October 18, 2010 - This article is bound to make me unpopular with my colleagues as well as with my opposition, but some things need to be said.
There is nothing more powerful than the honest use of language to express a truth. In politics, the dishonest use of language is ubiquitous. It is often successful, for a while. Eventually, however, people see through it, and it starts to alienate more hearers than it once attracted. Nobody likes feeling that they are being deceived.
In this article I would like to examine two uses of politically deceptive language.
Judenrein literally means "cleansed of Jews." Cleansing Europe - and ultimately the world - of Jews was a key part of the Nazis' Aryanization program. The term Judenrein implies the eradication of every trace of Jewish blood from the land, the elimination of all impurity. It is a profoundly racist idea.
Today the use of Judenrein is meant to stir up strong feelings. It evokes the era of the Nazis. It is often coupled with "Never again!" - "Never again will we allow any place on earth to become Judenrein - a place forbidden to Jews, cleansed of Jews, purified of Jews."
Those who defend placing Israeli settlements anywhere in the Palestinian territories want to elicit these strong emotions when they make their case. They want people to think of the Nazis when contemplating any attempt, even by the Israeli government, to restrict or remove any settlement. We heard much of this rhetoric during the disengagement from Gaza. Israeli soldiers were likened to Nazis - by other Israelis!
So the argument goes like this: "Israelis have not only the right but the duty and the moral obligation to maintain Jewish settlements anywhere in the disputed territories. Not to allow these settlements would be once again to declare territory Judenrein - something the Nazis did and which we can absolutely never permit."
One can find no clearer example of this reasoning then the following statement by former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Moshe Arens strongly criticizing the policies of his political rivals:
The removal of the settlers from their homes in Gaza was part of a policy, or if you like an ideology, that cannot be called by any other name but Judenrein Palestine. In other words, certain parts of western Palestine, or using the generally accepted terminology in Israel, certain parts of the Land of Israel, need to be cleared of all Jews. This is the declared policy of the Olmert government, and it presumably is part of Tzipi Livni's negotiating position in her talks with her Palestinian counterparts....
The concept of removing all Jews from a certain region is surely repugnant to any person not prepared to deny somebody's rights on the grounds of his ethnic or religious origin. It brings back the worst memories of the tragedy that befell the Jewish people in World War II. When it is applied to a part of the Land of Israel it is also contrary to the very foundations of Zionism, a movement based on the right of Jews to settle and live in their land, a right that has received international recognition. (1)
Here we have it all: the strong emotion, the flawed logic, the evocation of the Nazis. The logical flaw is this: a settlement is not a Jew. Disallowing settlements, admitting they were a mistake, is not tantamount to exterminating Jews. Jews live in many countries as citizens of those countries and not in autonomous settlements. That does not make those countries Judenrein.
Palestinians have never said they would bar Jews from living in their state. They just don't want autonomous Jewish enclaves, which amount to extensions of Israeli territory, laced throughout it. This is how one Palestinian preacher and PA employee put it in a Friday sermon:
We welcome, as we did in the past, any Jew who wants to live in this land as a dhimmi, just as the Jews have lived in our countries, as dhimmis, and have earned appreciation, and some of them have even reached the positions of counselor or minister here and there. We welcome the Jews to live as dhimmis, but the rule in this land and in all the Muslim countries must be the rule of Allah.... Those from amongst the Jews and from amongst those who are not Jews who came to this land as plunderers, must return humiliated and disrespected to their countries. (2)
Dhimmis were Christian and Jewish minorities in Muslim lands who, though not forced to convert to Islam, were treated as second class. They were frequently humiliated (for example by being forced to wear distinctive dress and to keep to the side of the street, as prescribed by Sharia law), subject to special taxes, and their rights and liberties were severely restricted. Unlike the situation of Arab Israeli citizens today, this was truly a system of apartheid. So Palestinian intentions toward any Jewish minority within their state are hardly benign. Were Israel to make similar statements about its Arab citizens, there would be demonstrations and a deafening uproar all over the world. Palestinian plans for their prospective Jewish subjects cannot be defended.
Still, it is not a policy of Judenrein. It is not Jews who are barred from the Palestinian state, but only autonomous Jewish entities under Israeli control. I have asked the following question of many who claim that opposing these settlements means supporting Judenrein: "If Jewish villages, towns, and cities subject to Israeli authority must be permitted in a Palestinian state, would you then permit within Israel the formation of Arab villages, towns, and cities subject not to Israeli law but to the Palestinian Authority?" No one has yet answered that question and I'm still waiting.
