Iran and Syria are Using Hateful Religious Rhetoric to Justify Attacks on Israel

In an effort to justify attacks on Israeli borders, Iranian and Syrian government have used a bizarre mix of claims, the ultimate goal of which is to smear and to defame all Israeli citizens, feeding into a deeply conspiratorial mindset prevalent in the Middle East.

The context for the emergence of that mindset is easy enough to decipher: centuries of autocratic governance with limited exposure to external information, Soviet and Nazi propaganda, influence of jihadist movements, religious preaching by poorly educated imams and priests,  government corruption which has led the governments to scapegoat Israel as the source of all evils in the Middle East, and even the world. Leaving aside, however, nationalist and pan-Arabist claims, which likewise, depend more on extreme conclusions rather than any reality (states with competing claims over a variety of issues are somehow managing to work through non-violent means to pursue their goals, without necessarily either claiming or threatening genocide every time there is a problem), the use of religious rhetoric is deliberately demagogic and misleading.

And frequently, the excuse made in the West – that allegedly the problem of these governments is the political issue of Israel’s claim to Arab land (since when is Iran interested in Arabs, with whom it has had regional rivalry for far longer than Israel has existed as a state?) does not withstand scrutiny. The promise to threaten Jews into the sea, or to erase Israel from the map (courtesy of Iran’s ayatollahs in particular) references destruction of people who live there, rather than the political redrawing of boundaries. Interestingly, although Israel is comprised of many ethnic groups including Muslim and Christian Arabs, Armenians, and others, none of these minorities are held responsible for Israel’s alleged collective guilt of existence.

Rather, it seems, it is the fact that the country is denominationally Jewish that appears to be a problem. Nor have Iran’s and Assad’s rhetoric extended to rival Arab and Muslim states, which have likewise suffered from Iran-backed aggression. Iran’s goal with respect to these states, however, appears colonial rather than openly genocidal. It has employed oppressive measures against its own Ahwazi Arab population while paying lip service to the supposed protection it extends to its own small Jewish population.

Depopulating and suppressing the cultures of non-Persian nations residing in Iran, including the Ahwazis, Azeris, Baluchis, and Kurds, Iran nevertheless loudly proclaims its allegiance to the Palestinian cause, funding specifically Hamas, a Muslim-Brotherhood terrorist organization, to stage violent riots near Israel’s borders – while doing nothing to help destitute Palestinian citizens. Its charity extends to other places in the world where Iran tries to buy off governments and needs some level of buy-in from the population to ensure that its vassals stay in power.

With respect to Hamas and Assad, however, those do not appear to be going anywhere for the moment, so Iran’s claims of humanitarianism are greatly exaggerated. The Iranian government appears to be playing bizarre claims, vocally supporting some groups while decrying others, and forcing different groups of people against each other. Although it claims to be protective of Jewish religious practice within its own borders, the anti-Judaic nature of the regime is self-evident. Iran is an annual host of a Holocaust drawing context, meant to deny the fact that Nazi Germany has, in fact, tried to eliminate Jews as Jews. Hitler hated Jews both on the basis of their ethnicity as well as religious practices. The two were treated as one and the same. Khamenei made the issue of “occupation of Palestine and Qods” (Jerusalem) into a religious issue, tying it into the main body of Islam. Interestingly, neither is actually backed by anything in the body of the Qu’ran.

The question of “Palestine” as a demand for a state only emerged in 1967; prior to that, it was an issue of borders and coexistence, with some Muslim Arab residents of the formerly British-occupied area remaining in place and retaining Israeli citizenships, and with others rejecting the existence of a Jewish state. And Muslim Arabs were not the only residents; until Hamas’ emergence and systemic persecution of Christians, Christian Arabs held a significant presence in the area. Qu’ran, of course, has no reference for Palestine, and neither do any hadiths that are widely known, because nothing related to Gaza and West Bank existed in the discourse until the middle of the twentieth century other than a political point between the Ottomans, the British, and the local populations of Jewish and Muslim descent.

They had their differences, but the religious issue was introduced into the discourse by the Muslim Brotherhood’s revolutionary use of Islam to promote itself politically, and later by its regional proxies, such as Hamas. Iran before 1979 has had nothing to do with any of that and in fact, was aligned with Israel and strongly opposed to revolutionary movements of any kind; after 1979, Khamenei introduced a revolutionary version of Shi’a Islam into the country that mirrors the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sunni effort. Likewise, denial any sort of religious connection between Jerusalem and Jews and Christians is a relatively new and revolutionary use of language. One may wonder how Iran, Assad and other state regimes which have adopted a mixture of revolutionary political and religious rhetoric to justify their foreign policy reconcile this posture with the Islamic tradition of protecting the “people of the book”, including Jews and Christians, and recognizing the common origin of the Abrahamic faiths.

Iran uses its own small and somewhat hostage Jewish population to proclaim that it has nothing against religious practices, that its concerns are with “Zionism” and political action. Assad’s Syria has a handful of Jews remaining; the rest have been forced out or had to flee, with their property confiscated, shortly after Israel has come into existence. While the recognition of the State of Israel has become a political rallying point across the region and caused waves of street anti-Semitism in the Arab and Muslim world, the specifically anti-Jewish sentiments were promulgated and pushed by the revolutionary governments much more so than by monarchies or provisional governments. The emergence of the Ba’ath Party in Iraq and Syria has led to the marginalization of the Jews, who were treated as a fifth column and vehemently scapegoated and persecuted. Nasserism in Egypt led to waves of persecution targeting the Jews, although, of course, the whole country suffered from his failed economic policies and embarrassing attacks against Israel, which led to failure and monumental military losses.

