The Oriental semite — “The Muslim”, Pt. 2

By Sarah Malik

In part two of her three-part feature on the Muslim Sarah Malik discusses many aspects of Islam often neglected by Western media. Examining anti-semitism throughout the world, she delves into the historical relationship between Jews and Muslims and explores Islam’s role as the Other of Western society, naming them the Oriental semite.

Throughout the early and medieval period, Jews were blamed and punished for deicide. They suffered as their Talmuds were collected from every village home and heaped onto the bonfire. They were forced to debate their faith against Christians in public disputations. They met the tined edge of the sword as crusading Christians cut their spiritual superiority into Jewish skin while on their way to conquer Muslim lands.

The militant pilgrimages were a new course for Europe. With Islam’s expansion since the 17th century, Europe retreated into itself, shuttered itself even from Mediterranean areas like Spain which had fallen to the Moors (Muslims). The Mohammadan was disgusting to the European. The impression of Mohammad was as Dante depicted him in his Inferno, occupying the second to last circle of Hell. His fate and sins worse than the heretic, the lustful, the suicide, the blasphemer. He was “le faux imposteur Mahomet” said Barthelemy d’Herbelot in the 17th century. In Princeton University’s translation of Dante’s Inferno in the malebolge he looked thus:

Cleft from the chin right down to where men fart.

Between the legs the entrails dangled. I saw

the innards and the loathsome sack

that turns what one has swallowed into shit.

While I was caught up in the sight of him,

he looked at me and, with his hands, ripped open

his chest, saying: ‘See how I rend myself.’

After the French Revolution when Islamic lands entered into a decline and Europe traveled to the Orient, Muslims would become the primary Other. Priorly Europe turned its attention to the Jews, the immediate Other to be converted and assimilated into the Christian fold. Thus European Jewry’s Otherness was religious, not racial.

“Jewish scholars were among the first who attempted to present Islam to European readers as Muslims themselves see it and to stress, to recognize, and indeed sometimes to romanticize the merits and achievements of Muslim civilization in its great days,” Bernard Lewis saod in his book Islam in History.

Long the brunt of oppression, they found greater similarities between Judaism and Islam than between Judaism and Christianity. Orientalism birthed in the continent and Europe developed a romantic fascination with the eccentric Arab, Turkish and Persian lands­–V. G. Kiernan called it a “collective day-dream of the Orient”–that coincided with the time of imperial expansion.

European Jews, distancing themselves from the Christians they lived amongst, sometimes copied Moorish architecture when building their synagogues. Martin Kramer, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, quoted an observer who noticed the towering minarets and the round domes of the synagogues merely needed a crescent to mark them Muslim.

“I truly entered into the spirit of Islam to such an extent that ultimately I became inwardly convinced that I myself was a Muslim,” wrote Ignaz Goldziher, one of the most celebrated Jewish Orientalists in the late 1800s. The Hungarian remained a Jew, but wrote in his journal how he wanted to “elevate” Judaism to the level of the “only religion which… can satisfy philosophic minds [Islam].”

Part of the reason Jewish intellectuals had such a markedly different attitude toward Muslims and the East than their Christian counterparts was due to Jewish treatment under Christian hands. Europe continued to exclude the Jews until the 19th century, barring them from academic involvement and positions of influence, relegating their occupations to the ‘cursed’ work of usury. This in turn led to further anti-Jewish sentiments. Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice tells the tale of an Italian businessman who is forced by Shylock, a Jewish money-lender, into providing “a pound of flesh” as collateral. Articulating the general Jewish anguish of that era, Shylock speaks in Act III, scene I:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,

dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with

the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject

to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means,

warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer

as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?

In Muslim lands, the millet system during the Ottoman era from 1300 to 1600 and Shariah law forbade suppression of Jews, recognizing them as “people of the book” and allowing them political autonomy. Dr. Aaron Hughes, a University of Calgary religious studies professor, states Jews preferred living under Muslim rule.

Jewish intellectuals attempted to assert their equal humanity by seizing on Europe’s romantic interest in the Other–the people of the Orient.

“A Europe respectful of Islam and Muslims was more likely to show respect for Judaism and Jews,” said American scholar Martin Kramer.

Coming out of the age of anti-Jewish sentiment, when centers of learning finally opened their doors to Jews in the early 1900s, racism swept through the land. Hitler’s Third Reich–which for the ordinary German citizen was about social and cultural problems such as sharing an eintopf, or one pot meal, and knitting groups–was for the Jews an elaborate murder plan.

The Allies were slow. Millions of Jews were sacrificed at the altar of Aryan supremacy before France, England and the United States came to the Jew’s rescue. In my view, it was a mixture of Christians guilt for treating the Jews inhumanely and a new racism toward the Oriental that led to the continued control of the Orient, the Balfour Declaration and the creation of Israel.

“That anti-Semitism and Orientalism resemble each other very closely is a historical, cultural, and political truth that needs only to be mentioned to an Arab Palestinian for this irony to be perfectly understood,” Post-colonial theorist Edward Said echoed my sentiment in a controversial statement.

