‘Protocols of Paterson’: Scholar discusses American Muslim anti-Semitism.

The Jewish Standard (Teaneck, New Jersey), Dec. 20, 2002.
By Joanne Palmer

Irfan Khawaja, an adjunct instructor in philosophy at The College of New Jersey in Ewing and a lecturer in politics at Princeton University, grew up in the Muslim community in North Jersey. The Nov. 25 edition of the Herald News of West Paterson carried an article by Khawaja, "The Protocols of Paterson," in which he accused the Paterson Muslim community—and the larger American-Muslim community—of anti-Semitism.

Khawaja, 33, is working toward a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame; his dissertation is on the foundations of ethical judgment. His article was in response to reports that the Arab Voice, a Paterson Arab-language newspaper, was reprinting The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a deeply anti-Semitic work from 19th-century Russia that purports to show a Jewish plan to take over the world. The Protocols, a forgery, has been used to devastating effect by anti-Semites world-wide. The Arab Voice, a weekly that sells for 35 cents on some newsstands in Paterson, continued to print excerpts of the anti-Semitic screed after its editor and publisher, Walid Rabah, said he was no longer doing so.

"The sad fact is that anti-Semitism is the Arab/Muslim community's guilty secret—one that it can't afford to face, but can't manage to control," Khawaja wrote in his article. "Everyone in the community knows this, and yet everyone evades the knowledge. Apparently, communal solidarity in the wake of 9/11 now requires that we tolerate it, too. We're simply supposed to look the other way as the anti-Semites take over, mumbling lame excuses like 'Nobody reads The Arab Voice. And anyway, the Jews are blowing this way out of proportion.'" Khawaja's essay is available on-line at www.secularislam.org/articles/protocols.htm

On Monday, he exchanged e-mail in an interview with this reporter. The questions and answers follow.

Why is the Arab/Muslim community anti-Semitic? Is it all because of Israel; does it pre-date Israel; does Israel cloak another, more complicated triangular relationship between Christians, Muslims, and Jews? (I've read that Muslim anti-Semitism in its current form is new, based on Christian stereotypes of Jews-is that true?)

I think there are four basic sources of Muslim anti-Semitism.

The first is the text of the Quran. It would be anachronistic and inaccurate to say that the Quran is "anti-Semitic," but there are certainly verses in it that give comfort to anti-Semites. Read incautiously or at face value, they can easily lead to anti-Semitism, and they are often interpreted just that way. I once had a conversation with a high-ranking Pakistani government official who lectured me at tedious length about how the Quran "proves" that the Jews are the worst people (Urdu: kawm) on earth. The official was my cousin, who went on to become Special Assistant to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif. If the Special Assistant to the PM of Pakistan can read the Quran that way, so can the average 'Yusuf' on the street.

The second is a skewed understanding of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Growing up in an Arab/Muslim household, one typically hears nothing but the Arab or Muslim side of any political dispute, and this is certainly true of the Arab-Israeli issue. I remember quite vividly the long tirades I used to hear after holiday services about the evils of Israel and the plight of "our brothers and sisters in Palestine." There is the expectation among Arabs and Muslims that you will either see things "from our point of view" or keep silent. Consequently, children grow up thinking that there is only one side to the dispute. History, for them, becomes the litany of Israeli atrocities; they know nothing else, and care about nothing else. And it really becomes a litany: Deir Yasin, Kfar Kassem, Qibya, Sabra and Shatila, Muhammad ad-Dura, etc. etc. That leads naturally to demonization of Israel, of Israelis, and gradually to all Jews as such.

The third is personal. Given the first two factors, if a given Arab or Muslim gets into a person dispute with a Jew (business or otherwise), it can become magnified into a dispute with Jews as such. I saw that happen any number of times.

