Islamic Fundamentalism Wants World Hegemony'

A report prepared at the request of the American Jewish Committee by Hebrew University History Professor Robert Wistrich is an anthology of anti-Semitic and anti-Western quotations from Arab and Muslim culture. Wistrich, who is presenting his report this week in Washington, claims, "To make a significant change, the Muslim world will have to go through a Renaissance, a Reformation and an Enlightenment - all in one generation. But it's possible."

Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg

A report prepared at the request of the American Jewish Committee by Hebrew University History Professor Robert Wistrich is an anthology of anti-Semitic and anti-Western quotations from Arab and Muslim culture. Wistrich, who is presenting his report this week in Washington, claims, "To make a significant change, the Muslim world will have to go through a Renaissance, a Reformation and an Enlightenment - all in one generation. But it's possible."

Wistrich's report on Islamic fundamentalism and its dangers to Israel, Jews and the West in general, opens with a quote from the memoirs of Albert Speer, Hitler's close friend and architect. "I remember how he [Hitler] showed films in the chancellor's office of London burning, the sea of fire around Warsaw, the bombed-out convoys, and the great happiness that overcame him every time. But I never saw him so happy as the time when he described his vision of New York sinking into flames. He described how the skyline would turn into a burning torch, how the buildings would collapse in chaos, how the blasted city would be reflected in the black skies."

Hitler's fantasy, as is well known now, was actualized, at least to a certain degree, by Qaida. Wistrich seeks to make tangible his claim about the fascistic, neo-Nazi nature of Islamic fundamentalism. The report is mostly devoted to a collection of vicious anti-Semitic and anti-Western quotes, and their contexts, in Arab and Muslim culture during recent decades. Some of the quotes are already known to the Israeli reader - like the Saudi newspaper that claimed only a couple of months ago that Jews bake matzot and hamantaschen with the blood of Christian and Muslim boys - but the aggregation of so many quotations is particularly depressing, in no small part because a large proportion of the quotes come from top tier, secular institutions, that in the West are considered signs of modernity in the Arab world. Thus, Wistrich notes that Al-Ahram, the leading daily newspaper in Egypt, ran a series of detailed articles on how Jews use non-Jewish blood to make matzot. Or the quote from Egyptian intellectual Dr. Mahmoud al-Said al-Kurdi, who a year ago wrote in Al-Ahbar, "The Talmud says the matzot of Yom Kippur [sic] must be kneaded with Gentile blood, with a preference for youths after they have been raped."

Wistrich prepared the report at the request of the American Jewish Committee, one of the leading American Jewish organizations, and he is in the United States this week to present it. He's holding a press conference today at the National Press Club in Washington and tomorrow will testify to a Congressional committee. On Thursday he will give a lecture on his findings to the annual convention of the committee.

But he emphasizes that he actually began his research on the new anti-Semitism before the AJC request. As a professor of general and Jewish history, specializing in contemporary central Europe, two of his specialities are nationalism and modern anti-Semitism, going back as far as the Dreyfus Affair. A little more than a year and a half ago, just before the outbreak of the intifada, he began working on a large study on the new anti-Semitism - "in all its aspects, in Europe, the Middle East, Third World, on the right and on the left." The Shalem Center, a conservative right-wing think tank based in Jerusalem and funded by Ronald Lauder, is financing the study, but Wistrich emphasizes that he writes "with the utmost objectivity, though I do not avoid explaining Israel's position."

Great Satan, Little Satan

From Wistrich's perspective, Islamic fundamentalism presents a clear and present danger to world peace. "Like the Nazis, and to a certain extent Soviet Communism, Islamic fundamentalism wants world hegemony, to take over the world. Its thinkers believe Islam has all the answers to the ailments of the world being spread by the West - materialism, cultural decadence, sexual permissiveness, and the like. It's no accident that Israel is described by them as `Little Satan,' just a puppet of `Great Satan,' which is of course the U.S. But what particularly outrages the Islamic fundamentalists is that Israel, right in the heart of the Islamic world, prevents, by virtue of its existence, the resurrection of the great Muslim empire. In any case, the campaign against Israel, on their part, is only a prologue - and a necessary condition - to the Islamic world's takeover of the world."

Therefore, he says, "It is a mistake to make a distinction - politically correct since September 11 - between Islam and Islamic terrorism. Islam in its origins does not present a problem, but its present form does indeed serve as a hothouse for fascist ideas that nurture terrorism. And it's not me saying that, but Fouad Ajami," the Arab-Muslim intellectual residing in the U.S.

Wistrich's report explains that the Islamic fundamentalism was the result of the Arabs' bitter defeat at the hands of Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. He describes how, shortly after the war, leading Muslim theologians gathered in Cairo to define the Jews in general - and not just Israelis - as "God's enemies" and "enemies of humanity." On the other hand, in a conversation with him, he emphasizes what appear to be Arab-Muslim achievements consolidating the Muslim world's confidence that it is on the way to conquering the world. "The most important accomplishment, from the fundamentalist point of view, is the Iranian revolution of the 1970s. I have no doubt that in retrospect, this will be considered one of the pivotal events of the 20th century, no less important than the Bolshevik revolution at the start of the century. The Iranian success at imposing a fundamentalist ideology on a secular nation state is a paradigm all over the Muslim world, even though it took place in a Shi'ite state and most of the Muslim states are Sunni.