Use of the term Judenrein has nothing to do with defending Jewish rights in a Palestinian state. It has everything to do with defending Israel's ill-advised settlements policy. If it were not for that policy the West Bank would today still be part of Jordan - the "Jordanian option" now so beloved among many on the Jewish right - and Gaza would be under Egyptian administration. We would not be facing the specter of a Palestinian terror base on Israel's borders.
There is simply no evidence that Palestinians are demanding a Judenrein state. Yes, they have said no Israeli citizens, but they have not explicitly said no Jews. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas did say "I will never allow a single Israeli to live among us on Palestinian land" (3). One cannot assume, however, that he meant "no Jews." He said "no Israelis"; i.e., no citizens of Israel. Abbas has been careful to make a distinction between Jews and Israeli citizens. Contrary to previous reports, he has said he will accept Jewish soldiers in a NATO peacekeeping force in Palestine, but no Israeli soldiers even if they are not Jewish (4).
In theory a Palestinian state might well include Jews living within it as dhimmis. That, however, does not mean any sane Jew should want to live there. Let's be honest: Why should Jews living in an Islamic state expect any better treatment than Christians, gays, Bahais, or even women? Why should Jews expect better treatment in Palestine than they received in the numerous Arab countries from which they were forced to flee? Criticizing the misuse of Judenrein is in no way a defense of Palestinian policy. It is simply an insistence on honest language and valid argument.
Perhaps no other term in common use today better exemplifies the deceptive use of language than "Islamophobia." Whoever coined it was a genius. In just six syllables it succeeds in tarring with the taint of racism anyone with a legitimate objection to a religious and political ideology.
The word creates confusion on two levels. First, "Islamophobia" should literally mean fear of Islam. "Phobia" means fear. But in psychology, "phobia" refers to an irrational or neurotic fear. Thus the word "Islamophobia" inplies that all fear of Islam is irrational.
This is bad enough, since as we will observe, not all fear of Islam is irrational. But it gets worse. The word is also used to mean hatred of Muslims (just as "homophobia" is used to refer to hatred and violence towards homosexuals). Hatred of Muslims is not the same as fear of Islam, yet nobody talks about "Muslimophobia" when referring to anti-Muslim sentiment or behavior. The result of this confusion is that one cannot criticize Islam without being accused of hating and persecuting Muslims. The same word is used to cover both, making Islam itself immune from any critical examination.
The word "Islamophobia" is therefore a species of political cant whose purpose is to stifle free speech and independent inquiry. We are supposed to be afraid of the label "Islamophobe" just as we are of the label "racist." There is nothing worse than a racist, and if people see you as one they will ostracize you and not take anything you say seriously. And today, if you criticize Islam, you are a racist, an "Islamophobe."
It may be too late to eradicate this linguistic weed. Nevertheless, we face an important task. It is absolutely essential that we distinguish between criticism of Islam and hatred of Muslims, and the place to begin is by refraining from the use of a single word to describe them.
The thoughtless hatred of Muslims is as unacceptable as the thoughtless hatred of anyone else. Each person must be considered as an individual. Some people hate Muslims only because they are Muslims, without knowing anything else about them, and that is wrong and it must be condemned.
Nevertheless, fear of the religion of Islam is not always irrational. Not all Muslims are terrorists; yet an overwhelming number of terrorists are Muslims, and that is not simply by chance. Throughout the Muslim world atrocities are committed in Islam's name and for Islam's sake. It is supremely arrogant of non-Muslim Westerners to tell Muslims what Islam is. This includes telling the leaders of Saudi Arabia the capital of Sunni Islam, which exports religious hatred throughout the world, and the leaders of Iran the capital of Shiite Islam, which threatens the West with death and is bent on acquiring the means to achieve it, that they don't know their own religion. It is similarly presumptuous to accuse radicalized masses in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, Yemen, Turkey, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudan of "hijacking" or "perverting" Islam, as if people who never picked up a Qur'an in their lives know Islam better than they do. Lately I have heard many Americans pontificate about Islam; yet such people would be hard put to quote a single verse from the Qur'an, let alone cite or even know about any other written Islamic source. Islam is what Muslims believe and practice. It is not what we in the West want to think it is. Islam is a hard, time-tested reality. It cannot be defined by non-Muslims.
There is no getting around the fact that Islam is a religion that glorifies and idealizes a mass murderer. This is not a slander. It comes right out of the earliest Arabic biographies of Muhammad, where it is a point of pride. Muhammad was a holy warrior who slaughtered an entire tribe of people who resisted his word. The fact that it was a Jewish tribe surely has some impact on Muslim-Jewish relations throughout history and even today. And Jews were not his only victims. Islam dearly needs to reexamine and reassess its most basic scriptures and sources. That has not happened. If you say a critical word about Muhammad in the wrong place and at the wrong time, you risk setting off a worldwide conflagration (ask Salman Rushdie or Molly Norris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Theo van Gogh - oops, not Theo, he's dead). Something in the religion must encourage that.