A fourth is that the bigotry has run in both directions; some anti-Semitism is (an inexcusable) reaction to anti-Arab racism. I grew up in West Orange in the 1970s and 1980s, and I can say without hesitation that the worst racism I ever encountered came from Jews who assumed that I was an Arab. "Arabs are attracted to ignorance like flies to dung," one of them told me in the middle of a political argument. "What have Arabs ever contributed to the world? They've contributed nothing—they are nothing," another told me, literally out of the blue. My family was a member of the JCC [Jewish Community Center] in West Orange (then called the YM-YWHA [Young Men's-Young Women's Hebrew Association]), and as a child I was constantly harassed by grown men who told me that I "didn't belong" there. I could multiply the stories endlessly—the more I try to recall them, the more painfully they come back to me.

I should say, however, that there were always loud voices in the Jewish community who opposed such behavior; I noticed that right from the start. If I was being harassed, someone was often there to defend me. Putting aside the excesses of some of its members, the JCC itself was always very welcoming to us. I went to Jewish day camp as a kid. They even encouraged me to celebrate shabbos on Fridays with them, and I managed to cultivate some understanding and appreciation there for Jewish culture. I remember spending hours gazing at Ben-Zion's pictures of The Prophets and using that to reflect on the affinities between Judaism and Islam, and between Muslims and Jews. I was lucky in that way; most Muslims don't have experiences like that growing up, and I have Jews to thank for it.

On the more general issue of when and how Islam anti-Semitism arose, I think the best guide is Bernard Lewis's 1986 book, Semites and Anti-Semites, which argues that anti-Semitism is more of a Christian phenomenon than a Muslim one, and one that Muslims have appropriated in the last 80 to 100 years for political reasons.

How pervasive is anti-Semitism in Paterson? Is Paterson typical of American-Muslim communities?

I've been doing research for about a year on the rumor that the Arabs of Paterson celebrated the 9/11 attacks, so I've spent my fair share of time in the city interviewing people in South Paterson. I found anti-Semitism depressingly common among my interview subjects. They took it for granted, and took for granted that I shared their view. I've also spoken at some length with reporters in the area, and some (though not all) agree with my assessment of the issue. I get frustrated with the timidity with which journalists deal with this issue. They'll discuss racial profiling against Arabs and Muslims, but not anti-Semitism by the same people. I don't that double standard. And it is a double standard.

I don't know whether Paterson is typical of Arab-Muslim communities, but I would stand by my claim that anti-Semitism is the rule among the Arabs and Muslims I have met over the last 20 years or so. And for obvious reasons, I have met far more Arabs and Muslims than the average American.

What did you learn about Paterson right after Sept. 11? Are the stories of celebration myth or truth? Could you get any real idea?

Most of the celebration rumors were not just false but absurd. I've collected dozens and dozens of them. They fall into four categories: (a) blatant lies, (b) not-as-blatant lies, (c) claims that were probably lies but could not be proven as such, and (d) people shooting their mouths off without knowing what they were talking about.

It took months to work through these. They are a story of their own, because they were in many cases spread by reputable religious leaders, journalists, academics, etc. Not all of them came from mere "yahoos." I was astonished at how irresponsible some of these people were. However, contrary to the blanket denials by city officials, I found (weak, conflicting) evidence of two celebrations:

The first was reported to have been between 1 and 3 pm on the 900 block of South Main Street. I have two Middle Eastern eyewitnesses (one Turkish, one Palestinian) who said they saw a celebration, and a third Palestinian guy who said that one of his friends was actually in it. But the testimony of the first two people (older guys in their 50s) contradicts that of the third (a younger guy, late 20s).

The first two claim that it was a celebration. They aid they felt comfortable telling me, but would not have told an "American" reporter. The younger guy says that it was not celebratory, but a show of anger and defiance against a white supremacist motorcycle gang that had threatened people in the area. The younger guy also insists that the "Arab celebrations" included several Hispanics, which proves that it was not a celebration at all. I did confirm that such a gang had tried to ride through South Paterson. So his story has some plausibility.

