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It's a story that began with an eagle-eyed Jewish blogger and progressed all the way to the White House. In the process, it's reignited the debate as to whether Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohamed Morsi, is really the pragmatic moderate that many believe him to be.
On January 3, the blogger, who writes under the name "Challah Hu Akbar," tweeted an item from the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in which Morsi, in a 2010 speech, uttered what is a standard Islamist anti-Semitic slander, namely that Jews are descended from "apes and pigs." A little over a week later, noticing that Morsi's statement had barely registered with the wider media, the Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a blog post with the entirely apt headline, "Egyptian President Calls Jews 'Sons of Apes and Pigs;' World Yawns." At Forbes magazine, Richard Behar made an identical point, adding that in the same set of remarks, Morsi had called for a boycott of the United States – whose tax-payers have provided Egypt with billions of dollars in aid – because of its support for Israel.
Eventually, the Morsi story found its way into the New York Times, which felt duty-bound to point out that "Mr. Morsi and other political and Brotherhood leaders typically restrict their inflammatory comments to the more ambiguous category of 'Zionists.'" Actually, it's not ambiguous at all. Especially since the Second World War, the word "Zionist" has always been code for "Jew" in the capitals of the Muslim world, as well as in the capitals of the late, unlamented communist bloc of states. And in case there was any lingering doubt, a subsequent Morsi item posted by MEMRI, also from 2010, showed the Muslim Brotherhood leader helpfully urging his people to "not forget to nurse our children and grandchildren on hatred towards those Zionists and Jews."
Unusually, given the prevailing view that accusations of anti-Semitism are a smear cooked up by an unscrupulous Jewish – sorry, I mean Israel – Lobby, condemnation of Morsi did follow. The New York Times published an editorial urging President Obama to directly convey to Morsi that such offensive comments ran counter to the goal of peace. White House spokesman Jay Carney also issued a statement, declaring, "President Morsi should make clear that he respects people of all faiths, and that this type of rhetoric is not acceptable or productive in a democratic Egypt."
Of course, no apology from the Egyptians was forthcoming. Instead, Yasser Ali, Morsi's spokesman, claimed that his boss’s comments had been taken "out of context" and were really directed at Israeli "aggression" in Gaza. In fact, Ali's statement is far less stupid than initially appears; anti-Semites in the Arab world know that there is a strong current of opinion in the West that regards their fulminations against Jews as justified, if unfortunately-worded, anger towards Israel. Ali was playing to that particular gallery.
And that leads to a broader, far more important observation. In its editorial, the New York Times asked, "Does Mr. Morsi really believe what he said in 2010? Has becoming president made him think differently about the need to respect and work with all people?" Disgracefully, the Times also argued, "Israelis are not immune to responding in kind either" (a sentence that appeared to have been overlooked by establishment Jewish groups like the American Jewish Committee, which rushed to welcome the editorial). As for the White House's Carney, his statement categorized Morsi's remarks as "religious hatred," a term that barely scratches the surface of what is really at issue here.
For the Morsi affair tells us much more about how anti-Semitism is understood in the West than it does about the nature of Islamist anti-Semitism. If the Times is to be believed, then the episode is merely a depressing example of how both sides dehumanize each other with nasty rhetoric. Similarly, the White House wants us to think that Morsi's offense was religious intolerance.
As I've long argued, anti-Semitism isn't just another form of bigotry. It is a method of explaining why the world is as it is; incendiary rhetoric against Jews, therefore, isn't just an afterthought, but the natural consequence of the genuinely-held belief that our planet is in the grips of a Jewish conspiracy. One has to assume the Times would not have questioned whether the anti-Semitic outlooks of Hitler and Stalin were genuinely held--so why do so with Morsi?
There are two reasons. Firstly, the misguided view that anti-Semitism is essentially a European phenomenon, and thus an alien import into the Muslim world that will disappear once the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. That reflects, secondly, an enormous ignorance about the origins of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world and its centrality to the Muslim Brotherhood's worldview.
In his masterpiece "Terror and Liberalism," the scholar Paul Berman quotes Sayid Qutb, the leading theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was formed in 1928, twenty years before the birth of the State of Israel, as writing that "most evil theories which try to destroy all values and all that is sacred to mankind are advocated by Jews." Elsewhere in the book, Berman painstakingly documents Qutb's frankly Hitlerian view of the Jewish role in world history, including his repeated assertions that Jews had conspired against Muslims from the dawn of Islam.
These were the ideological foundations of the Muslim Brotherhood then, and they remain firmly in place now. Any compromise with the Jews, such as a peace treaty with Israel, would therefore be another twist in the same conspiracy. According to Qutb and his followers, the only honorable path is to vanquish the Jews entirely.
These are the same beliefs held by Mohamed Morsi. They may be insidious, but they are authentically held. Asking him to recant them, as the White House did, is like asking Hitler to apologize for Mein Kampf.
A far more productive approach would be to integrate the persistence of Islamist anti-Semitism into policy analysis of our relationship with Egypt. Critically, we need to ask whether someone who really believes that there is a hidden Jewish conspiracy at work – and that, consequently, political relationships are camouflage for the very same conspiracy – can be a partner in any sense of that term.
Going by their reactions to Morsi's remarks, neither this White House nor its supporters in the commentariat are up to that task.