A member of ISIS poses in a fighter jet similar to those used in the Prophet’s time.

By Haroon Moghul, Religion Dispatches, August 24, 2015

Last week, The New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi published “A Theology of Rape,” a report as important as it is horrifying. Unfortunately, like several recent exposés on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), including Graeme Wood’s website-busting What ISIS Really Wants, Callimachi’s reporting is unusually receptive to the movement’s claims. Namely, that plausible Islamic arguments can be made for slavery, rape, and other crimes.

In support of his own argument that ISIS isn’t just “Islamic,” but “very Islamic,” Wood cited Princeton academic Bernard Haykel who insists that anyone who denies ISIS’ Islamic authenticity is being disingenuous (who says this is never elaborated on). Wood then proceeded to analyze ISIS’ “Islamicity” based almost entirely on Haykel, several fringe Muslim scholars, ISIS sympathizers, and no mainstream voices.

This is a problem. Journalist Murtaza Hussain explains that, “We invariably view conflicts involving Muslim groups as being driven primarily by atavistic religious beliefs.” Which is why, he adds, we jump to “texts and ideology to explain contemporary events. We don’t do this with the recent Israeli war on Gaza, even though that conflict also contains clear religious connotations and justifications.”

Only weeks ago Jewish radicals lit a house on fire and burned a Palestinian child to death. Last year another Palestinian child was burned alive. Yet I don’t recall articles in the Times, the Atlantic or any other popular media assessing the act’s conformity with Judaism, or arguing that “price tag” attacks are not just “Jewish,” but “very Jewish.” There are, in fact, radical Jewish sects who preach indiscriminate violence citing G-d and the Torah, but these claims are not entertained as serious.

“ISIS,” laments Hussain, “has been granted full civilizational power to speak for and represent Islam.”

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The Irony of Erasing Arabic
Making Hebrew Israel’s Only Language Ignores History

By Liora R. Halperin, Forward, October 06, 2014

In late August, a group of Knesset members from the right flank of the Likud party, Yisrael Beiteinu and the Jewish Home party proposed a bill that would make Hebrew the only official language of Israel, annulling a requirement in existence since the British Mandate period that all official documents be published in Arabic as well as in Hebrew. Similar bills to eliminate or demote the official status of Arabic were proposed in 2011 and 2008. Critics have pointed out that this bill is part of a broader effort to affirm the “Jewish” character of the state (as opposed to its democratic character) by enshrining Jewishness into Israel’s basic laws. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, for one, has spoken out against it.

A historical perspective is worth adding to the discussion, one that highlights a contradictory Zionist view of language that has existed since the British ruled Palestine: As Zionists advocated forcefully for the very principle of national language rights, they fantasized about a society in which there would be no national competitors to Hebrew. Israel still is navigating between these two positions. (more…)

Statement by Jewish Studies Professors in North America Regarding the Amcha Initiative

Forward, October 1, 2014

We the undersigned are professors of Jewish studies at North American universities.
Several of us have also headed programs and centers in Jewish studies. Many of us have worked hard to nurture serious, sustained study of Israeli politics and culture on our home campuses and elsewhere.

It is in this latter regard that we call attention to the activities of an organization called the AMCHA Initiative whose mission is “investigating, educating about, and combatting antisemitism at institutions of higher learning in America.” Most recently, AMCHA has undertaken to monitor centers for Middle Eastern studies on American campuses including producing a lengthy report on UCLA’s in which that center is accused of antisemitism.

AMCHA has also circulated a list of more than 200 Middle Eastern studies faculty whom it urges Jewish students and others to avoid because, it asserts, they espouse anti-Zionist andeven antisemitic viewpoints in their classrooms.

It goes without saying that we, as students of antisemitism, are unequivocally opposed to any and all traces of this scourge. That said, we find the actions of AMCHA deplorable.

Its technique of monitoring lectures, symposia and conferences strains the basic principle of academic freedom on which the American university is built. Moreover, its definition of antisemitism is so undiscriminating as to be meaningless. Instead of encouraging openness through its efforts, AMCHA’s approach closes off all but the most narrow intellectual directions and has a chilling effect on research and teaching. AMCHA’s methods lend little support to Israel, whose very survival depends on free, open, and vigorous debate about its future. (more…)

Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914)

The American admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan is often noted as the man who coined the phrase “Middle East.” After he served in the U.S. Navy on the Union side, he sailed to Hong Kong and passed by the port of Aden in 1867. His comments are brief and reflective more of his own biases than anything significant about Aden. He does provide an interesting description of camels. His narrative is available on archive.org, but I attach here the relevant pages on Aden.