A further excursion into history is necessary to explain why anti-semitism and Orientalism resemble each other. The decline of Muslim power coincided with, and was partly caused by, European imperialist expansion. Over the last three centuries, the West enjoyed military and political victories, but the greatest victory has been the triumph of Western civilization and with it, the feeling of Western superiority that bled into Orientalism. Muslims cowered in their lands while seven per cent of the world’s surface contolled 37 per cent of the planet according to the historian J. M. Roberts. Said told of an even more marvelous achievement: for the century preceeding the First World War, Europe directly controlled 85 per cent of the earth. To the powerful European who assumed all knowledge, the Oriental Muslim became the subject of contempt.

The Enlightenment subjugated the Church to science, so while the Jew progressed in the European imagination and was assimilated into it, the Muslim regressed to take the Jew’s place and became the new Other, remaining “different” even today.

Consider the following example. When English writer and philosopher Harriet Martineau traveled to Egypt in 1848 she described Egyptian women as “a rable… passing through life with more than half the brain almost unawakened.” Visiting a harem–a household where the man had more than one wife–Martineau said: “I saw no trace of mind in any one, except [one woman].” Perhaps most damning to the Muslim was the generalization: “I declare that if we are to look for a hell upon earth, it is where polygamy exists and… Egypt is the lowest depth of this hell.”

Hardly different is British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s response when asked amid the recent controversy if a Muslim woman in a veil could contribute to and be successful in society. He didn’t say no, but then he didn’t say yes either.

“That’s a very difficult question,” Blair evaded.

Arabs are also Semites and nowhere is the new anti-Semitism as plentiful and distressing in evidence than when considering British and French control of the Middle East and the forceful shaping of the region’s destiny based on the Western idea of what the Muslim is and what the Muslim needs. In fact, the whole of the Balfour Declaration, which led to the Palestinian exodus out of Israeli lands, or Nakba, can be reduced to what the imperial powers thought of the Muslim, all the while explicitly claiming the European knew the Oriental and the Oriental did not know himself.

In a speech to the House of Commons seven years before the Balfour Declaration promised Jews their own nation in the Orient, Lord Arthur James Balfour laid bare the crumbs of his reasoning.

“Western nations as soon as they emerge into history show the beginnings of those capacities for self-government,” he said. Conversely, the Orientals, in their entire history, were subjugated under conqueror after conqueror. The Oriental was a “subject race” ( Lord Cromer, then British Consul-General in Egypt’s term) and was thus not meant for self-determination. It was an inferior race, an inferior people similar to domesticated pets, once they have been subjegated for centuries, the Cheshire cat or the Chihuahua are incapable of living on their own and meeting their needs without the benevolence of a master.

Though the Orientals, such as Colonel Arabi, were brimming with nationalism and demanding self government, Lord Balfour dismissed them as “the agitator [who] wishes to raise difficulties.” Lord Cromer called Arabi and his ilk plants “of exotic rather than of indigenous growth.” These were a race meant, indeed destined, to be occupied and according to Lord Balfour, Britain was the best occupier. Balfour was thus comfortable in deciding their destiny; promising the Orientals independence but in actuality never intending it. The British and the French signed two treaties, the Sykes-Picot agreement and again at the San Remo conference, carving the Middle East up into spheres of influence.

Much of this mentality still remains. Muslim refusal to allow the creation of Israel on Arab land was vehement and ignored. Even today, the frustrated West wonders why the Muslims refuse to accept Israel. The refusal is not anti-Semitism, but rather, refusal to accept Israeli hegemony over the Orient, according to Said. The refusal is nothing new. It has been echoing for nearly a century.

With this context as background, consider Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s explanation for why Islamist militants commit terrorism. Harper said they must hate “our” freedoms. The assumption is the same as those of Lord Cromer and Lord Balfour. The West is advanced, its values are stronger and better, the Islamic values the Muslim appeals to are lesser and backward

“The fellah [Muslim] is at least four centuries behind the times,” Chaim Weizmnn, a close acquaintance to Lord Balfour in 1918.

While no contemporary Western politician will refer to Islam and Mohammad as Dante did in The Inferno, a politically correct version is arguably still prevalent.

More of the new anti-Semitism is in evidence in the former American secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s writings, whose influence on foreign policy cannot be overstated. Kissinger, anything but retired, is a frequent outside advisor to President George W. Bush on foreign policy, according to journalist Bob Woodward. Mirroring this, an early October New York Times article called him “The Ghost of the Oval Office.”

In an essay titled “Domestic Structure and Foreign Policy,” Kissinger wrote about developing countries as “inaccurate” and mentally less advanced than the West, which had undergone the “Newtonian revolution,” drawing parallels between Kissinger’s ideology and that of Lord Cromer, who said logic is something “the existence of which the Oriental is disposed altogether to ignore.”

Kissinger’s continued active role in the White House and in the construction of foreign policy means his ideology of the inferiority of developing countries collides with the neoconservative demand that, as Gilles Kepel said, “Washington should exercise a ‘benevolent’ universal hegemony.”

