There he goes again—Benny Morris is giving the battle against Islamic anti-Semitism a bad name.
But then he’s not alone in fray. Nearly every passionate participant in the battle—Pipes, Horowitz, you name it—would make the angelically tolerant Roger Williams, the great American founder of religious toleration, go apoplectic.
In one of the perverse juxtapositions for which it is famous, the previous issue of The New Republic (the back section of which I just got around to reading last weekend) offers us a wonderful essay on Roger Williams by Martha Nussbaum, and then follows a few pages later with an embarrassing and ugly screed against Islam by Morris called “The Darker Side.”
Morris uses what he admits is a bad anthology of anti-Semitic Muslim texts as an excuse for pages of innuendo against Islam as a whole. He quotes the standard Quranic verses and hadiths about the Jews being apes and pigs and deserving death, and adduces the pogroms and persecutions of Jews in the Islamic world that we hear about again and again these days from the West’s holy warriors against the diabolical faith of the Orient.
One would think that, during these centuries of Islamic persecution, Jews were safe and admired everywhere in the world where Islam did not hold sway.
Morris forgets to mention that the Muslims were simply in step with the international fashion of the time. Jews were slandered and persecuted and murdered nearly everywhere they lived during this long, dark era.
Morris would have us believe that his catalog of Islamic holy texts that vilify the Jews means that Islam is uniquely stained with a tradition that makes toleration impossible. But one could easily put together a similar catalog of sacred Christian writings.
As any modern, thinking religious person of any faith knows, texts on their own determine nothing. Texts are supremely important, but in every great religion the same texts can be used to justify the most heinous of crimes, or to inspire people to superhuman acts of charity, self-sacrifice, and selflessness. The choice between the way of intolerance and violence and the way of peace and justice is not determined by the holy texts, but by how the believer chooses to read, understand, and live those texts.
The fact that large and powerful currents in modern Islam have chosen the path of intolerance and anti-Semitism is indeed horror that must be denounced. These groups must be fought. There is no reason not to believe that they are not as sincere about their threats to destroy the Jewish people than were the Crusaders, the Inquisitors, and the neo-pagans of Nazi Germany.
But there is nothing inherent in Islam, not in its holy texts, not in its fundamental beliefs, and not in its history and tradition, that makes a tolerant and charitable Islam impossible. And in fact such currents in Islam exist.
Keep in mind that Christian anti-Semitism is hardly a thing of the past, and that Christian humanism with regard to the Jews is a relatively modern phenomenon.
According to Roger Williams, religion does not determine what the conscience feels. One may be a good Jew or a bad Jew, a good Christian or a bad Christian, a good Muslim or a bad Muslim. No matter what a person’s faith, God has given him the ability, and the responsibility, to choose what to do with his religion. Sacred texts and traditions will not prevent him from being a slanderer and a murderer if his conscience is faulty; neither will they will force him to be an anti-Semite if his conscience tells him that God’s will is that he respect and help his fellow human beings.
So let’s offer no quarter to Islamic anti-Semitism. But let’s not slander Islam and call for its destruction. That makes us into the kind of people we should rightfully hate.