The Hidden Face of Nationalism in Islamic Lands

In this English adaptation of the introduction of his book 'La Fin du Judaïsme en Terres d’Islam', (published in Hebrew in 2018) Shmuel Trigano reconceptualizes the history of Zionism, of Jewish communities in North Africa and the Middle East, and of the State of Israel.

The following story has yet to be written. Over the course of several decades in the aftermath of the Holocaust, between 1945 and 1970, a civilization two millennia old disappeared; its members took to the roads of exile once more, and ended up reconstituting itself under different skies, predominantly in Israel and France. The Jews of the Arab and Islamic world, most of whom had lived there since long before the arrival of Islam, saw their universe collapse—for some brutally, for others at the end of a more underhanded process. Some 900,000 people, from an area consisting of 11 countries stretching from Iran to Morocco, underwent this ordeal. What determined their fate was their living as Jews in countries where Islam was the dominant religion—or, more precisely, living in Arab countries at the onset of a new post-colonial world order. 

The world in which these Jewish communities evolved presented, in effect, one single condition. A unified political culture resulting from several centuries of Ottoman domination, combined with the more or less age-old domination of France and Great Britain, against a background of their rivalry with Germany. Islam was the bedrock of this world. The Ummah transcended all ethnic borders. It allowed for diverse populations to subject themselves to the rule of the Ottoman Empire, a non-Arab power, led by the caliph, a sort of Pope-emperor of the Ummah. The concept of the Ummah inspired the Arabs to rebel against the colonial powers: not so much for their colonial nature (the colonial yoke of the Ottomans was by and large tolerated), but for their Christianity. A decisive turning point was the rise of nationalism: while the Ummah dissolved into nation-states, the pan-Arabism that emerged in its wake provided indirect continuity. 

To this situation, created by colonialism and its nationalist reaction, an additional factor came to the fore: the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine, under the British Mandate, as provisioned by the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The problem derived not from the emergence of a new political force in the midst of the Arab countries, but from its Jewish character: as sacrilegious to the Islamic conscience as the Christian colonial powers had been. One must indeed resituate the events in their initial framework to understand the course they took later. It is only recently that we have discovered what observers have long noticed, the slow destruction of Christian communities and institutions in the Arab World, now at an advanced stage. A similar destruction of Jewish communities and institutions was the starting point of that process. In this context, it is less the existence of Israel as a sovereign state, but rather the Jewish nature of this sovereignty, that troubles the Arab-Islamic conscience. In these terms, Jewish sovereignty is understood as nothing short of a rebellion against Islam. 

The ubiquitous representation of non-Muslims as dhimmis in the Islamic discourse offers a perspective with which one might gauge the extent of this phenomenon. None, bar Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, were allowed to live in Islamic societies, under the terms laid out by the Quran and the seventh-century Pact of Umar, and this was exclusively as dhimmis (protected persons). Other religions were condemned to extinction (like the Baha’is, in contemporary Iran;  as apostates, they are deemed to deserve capital punishment, like the Yezidi people under ISIS). The Islamic society is carefully demarcated. Non-Muslims were conferred the status of dominated nations: segregated in special quarters, administered by themselves outside of general society, their members clearly marked as outsiders, and allowed to exit their confinement only at the cost of converting to Islam or of buying European nationality. 

Dhimmis, or rayas in the Ottoman Empire, could live in these areas, but only as second-class subjects, and with the obligation to pay capitation (djizia) and property tax (kharadi). After the Islamic invasion (what the Islamic “conquest” was for them), they were dispossessed for the benefit of the Ummah, the “rightful” proprietor of these lands, and subjugated to its service, thereby becoming strangers in their own homes. The dhimmi‘s existence relies on a magnanimous concession (hence the need for “protection”); a privilege of survival that does not derive from any human right. The downside of this surrender pact is having to accept all its clauses: any contestation of this “accord” is tantamount to its breach, and the subsequent loss of “protection”; contestation is a declaration of “war” on Islam, to which the legitimate response is all-out jihad. The “protection” in question is not against an external enemy—as would be the case in a feudal system—but against the intolerance of Islam itself of other religions. 