The effect on the Muslim has been catastrophic. Summed in one sentence, the Muslim discovery and reversal of fortune into the European’s Other are intimately tied in with terrorism. The suicide bomber, if he can be considered as such, is lucky. The shaheeds (martyrs), recognizing “verily, man is in loss” as a verse in the Qur’an says, prepare to die for their dignity, their land and their God. But they die, most of all, for freedom. They escape their destiny, which the West has created for them and they take innocents along with them, people for whom the West has pledged the good life.

Consider the despair of those who remain and accept their fates. Anne Gwynne works with the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees in Nablus and writes about the Israeli “fence” around the occupied territories, calling it Israel’s “wall of apartheid.”

“I look on this insane manifestation of Israel’s hatred of Palestinians, their collective delusional paranoia that they ‘will all be killed,’ and their insatiable greed for Palestinian land.” Gwynne writes. “As I stand in the shadow of this preposterous edifice, whose concrete base is taller than I am, a scream arises in the depths of my being; a scream so big that it consumes me completely, so that there is no room for breath and my heart is bursting–a scream that I want […] heard in London and Washington and New York. But it cannot escape for it is too big for my throat. And I weep bitter tears for the loss of the life of Palestine.”

With the creation of Israel, it was not Europe and the Europeans who were punished for their millenia long discrimination of Jews. It was a people, the Palestinians, who, at least in theory, recognized the rights and humanity of the Jews like the Qur’an sternly instructs. Perhaps this realization and this intimate knowledge of Islam led erudite Jewish scholars in the 19th century to develop an impartial study of Islam and the Muslim in the field of Orientalism. Later, it was the Jewish intellectuals who founded Brit Shalom in 1925. This Hebrew word which means “covenant for peace” called on Jews to renounce the Balfour Declaration. These intellectuals abjured the Israeli state. Many, such as Ignaz Goldziher, were not Zionists

“Jewishness is a religious term and not an ethnographical one,” explained Goldziher. “As regards my nationality I am a Transdanubian, and by religion a Jew. When I headed [back] for Hungary from Jerusalem I felt I was coming home.”

In 1909, Arminius Vámbery wrote in The Future of Constitutional Turkey: The Nineteenth Century and After “We alone, we think, have the right to be mighty and free, and the rest of humanity must be subject to us and never taste the golden fruits of liberty.”

Foreshadowing the anti-Islamism that would reach a zenith after 9/11, Vámbery, who had traveled the Middle East extensively, continued: “[Europeans] tend to forget that constitutional government is by no means a new thing in Islam, for anything more democratic than the doctrine of the Arab Prophet [Mohammad] would be difficult to find in any other religion.”

Goldziher, who authored the two-volume Muhammadanische Studien, noted: “Europe has spoiled everything healthy… I spoke out against European domination in the bazaar… I spoke about theories of the new local culture and its development as an antidote to the epidemic of European domination.”

Goldziher’s work was a harbinger of things to come and indeed his predictions have come true. Both The west and the Muslim world today flail in anger and fear. The Western reaction is worth stressing, as it is the one that enjoys hegemony. In August, three arguments for racial profiling appeared in major newspapers and on major television stations.

“Not every Muslim or Arab is a terrorist,” Robert Sandler said in Philadelphia’s The Evening Bulletin. “But, so far, in the War on Islamic Fascism, every terrorist has been Muslim. If profiling isn’t acceptable because it’s not politically correct, here is another idea: Put the Muslims on one plane and put the rest of us on a different one. If that makes me a ‘racist,’ I can live with that. I can live with that. I’d rather be a living racist than a dead victim of fanatic Muslim racism.”

“Contrary to politically-correct opinion, profiling is a good thing–at least if you want to have your best chance of remaining alive,” Sher Zieve noted on the Conservative Voice website. “It appears that if ‘we the flying public’ are going to be safe, no one but ourselves is going to save us. The hell with political correctness!”

“We’re at war with Muslim fanatics, so all young Muslims should be subjected to more scrutiny than granny,” FOX News pundit Bill O’Reilly opined. “And we should blend some Israeli screening procedures with our own. Folks who have traveled to Muslim countries, people with criminal records, passengers who are Muslims age 16 to 45 all should be spoken with… The wrongheaded notion that you can’t scrutinize Muslims, even though the terror war is driven by them, is beyond dumb.”

These sentiments are similar to a sign at the Sparta Base, established by American Marines, near Haditha in Iraq. The sign solemnly warns the military that the enemy hides among the Iraqi people.

“You have to look at these people as if they are trying to kill you, but you can’t treat them that way,” it says. “Be polite, be professional, [but] have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”

William Landewiesche has been Vanity Fair’s correspondent in Iraq since the 2003 American invasion. Spending time with the Kilo Company and interviewing the Marines who are tired of the endless, circular war, he reported their sentiments about the Iraqis.

“No, they did not respect the Iraqi culture­–who the fuck would?” he asked. “Iraqi men wear man-dresses. Iraqi men think everyone wants to eye-fuck their precious wives… God should paintball the genuine bastards so the Marines could then blow them away.”

Have any comments about what you’ve just read? Send letters to Be sure to check out the Gauntlet next week for the final part of Sarah Malik’s series on the Islamic world.

Leave a comment