The Muslim Brotherhood did not initiate the current upheavals in the Middle East, but the Islamist parties in Egypt, as in Tunisia and Libya, have been the chief beneficiaries of the collapse of longstanding authoritarian repressive regimes across North Africa.
In Egypt itself, the two largest Islamist groups (the Brotherhood and the Salafists) won about three quarters of the ballots in the second round of legislative elections held in December, while the secular and liberal forces took a battering.
The Brotherhood (which garnered over 40 percent of the votes) is an organization founded by an Egyptian schoolteacher, Hassan el Banna, back in 1928. It has never deviated from its founder’s central axiom: “Allah is our objective; the Prophet is our leader; the Koran is our law; Jihad is our way; dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.”
It is this radical vision that animates all those in the region who seek a fully Islamic society and way of life.
The Muslim Brotherhood has always been deeply anti-Western, viscerally hostile to Israel and openly anti-Semitic – points usually downplayed in Western commentary on the “Arab Spring.” Indeed, the anti-Jewish conspiracy theories promoted by the Brotherhood and its affiliated preachers are in a class of their own.
This is especially true of Egyptian-born Yusuf al-Qaradawi, undoubtedly the most celebrated Muslim Brotherhood cleric in the world. The still vigorous 84-year-old, often misleadingly depicted in the West as a “moderate,” flew in from Qatar to Cairo on February 18, 2011 to lead a million-strong crowd in Friday prayers, thereby ending 50 years of exile from his native land. He called for pluralistic democracy in Egypt while at the same time offering the hope “that Almighty Allah will also please me with the conquest of the al-Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem].”
Two years earlier, in a notorious commentary on Al-Jazeera TV, the “moderate” Qaradawi provided religious justification for both past and future Holocausts:
“Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the Jews people who would punish them for their corruption…. The last punishment was carried out by [Adolf] Hitler. By means of all the things he did to them – even though they exaggerated this issue – he managed to put them in their place. This was divine punishment for them…. Allah willing, the next time will be at the hands of the believers.”
Regarding Israel and the Jews, fundamentalist Muslim attitudes have never deviated since the 1940s. Islamist ideologues, despite their virulent anti-Westernism, have had no problem in drawing on Western sources for their radical anti-Semitism – whether these libels come from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion forgery, Henry Ford’s The International Jew, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, fantasies about Judeo-Masonic plots, or have their origin in Christian anti-Talmudism, medieval blood-libels and the slanders of contemporary Holocaust deniers in America and Europe.
The current swelling of Islamist ranks in Egypt and across the Arab world has hardly improved matters. At a vocal Muslim Brotherhood rally in Cairo’s most prominent mosque on November 25, 2011, Islamic activists ominously chanted “Tel Aviv, judgment day has come,” vowing to “one day kill all Jews.” The rally was peppered with hate-filled speeches about the “treacherous Jews.” There were explicit calls for Jihad and liberating all of Palestine as well as references to a well-known hadith concerning the future Muslim annihilation of the Jews.
This kind of incitement and the pressure from the Egyptian street does not mean the fragile peace treaty with Israel will be cancelled overnight. But calls for such a step have been repeatedly heard in recent months even from the “liberal” and more “progressive” sectors of the political spectrum as well as from the Islamist parties.
Dr. Rashad Bayoumi, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, bluntly told the Arabic daily al-Hayat on the first day of 2012 that his organization will never “recognize Israel at all,” whatever the circumstances. Israel, he emphasized, was a “criminal enemy” with whom Egypt should never have signed a peace treaty in the first place. If this treaty is not to be abrogated, much will depend on the United States making clear to Egypt how dire the economic and political consequences for its well-being would be.
It is particularly chilling to note that the Islamic wave already dominates not only in Iran, which is on the verge of nuclear weapons, but also in Turkey, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, the Gaza strip under Hamas and the Lebanese state, currently in the iron grip of Hizbullah. Apart from seeking to impose Shariah law, and to further downgrade the status of women – while repressing Copts and other non-Muslim minorities – the neo-Islamist movements and regimes remain as determined as ever to wipe out Israel and to radically reduce American influence in the region. Needless to say, like the Brotherhood itself, Islamists consider themselves to be the sole authentic interpreters of the Divine will.
In the face of this mounting fundamentalist danger, Israel has no choice but to consolidate its deterrent capacity, close ranks and treat with the utmost skepticism any siren voices calling on it to take unreasonable “risks for peace.” At the same time it will have to develop a new regional strategy that takes into account the seismic changes currently shaking the Middle East.
Robert S. Wistrich is the director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism (SICSA) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of “A Lethal Obsession: Antisemitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad” (Random House, 2010).
About the Author: Robert S. Wistrich is Neuberger professor of European and Jewish history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. This essay was adapted from his new book, “From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel” (University of Nebraska Press).
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