Opinion | Opinion

Op-Ed: Islamic leaders must call out hatemongers

NEW YORK (JTA) — In 1935, a trial was held in Bern, Switzerland, in which two individuals were being prosecuted for distributing the notorious anti-Semitic document “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.” At the trial, witness after witness came forward testifying to the fraudulent nature of “The Protocols.”

Then one of the accused took the stand and was asked what he thought in light of these testimonies. He said that none of it had impact on him, and that he knows “The Protocols” are true because every day around him he sees how Jews conspire to control the world.

That story comes to mind as we watch the sad tales unfold of the anti-Islamic film that led to riots in the Arab world.

A story circulated that the maker of the film, “Innocence of Muslims,” was an Israeli-American Jew by the name of Sam Bacile who claimed that he had produced the film and was backed by 100 Jewish donors. It quickly emerged, however, that the story was a lie. In fact, there was absolutely no Jewish angle here at all. The film’s producer was a Christian Copt living on the West Coast who received assistance from a right-wing, anti-Muslim Christian.

The revelation of these facts was important in many places, but in those places where anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have become a way of life, the truth had no impact, much as in the case of the distribution of “The Protocols” back in 1935. Rather the “evidence” that the anti-Muslim film was produced by a Jew merely confirmed what they already “know” — that Jews are behind the siege against the Muslim world, that Jews are the secret power in the world.

It is therefore hardly a surprise that a surge of anti-Semitic sentiment appeared since the story broke with the violence against U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya.

Cartoons in papers across the Arab world and in Iran depict evil Jews as behind the film and anti-Muslim sentiment. In one Iranian cartoon, the Jew is the devil and the director of the anti-Muslim film. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad chimed in as usual, calling the film an Israeli plot “to divide [Muslims] and spark sectarian conflict.” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the American-made movie is tied to “Islamophobic policies of arrogant powers and Zionists.”

What should not be missed here is not that this is an example of the usual suspects merely exploiting a situation to serve their anti-Jewish purposes. It is rather far deeper and more sinister.

It is a way of thinking that is dominant in certain circles, is truly believed and just awaits repeated confirmations to set off anti-Semitic explosions of one kind or another.

Therefore, although important, it is simply not enough to react against and expose these manifestations of hatred. Rather there has to be a sustained long-term process of standing up and speaking out against this kind of thinking, so the point can be reached where these conspiratorial viewpoints are isolated and truly marginal.

To a large extent, this has happened in recent years in the West because of the impact and lessons of the Holocaust, because of the changes in the Catholic Church’s views on Jews and, significantly, because of leaders and nongovernmental organizations in democratic societies willing to take a stand for the truth.

Sadly, in the Islamic world, there is no systematic effort to combat anti-Semitic conspiracy thinking. To the contrary, as we see in Iran and in many government-sponsored newspapers in a number of Arab countries, officials often aid, abet and even lead the way in their anti-Semitism.

Ultimately, as in the West, true change will come only when influentials in the Islamic world recognize how destructive these views are to their own societies. We, unfortunately, are far away from that day.

But for now it is vital that Western countries and others like Russia, China and non-aligned nations find opportunities to call out their Muslim country counterparts.

If it is legitimate for Muslims to express anger at anti-Muslim sentiment in the West, even if it comes only from an individual with no government connection, it is surely right to call out Muslim officials who remain silent in the face of or even work to cultivate and exploit anti-Jewish sentiment in their own societies.

(Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and author most recently of “Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype.”)