Many of the monarchies in the Middle East, however, had no or negligible numbers of Jews, so attacks against Jews were largely rhetorical. Jordan eventually normalized its relations with Israel; under Sadat, Egypt, likewise, established diplomatic relations, and through changes in government, including a brief triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood, retained that status, at least in part thanks to the backing of the deal by economic and military aid from the United States. Other states in the region have found themselves to be too weak to fight Israel’s formidable military and instead engaged in the widespread push for scapegoating Israel in the media by any means possible and financially backing intolerant religious movements or extreme political organizations. The Soviet-backed and initially largely Christian and secular PLO was a threat to many of the Middle Eastern and North African monarchies as much as it was to Israel; the Soviet proxies which waged wars of terror in those regions were feared by more stable governments; Iran’s Shah detested the Communists and found common cause with Israel in that regard.

The Soviets spent decades promulgating anti-Semitic tropes which specifically targeted religious issues, including the “infamous blood libel”, which was a major issue in Christian Syrian circles since at least the 19th century. Some version of the story of the Jews supposedly using the blood of non-Jews in ritual practice soon became a common trope in the region. With dwindling numbers of Jews after the creation of Israel, the political association of Jews with the “Zionist entity”, the fundamental misunderstanding of the Jewish connection with the land, the widespread press coverage of conspiracy theories, and the government-backed vilification campaigns converged to foster deep-seated hostilities to Jews, mixing the religious and the political without making any distinction.

While the Arab monarchies were likewise threatened by monarchies and were encouraged by the West to fund fundamentalist movements such as Wahhabism, to counter the spread of revolutionary atheism, they nevertheless felt prudent to label Jews as a threat. Their focus, however, was less on the demonization of the worldwide Jewry and more on regional issues. Still, after the attack on the Great Mosque in Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that Jews continued to visit the country on business, any evidence of Christian and Jewish religious practices were banned from the country. The ban covered as much religious symbolism as it did political manifestations of the Jewish identity, such as the Star of David on the Israeli flag.  Although there is no evidence that Iran has copied those tactics from the ultrareligious clergy  in Saudi Arabia (Christians and Jews are both persecuted and victimized in Iran, but Jewish religious symbols are not yet outright banned), the identification of Judaism as a threat to Islam and Muslim practitioners gained legitimacy in the Sunni Muslim world and was soon being spread by the copycat imams everywhere.

Again, that goes both against fairly mainstream traditional non-Islamist interpretations of Islam as granting protection to people of Jewish faith, and historical precedents of significant Jewish communities residing in Muslim majority societies until the creation of the State of Israel. The Khomeinist Shiism in Iran, however, was an odd conglomeration of beliefs and practices, which was stemmed in superstition and adaptation of non-Muslim religious beliefs, Communist revolutionary language, and an odd mix of mysticism and expansionist nationalism that defies the traditional practice of Shi’a Islam in other parts of the world, including Azerbaijan, which has had a significant Jewish population for much of its history, retains a tradition of tolerance towards its Jewish communities, and has good relations with Israel.

When examining evidence of attacks on the State of Israel and on the Jews on the purely religious basis, one will discover that the actual “threat” comes from the need to justify the threat of a specifically Jewish presence in the Middle East, and portray it as theologically undesirable, oppressive, or neo-colonialist. Much of it comes from a populist notion of uniting against a foreign presence, no matter how innocuous, peaceful, or non-threatening. In Iran’s case, the move to justify the issue of “Palestine” as a pan-Islamic issue is both anachronistic, theologically erroneous, and a blatant cynical power move to try to get Sunni organizations and Shi’a populations behind Iran’s own hegemonic expansionism across the region.

Syria’s Al Assad, having slaughtered over half a million of his own citizens, likewise tries to muddy the waters with these historical claims. Denial of Jewish connection to Jerusalem, not mere assertion of its significance for practicing Muslim, and asserting that Muslims cannot coexist in a religious space with other Abrahamic faiths without feeling threatened are offensive, manipulative concepts that first Arab, and now Iranian leaderships have asserted to justify the scapegoating of Israel as a whole. By making such claims, these governments perpetuate the stereotypes of Muslims as hypersensitive, intolerant, ignorant of both other faiths, and their own, and prone to extremism and emotions, rather than reason and the pursuit of accuracy and understanding. They are doing no favors to the alleged nations, countries, and segments of populations they claim to be protecting. Most Iranians are open to coexistence with Jews and other religions, and in fact, have been turned off from Khomenism thanks to the extreme suffering inflicted upon them thanks to the application of this pseudo-Islamic ideology.

The Gulf States are increasingly backing away from using religion to justify political differences with the Israeli governments, and in fact, are actively combating revolutionary Islamism, which threatens both the power of their own governments and the peace and security of their peoples.  It is long time to reexamine the use of erroneous religious arguments to justify opposition to personal and political relations with Jews and the state of Israel. Rather, to bring about peaceful resolution of conflicts and problems, it’s best to build on the common ground – the ethical and reasoned approach to dispute that has emerged out of Judaism and Islam over centuries, and to return to respectful discussion in friendly settings as a forum of choice for coming to understanding and agreement even on the most controversial issues. The Iranian and Syrian governments, by attacking Israel’s national sovereignty, are not benefiting anyone but the political aspirations of their leadership. They are denying their own faith, they are denying the traditions historically demonstrated by other Muslim governments and communities, they are regarding the rich history of legal precedent of coexistence and respect for others, engaging in unwarranted aggression, endangering their own population, and defaming both their own religion and its practitioners.

by Irina Tsukerman