I also have a slew of non-Middle Eastern eyewitnesses of this celebration (or whatever) but their stories are vague, and the people themselves are fairly lacking in credibility. Finally, my witness accounts cohere with those told to Curtis Sliwa of WABC talk radio, who said that people told him that kids had celebrated in front of the public library (930 Main). Sliwa was derided at the time, but I think there is at least a grain of truth in his reporting, however clumsy it was.

One last bizarre piece of information is a student of mine who insists that he saw a film on TV of the celebration. I have gone crazy looking for this film, and haven't found it. I'm tempted to dismiss the whole thing as a confusion, but something about the resistance I'm getting tells me to look harder.

The problem is that the evidence here does not point clearly in any one direction. Was it a celebration? Was it a demonstration? I don't know. All I know is that something (probably) happened at that place and time, involving a bunch of kid, some Arab, some Turkish, some possibly Hispanic.

The other problem is that none of the reporters I trust saw anything of the sort. Neither did any of the police officers. So it's a tough call.

Note incidentally the proximity of this celebration/demonstration to Walid Rabah's office. Same block. When I discovered this about a year ago, I tried to contact Rabah to get a straight story from him. He never got back to me, which I found bizarre since at the time I was operating on the assumption that the rumors were false and I wanted his help in debunking them. It was not until mid March 2002 that I began to suspect that the rumors might have some truth to them and Sept. 2002 when the evidence really began to solidify in that direction.

I first went public on this in a story written by Hilary Burke and published in the Herald News on Sept 12-9/12/02. [In that article, Khawaja is quoted as saying: "Even if there was a celebration in Paterson, the celebrants were individuals. Their behavior doesn't reflect on anybody but themselves." -JP].

The second celebration was said to have been at 5 pm at the Islamic Cultural Center on Getty Ave. William Pascrell III is on record as having seen people throwing candy in the air at this location at this time. [He was quoted in the newspaper Aramica in the first week of September this year. -JP] He asked what was going on and was told that it was a "wedding." Now if you can believe that a wedding was scheduled for Tuesday at 5 pm, and that it took place on 9/11 after all that happened, I will sell you both the Brooklyn and George Washington bridges. But for my part, I don't believe it. I had wanted to contact the imam of the ICC to ask him directly about what had happened, but I got sidetracked, then the Protocols thing happened, and now it's impossible.

Bottom line: The whole thing is a mess. There is no clear evidence of a celebration, but not clear way to rule one out. People wanted to believe that a celebration was taking place, so they spread the rumor. City officials wanted people to believe the opposite, so they denied it. The journalists needed a story, so they published conflicting reports. I'm still trying to piece the whole thing together, and I've been at it for more than a year.

[Postscript by Irfan Khawaja, July 2004: (1) I was mistaken about the location of the Islamic Cultural Center in Paterson; it is located at Crooks and Main Streets near a Getty gas station, not on "Getty Ave." as I say in the interview. (2) Since the time of the interview, John Chadwick of the Bergen Record has drawn my attention to an article in The Washington Post that asserts that whether or not a celebration had taken place in Paterson, one did take place in Jersey City: Arabs or Muslims "were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties on rooftops while they watched the devastation on the other side of the river." The article is by Serge F. Kovaleski and Frederick Kunkle, "Northern New Jersey Draws Probers' Eye: Many in Area Feel Wrongly Targeted," The Washington Post, September 18, 2001, p. A6. In an email to me on Dec. 16, 2003, Kovaleski indicated that his information had come from the Jersey City Police Department, and that he had confirmed the JCPD's information via interviews of eyewitnesses of the celebration. (3) I discuss the Paterson rumor from a somewhat theoretical perspective in a paper I co-authored with Gary Alan Fine of Northwestern University entitled, "Celebrating Arabs and Grateful Terrorists: Rumor and the Politics of Plausibility," in Rumor Mills: The Social Impact and Rumor and Legend.]

