In his important book “Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition,” the scholar David Nirenberg makes the persuasive case that Islam has faced similar theological challenges to Christianity in assessing its relationship to Judaism. On the one hand, Nirenberg argues, Islam regards the Jews as “enemies” of Muhammad’s prophecy; on the other, Islam realizes only too well that, without the existence of the Jews and their practices to begin with, there would have been no subsequent prophetic tradition and faith to follow.
“How to appropriate the prophetic claims of Jewish communities without ‘Judaizing Islam?’” writes Nirenberg, summarizing the core of the Muslim dilemma. “How to contain or exclude them without severing Islam from its Abrahamic foundations?”
I’ve mused a great deal on this passage in recent weeks, as I’ve reported on three separate occasions on anti-Semitic sermons of varying ferocity at three different mosques in the U.S., all posted on social media platforms and then unearthed by the Middle East Media Research Institute. What these sermons have in common is that they were delivered on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017—the same week that President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. All of them drew on similar images, themes and quotations. All of them utilized language and sentiments that would be regarded by any rational calculation as unambiguously threatening towards Jews.
The worst example was the sermon delivered at the Islamic Center of Jersey City by Sheikh Aymen Elkasaby, who told those gathered for prayers that the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem was “under the feet of the apes and pigs”—a commonly expressed derogatory term for Jews, that is based upon a sura (chapter) in the Quran which claims that in his anger towards the Jews, God “made some as apes and swine.”
“So long as the Al-Aqsa mosque remains a humiliated prisoner under the oppression of the Jews, this nation will never prevail…Allah, wreak vengeance upon the plundering oppressors!” the sheikh continued. “Count them one by one, and kill them down to the very last one. Do not leave a single one on the face of the Earth.”
On the same day, in Houston, Sheikh Raed Saleh Al-Rousan asserted that Judgment Day “will not start until Muslims fight the Jews…in Palestine.” Al-Rousan then quoted a popular hadith (saying) of the Prophet Muhammad concerning the Jews.
“The Muslims will kill the Jews,” he recited, “and the Jews will hide behind the stones and the trees, and the stones and the trees will say: Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him, except for the Gharqad tree, which is one of their trees.”
A version of that hadith also turned up in the sermon about alleged American and Israeli iniquities given by Imam Abdullah Khadra of Raleigh, N.C. “At the End of Time,” as Khadra rendered it, “we will fight those Jews until the rocks and the trees will speak: ‘Oh Muslim, this is a Jew behind me.’”
In the aftermath of all three sermons, I want to stress, I came across some reassuring signs that in America, we deal with these issues with an honesty that is absent in much of Europe and certainly the Middle East. In the New Jersey case, Sen. Cory Booker quickly issued a thundering denunciation of Elkasaby’s anti-Semitism, at the same time telling his friend, Islamic Center President Ahmed Shedeed, to “publicly and unconditionally denounce Imam Elkasaby’s hateful rhetoric, which was delivered at your house of worship before your congregants.” In the case of Al-Rousan, the Islamic Society of Greater Houston condemned him for making “inflammatory remarks about our Jewish community in a deeply disturbing tone.” In the case of Khadra in Raleigh, an email exchange I had with him revealed some awareness on his part of the negative impact of his remark, and a desire to meet with local Jews to mend fences and restate the non-discriminatory principles of interfaith dialogue.
In each of these cases, I spoke to Muslim leaders who expressed some degree of remorse or condemnation, and did not deny—as would often be the case in Europe—that such rhetoric is judged in the American context as an actual threat to the Jews living here, and therefore a potential threat to most precious norms and conventions of the nation at large.
That this recognition exists strikes me as a decent enough foundation for a more transparent dialogue between Judaism and Islam in America. As a country with no official religion, whose citizens nonetheless embrace different faiths in vast numbers, America is the ideal location for such a conversation. And it needs to begin by recognizing that there is, as Nirenberg says in his book, a strong message in the Quran and in other key Muslim texts that “Islam, like Christianity, staked its claims in the name of Jewish truth, but guaranteed those claims with Jewish falsity.” Hence the temptation for Muslim preachers to address contemporary issues like Jerusalem through the filter of Jewish deceit and Jewish disobedience—“they believed, then disbelieved, therefore a seal was set on their hearts so they do not understand,” the Quran says—that permeated the depiction of the Jews in the early world of Islam.
Nobody can pretend that these anti-Jewish texts, beliefs and traditions do not exist. But the experience of Jews with the Catholic Church during the last half-century—in which fundamental doctrines about the demonic nature of the Jews dating to the time of St. Paul have been dispensed with—suggests that there is very little in this world that is immovable. Certainly, those of us who believe that Jewish-Muslim coexistence can only be achieved on the basis of mutual respect, as well as mutual commitment to civic, secular government and society, should aim for nothing less.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.