Eroding international law
The US state department blames Muslims for the rise of global anti-Semitism and ignores global Islamophobia. Amira Howeidy
explores the political element
In his address to the UN General Assembly's first special session to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi camps in Auschwitz on Monday, UN Secretary-General Koffi Anan rightly said that humanity has not learned from this Jewish tragedy. He referred to past "evils" in Cambodia, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and cited Sudan's Darfur as a recent case of genocide.
It is at moments such as these that most Arab listeners would cringe at the diplomatic omission of the 57-year-old tragedy caused by Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine and its disastrous consequences.
Or is this anti-Semitic thinking?
According to the US State Department's first report on Global anti- Semitism -- as mandated by the Global anti-Semitism Review Act passed by Congress in October 2004 -- issued earlier this month, it could very well be. While there is "no universally accepted definition" of anti-Semitism, the report admits, it opted for this: "hatred towards Jews -- individually and as a group -- that can be attributed to the Jewish religion and/or ethnicity." Having said that, it was quick to warn of "legitimate" criticism of Israel and its policies and "commentary" that assumes an "anti-Semitic character". The "demonisation of Israel" or "vilification of Israeli leaders" it argued, "indicates an anti-Semitic bias" rather than "valid" criticism of policy concerning a "controversial" issue -- in reference to what the UN and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) define as Israeli "occupation".
Is referring to Israel's occupation of Palestine "valid" when in the US State Department's assessment it is a "controversial" issue? And in twisting a fact like Israeli occupation, isn't the State Department denying the tragedy of the Palestinian people which is no less morally wrong than denying the Holocaust? Or is this anti-Semitic thinking yet again?
These are not the only reasons why the State Department's report was received among Arabs with a grain of salt. Citing the main reasons for the rise of anti-Semitism, the report refers to traditional anti-Jewish prejudice in Europe and the world, strong anti-Israel sentiment that "crosses the line between objective criticism of Israeli policies" and anti-Semitism. The third reason for the rise of anti-Semitism according to the report is anti-Jewish sentiment expressed by Europe's "growing Muslim" population and "Muslim" opposition to "developments" in Israel and more recently Iraq.
The extreme right and "disadvantaged and disaffected Muslim youths" were largely blamed for the rise of anti- Semitism in Western Europe.
This trend appears likely to persist, the report concluded, as the number of Muslims in Europe continues to grow "while their level of education and economic prospects remain limited".
A week after the report's release, a delegation from CAIR (The Council on American-Islamic Relations) and several other Muslim and Arab-American groups visited State Department officials and presented a proposal to produce a report on Islamophobia which increased significantly since 9/11.
The visit also coincided with the airing of Fox TV's "24", a show which featured a Muslim family operating as a chilling terrorist sleeper cell in the US. Fearful that Muslims are becoming Hollywood's favourite "new bad guys" CAIR issued a statement on 23 January saying that "24" takes "things to a disturbing new level".
While Fox responded to the outrage of Muslims by promising to introduce changes that should improve the image of Muslims beyond stereotyping, the State Department officials did not promise their Muslim visitors anything.
The rise in Islamophobia prompted the UN to host a seminar on the phenomenon in December 2004 for the first time ever.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Mahmoud El-Masry, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) said that The Report on Global Anti-Semitism is "one sided and fuels Islamophobia against Muslim minorities in the West."
The report, he suggested, is "politically motivated as it gives no scientific statistics which are independently audited and verified". It addresses only "one form of hatred" against Jews and "ignores an equally important other form of hatred, Islamophobia which is hatred towards Muslims".
Critics of the Global Anti-Semitism Review Act (GARA) cite its political and legal implications as a serious cause for concern. According to Nadia Mustafa, director of Cairo University's Political Research and Studies Centre, the GARA is indicative of an international trend to associate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. She cited a recent draft bill in France that proposes criminalising anti-Semitism in the media, and associating it with criticism of Israel.
The GARA is only part and parcel of a developing global trend," she argued. "The new context of international politics is being rephrased according to different concepts than those which prevailed at the end of the Cold War." In Mustafa's view, this new context is marked by military interventions under humanitarian pretexts, blackmailing the UN, direct accusations levelled against Arab culture and dismantling the Palestinian problem rather than solving it.
"It is imperative now to expose the Anti-Semitism Review Act for what it is, and not just only work to improve the image of Arabs and Muslims," she said. GARA, suggests Mustafa, violates the sovereignty of other states, opposes freedom of expression and gives privileged status to followers of a certain faith.
"It is an expression of the erosion of international law."