Kathryn Jean Lopez: What first took you to the Middle East and the Arab world?
Kenneth R. Timmerman: I first began reporting on the Middle East during the 1982 war in Lebanon as a radio stringer, and promptly wound up kidnapped by Fatah guerillas in Beirut and held for 24 days in a cellar prison. It was an experience that changed my life; among other things, it taught me firsthand how important freedom is. It also gave me a fascination with various cultures of the Middle East.
Lopez: How often have you been back?
Timmerman: After that initial trip to Lebanon, I spent the next two years on and off in Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, and Lebanon–until Hezbollah shot up the booze in the Commodore Hotel (February 1984). Then I migrated to covering the Iran-Iraq war. In Baghdad hotels, I think I must have met nearly every Western arms dealer who ever did business with Saddam. Surprisingly, they loved to talk. So did Saddam’s top weapons’ technicians. I was the first Westerner to interview Lt. Gen. Amir Rashid al-Obeidi, father of Iraq’s missile and aviation programs, and Lt. Gen. Amir Hamoody al-Saadi, father of the chemical and nuclear-weapons programs, in 1986. Some of that information I have saved for another book.
Since returning to the States in 1993, I have gone back to the Middle East once, twice, sometimes three times a year, and remain in close contact with “closed” countries through exiles and business travelers.
Lopez: When were you most recently in that part of the world?
Timmerman: I interviewed the Grand Mufti of Egypt for Preachers of Hate in November 2002. Although he is reportedly a “moderate,” he stunned me by stating–repeatedly–that he felt it was a duty incumbent upon all believing Muslims to murder Jews. I also went during that trip to the scene of the Passover bombing in Netanya, where I interviewed survivors and members of the ZAKA unit, the Orthodox rabbis whose job is to pick up all the body parts spattered against walls and in streets after the homicide bombers do their evil, to give them a proper burial according to Jewish ritual. I have tried to get inside the mind of the bombers–through interviews which I describe in the book–and to describe for ordinary Americans the horror of these terrorist attacks.
Lopez: How many imams are actually preaching hate–here and abroad? And where are the exceptions?
Timmerman: There is a struggle underway for the soul of Islam between the preachers of hate and the preachers of peace. Unfortunately, as I document in my book, the preachers of hate are winning. I say this because from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, state-appointed clerics are preaching to the faithful that it is their “duty” to murder Jews, because Jews are “rejected” by God, who turned them into “monkeys and pigs.”
It is not well-known in the West that these clerics are, in fact, employees of the state. No one can ascend the minaret of the Great Mosque in Mecca, as Sheikh Abdelaziz al-Sudais does regularly, without the sanction of the king. After the latest terror attack in Saudi Arabia, al-Sudais was widely quoted for having declared that the perpetrators were “un-Islamic” because their victims included Arabs and Muslims. Just one year earlier, however, he was on Saudi state television, where he called on the faithful to murder Jews and American “worshippers of the Cross.”
I argue in Preachers of Hate that everything changed in 1979. That was when the shah of Iran fell, and when the Saudi royal family out of fear and trembling agreed to finance a worldwide expansion of militant Wahhabi Islam. To my knowledge, no one has really focused on those two key events before as the genesis of the war of terror launched against the West by militant Islam.
Lopez: What is the most common lie about Jews in the Arab world? About the West?
Timmerman: Clearly, it is the widespread belief that there is a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. As I detail in Preachers of Hate, I was stunned when I first asked Arab leaders about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion–the basic antisemitic playbook. Many of them actually pulled out their own copy of the book, and cited it as gospel truth. They actually believe that this fiction initially spread by the intelligence services of the Russian czar in 1895 contains the actual minutes of conspiratorial meetings among Jewish leaders, who were plotting to take over the world.
Much more depressing: There is no amount of logic or rational argument that can steer people who believe this type of nonsense away from it. Even a full year after 9/11, I found in universities and among newsmen in Egypt and elsewhere in the Muslim Middle East, that intelligent people actually believe that Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad, carried out the September 11 attacks on America. Conspiracy thinking is not just loony: it kills.
Lopez: What do you mean when you say that “It begins with the Jews, but it never ends with the Jews.”
Timmerman: Jews have always been the targets of opportunity for haters of this world. But since 1979, we’ve seen the basic antisemitic beliefs morph into an ideology that goes beyond religious hate. Increasingly, radical Islam and the institutional Left, especially in Europe, find themselves on the same side in hating Jews, rejecting Israel’s right to exist, and demanding an end to America’s “hegemony.” For the haters, Jews and America are one and the same. They hate us for our freedom, for our secular societies, for our tolerance. That is the great Jewish world conspiracy, and it is something Jews have shared with America. It is a conspiracy of freedom.
Lopez: Today, do the mainstream in Arab countries understand what happened on 9/11?
