Entrenched Antisemitism Among Imams Serving US Muslim Communities Needs to Be Challenged, Scholar Tells Major Conference
“I was wrong,” said Mohammed Al-Azdee, with disarming candor.
An associate professor of communication theory at Bridgeport University in Connecticut, the Iraqi-born Al-Azdee was speaking to The Algemeiner in detail about his latest research project: examining the content of khutbahs, the weekly sermons delivered in American mosques by imams. He emphasized that some of the core assumptions he had made in advance of his research turned out to be in error.
On Tuesday, Al-Azdee presented his latest findings to the ongoing conference on antisemitism in the United States organized by the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism (ISCA) at Indiana University, Bloomington. “Whatever generalizations are made about imams in the Arab world, many in the US want to believe that Islam is a religion of peace, and that imams in America embody that perspective in their comments about Jews and Israel,” he told the audience attending a Tuesday panel on anti-Zionism.
Al-Azdee himself subscribed to that belief until quite recently, when his research indicated that the opposite might be true. He saw that worshipers attending US mosques were regularly exposed to the sorts of hostile, antisemitic messages about Jews and the Jewish state one might encounter at some mosques in the Middle East.
While he hadn’t expected to discover any particular warmth towards Israel, Al-Azdee did anticipate that imams would carefully distinguish between Jews, Zionism and Israel, so that criticism of the Jewish state’s policies would be separated from crude antisemitism. “That’s what I was wrong about,” he explained during an extensive conversation last week. “They talk about ‘the Jews.’ And even when they talk about Zionism or Israel, their frame is still ‘the Jews.'”
The concept of “framing” is key to Al-Azdee’s theory of antisemitism as a mode of communication. “Other scholars of antisemitism did a great job describing the psychological and sociological aspects, but less attention was paid to the communication side,” he observed. Al-Azdee’s method involves the monitoring of how antisemitic “frames of reference” — for example, the claim that Jews are engaged in various global conspiracies — “will move from one social chamber to another, from one ideological domain to another, but they remain the same.”
The raw material for Al-Azdee’s research was provided by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a Washington, DC-based think-tank that maintains a rich video and text database of khutbahs delivered in American mosques. “Before working on that research, I believed that Islam in the US was different to the Middle East, that relations with Jews would be better than in the Middle East,” he said. “That was my hypothesis, so I thought it more likely that I would find imams talking about Zionism, not about Jews.”
While a systematic study of khutbahs in US mosques is yet to be done, Al-Azdee’s work on the sermons delivered by a core group of 13 imams points to some important, if disconcerting, conclusions. Key is the linkage between the nature of antisemitism among Islamists and that of the Nazi regime in Germany.
Bridging these two worlds, Al-Azdee points out, were a series of theologians and political leaders, such as Sayyid Qutb, the chief ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the middle of the last century; Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the viscerally pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem exiled by the British authorities in 1937; and the late Al Qaeda chieftain Osama bin Laden, whose 2002 letter to the American people informed them that they could not be considered “innocent of all the crimes committed by the Americans and Jews against us.”
“There are links to major antisemitic traditions,” Al-Azdee said. “Nazi propaganda shaped Arab antisemitism, and in my data analysis you can see the pattern of alignment between Nazi and Muslim antisemitism. The khutbahs are about Jews, but Jews represented as ‘Der ewige Jude‘ — ‘The Eternal Jew,'” the German title of a 1940 propaganda film backed by Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, which purported to unveil a global Jewish conspiracy against Germany.
The range of antisemitic themes pushed by the imams examined by Al-Azdee also conformed to the various Nazi obsessions about Jews, from possessing unaccountable economic power to corrupting the morals of society. As Sayyid Qutb venomously put it, “from such creatures who kill and massacre and defame prophets, one can only expect the spilling of human blood and of dirty means that will further their machinations and evil.”
According to Al-Azdee, for Qutb and other Islamist ideologues, antisemitism was an “integral component of the Islamic state,” much as it was in Germany under National Socialism. That view is buttressed by antisemitic quotes from the Qu’ran as well as from the hadiths, or sayings, of the Prophet Muhammad, describing Jews as the descendants of “apes and pigs,” urging their execution on the “Day of Judgement,” and labeling them as “filth” — a term that in Muslim world, Al-Azdee said, refers explicitly to human excrement.
Al-Azdee argued that the antisemitic assaults carried out by pro-Palestinian demonstrators on Jews around the country during the hostilities between Israel and Hamas in May were an inevitable outgrowth of the sentiments expressed in the khutbahs and by Islamist ideology more broadly. “Islam is an identity,” he said. “When we think about religion, we always go to the sacred texts. No-one is denying the significance of the literature, but like other religions and ideologies, Islam is also transmitted through other means: the family, friends, school, the mosque and social media.”
Al-Azdee said he has given some thought as to how the violent and prejudiced elements that have shaped Islam in the US could be displaced. He strongly criticized the practice of transporting imams from the Middle East to serve Muslim communities in America. “Why are we importing imams from Iran, Egypt and Syria?” he asked, suggesting Morocco and Tunisia as well as the Saudi-backed Muslim World League (MWL) as potential sources for more enlightened imams, along with a home-grown US program to train Muslim clerics.
More fundamentally, Al-Azdee argued that Muslims tend to think less critically about their faith than Jews or Christians. “We need something similar to Judaism and Christianity: the ability to think critically about one’s religion, the things you like and don’t like,” he remarked. “We need a new trend that brings out the good aspects of Islam like charity and prayer, while getting rid of this genocidal language about Jews. That’s why the role of an imam as a source of information is so essential.”