The Rebellions of the Dhimmis

Succumbing to the pressure of the European Christian powers, the Ottoman Empire was forced to change the status of dhimmis. The Tanzimat reforms of 1839, enacted by Sultan Abdul Mejid, followed by the edict of Hatt-I humayun of 1856, enshrined the principle of equality for all subjects of the empire irrespective of their religion. However, it preserved the structure of communities or “nations” (millets), by changing their administrative function and keeping the hierarchy intact (with the Greeks, Armenians and Jews at the very bottom). If these reforms had in effect undermined the established order of the raya communities and emancipated their members, it was a traumatic insult for the Muslims whose millet had lost its privileged status, making it one nation among many—an insult compounded by the fact that the reforms were imposed by Christian powers. For the Muslims, this evolution was nothing short of the complete capitulation of Islam and the abandonment of its legitimacy. Yaron Harel has shown that in Syria and Lebanon, the Tanzimat reforms changed nothing regarding the segregation of the communities across all areas of everyday life. 

It is less the existence of Israel as a sovereign state, but rather the Jewish nature of this sovereignty, that troubles the Arab-Islamic conscience. In these terms, Jewish sovereignty is understood as nothing short of a rebellion against Islam. 

In fact, before the Tanzimat the longing for independence among the dhimmi peoples had already begun with Greece’s 1822 War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire.  Greece’s victory showed that Independence seemed within reach. Though generally forgotten, Zionism began in the Turkish Balkans in Sarajevo with Yehuda Alkalai and not in Europe with Herzl. Inspired by the Greeks, Alkalai developed an extensive theory of Jewish sovereignty and travelled throughout Europe and the Middle East to spread his ideas. Herzl heard of him in Vienna. After the Greeks and the Jews it was the turn of the Armenians. The national awakening of these three dhimmi people led to the Arab nationalist movement and also the first Islamic repression.

The Armenians, under the impetus of the movement of nationalities, committed an act of rebellion against the Ummah by fighting for national autonomy. After several rebellions in the Caucasus, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation was established in 1890 in Tiflis, and advocated an armed struggle for liberty. In 1893, Armenian nationalists made public appeals across Armenian territories to rise up against the Sultan’s oppression. A violent response ensued: several massacres were carried out by the Ottomans in 1894-5, in Sason, Constantinople, Trebizond and other places. The death toll stood at somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 people. Often overlooked is the Jihadi nature of these massacres: not only in their motivation and their legitimation, but also in the nature of the acts themselves and the fact that the surviving women and children (some 150,000) were forcibly converted to Islam. The same pattern was to reappear in the second wave of genocide, this time instigated by the Young Turks, who had toppled Sultan Abdul Hamid in 1908. 

The transition from a caliphal regime founded on religion to a Turkish state centered on the nation, doing away with the Ottoman system of power, cultivated hopes of liberty among the nations of the empire. But this was not to be the case; here too, the Armenian case comes in handy in highlighting the prevalent role played by Islam in modern nationalism in the Turkey—a Muslim, albeit not an Arab, state. The peaks of Armenian oppression came about against markedly different backdrops but were eventually similar in essence. The massacres of the late nineteenth century were the doing of an imperial power bent on suppressing any attempt to question its authority, religious in effect, which applied to the entire Ummah and derived its power from the sharia and the religious sentiments of its subjects. Hit with the Tanzimat reforms, the massacres provided an outlet for their resentment. For the Young Turks, it was the Turkish nation and its ethnicity—their Turkishness—in the spirit of the nationalist movements that consecrated the ethnic homogeneity of the emergent nations, then transformed into a “rationally” thought out and systematically implemented political plan. In this respect, the Armenian massacre of 1915-1916, with its 1.2 million victims, paved the way for the genocides of the twentieth century. This plan was later fully achieved via population swaps between Greece and Turkey (1,750,000 displaced persons on both sides). Between 1923 and 1930, 1,250,000 Greek Christians were banished from Turkey, while a smaller number of Turks left Greece for the motherland. 

The ethnic differences in this case validated, in fact, religious differences. The ethnic homogeneity sought by Ataturk’s Turkey was, implicitly, as much ethnic as it was religious. A similar phenomenon was the later 1947 partition of Islamic Pakistan from Hindu India, with 14 million displaced on both sides. This same ambivalence applies to the massacre of the Armenians, which set the tone—merely by its religious dimension—for the subsequent Jewish genocide. The Turks, who sought to exterminate all the Armenians, also resorted to Islamizing the survivors, thereby limiting the scope of the racial dimension in the extermination and setting it apart from a “classic” genocide; the Nazis, for their part, never aspired to “recruit” the Jews to the Aryan race. With their families destroyed, the Armenian survivors, mainly young women and children, were integrated en masse (and by force) into Muslim families and communities. The “young women and children were rendered prime candidates for absorption into Muslim households after they were isolated from their families and terrorized during the forced marches and executions of their elders,” wrote British-Armenian historian Ara Sarafian in his 2001 essay The Absorption of Armenian Women and Children into Muslim Households as a Structural Component of the Armenian Genocide

