Antisemitism in the Muslim Intellectual Discourse in South Asia


by Navras J. Aafreedi Department of History, Presidency University, Kolkata 700073, India

Received: 31 May 2019 / Accepted: 15 July 2019 / Published: 19 July 2019

Abstract: South Asia (Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan) has produced some of the greatest Islamic thinkers, such as Shah Wali Allah (sometimes also spelled Waliullah; 1702–1763) who is considered one of the originators of pan-Islamism, Rahmatullah Kairanwi (1818–1892), Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938), Syed Abul A’la Mawdudi (also spelled Maududi; 1903–1979), and Abul Hasan Ali Hasani Nadwi (1914–1999), who have all played a pivotal role in shaping political Islam and have all had global impact. Islamism is intertwined with Muslim antisemitism. Some of the greatest Islamist movements have their bases in South Asia, such as Tablīghi Jamā’at—the largest Sunni Muslim revivalist (daw’a) movement in the world—and Jamā’at-i-Islāmi—a prototype of political Islam in South Asia. The region is home to some of the most important institutions of Islamic theological studies: Darul Ulūm Deoband, the alleged source of ideological inspiration to the Taliban, and Nadwātu’l-’Ulamā and Firangi Mahal, whose curricula are followed by seminaries across the world attended by South Asian Muslims in their diaspora. Some of the most popular Muslim televangelists have come from South Asia, such as Israr Ahmed (1932–2010) and Zakir Naik (b. 1965). This paper gives an introductory overview of antisemitism in the Muslim intellectual discourse in South Asia. Keywords: antisemitism; Muslim; Islamic; Islamist; Islamism; Jewish; Jews; South Asia; India; Pakistan

1. Introduction

Yulia Egorova’s Jews and Muslims in South Asia: Reflections on Difference, Religion, and Race (2018) is the first ever monograph-length study of both Jewish–Muslim relations in South Asia and a comparison of their status in that part of the world. However, it only touches upon antisemitism among certain sections of Muslims there. Generally, scholars pay disproportionately far more attention to the Middle East when it comes to antisemitism than to South Asia, home to one-third of the global Muslim population. Faisal Devji points out the underestimation of the importance of non-Arab Muslims and of non-Arab Islam to the Middle East. He cites the example of Iraq in early 2005, when an Iranian, Ayatullah Sistani emerged as a great Shia authority there. He owes much of his authority in Iraq to the control and disbursement of funds raised by Shia populations elsewhere, particularly South Asia. Devji adds that the notion that the Arab Middle East is the original homeland of radical Islam is rendered nonsensical by the presence of large non-Arab working populations in the Persian Gulf countries, as well as by the domination of non-Arab Muslims in the formulation and spread of Islamic ideas across the world, especially in languages such as English (Devji 2005, p. 22). Given the numerical insignificance of Jews in South Asia, it does not surprise that antisemitism there is more often than not overlooked by scholars. However, this is not how it ought to be, given the fact that some of the major ideological roots of Islamist jihadist ideology, of which antisemitism is an integral part, lie in this region. The region is also home to some of the largest Islamist movements, such as Tablighi Jama’at, the largest Sunni Muslim revivalist (daw’a) movement in the world; Jama’at-i-Islami, a prototype of political Islam in South Asia; Darul Ulūm Deoband, the alleged source of ideological inspiration to the Taliban; and Nadwātu’l-’Ulamā of Lucknow. Islamic revival (ihya’) is a response to Western and secular trends by supporting an increased influence of Islamic values on the modern world. The solution to all the ills of Islamic societies and modern society as a whole is viewed to be a return to Islam in its purest form. There have also been occasions when the antisemitism in South Asia has led to attacks on Jews, such as the ones in Karachi, coinciding with the Arab–Israeli wars in 1948, 1956, and 1967; the attempt to abduct seven Israeli tourists in Kashmir in 1991, during which one of them was killed and three severely wounded (Weinraub 1991); the murder of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002 (Ansari 2004); the attack on Beit Chabad in Mumbai in 2008 (Sharma 2009); and the explosion of an Israeli diplomat’s car in Delhi in 2012 (Singh 2012). The only country in South Asia to have a Jewish community is India, where the population is estimated to be around 5000–10,000. Precisely because of the fact that there is hardly any Jewish presence in the areas that house those who indulge in antisemitic rhetoric, they can do so uninhibited without any fear of being checked. South Asia is a “safe area for casual hatred”, as Aatish Taseer describes his father Salmaan Taseer’s world, where people can voice ugly opinions about the weak and the marginalized, numerically or politically, without challenge, comforted by homogeneity. Taseer recounts in his memoir cum travelogue, Stranger to History (2009), how his father, who served as the Governor of Punjab, the most populous state in Pakistan, from 2008 to 2011, minimized the scale of the Holocaust (Taseer 2009). In 2009, Aag (Anonymous 2009) and Rashtriya Sahara (Qutubullah 2009), the two most widely read Urdu daily newspapers in Lucknow, a major center of Muslim scholarship, carried front-page stories denying the Holocaust with the aim of sabotaging an ongoing Holocaust film retrospective there, without any fear of legal action against them. In the latest example, during the Indian parliamentary elections in India in May 2019, Asif Muhammad Khan of the Indian National Congress party, a former member of the legislative assembly of Delhi, tried to depict Atishi Marlena, a contestant from a rival party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), as Jewish, in spite of the fact that she is not. He believed that the Muslim voters of the concerned constituency would see it as a disqualifier, and thus, these insinuations would influence the election result. She eventually lost. According to Khan, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians are brothers to each other but not Jews. He was captured in a video that is available online proclaiming that a Jew has no place in India and that people have to spread this message to every household (Okhla Times 2019). Interestingly, the view that Jews are not a part of the Indian nation was also expressed by Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar (1906–1973) way back in the year 1939 in his book We, or Our Nationhood Defined. Golwalkar was the supreme director of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS) from 1940 to 1973. He asserted that India is Hindustan, a land of Hindus where Muslims and Christians are invaders and Jews and Parsis are guests. It was absolutely clear to him as to what he wanted the invaders and guests to do:

