Antisemitism in South Asia spread by Christian sources

A young Singaporean has been detained for planning an attack against the Jewish community. While such crimes are rare, antisemitism has been rising in the Far East, although there are almost no Jews still living there. Paul Hedges in New Mandala has this useful round-up of the origins of the phenomenon. (With thanks: Ron)

The portico of the Magaine Aboth synagogue, Singapore

To understand the connection to Southeast Asia, however, requires understanding how European colonialism spread antisemitism, particularly around Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This led first to Arab Christians adopting antisemitic ideas, which seeped into secular Arab nationalism then into Islamic Arab nationalisms, and into a full-blown Islamic antisemitism. This latter move came during the 1930s, and two key figures were the mufti of Jerusalem Hajji Amin Al-Husseini and Syed Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qutb wrote a tract called Our Struggle With the Jews in in 1950 which still circulates in Southeast Asia today and defined an eternal enmity between Jews and Muslims, but drew on Western antisemitic tropes.

Alongside this, the importance of the current Palestine-Israel conflicts cannot be underestimated for how Muslims globally view Jews. Hence, in Southeast Asia, as elsewhere, the narratives on this shape discourses, with many Muslims perceiving what is often termed the “settler colonialism” and “apartheid” of Israeli state policy, and a certain form of Zionism, as driving a wedge between the communities.

Before proceeding, several caveats need noting. Firstly, accusations of Israel as a “settler colonial” state and engaged in “apartheid” are hotly contested, so I am only noting here a perception of this without arguing either way. Secondly, Zionism names a range of attitudes of Jewish people towards a homeland that may or may not be Israel (some early Zionists suggested South America may make a good homeland). As such, the excesses of militant Zionist settlers is far from definitive of all Zionisms. Thirdly, opposition to Israeli policies vis-à-vis Muslims is not itself antisemitic, nor does it entail hatred of Jews, and many local Muslims recognise this, especially in relation to their tradition, a matter we can unpack further.

In the Quran, hadith, and Islamic tradition, Jews—like Christians—were regarded as People of the Book (ahl al-kitab) and Protected People (ahl al-dhimma), and had resultantly lived peaceably in Muslim-dominated lands. Indeed, when persecuted or exiled by Christian rulers, many Jews had found congenial homes amongst Muslims who often welcomed them warmly. The Jewish golden age of philosophy, literature, and learning of the medieval period happened in Muslim-dominated Spain, as well as in such cities as Cairo, and Baghdad. Antisemitism can therefore be seen as something alien to the Islamic tradition, despite its adoption today by many Muslims under Western influence.

When we address Islamic antisemitism in Southeast Asia today, we therefore need to return to our earlier discussion about the growth of this tradition in MENA. As noted, many Muslims learnt antisemitism via Christian and secular Arabs, from Western colonial, secular, and Christian sources. But, in figures such as Syed Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood, it became internalised as what we may term an Islamic religious ideological stance. Qutb’s role in the Muslim Brotherhood meant that antisemitism became embedded in Egypt and beyond, most notably in Saudi Arabia. It was really from this source, through what has been termed the Arabisation of Southeast Asian Islam, that antisemitism spread as a part of the Wahhabi-Salafism as taught from the 1980s onwards.

This is not, though, to deny colonial and other sources of antisemitism, and in Indonesia antisemitism was institutional in the colonial period, came with Nazi influence under Japanese occupation, and was spread by notable Christian nationalists such as Ratu Langie.

The global spread of modern Saudi Arabian and MENA Islam, including in the Southeast Asian region, means that antisemitism exists in many Muslim communities. The Israel-Palestine conflict has led many Muslims to see their fellows repressed by Jews, and news reporting has reinforced an antisemitic narrative that is essentially alien to traditional Islamic tenets.

The prominence of antisemitism in recent times, particularly in Malaysia, where we have noted the endogenous Jewish community has disappeared, may seem puzzling. But attention to the discursive function of the trope of “the Jew” and how antisemitism operates makes it clear.

Firstly, it was arguably under Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir that antisemitism gained a major public profile there, a discourse he has repeated in recent years. He was instrumental in turning towards a Muslim identity in the political sphere and away from a secular framing. As such, given Wahhabi-Salafi infiltration and the prominence of Palestine-Israel as a point of identity for a global Muslim ummah (community), it was a natural discursive trope to help found arguments for a beleaguered and oppressed Muslim identity that would bind group identity and garner support.

Secondly, within Malaysia’s context, as Mary Ainslee has argued, antisemitism without Jews has been a cipher for a different group: the Chinese. In other words, antisemitic discourse about Jews as a minority but yet a prosperous and controlling group (playing on old antisemitic tropes noted below), has acted as a code to criticise and stir up resentment against local Chinese, perceived as a successful business community which prospers at the expense of Malays. A similar pattern has also been observed in Indonesia.

It has been noted that copies of Henry Ford’s deeply antisemitic text The Universal Jew were handed out at Mahathir’s political rallies in the 2000s. This points to the ongoing Western influence. Moreover, the conception of controlling and prosperous Jews plays upon tropes developed through European history, but very particularly on a nineteenth century forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which allegedly records a secret meeting of Jewish leaders discussing their plot for world domination. Originally a scene from a novel, it has taken on a life of its own and has the passage we have discussed: from Europe (both France and Russia were posited origins), to MENA where it influenced Qutb’s writings, and now to Southeast Asia in the Islamic ideological framing of antisemitism.

All this brings us back to the context of the detained 20-year-old Singaporean youth. While actual violence, or planned violence against Jews is rare in Southeast Asia—though a planned (Jemaah Islamiyah) JI attack in 2001 on Singapore targeted not just the US but also the Israeli embassy—antisemitic sentiment clearly festers regionally.

This is particularly tied to anti-Israeli sentiment. Amongst the countries surveyed here, only Singapore has close ties with Israel, and Malaysia in particular has had sometimes tense relations. But anti-Israeli sentiment can be separated from antisemitism (many Israeli and non-Israeli Jews criticise the government’s harsh policies towards the Palestinians). Therefore, while many Muslims regionally may criticise Israel, certainly not all are antisemitic. Muslims and Jews sit side-by-side in the Interreligious Organisation of Singapore and other platforms. In Indonesia, for example, some have stressed kinship. Respect for Jews, as People of the Book, is integral to Muslim identity for many.

As such, it was no surprise that Singapore’s Mufti and others expressed their outrage at the planned crime. Indeed, Jewish and Muslim leaders united together to condemn it. It may be said that it was not Islam that gave this young man these ideas, but a politicised hatred learnt via colonial imposition and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Nevertheless, like synagogues globally, those across Southeast Asia have security in place, and the need for reviewing security across places of worship in Singapore has been noted. Although Singapore’s Chief Rabbi has contrasted the safety felt here compared to Europe, there is no room for complacency given regional discourses on antisemitism.

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