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From Medieval times through the Nazi Holocaust organizer Adolph Eichmann down to today, antisemites have liked to style themselves as experts on Judaism. Actually, they always get it ludicrously wrong, due both to lack of knowledge and their predetermined hostility.
The latest in this tradition is Yousef al-Qaradhawi. There is no way to overstate the importance of this man. He is not only the spiritual guide to the Muslim Brotherhoods but arguably the single most influential Sunni cleric today, certainly on an international scale. Qaradhawi has more followers than his counterpart who heads al-Azhar and hosted President Barack Obama’s speech from Cairo.
The fact that this man has been voicing basic antisemitism (maybe we should rename it Judeophobia) for years—not even bothering to hide behind the pretext of merely criticizing Israel—should be a huge element in everyone’s understanding of contemporary Islam in the West. But it isn’t.
In fact, how can it be now that Obama has declared Islam to pretty much always be a tolerant religion? If that’s so, then why is Qaradhawi such a major figure? How can millions of people be considered moderate if they don’t denounce Qaradhawi but actually follow him.
What makes this especially interesting—and highly symbolic—is that Qaradhawi is now complaining that Obama basically said that all three monotheistic religions are nice. He will have none of it. The Talmud and Torah, he says, is just one long call for war while the Koran is just fine and dandy.
But Qaradhawi is not just talking about Judaism, since he says that the Torah, i.e., the Bible in this case, is the basis of Christianity as well. Indeed, he holds it responsible for wiping out Native Americans in North America and Aborigines in Australia.
I will leave it to the experts to provide the relevant citations, merely remarking that Obama’s quotes from the Koran were ludicrously out of context. He even credited a humanitarian statement in Jewish texts (to take a life is like destroying the universe) to Muslim ones, though the latter only use the statement to attack Jews as being hypocrites.
In other words, since Obama attributes Jewish statements about humanitarian behavior to Islamic writings, why shouldn’t Qaradhawi accept this transfer and insist that his holy text is perfect and everyone else’s is terrible?
My point here, however, is political, not theological.
Since Obama has already made it clear that the Koran or Muslims themselves have never been a source for oppression or intolerance, the American president can’t respond to Qaradhawi with examples of Muslims acting in a bloodthirsty manner. He already said this never happened.
You could summarize the debate as follows:
Obama: Islam is great, the West is guilty, but Judaism and Christianity are also good
Qaradhawi: You got the first two-thirds’ right!
And so, the score is Qaradhawi 1, Obama 0. The American president’s exercise in flattery and apology has produced the predictable result.
What a wonderful example of how this approach fails miserably.
This situation brought to mind a personal experience from many years ago when I was a student. I met a student from Algeria at a party and we began talking. I opened with a thoroughgoing critique of U.S. history, politics, and foreign policy.
Then it was his turn. “And what about Algeria,” I asked.
He was startled. “Algeria! That’s my country.” In other words, he could speak not a word of criticism of it. I want to stress there was no fear of repression involved since the two of us were alone having this conversation, thousands of miles from Algeria. No secret police about.
Of course, Algeria was and is a dictatorial regime with huge problems, while the United States manages to overcome its shortcomings. Being self-critical, learning from mistakes, and being willing to make big changes are distinctions which help explain America’s relative success and Algeria’s failures.
Algeria, isn’t that country where there was a civil war in which Islamists, basing themselves on Islamic texts–whether rightly or wrongly is another matter–killed tens of thousands of people? Ah, but according to Obama in Cairo this is a small, marginal group that have nothing to do with Islam.
I don’t think Obama has learned this kind of lesson about how trashing your civilization may produce popularity but not progress. After praising everything Muslim and lambasting his own country’s traditions, he seemed to expect some reciprocity.
A simple rule applies here: If you give a unilateral concession it is likely to be accepted, but not necessarily reciprocated.
More likely, you”ll hear: You call that a concession? We’re just getting started! You’re still too kind to your own side and too critical of ours. Try harder next time!
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East (Routledge), The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).