The Armenian Christians were not the only victims of violence: there were massacres against Christians in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq . In fact the Tanzimat disadvantaged the Arabs, who, because of their religion, were downgraded from the dominant nation in the Ottoman empire to a nation like the others. That’s why Arab nationalism began and expressed itself with violence against the ex-dhimmis. Violence against the Jews, during, for example, the 1929 pogroms in Mandatory Palestine and elsewhere are to be counted in this evolution.

The ambiguity of the national and the religious, and their morphological superposition in the Armenian tragedy create a paradigm with which to interpret the subsequent history and fate of Jews in Islamic lands. Turkey was established as a nation-state, whose constitution formally meant a break from the Islamic model. The limitations of the “national” episode would soon emerge because the Arab nation-states, formed after 1945,  all adopted Islam as the state religion, with Arabism and pan-Arabism as iterations of Islamism and pan-Islamism succeeding a brief bout of “Arab socialism.” Turkey’s Islamic turn of 2009 onward is no exception. 

The impact of the Turkish repression on the whole Islamic world and the non-Muslims who lived in it must not be underestimated. They were seen as an example of the fate awaiting dhimmis who rebelled against Islam’s clout. It is clear how and why the dhimmi nations  found refuge in the colonial powers who liberated them. Against this backdrop, the rise of Zionism could not but have been perceived as an Armenian-style rebellion by Arab-Muslims; for their part, they began to forge national persuasions independently of Islam, as the Turks had previously. Although Zionism got off the ground while Arab nationalisms were taking shape, it was assessed in exclusively traditional Islamic terms. 

A fate similar to the Armenians’ befell the Jews of Palestine, who in a similar fashion were in the process of gaining their independence, thanks to political Zionism and the international recognition it had secured (namely the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which spelled out the British Government’s commitment to establishing a Jewish national home in Palestine), and the bestowal of the Mandate on Palestine by the League of Nations. The dynamics were very different because, under the British mandate, the Arabs under the Mufti’s leadership were  unable to clamp down on the Jews in a vigorous and organized manner, as the Ottomans did in the Armenian case. Starting in 1920, gruesome pogroms were carried out against the Jews, notably in old Jewish (and therefore dhimmi) dwellings like Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and Jaffa. Between 1929 and 1939, some 600 Jews were killed and hundreds wounded. The Islamic dimension of the massacres was clear: In 1920, the troubles erupted on the occasion of the Nabi Musa celebrations, an anti-Christian festival, in Jerusalem; in July 1929, the massacres began with the vandalization of the Western Wall synagogue, clearly a provocation, and sparked by the Islamic Council. How could it have been otherwise? The Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al Husseini, looms large behind these riots. They were triggered, at times, by crazy rumors about murders committed by Jews and the desecration of holy Muslim sites; there was also the carefully premeditated reaction to the 1920 declaration, by the Syrian Congress, of Syria-Palestine as an independent kingdom under King Faisal. The Mufti’s past as a cadet in the Ottoman Army—and at a time when memories of the Armenian massacres were fresh—is important to note. 


The Continuation of the Ummah and the Question of Palestine

Thus, the “Question of Palestine” became the flagship of Arab nationalisms, irrespective of their diversity, the vector of pan-Arabism and later the double-dealings of the Arab League. The Question was the bedrock of a new, semi-mythical Ummah, united against a sole enemy, the rebel dhimmi

The State of Israel was, therefore, established alongside several Arab states as part of the same historical moment that emancipated the peoples of the Ottoman Empire. Armenia remained paralyzed until the fall of Communism, but the peoples of the Balkans were all liberated from the imperial juggernaut. The dhimmi Jewish nation thus morphed into a state as a result of dual decolonization, from two successive imperial regimes, as did the other non-Muslim nations—and the Arab nations as well. In effect, the succession of imperial rule from one colonial power to others created a situation whereby the Arab nation-states owed their existence to European colonialism. 

