Unholy Prayer: “Jews” Are Not Our Enemy
by Ahmed Rehab
My daily fight against Islamophobia in the US has only served to increase my aversion to all forms of bigotry, including and especially anti-Semitism, and to increase my appreciation for what I consider to be a singular fight against all forms of bigotry.
Certainly, and not unlike any other group on the planet, both Jews and Muslims have their share of bad apples.
The problem is with generalizations.
There are no qualms about criticism and condemnations leveled against Muslim terrorism – that is, acts of terror committed by Muslims. If anything, as a practicing Muslim, I am doubly offended when the perpetrator of an act of terrorism is Muslim, once for the victims and another for the notion that the perpetrator purports to act or speak in the name of my faith.
Likewise, I have no qualms against legitimate criticism leveled against the government of Israel for acts of aggression or policies of oppression conducted against Palestinians. As a global citizen committed to social justice for all, I am offended by those acts and policies.
But the problem at the root of both Islamophobic and anti-Semitic expression is the same: generalization. We must collectively resist this apparent temptation to level scorn against “Muslims” or against “Jews” when confronting actions or words by a subset of either population. This is both intellectually lazy and morally wrong.
It is for that reason that I was particularly appalled to come across a video of a “prayer” delivered by an Imam in an Egyptian mosque, attended by President Mohammed Morsi and other high government officials, in which the Imam asked God to “deal with the Jews, and disperse their ranks.” (Memri mistranslated the Arabic to state “destroy the Jews” instead of “deal with the Jews.” The Arabic states “Allahoma Alaika bel Yahood,” not “Allahoma Dammer el Yahood”).
Such prayers are not entirely uncommon in Egyptian mosques (which I have often frequented) and presumably Arab mosques in general.
I object to such prayers as morally offensive and wholly un-Islamic. I have made it a point to complain to the Imam the few times I have chanced upon such language from the pulpit, and I have not been the only one in line offering a challenge to the Imam.
I understand the argument that might be offered by the Imam or those who tolerate such wording. I understand that it is rooted in the recent political and historical context rather than in a timeless disdain for our Semitic cousins. I understand that for many Imams and for much of their congregation, they say “Jews” as shorthand for the modern state of Israel, and specifically the unjust policies of Israel. I understand that this is partially so because the state of Israel refers to itself as the “Jewish State” and renders Jewish ancestry as the sole criteria for automatic citizenship, regardless of where one is born. I also understand that many of those who casually say “amen” to such a prayer, as Morsi did, would not mistreat a Jewish person they happen to meet in person simply because he or she is Jewish and that the prayer is impersonal. (Morsi was recently criticized locally for calling Israeli President Shimon Peres “a great friend”).
I understand the arguments, but I don’t accept them: I repeat that such prayers are morally offensive and wholly un-Islamic. I feel this way for several reasons:
First, recent political or historical events should not change our principles as Muslims which are immutable over time and space. Namely, the principle that we do not inflict injustice against any individual or group of individuals, in this case “the Jews”, even if by words alone, no matter the circumstances. There are many Jews who are not citizens of Israel. Additionally, there are many Jews who are citizens of Israel but disagree with the unjust actions or policies inflicted on others by their government. Furthermore, while there are Jews who are involved in policies of apartheid and those who are heavily involved in the rising Islamophobia movement in the US, there are Jews who are in the forefront of fighting for justice for the Palestinians and those who are at the forefront of combating Islamophobia domestically. Their stances have been nothing short of heroic. So to lump all Jews as personally guilty for the specific actions of any government, including the government of Israel, or any group, is neither just nor rational.
Second, recent political or historical events are transient by nature, rooted to a specific time and place, not inherent over time and space. Such a political conflict did not exist in the past, and could well be resolved in the future. It is therefore problematic to offer a prayer that targets “Jews” in such an inherent manner.
Consider this for example: twice upon a time, the Muslim world provided safe haven for Jews who were facing tremendous persecution in Europe, once in Muslim Spain, and once in the Ottoman empire. Or consider that Salahuddin (Saladin), the Muslim warrior highly respected by both Muslims and non-Muslim historians alike for how he conducted resistance against the European Crusades employed the great Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides as his personal physician. In fact, Maimonides spent much of his career moving from one Muslim princely court to another. Maimonides, who is considered one of the most influential Jewish Talmudic Rabbis of all time and the man behind the famous “Oath of Maimonides” (the oath my Egyptian-American Muslim friend Dr. Hesham Hassaballa opted to take when he became a physician) would not have recognized this Latinized version of his name, but would have answered to Abū ʿImrān Mūsā bin Maimūn bin ʿUbaidallāh al-Qurṭubī. He wore a Turban and spoke Arabic. But what can I say, historical revisionism is a constant feature of both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Such a prayer would not have been conceivable at the mosques of those eras. Such is our legacy as Muslims, and a prayer offered against “Jews” today runs in shameful contradiction to our own honorable legacy.
As another example, consider that we Muslims are given permission to eat food made by Jews as “Halal,” and to marry Jews. From a theological and historical perspective, Jews are seen as “people of the book” and the closest religious group to Muslims. How could we then tolerate an argument that suddenly renders “Jews” as the inherent enemy – and by virtue of their collective faith not individual actions. It is indeed the individual actions by those who seek to harm us that we must deem as antagonistic and not entire faith identities. The Qur’an states “La Taziru Wazeratun Wizr Okhra” or “A soul does not bear the burden of another soul.” In fact, we ought to condemn such actions with the same vigor regardless of the identity of the perpetrator, equally so if they were Muslim or Jewish. Are the actions of Saddam Hussein or Bashar Al Assad any less offensive to us because they are Muslim (even if nominally so)? Are the actions of the recent bomber in Pakistan who blew himself up by a Mosque of all places, during Eid of all times, any less offensive to us because he is Muslim? Absolutely not. Should we then exhort God to “deal with the Muslims and disperse their ranks” as a result of the actions of these Muslims against our communities?
Third, it is my view that even when we succeed in avoiding generalizations and properly scope our prayers to those who harm us, that even then, it is better to pray for their guidance rather than their damnation. That is how I have personally chosen to word my prayers when giving Friday sermons, in the belief that it is more in line with the spirit and worldview of Islam – one that aspires to correct the sin rather than destroy the sinner, as the ultimate goal of any form of Jihad (struggle against the odds).
And so, I cannot but publicly register my contempt for such a “prayer” as both anti-Semitic and un-Islamic.
While we must not compromise on seeking peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict – which I believe like many is premised on justice for the oppressed Palestinians – we must never allow the Arab-Israeli conflict, regardless of how strongly we feel about it, to undermine the principles of our faith or cause us to be morally compromised by the wholesale vilification of Jews. Nor should we ever allow, in the typical myopic shortsightedness employed by Islamophobes, that a political conflict be dragged out into a religious war between respected global faiths.
I call on President Morsi to refrain from partaking in such prayers, and better yet, to actively push back against them as both morally repugnant and fundamentally un-Islamic. I pledge to utilize my networks of activism in Egypt to relay the message.
Please visit Ahmed Rehab’s site Mindful of Dreams