Do you know how widely read the Arab Voice is? Can most of the Muslim community in Paterson read Arabic? Or is it largely a first-generation phenomenon?

I don't know how widely read the Arab Voice is. All I can say is that at present, I hope its readership is zero.

I'm not sure of the Arabic-reading abilities of Paterson's Arabs. I myself learned to recite the Quran in Arabic at an early age, and I took Arabic in college, but I can't really read or understand modern Arabic at all. Pakistanis speak Urdu. I understand Urdu perfectly, and can read and speak it in a mediocre way. But I don't know how typical that is.

Who makes up the Muslim community in Paterson? What are people's national backgrounds, and what is the class structure there? Is it a sort of starter community, the way the Lower East Side and later the Bronx and Brooklyn and Newark were for Jews, or is it multigenerational? Or is too new to know?

I don't think think anyone really has a precise answer to this question. My impression is that the Paterson Muslim community is largely Arab, partly Turkish, and to a much smaller degree Pakistani. The Arabs are largely Palestinian, partly Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian.

I think it's a starter community that arose in part as a consequence of the relaxation of the immigration laws in the late 1960s, which is when my own family arrived in Jersey City from Pakistan. I recall as a child going to Paterson in the mid-1970s for halal meat, and since there were no real Muslims around, we had to go to an obliging American butcher by the name of Charlie, who would watch patiently as my grandmother blessed the knife so that he could do his thing. I'm sure my parents would have preferred to go to an Arab-Muslim butcher, but if memory serves, there weren't any at the time. Today, of course, finding an Arab halal butcher would hardly be an issue. Maybe that anecdote can convey some sense of the growth of the community.

Why won't the Arab Voice publisher talk to you, do you think? You emailed me that "as for getting a straight response from them, it's no easier for a guy with a name like 'Irfan Khawaja' to get one than it is for you." Why?

I'm not sure why Walid Rabah won't speak to me, but I suspect it's because he has nothing to say for himself.

Is there any reaching out that Jews can do, or is that idea laughably naïve?

I'm an eternal optimist. I think that there is reaching out that Jews can do, but at this point, I also think that the ball is in the Arab/Muslim court. The ADL [Anti-Defamation League] went out on a limb after Sept. 11 to deny that Paterson's Arabs were "dancing in the streets" in celebration of the attacks; that was a nice gesture, and I think it's time for Arabs and Muslims to reciprocate. You don't get something for nothing in this world. You can't complain about the way you're treated in American culture if you're not willing to condemn abuses like the serialization of the Protocols. I really can't stand the entitlement mentality involved here, and I won't shut up until I make a dent in it.

I would also propose that both Arabs/Muslims and Jews get clear about their priorities. Which is more important-the Arab/Israeli dispute, or Arab/Jewish relations here in New Jersey? By my lights, the second issue is far more important. We are Americans now, and we have to live together here, not there. I get tired of people on both sides for whom Israel and Palestine are somehow more real and more significant than Bergen or Essex County. To such people, I can only say: if you really feel that strongly about your brethren back "in the homeland," buy a one-way ticket and go. But for God's sake, don't destroy the possibility of amicable relations among Arabs, Muslims, and Jews (and everyone else!) here. It sounds harsh, but I mean every word of it. When people ask me where I'm from, I tell them: "From New Jersey: born and bred at Exit 15W." Not Lahore. Not Pakistan. Here. I've met both Arabs and Jews who seem unsure about where they really want to live: Tel Aviv or Teaneck? Hebron or Hoboken? That irresolution on both sides is a big part of the problem we're facing.

I see that you're no longer a Muslim. Is that correct? And is your decision to leave the religion entirely personal, or based on any reasons that are relevant to our readers?