In this vein, accusing Zionism of being Western colonialism, exercising itself on the back of an existing nation, is a falsification of history adapted from Cold War Stalinism. Prior to the emergence of Zionism and Arab nationalism, there was never a “Palestinian nation” or a Palestinian state. Palestine was a creation of the British Mandate on a territory in which, on the other side of the Jordan River, another nation-state was similarly created: Jordan. Similarly, the argument that sees Zionism as the cause of the deterioration of the living conditions of the Jews is an ideological flip-flop that in fact subscribes to the most orthodox Islamic worldview—one which sees in the liberation of the dhimmi nations a religious provocation. 

Refugees from the Ummah 

The labeling of Zionism as colonialism, and placing the blame for the deterioration of Jewish life in the Middle East on the emergence of Zionism, are two central elements of a reincarnation of an old Islamic tenet: the treatment of the Jews as a “non-people” (from the point of view of sovereignty), as a subjugated people belonging unsparingly to Islamic society. In this vein, the denial of the singularity of Jewish peoplehood is intended to better absolve the Arab-Muslim world of responsibility for centuries of segregation of and hostility towards the Jews. From there derives the perception of Israel as a foreign entity to the region, established by European Jews as a compensation for the Holocaust. This denies the fact that Israel owes its existence not only to the ideals of Yehuda Alkalai in the ideological arena, but also to the mass immigration of Jews from the Arab world who, prior to their arrival in the 1950s, were affected not by the horrors of the Holocaust (though there were plans to exterminate them by the Nazis and Amin El Husseini) but by chronic exclusion in their countries of origin. Their overwhelming presence in Israel attests to the fact that migration was their assured route to self-determination; staying put in areas where the colonial powers were pulling out made their future prospects increasingly uncertain. There lies the constitutive logic of Israel’s creation, a logic that the dominant discourse—including among Israeli elites—has banished from analyses of the conflict. 

The reaction of the incipient Arab states to the creation of Israel is hugely significant in this regard. The State of Israel was not perceived as an external entity but as the hallmark of the Jews of the Arab World in their entirety. In parallel with its formation, pogroms and exclusionary laws were carried out against Jews in almost every Arab state, holding them accountable for the “rebellion of Israel the dhimmi.” This lumping together of Jews as an immutable entity is characteristic of the most classic forms of anti-Semitism, attributing essential traits to a collectivity of Jews, rather than to individuals. If the Jews of these countries were not fundamentally considered as foreigners and pariahs, they would not have been held responsible for the creation of Israel.  The future of the Arab states proved that they had no place for non-Muslims. In independent Algeria, for example, the Boumedienne Law required one Muslim parent for a person to be eligible for Algerian citizenship. Every Arab state also adopted the sharia in its constitution. No Arab state created a secular form of citizenship. For its part, Israel put a positive spin on the marginalization of Jews in these newly established countries, beset by xenophobic nationalism and from whom all non-native populations were excised in an atmosphere of ethnic purification. This massification without any moral or political foundation transcended the border of the Arab states, massifying them in turn and demoting them to the condition of the Ummah and of jihad, and turning the Palestinian question into a universal Arab and Muslim question.  

From this point of view, the comparison between the Jewish refugees from the Arab world and the Palestinian refugees is completely founded. The Israeli War of Independence was instigated by several Arab States; the Arab League had, as its principal activity, fighting Israel. The only difference between these two populations is that the Palestinians were  made refugees as a result of the defeat of the war of extermination launched by the Arabs, whereas the Jewish refugees were innocent of all aggression towards them. (Except if one thinks, as Hitler did, that the Jews, citizens of the European states and America, without an army, without a state, were the cause of the world war against Germany.) If the simple existence of the Jews as free and sovereign subjects is the cause of the war, and if this existence is the cause of anti-Jewish violence, that says it all. From the perspective of this generalization, the comparison of the destiny of the Jewish communities of these countries is also rationally and objectively founded, not only from the point of view of the condition of the Jews but also from the collective conduct of the Arab countries.  We can identify, across the borders, the recurrence of juridical, economic and behavioral processes, which are the elements of a possible model. 

Recognizing the reality of the still-living history this book describes could open the horizon for a new approach to the Jewish-Muslim dispute, the precondition for any dialogue. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Preventing Peace

Abe Silberstein

Three new books argue that American policy has consistently failed the Palestinians and the wider cause of Middle Eastern rapprochement.

Derivative Imperial Nations

Olga Kirschbaum-Shirazki

A critique of how current discourses understand the reality of the Americas and the Middle East.