Timmerman: The failure to come to grips with 9/11 starts at the very top. It took five months before Saudi Interior Prince Nayef bin Abdelaziz, his country’s point man in the war on terror, even acknowledged that 15 Saudi citizens had carried out the attacks. One year after 9/11, well-known Arab intellectuals such as Diaa Rashwan of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo still claimed there was “no evidence” of bin Laden’s involvement. These are absolutely stunning denials of rational thought that do not augur well for the future of this part of the world. If the leaders can’t come to grips with what happened on 9/11 and what was behind it, how can the people who rely on them for leadership?
Lopez: How widespread is Holocaust denial?
Timmerman: Arab countries regularly host conferences on what is euphemistically called “historical revisionism,” the Holocaust deniers who masquerade as historians and claim to be able to “prove” there was no massacre of Jews by the Nazis during World War II. I heard this on a very personal level during some of the interviews I conducted in Gaza and elsewhere. One Hamas leader in Gaza, Saad Shawa, told me that the Holocaust was “a big illusion of the Jews.” As “proof,” he cited the “fact” that all the films documenting the death camps were “produced by the Jews, but there are not any actual photographs from that period of history, which did not yet have film.” The Zayed Center in the United Arab Emirates recently hosted a French author named Thierry Meysson who I believe is engaged in “real-time” revisionism. Monsieur Meysson has written a bestseller in France that claims no airplane crashed into the Pentagon, because no debris from the crash was ever found. To his mind, it was all a plot by the CIA and the U.S. military, who used an U.S. Air Force cruise missile to murder Americans to justify a new Middle East war.
I couldn’t invent that. Conspiracy thinking just takes your breath away.
Lopez: What’s the “Arab street” reaction to something like the synagogue bombings in Turkey this weekend?
Timmerman: I haven’t seen any reaction to the bombing. I have seen no commentary, no condemnation, no expressions of regret, no condolences. It reminds me a bit of the reaction to 9/11, where many editorialists in Muslim countries opined that America was reaping its just reward.
Lopez: Who is your target audience for Preachers of Hate and what do you hope readers come away from it with?
Timmerman: Antisemitism is a non-Jewish disease that kills Jews. It is the sewer from which the likes of Osama bin Laden have emerged. It has swept across the Arab and Muslim world, and it is reemerging with deadly force in Europe, 60 years after the Holocaust. For the first time since the Holocaust, Jews in Europe are afraid.
I expect that most American Jews understand the dangers of antisemitism, but many non-Jewish Americans are probably unaware of just how extensive the hate teaching has gone. I offer this book as a wake-up call. When whole generations of Muslim children are being brought up to believe that Jews are the “sons of monkeys and pigs,” and that they have a religious duty to murder Jews “and the Americans that are like them,” then no amount of wishful thinking is going to make them go away. This is not a social problem. It is not even a political problem. It has become an existential problem: How do we come to terms with large groups of people who want to see us dead?
Lopez: Your last book was on Jesse Jackson, who makes a showing in this book. To what extent do American liberals like Jackson feed Islamist hate by refusing to repudiate it?
Timmerman: Antisemitism frequently masquerades as “anti-Zionism,” a rejection of the right of Jews to a Jewish state. Martin Luther King warned against this 35 years ago. Here is what he wrote to an “anti-Zionist” friend: “You declare, my friend, that you do not hate the Jews, you are merely ‘anti-Zionist.’ And I say, let the truth ring forth from the high mountain tops, let it echo through the valleys of God’s green earth: When people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews–this is God’s own truth.” Jesse Jackson never got the message 35–years ago, and he still doesn’t get it today.
We’ve seen an astonishing expansion of antisemitic hate speech and demonstrations at universities and colleges across America over the past decade, much of it masquerading as anti-Zionism. In part, this has come from the institutional Left–which has always viewed the PLO as a “national liberation” group, and not as terrorists. We are also seeing it in Europe. Even in a country such as Norway, which has fewer than 2,000 Jews, I detail how the Left has organized a national boycott of Israeli products.
Lopez: It seems so hard to talk honestly about imams and Arab leaders calling for jihad, telling lies about Jews, without sounding hateful. And yet it is essential. How does one do it? How is the president doing on this front?
Timmerman: The president has gone out of his way–too much so, in the eyes of some–to distinguish between Islam as it is practiced by many loyal and patriotic Americans, and the Islam of hate, intolerance and murder. In the very moving speech he gave in London on his arrival this Wednesday, he remarked that the belief that the Arab world is incapable of democracy–a belief held by most Orientalists and Saudi-sponsored Arab-affairs “experts”–was the politics of “pessimism and condescension.” He also noted that “we must shake off decades of failed policy in the Middle East.” My own experience on the ground in the West Bank and elsewhere concords with this. There is a thirst for pluralism, for secularism, for fair government and for freedom throughout the Arab world. Instead, Arab leaders are encouraging their own Islamists to teach the young that “Islam is the solution,” in the hopes it will divert their attention from the failed policies of their leaders.
Lopez: What’s the most encouraging sign of hope coming out of the Arab world today?
Timmerman: Without a doubt, it is the incredible movement toward freedom that has been set in motion in Iraq. It is essential, in my view, that we succeed in helping Iraqis to create a new society based on freedom and tolerance that can spread across the region, working like an antidote to the virus of hate.