It is not irrational to fear Islam. Not when we look at what is happening in the world around us. Another nonsense word, born of intellectual cowardice, is "Islamism." What on earth does it mean? The suffix "-ism" comes from the Greek and is used to indicate a doctrine or a practice. "Islamism" then should mean the doctrine or practice of Islam. Yet people who say "Islamism" want to avoid placing any responsibility for religiously inspired bad behavior on Islam itself. What is going on here?
The word "Islamism," like "Islamophobia," is used to prevent any examination of possible flaws within the religion of Islam itself. So religious extremists are not really practicing Islam, even though they believe they are. They are practicing "Islamism." Never mind that this neologism has no referent. Never mind that religious terrorists insist they are Muslims practicing Islam while we stubbornly refuse to hear them. The term "Islamism" conveniently protects us from confronting a truth that may be too threatening for many of us to face.
There are better ways of talking about this. Not all Muslims are extremists, and not all forms of Islam are equally extreme. We can talk about "extremist elements within Islam," or more simply, "Islamic extremism." This is fair, rational language that accurately describes reality and that allows for a spectrum of belief and practice within Islam. Using such language instead of artificial political slogan words, we can discuss objectively the problems within Islam itself as well as the fact that neither Islam nor Muslims are homogeneous, that there is a range of belief and practice among Muslims, and that many Muslims are wonderful people with good hearts against whom we commit an injustice if we allow ourselves to generalize too easily.
Instead of using an intentionally confusing word like "Islamophobia" to denote hatred or violence towards Muslims, we can speak of "anti-Muslim prejudice." This does happen, and we already have words to describe it. We should use them. Questioning the use of "Islamophobia" does not mean denying that such prejudice exists. Rather, it should be a call to examine such prejudice openly and honestly, and with vocabulary that describes it accurately. We must be able to discuss ethnic prejudice separately from the criticism of religion. It takes intellectual maturity (what some liberals love to call "nuance") to separate these issues and to deal with each on its own, and not to make the critique of religion a justification for hating people. But the challenge of the task is no reason to refrain from undertaking it. If we insist on conflating the rational criticism of religion with the irrational hatred of people, we are not promoting tolerance. We are only making certain that eventually there will be an intense resurgence of legitimate but suppressed concerns.
Recognizing problems within Islam does not mean we must hate Muslims. Committing such an error would make us like the very thing we reject. A great many Muslims do not adhere to the more extreme forms of their religion. Some have even put themselves at risk speaking out for tolerance. People are individuals, and must be seen as individuals. We can never know in advance what is in a person's heart. Not bothering to know the individual, sweeping entire groups of people away with an easy generalization, is an intellectual laziness we cannot afford and that threatens the peace of us all.
To summarize, Islam has a problem at its root that creates a tendency towards intolerance. It is not unfair or irrational to be wary of that. Nevertheless, there is still a variety of belief and practice among Muslims today, there are differences between various expressions of Islam, and we must not judge all Muslims in advance. Judaism and Christianity have also had their intolerant expressions, and at times in history Christianity was every bit as brutal as Islam still can be today. Nevertheless, the problems within these religions are not identical. Islam has not experienced the reforms these other religions have, and there are valid reasons for believing that Islam is intrinsically more resistant to reform. A discussion of this issue would take us into history and theology and is beyond our present scope. (But here's a hint: compare and contrast the careers of Muhammad and Jesus and their treatment of outsiders. Consider also the universalism of the later Jewish prophets.) Religions are what they are, but people can and often do transcend them.
The dishonest use of language prevents an open discussion of ideas, and in an age of growing mutual distrust we vitally need this discussion. Misgivings about Islam will not disappear just because we invent a word to stigmatize them. If we try to repress people's doubts they will only explode later in truly irrational and destructive ways, because reason's clarity has been barred from touching them. We would all benefit from dropping deceptions like "Islamophobia" and instead saying exactly what we mean.
(1) Arens, Moshe. "Judenrein Palestine." Haaretz, April 8, 2008.
(2) Stalinsky, Steven. "Palestinian Authority Sermons 2000-2003." Middle East Media Research Institute, December 26, 2003.
(3) Miskin, Maayana and R. Sylvetsky. "Arab League Tries to Score Points for Abbas, 'Endorses' Talks." Israel National News, July 29, 2010.
(4) Haaretz Service. "Abbas: Jewish NATO Soldiers Could Defend Future Palestinian State." Haaretz, August 7, 2010.
Peace with Realism