I'm not longer a Muslim. I discuss the reasons why not in a book chapter I've done for a book called Leaving Islam, scheduled for release in 2003, published by Prometheus Books and edited by Ibn Warraq, author of Why I Am Not a Muslim. My fundamental reason for leaving Islam is my rejection of the existence of God and the supernatural. A subordinate reason is that I find [certain] ethical aspects of Islamic teaching problematic, like the anti-Jewish verses I mentioned earlier. But I should add that I find some aspects of Islamic teaching quite interesting. I occasionally find myself quoting verses from the Quran in a favorable way, and I practice secularized versions of some of the rituals. Of course, that is a completely heretical, blasphemous approach to Islam from an orthodox perspective. The word of God isn't supposed to be poetry, and His rituals aren't supposed to be an exercise in self-realization. But that's Allah's problem, not mine.

I assume from your writing that you have not chosen to join any other religion. Am I right?

I certainly am not a religious believer, but my partner is Jewish, so there is a sense in which our household is Jewish. Being the incredibly supportive guy that I am, I go to services, go to Passover seder, occasionally celebrate shabbos, eat challah, etc. Not because I believe, but because it would be wrong for her to celebrate alone. Religion has never been a problem or a matter of contention between us; I find Judaism endlessly interesting, and learn from it in just the way that I've learned from Islam. Anyway, I went to Jewish day camp, so it's all familiar to me.

Where is your family from?

My family is from Lahore, Pakistan. More precisely, my mother's family is from Lahore, whereas my father's family was originally from Amritsar, India. My father's family became refugees from India at the time of partition (August 1947); they were literally forced at gunpoint to abandon their home and business, to get on trains, and to move to Lahore on pain of death. My parents got married in 1967, and moved to Jersey City a few weeks after their wedding.

You say it doesn't take courage to speak out-"Courage, shmourage! This is America! You don't need courage to say what I said. Just the First Amendment," you wrote to me in an earlier e-mail. But you do. First of all, it has to take courage to come out publicly against the world in which you grew up, even though it's clear that you've been doing that for some time. Second, though, is there no physical risk? is the concept of fatwa a sensational idea blow up by the media, or is it real?

I don't think that what I did took a great deal of courage. What it took was a great deal of anger—anger I've stored up for far too long. As for risks, there is always some risk, and I take reasonable precautions against them, but I think by far the greater risk is to stay silent and let the bigots take over. Bigots function in the way that bullies do. They rely on your fear, and if you act from fear, they take notice and take advantage. I would have denounced this anyway, but since my partner is Jewish, I take the affront very personally. It's not just "bigotry" in the abstract, but an attack on me. As for fatwas, strictly speaking a fatwa is just a legal opinion. It doesn't necessarily involve a death threat, and even if it does, it has absolutely no binding force. That leaves thinking people the option of not following it. If some moron issues a fatwa against me, so be it. My response will be to laugh, not cringe. Anyway, I don't expect a fatwa. The more likely outcome will be evasion and silence; the relevant leaders have a vested interest in that. The bottom line is this: I don't define my actions in relation to the expected reactions of any community or any authority. I define them for myself, and I encourage others to do so the same.


Ben-Zion Weiman (artist), "Pharoah's Army Drowned in the Sea": http://www.civa.org/includes/show.php?sub=Talmud&a_last=Zion&id=37 

Bernard Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1986/1999), via Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0393318397/qid=1088724757/sr=

William Pascrell III, County Counsel for Passaic County, interviewed in Aramica (Sept. 15, 2002): http://www.practicalpolitics.net/pascrell/9_15_02.html 

A fairly egregious example of a false celebration rumor, care of Temple Shalom of West Orange, NJ: http://d4059844.u51.uscjhost.net/Rav/5762_Sermons_High_Holy_Days/First_Day_

A genuinely insane example of a celebration rumor, care of Americans for a Safe Israel: http://www.afsi.org/MEDIA/newsLinks/shockers/m58.htm 

Gary Alan Fine ed., Rumor Mills: The Social Impact of Rumor and Legend,
(Berlin: de Gruyter, 2004), via Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0202307476/qid=1088724670/sr= 8-1/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i1_xgl14/104-9769756-6990304?v=glance&s=books&n=507846