"Furthermore, Arab use of the oil weapon in the 1970s also plays into the hands of the fundamentalists, as does the great victory over the USSR in Afghanistan, which they perceive as the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet empire. That's why they assume that if they could defeat the tough Soviet Union, they will overcome corrupt West, which because of its profound fear of sacrifice won't be able to deal with Muslim determination. That may be the reason why they made the mistake of allowing themselves to attack the U.S. before they were ready. They were definitely surprised to encounter American determination after September 11, even though the attacks of that day are still considered a great Muslim accomplishment, `worthy revenge' for what they perceive as Western humiliation of Islam."

The danger of the TV channels

One of the major components of Islamic fundamentalism, Wistrich says, is Holocaust-denial, whether total denial, or minimizing the numbers. "Islamic fundamentalism also needs `moral' justification to destroy an entire culture and it finds it, among other things, in the claim that the Jews are so satanic that they were able to invite for their own needs something as horrible as the Holocaust, so therefore, paradoxically, they deserve a `real Holocaust.'"

How important and central to their thinking is that perception? Do the Muslim masses really believe that or is it only the radical fringes?

"That's a difficult question," says Wistrich, "since there aren't many public opinion polls in the Muslim world, at least not in the Western sense. Nonetheless, a leading Orientalist like Daniel Pipes says that various indicators show that more than 50 percent of the Muslims in the world support Osama bin Laden's concepts.

"Amplifying that ideology is the intense incitement that is magnified through the use of the new powerful communications media, like Al Jazeera. In effect, it is a common mistake to regard Al Jazeera as a positive sign of privately owned media critical of the corrupt regimes. Al Jazeera is now more of a problem than an achievement since in the past the authorities could at least restrain that kind of incitement.

"That, in my mind, is one of the big mistakes made during the Oslo process. There was not enough emphasis on actualizing the promise to prevent incitement. To my regret, even today, Americans understand this issue better than Israeli politicians. There are serious discussions in the American Congress about making aid to pro-Western countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, conditional on an end to the anti-Semitic incitement. Therefore, if and when the political process resumes, ending the incitment has to be a central issue."

In that context, Wistrich identifies the main problem in Yasser Arafat's leadership as him being "someone who understands that the Palestinian crisis is the most effective glue for the Arab and Muslim world, and who knows how to use the satellite channels as a means to incite the street in all the Arab states, endangering secular regimes close to the West, and thereby putting pressure on the international community to accept his positions."

So, doesn't that justify taking the most dovish actions, reaching an agreement as quickly as possible with the Palestinians, perhaps at any price?

I think the nature of the proposals offered by the Israeli left, like Yossi Beilin, on the issue of the refugees is very dangerous. But the most important thing they did was to stop ignoring the refugee issue. Without a solution to the refugee issue, there really cannot be an agreement. That may be the most positive central issue in the Saudi peace proposal, which emphasizes a solution to the refugee problem. It is now clear that there cannot be a stable arrangement without a solution to the issue, but the means should be through the Israeli demand from the international community, without help, to enlist the resources and pressure the Palestinians to solve the problem."

As a historian specializing in Europe, how do you explain the European criticism of Israel, and of America, which has declared war on Islamic terrorism?

"I have no doubt that the European security services are very aware of the dangers embedded in Islamic fundamentalism. But European politics does not have the American tradition, certainly not the Texan tradition, of speaking bluntly and openly about the issues on the agenda, not to speak of Muslim electoral power in Europe, which has limited the maneuverability of European politicians on the issues.

"As for Israel, it must be remembered that since World War II, most European countries, except for Britain and to a certain extent France, have not experienced war or the need to exert force, not even for justified causes. So it is easy for them to take the moral high ground, that enables them to show how they have shaken off their colonialist past. There is also their understanding of the lessons of the Holocaust, in which they have developed a political culture dominated by anti-racism - alongside the blooming of racist groups - and a politics so liberal that it is restrained in the face of wild incitement, so they can attack Israel on the grounds that they identify it as `an apartheid state.'"

Wistrich believes Islamic fundamentalism can be challenged only through a world-wide effort run by the U.S. "American lifestyle has managed to conquer most of the world through its advantages - consumerism, freedom, advanced technology. Only the Muslim world hasn't been won over.

The real change, for the long term, in the Muslim world can only come from within. That is the dramatic change. The Islamic world will have to go through a Renaissance, a Religious Reformation, and an Enlightenment - all in one generation. It took the West hundreds of years to do it. But it is possible.

"But for it to happen there has to be a change in the Muslim middle class, which also exists in these countries, and has the key to the future of Muslim society. And the middle classes will only change if they understand that the current stagnation will end up as them the losers, becoming the poorest in the world. But to enable the rise of the moderate and modern forces - which also exist but are afraid to speak out - first of all the extremists have to be stopped. That's why it is so crucial that there be a military victory over the terrorism. Otherwise, the Muslim masses will yet be convinced that fundamentalism works."