…the foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture … or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges.
(Golwalkar 1939)

Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister of India, seen by many as a friend to Jews and Israel (Wald and Kandel 2017, p. 23), is a member of the RSS. In the imaginations of the Hindu right, Egorova explains, Israelis “thematized as Jews, are seen as the enemy of Palestinians, thematized as Muslims, and therefore as the friends of the Indian state, construed as the state of the Hindus” (Egorova 2018, p. 15). Indian Jewish scholar and novelist, Jael Silliman, who divides her time between India and the United States (US), recounts in her book Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames (2001) how her Indian identity was once challenged by a progressive Indian friend. While attending a meeting in the US, during one session, Silliman doodled an intricate Indian design, which caught the attention of a colleague who complimented Silliman by saying, “Indians are so artistic”. Immediately, a friend of Silliman’s interjected: “But Jael is not really Indian”. Silliman writes that the callous remark pained her, and she responded sharply: “Since when have you joined the Jan Sangh?” Silliman writes that both of them knew what it meant. Jan Sangh was a Hindu nationalist party whose contemporary avatar is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which currently leads the coalition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the center in India. Both Jan Sangh and its successor, the BJP, are known for their anti-minority political rhetoric. Although her friend “backed off and shamefacedly mumbled an apology of sorts, her remark stayed with” Silliman “as a symbol of a larger phenomenon, the attempts underway to remake India into a Hindu nation.” To Silliman it displayed how a narrow view of who is Indian had gained ground over the decades, marking a decisive shift “from the inclusive rhetoric of the anti-colonial leaders after Indian independence” (Silliman 2001, p. 167). Khan can be heard saying to a crowd in the aforementioned video that they may vote for the political party AAP, but he would find it objectionable if they voted for a Jew. The Election Commission of India took no notice of this antisemitism. Instead of condemning this blatant antisemitism, a senior leader of Marlena’s party, Manish Sisodia, Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi, tried his best to prove that she was a Hindu Rajput and not a Jew. Interestingly, Marlena did exactly the same. She condemned this false rumor of her Jewishness but not the inherent antisemitism in the accusations and went on to talk of her Kshatriya (Hindu warrior class) lineage. The Indian National Congress also did not bother to condemn what their former Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) said about Jews not having any place in India. In another video, Khan is heard saying, to great applause from his audience, that a Jew can never lead Muslims and that there is no place for Jews in the hearts of Muslims. “This is what our Qur’an says” (Zee News 2019). In an interview he gave to a television channel, he explains that the only people mentioned in the Qur’an are Jews, and based on the scripture, it is his belief that Muslims can never follow the leadership of a Jew. Hence, he was opposed to Marlena’s candidacy (Asif Muhammad Khan 2019). This clearly illustrates how Islamic scripture has been interpreted/misinterpreted or reinterpreted, particularly after the creation of the modern state of Israel. The impact of modernism and colonialism, the rise of Arab nationalism and Zionism, and the defeat of the Arab states at the hands of Israel in several wars provided conditions conducive for the enhancement of anti-Jewish hostility, the entrenchment of antisemitic perceptions, and their amalgamation or fusion with polemics in the scripture (Webman 2017, p. 190). There were calls for jihad against Israel/Jews across the Arab world, including the Maghreb, in 1948. In response to those calls thousands set off to fight. A strong dose of antisemitism accompanied the jihadism of 1948. In order to make the antisemitic quotient stronger, during the 1930s and 1940s, different variants of the following hadith were quoted in Islamic tracts: “The day of resurrection does not come until Muslims fight against Jews, until the Jews hide behind trees and stones and until the trees and stones shout out: ‘O Muslim, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him’” (Morris 2015, p. 403). There are a number of references to the religious and moral deficiencies of Jews in the Qur’an, but the Qur’an does not portray Jews solely in negative terms. However, matters changed with the rise of Zionism, the establishment of the state of Israel, and its repeated victories over Arab (“Muslim”) armies in the twentieth century. “These developments”, as Gudrun Kramer points out, “changed the frame of reference for Muslim authors writing with the explicit aim of presenting the Islamic position on Judaism and the Jews” (Kramer 2006, p. 268). It is a phenomenon that did not originate exclusively in the Arab world nor did it spread from there to the rest of the Muslim world, but rather, it emerged simultaneously in both the Middle East and South Asia, though it gained strength as a result of Arab influences. Mehnaz Afridi, an American Muslim scholar of Pakistani origin, gives us a rough idea of how deep-rooted antisemitism is now among Muslims in South Asia, with the exception of those Muslims, miniscule in number, who are in direct contact with Jews as neighbors in certain places in India:

