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Opinion// Letty Cottin Pogrebin

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Islamophobia, The Flip Side of Anti-Semitism

We Jews need to be careful about diminishing and defaming Muslims.

Beheadings. Charlie Hebdo. The kosher supermarket. The caged pilot burned alive. Boko Haram atrocities. A guard shot during a bat mitzvah at a synagogue in Copenhagen. Four people killed last May after 90 seconds of mayhem at the Jewish Museum of Belgium. All heinous acts. All committed by Muslim extremists in the name of radical Islam.

Although such events leave us cringing in disbelief, they must not be used to fan the flames of Islamophobia—that is, of an indiscriminate fear and loathing of Muslims and their faith. We can’t fall into the trap of equating murderers with innocent people or of thinking that radical Muslims are unique in distorting the tenets of their faith and committing grotesque acts of terror.


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After all, as the president suggested at the National Prayer Breakfast, it wasn’t Muslims but God-fearing, church-going Christians who conducted the Crusades and the Inquisition and burned Jews and women at the stake. Muslims didn’t build death camps, gas and incinerate Jews, crush babies’ skulls, subject twins to freakish medical experiments and bury people alive. Nor was it Muslims who enslaved, shackled, beat, whipped, flayed, raped, lynched, branded and mutilated millions of black people. And I don’t know of a single American Muslim who performed an “enhanced interrogation” in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo or the CIA’s infamous “black sites.”

Likewise, when people firebomb abortion clinics in the name of religion, that religion isn’t Islam. Barnett Slepian, a physician who performed legal abortions, was shot to death through his kitchen window—after attending synagogue for his father’s yahrtzeit—not by a Muslim but by a Christian who called himself “pro-life.” And it wasn’t Muslims who tortured to death two gay men in Redding, California, for not “obeying the laws of the creator” or who, in various incidents, shot, strangled, burned or beat to death 13 transgender women in 2014.

Nonbelievers, too, are capable of unspeakable acts. The Cambodian genocide was perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, whose leaders had outlawed all religion. And just a few weeks ago, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a man self-described as “a supporter of Atheists for Equality,” and an enemy of all faiths, shot in the head, “execution-style,” three Muslim students, including a newlywed couple.

Given our history, Jews especially ought to know better than to excoriate Islam as if it’s the only belief system that has ever inspired its followers to hatred and barbarism. We should, by rights, be among the most zealous opponents of Islamophobia.

Loathed and slandered by people of all faiths, even in places where there are almost no Jews at all (like Japan, with a Jewish population of 1,000), we know how it feels to be “Othered”—defamed for our differences; disdained for our appearance, dress or religious practices; and caricatured by stereotypes and lies. We were accused by the blood libel long before we were officially treated as subhuman and targeted for extermination. We know where hate-mongering can lead.

Stereotypes about Muslims are as corrosive as stereotypes about Jews. Yet, to my shame, in the past few months, I’ve heard Jews call Islam an “evil, bloodthirsty religion” and accuse “the Muslims” of being “animals,” “savages” and “uncivilized.” I’ve also read warnings of an imminent Holy War and endless demands for imams and other Muslims to speak out against their militants.

In fact, many of their leaders have done so but have been ignored, from the full-page ad in The New York Times on January 11 by Muslims Against Islamism, to the “46 Examples of Muslim Outrage about Paris Shootings that Fox News Can’t Seem to Find” collected by Katie Halper at RawStory. Beliefnet published another compilation of denunciations of ISIS by major Islamic groups and religious authorities in “Think Muslims Haven’t Condemned ISIS? Think Again.”

Only prejudice, in this case Islamophobia, can explain why people insist that every Muslim answer for jihadist extremists but not that every German answer for Hitler, Himmler and Mengele; or that every descendant of the pioneers answer for massacres of Native Americans; or that every white Southerner atone for the grim abuses of white slave owners; or that every heterosexual answer for straight homophobic killers. Not every male is expected to do penance for men who sexually abuse little girls, beat and murder their wives or earn billions from violent pornography, prostitution and human trafficking.

Should every Jew be loathed and feared because Baruch Goldstein gunned down 29 unarmed Palestinian Muslim worshippers in a mosque in Hebron? Should we have to answer for the Jewish fanatics who kidnapped a 16-year-old Arab, beat him with a wrench, forced him to drink gasoline and torched him? Should any Jew be victimized by anti-Semites because some people object to events in Israel?

In this sense, Islamophobia is to Muslims what anti-Semitism is to Jews. Much as education about Judaism is an antidote to anti-Semitism, education about Islam is necessary to combat Islamophobia. Jews, with their history, would do well to take up this project. The Jewish Theological Seminary has done so, joining with the Islamic Society of North America and the interfaith Hartford Seminary to publish and make available online a free guide to joint community education projects called “Sharing the Well: A Resource Guide for Jewish-Muslim Engagement.” These mainstream religious organizations are making an essential effort to reach out and build common ground. It’s time for more members of the Jewish community to shoulder their responsibility to do the same.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s second novel and 11th book, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, will be published this spring.

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2 comments

  1. True, there are murderous fanatics of every religion and no religion. But what other faith has such inherently violent and supremacist yet basic concepts like infidel, Dar al Islam/Dar al Harb, dhimmi and jizya?

    • Actually, if you go back a century or two, or perhaps just a year or two, as the author points out, the answer to that is extreme Christianity. The point is not that Islam is somehow ‘the worst’, it is the extremism of believing that yours is the only way–whether Islamic, Christian, Hindu or, yes, even Jewish–that sets us on this trail of violence. Excellent and important piece—!

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