punishment, they would never have their own homeland. This is what I suspect, though I cannot prove it, is driving at least some of the anti-Semitism we are seeing in Islamic communities: the idea that if Israel is made a permanent, Jewish state, then the word of God is being disobeyed, and Muslims have taken it upon themselves to make sure Jewish people are punished just as Allah intended by denying them a right to have their own country. As one Twitter user, Kaz Nejatian, put it: ‘I grew up in Iran. Every day, I was forced to chant “death to Israel”. Generations of children have been brainwashed to believe Jews are evil.’
I think back on my childhood and adolescence in Lahore, Pakistan and can clearly see how anti-Jewish sentiment was propagated through society. In history class, we never learned about the Holocaust. World War II was abstracted into a far-away conflict involving the Axis and Allies, the signing of treaties, and that was about it. Who Hitler was and what he did to millions of European Jews was never mentioned, nor was the fact that anti-Semitism was one of the driving forces behind the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. Teaching this part of history might have had the unintended consequence of casting Jewish people in a more sympathetic light, and that could not be allowed. How else could they teach children in their Islamic Studies class that during the time of Muhammad, Jews were conniving villains who cast black magic spells on our Holy Prophet? Between world history and Islamic Studies, the word of the Quran always won out.
A few weeks ago, I was doing some research for a piece I am writing on Pakistani movies and came across a paper on black magic in Pakistani television shows. It was published in 2021 in a scientific journal for archaeology and paleontology and was written by professors working at universities in Pakistan. Its thesis was that portraying black magic on TV might lead people to think it was okay to engage in the practice. The authors were against this because they claimed that Islam prohibits the practice of black magic, so filmmakers and artists should refrain from showing it in their work. The paper then goes on to say (sic), ‘It is surprising for some folks [to] recognize about the black magic has such intense power that it had also affected our beloved Prophet Hazrat Muhammad(PBUH). The bewitching incident of Hazrat Muhammad(PBUH) is narrated as a Jew requested the famous sorcerer named Labaid bin Asim to cast spell on Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH) and offered three gold coins as a reward.’
In other words, in 2023, research papers coming out of Pakistani institutions are still casually dropping anti-Semitic tales taken from religious texts as ‘proof’ of the dangers of black magic. Even science is not sacred.
I do not have the expertise to judge whether or not the Palestinian people have legitimate grievances against the Israeli state. I do find it curious, though, that in other places around the world where Muslims are suffering, our global ummah has little to say. The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the Uyghurs in China, and most recently the Afghans seeking asylum in Pakistan who are forcefully being deported back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, have not generated even a fraction of the outrage that the Palestinian cause inspires in the hearts and souls of Muslims. Thousands of people protested in the streets of Pakistan against airstrikes in Gaza after 7 October. But few are willing to fight for Afghan Muslims, including children, and their human right to seek safety in Pakistan.
It is strange that Muslim children in Gaza apparently generate more support than thousands of Afghan children born in Pakistan, who now have to go to a country they know nothing about, facing an uncertain future, including potential death due to widespread famine in Afghanistan. Not to mention the Yemeni civil war, currently in its ninth year, where more than 100,000 children have died from starvation alone. Maybe because this is a conflict between ‘brother’ Muslim nations, and therefore does not require the same amount of care and attention. The more important thing, it seems, is to make sure Jews never have a country to call their own.
An inferiority complex may also play a role in anti-Jewish sentiment. As the American economist Thomas Sowell once put it: ‘[Jews] are people who have succeeded an awful lot in the midst of other people who have not…as long as you succeed, you’re going to be hated.’
To explain away this conundrum—how can Jews be so successful if they’re damned by God?—many Muslim children are taught that only ‘true’ Muslims will be guaranteed a place in heaven on the day of judgement, and anyone who does not believe in Allah and his Prophet is going to go to hell if the good-versus-bad scale does not tip in their favour. Not Muslims though: they have a one-way ticket straight to the land of milk and honey, if they are the ‘right’ kind of Muslim. What sect that is, no one knows, and the only way to make sure you do not end up in hell with the Jews and Hindus is to devote your life to Islam and make sure you are among the lucky ones to have cracked the code. People of the book—Jews and Christians—can at least hope to make it to heaven if they are good, but bona fide heathens like Hindus and Sikhs have no chance of joining us chosen ones in the Great Beyond.
All this is to say that anti-Semitism, and discrimination against non-Muslims in general, thrives in large segments of the Muslim world across the globe. Its roots can only be understood if we are honest about how religion is being used to brainwash entire nations to get on the anti-Semitic bandwagon. The conflict in Israel and Palestine has no hope of finding a solution if Muslims around the world do not start doing some soul-searching about what exactly it is about the state of Israel that whips them into such a frenzy. Yet seeing the growing number of pro-Palestine protests, I do not see such self-reflection happening any time soon.