Antisemitism is everywhere, like smog that hangs in the air—thick, dirty, and choking. Even in Karachi, where I was born, the Jews are everywhere, although they have not lived there as a community of any size in several hundred years. Hatred and suspicion of Jews is in the schoolroom, the pulpit, the media, and even at the butcher’s shop in the dense Karachi marketplace, where, as I recall, the butcher blamed the spread of bird flu on Jews on a poster as one walked into the Sunday bazaar.
(Afridi 2017, p. 182)

In the present paper, I discuss how antisemitism figures in the Muslim intellectual discourse in South Asia, primarily in India and Pakistan. Antisemitism has emerged as an integral part of political Islam or Islamism in modern times. Bassam Tibi considers Islamism at its core a form of Jew hatred because of its belief that “the Jews” rule the world and hence are in conflict with Islam (Tibi 2012b, p. 226). In an approach of self-victimization, the ‘guilt’ of the misery of Islamic civilization is attributed to ‘crusaders and Jews’, and therefore, Islamists prefer to engage in polemics against them (Tibi 2012a, p. 154). Faisal Devji cautions us against understanding political Islam in a genealogical mode and questions its credibility. He points out that there are situations when participants in the jihad (against the Judeo-Christian West and those who are perceived as acting in the interest of the West) come from diverse national and religious backgrounds. It is something that is “either downplayed or erased outright” in the process in order to project a sense of purity on the lines of race, religion, and region while drawing a genealogy of political Islam. In such situations, the importance Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903–1979), a South Asian Sunni, holds for both Shias, such as Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini (c. 1900–1989), and prominent Salafi thinkers, such as the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), emerges as an inconvenient fact (Devji 2005, p. 24).Islamist antisemitism emerged along with Islamic revivalism. The development of Islamic revivalism as a social movement and the life histories and intellectual contributions of particular individuals are intertwined. These individuals advanced the formative ideas. They were the ones who voiced the concerns of various social groups and molded public debates by selecting certain ideas while rejecting others. They produced an ideology that uses social impulses to make a new discourse possible. Some of the most important of these ideologues came from South Asia. They are critical to understanding Islamism and the antisemitism inherent in it (Nasr 1996, p. 3). In this paper, we look here at their ideological contributions one by one. We also try to understand their sources of inspiration and the impact they left.