This video interview with Talal Asad (Professor of Anthropology, Graduate Center of
the City University of New York), recorded in 2008, is well worth watching. Harry Kreisler welcomes Professor Talal Asad who reflects on his life and work as an anthropologist focusing on religion, modernity, and the complex relationships between Islam and the West.

Benjamin Disraeli
(1804-1881) was one of the most colorful and literary of British Prime Ministers in the latter half of the 19th century. Among his novels was one about a young conservative English lord named Tancred who made a spiritual quest to the “Holy Land.” This is his Tancred, of The New Crusade, originally published in 1877. In the novel Tancred is disillusioned with the lack of morality in British politics. Instead of taking his inherited place in high society, he chooses instead to go on a quest for spiritual meaning to the land where his religion began. Disraeli, as novelist, uses the Levant as a backdrop for his psychological portrait of young Tancred, but it is as much about the foibles of the British political scene as it is an “Orientalist” rendering of the cradle of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The novel is full of intrigue, as adventure stories should be. It has not made canonization as a “great” work, but it is still worth a read (if you can find a copy). (more…)

Image of a cantor reading the Passover story in Al Andalus, from the 14th century Haggadah of Barcelona.

by Ed Swan, Research Intern, Quilliam Foundation

The phenomenon of antisemitism in Muslim-majority societies is usually explained in one of two ways. Either it is seen as something innate to Islam, constituting a core element of Islamic thought and scripture, and exemplified by centuries of persecution and conflict, or it is presented as a reaction to Zionism, and a break with a history of interfaith cooperation. The debate is influenced by absolutist viewpoints, which hold, for example, that the reaction to Israel in the Islamic world is purely antisemitic, or that pre-Zionist relations between Jews and Muslims constituted a utopian ideal of coexistence. The Islamic Caliphate of Al-Andalus, which existed in various forms in Iberia from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries, is often held up as the example par excellence of this coexistence. A closer look at the society of Al-Andalus helps to demonstrate that, while perhaps it was no utopia, the phenomenon of ‘Muslim antisemitism’ as we recognise it today does not have its roots in Islamic history.

Antisemitism in Muslim majority countries is well documented: a recent survey reports that large majorities of respondents in countries such as Egypt (95%), Turkey (76%) and Pakistan (76%) have an ‘unfavourable opinion of Jews’ (Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, 2008). Focusing specifically on the Arab World, where the largest majorities reported unfavourable opinions, there are a number of examples in local media that demonstrate the form of this antisemitism. European narratives play a prominent role, for example, Mein Kampf and the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion continue to this day to be widely published and distributed in Arabic translation, and the latter formed the basis of a 2002 Egyptian television series syndicated across the Arab World.

These European-inspired antisemitic ideas can be seen employed as a response to the two overwhelming perceived threats to Islam: Western imperialism and Zionism. (more…)

Theobald von Oer, The Weimar Court of the Muses (1860)

by Anouar Majid. Tingis Redux, August 7, 2013

For many years now, I have shared my utter amazement at how human beings living in the 20th and 21st centuries could still believe that the gods of the Bible and the Koran are as real as the computer or mobile device in their hand, the cars they drive, or the many people, animals, or trees they see and touch. When I ask people if God exists, many say yes. But when I ask them how they got to know Him (God in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is unmistakably male), they quote their holy books as evidence. I have yet to meet someone who had a direct encounter with God; our knowledge of the Almighty relies heavily on our faith that Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed had exclusive access to Him, and that the books that tell us about these privileged encounters are the uncorrupted truth.

Most of us have been indoctrinated into such beliefs since childhood, so that by the time we start defending God against unbelievers, the best we can do is rationalize the faiths we inherited from our parents, families, and social environments. Take away the holy books and the theologians that have spent millennia preaching their dogmas and we are left with only our mere existences, alone with the elements, without any guide to show us how to make sense of our lives. This is, in fact, how the world was in ancient Greece before Christianity took over and condemned philosophy to perdition. And this is the world that the British philosopher A. C. Grayling wants us to rediscover in his newly published book, The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism (2013).

Grayling doesn’t talk about the role of writing and scripture in the making of religions; he is more interested in making a humanist case against the basic assumptions of the three monotheistic religions. (Buddhism, Jainism and Confucianism, for example, are better understood as philosophies, not religions in the sense Westerners understand the term.) Such religions, a “hangover from the infancy of modern humanity,” a collection of “superstitions of illiterate herdsmen living several thousands of years ago,” expressions of the “pre-scientific, rudimentary metaphysics of our ancestors,” and a relic of the distant unlettered past are “essentially a stone-age outlook in the modern world.” It would be as if today’s governments still depended on the power of astrology and magic to govern people and run their affairs. This survival, needless to say, is astonishing in an age when science has made great strides—but, then again, science has yet to make a significant impact on many parts of the world, including the Islamic one. (more…)

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