On September 7 in what was deemed a condemnation of Islamic State (IS) jihadists, the grand sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb of Egypt’s al-Azhar, the leading Sunni religious authority in the country, claimed that IS are criminals.
“They have been able to transmit to the world a tarnished and alarming image of Islam,” he asserted. “They are a fundamentalist terrorist group and their backers are colonial creations that serve Zionism.”
Speakers at an annual summit of the Islamic Movement parroted similar views, noting that the coalition against IS was “evil.” Muslim leaders and their supporters in the West have disingenuously distanced as much as possible radical groups like IS from Islam, as if the mainstream has not an iota of responsibility for it.
What was interesting about these reactions to IS’s extremism is the diametric opposite reaction many Jewish leaders had to the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir. David Horowitz, the editor of The Times of Israel website, noted on July 7 that the killing was a “sobering moment for complacent Israel.” He argued that “the killing of Muhammad Abu Khdeir must rid us of the illusion that we enjoy a distinctive moral superiority over our neighbors.” He argued that the killing “shames and stains us” because Jews were accused of the killing. “We Israelis knew we had nothing in common with those Hamas killers who so callously ended the lives of three innocent teenagers – we were wrong.” In his view, “We are being dragged down and the footage of Border Police thugs apparently beating Abu Khdeir’s cousin underlines the depths to which we are sinking.”
Jane Eisner, the editor of The Forward, took a similar tone.
“Why Jewish revenge murder should wake us all up,” she intoned in a July 7 article. “This unforgivable act was perpetrated by some of our own... [we must] recognize what the occupation also has done to us.”
Michael Zak of Neve Shalom expounded a similar view, saying, “The culprit is the racist discourse created and sustained by the leaders of this country.”
In addition, more traditionally rightwing voices came out with “open condemnations” of the murder in which they spoke on behalf of “we” as well. One liturgist wrote a Kaddish prayer for Abu Khdeir. Popular Rabbi Benny Lau of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem joined in, “It is unforgivable – how can a person who believes in Torah kill an innocent person?” Lau asked bitterly.
In his September 10 speech US President Barack Obama argued that the actions of IS were not Islamic.
“Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL [IS] is not ‘Islamic,’” he said. “No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.”
Many Muslim leaders have chimed in with a similar tone. “ISIS [IS] and al-Qaida represent a warped religious ideology,” said Faizal Khan, imam of the Islamic Society of America mosque in Silver Spring, Maryland. Writers at the ThinkProgress website claimed it was “not, in fact, Islamic.”
Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti claimed that, “Extremist and militant ideas and terrorism which spread decay on Earth, destroying human civilization, are not in any way part of Islam.”
So what is happening here? IS is an organization of tens of thousands perhaps, with other supporters abroad. Up until it gained worldwide attention for massacring Yezidis in Iraq, it had been broadcasting videos of its fighters lining up Shi’ites and gunning them down; hacking off heads and butchering people and throwing their bodies into a river.
There was no discussion then about how “it wasn’t Islamic.” When it gained more attention, suddenly not only was it not Islamic, but actually the fault of the US and/or Israel, or at any rate the responsibility of the West in some way.
Khaled Diab claimed in a Haaretz article on September 4 that, “The illegal and bloody invasion of Iraq, [was carried out] against the will of millions of Britons.
And this disastrous enterprise, which triggered serious blow-back, created the vacuum from which ISIS emerged and helped radicalize some Muslims toward Britain.”
The message is simple: In no way is IS a product of the Middle East or Islam. It has nothing to do with Islam and its actions make it un-Islamic. Thus you won’t find a leading Muslim voice that speaks about “cleaning house” or about “soul searching.”
You won’t find imams in the West – whose students ran off to join IS – agonizing over “how could we produce this?” Why is the Jewish response so different? Adam Bronfman, president of The Samuel Bronfman foundation, quoted Rabbi Mishael Zion: “An ugly Jewish face has been unmasked yet again, and revealed us all to be carrying innocent blood on our hands.
It makes me shamed to my very core.” The Abu Khdeir murder was “unspeakably evil and vicious,” said Bronfman. The differing reactions betray a strange duality. Bronfman claims he was influenced by his father Edgar who told him that “Israel is to be a light unto the nations... Israel must behave according to a higher moral and ethical code.”
I’VE ENCOUNTERED this attitude before.
Another well known rabbinical leader after the murder of Abu Khdeir claimed that Jews invented morality and because of that they must work on a higher moral level and hence hold themselves to a higher standard.
Two things happen when Jewish leaders adopt the pretentious, preening, self-righteous “we” in condemning something.
It appears on the surface to be self-effacing and, as Horowitz claimed, a call against moral superiority. But hidden within such condemnations is the opposite attitude.
It is actually a self-glorifying “we are so perfect for condemning this” mentality, a “light unto the nations” mentality, that guides it. No one who condemned the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir actually believes that the killers came from within their community. They know they are as distant from killing Abu Khdeir as IS is from any mainstream Muslim leader, in fact probably more distant. They draw a false ring of “peoplehood” around the killers and “us” only when self-flagellation is in order.
It smacks of biblical-era prophetic pretentiousness, of Jeremiah shouting, “Oh, the nation has sinned,” and this attitude should be left where it belongs: in the Bible.
They impugn the whole Jewish community in a form of collective responsibility that they would never apply to another community. The very leaders and commentators who are the first to say “we Jews did this” are the same ones who say “not all Germans supported the Nazis,” “most Muslims reject terrorism” and “the inquisition was not integral to Christianity.”
It is true they hold Jews to a higher moral standard, but they do so in such a way as to libel the whole Jewish community for the actions of three people.
It is no wonder then that some of the same voices who impugn all Jews for Mohammed Abu Khdeir then go and agree with the narrative that Michael Felsen articulated about anti-Semitism: “The unequal treatment of Arab Israelis – is fanning the flames of anti-Semitism far beyond the borders of the state.”
Akiva Eldar writes, “A linkage between the Jewish people and Israel in the consciousness of world public opinion associates members of Jewish communities around the world (for good and bad) with responsibility for the actions and failures of Israelis.”
It isn’t a surprise then that some in the West take a cue from this. There is “a relationship between Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza and growing anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond,” wrote former Episcopal chaplain of Yale Bruce Shipman on August 26 in a letter to The New York Times.
The truth is of course that a Jew in the backwoods of Maine or the jungles of Brazil doesn’t bear responsibility for what the killers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir did. The killers are not “one of our own,” and there is no “we.” Call criminals and terrorists what they are. All Italians are not responsible for the actions of the mafia, and not all Catholics are responsible for the Inquisition.
Muslims are not responsible for IS – but some Islamic leaders, especially those in proximity to extremist forces, such as in Saudi Arabia, would do well to admit that extremism does come from “us” and is not just easily dismissed as an American-caused conspiracy of apostates.