Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born Dutch-American activist, feminist, author, and scholar. She describes herself as having grown up “amid pervasive Muslim anti-Semitism.” In this column, she examines the roots of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s Jew-hatred, and she states: “Hate is hard to unlearn without coming to terms with how you learned it.”
I once opened a speech by confessing to a crowd of Jews that I used to hate them. It was 2006 and I was a young native of Somalia who’d been elected to the Dutch Parliament. The American Jewish Committee was giving me its Moral Courage Award. I felt honored and humbled, but a little dishonest if I didn’t own up to my anti-Semitic past. So I told them how I’d learned to blame the Jews for everything.
Fast-forward to 2019. A freshman congresswoman from Minnesota has been infuriating the Jewish community and discomfiting the Democratic leadership with her expressions of anti-Semitism. Like me, Ilhan Omar was born in Somalia and exposed at an early age to Muslim anti-Semitism.
In my experience it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to unlearn hate without coming to terms with how you learned to hate….
I never heard the term “anti-Semitism” until I moved to the Netherlands in my 20s. But I had firsthand familiarity with its Muslim variety. As a child in Somalia, I was a passive consumer of anti-Semitism. Things would break, conflicts would arise, shortages would occur—and adults would blame it all on the Jews.
When I was a little girl, my mom often lost her temper with my brother, with the grocer or with a neighbor. She would scream or curse under her breath “Yahud!” followed by a description of the hostility, ignominy or despicable behavior of the subject of her wrath. It wasn’t just my mother; grown-ups around me exclaimed “Yahud!”the way Americans use the F-word. I was made to understand that Jews—Yahud—were all bad. No one took any trouble to build a rational framework around the idea—hardly necessary, since there were no Jews around….
We were taught that the Jews betrayed our prophet Muhammad. Through Quranic verses (such as 7:166, 2:65 and 5:60), we learned that Allah had eternally condemned them, that they were not human but descendants of pigs and monkeys, that we should aspire to kill them wherever we found them. We were taught to pray: “Dear God, please destroy the Jews, the Zionists, the state of Israel. Amen.”….
Media also play their part. There is very little freedom of expression in Muslim-majority countries, and state-owned media churn out anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda daily—as do even media groups that style themselves as critical of Muslim autocracies, such as Al Jazeera and Al-Manar.
Then there are the mosques, madrassas and other religious institutions. Schools in general, especially college campuses, have been an Islamist stronghold for generations in Muslim-majority countries….
Refugee camps are another zone of indoctrination. They are full of vulnerable people, and Islamists prey on them. They come offering food, tents and first aid, followed by education. They establish madrassas in the camps, then indoctrinate the kids with a message that consists in large part of hatred for Jews and rejection of Israel.
Perhaps—I do not know—this is what happened to Ms. Omar in the four years she spent in a refugee camp in Kenya as a child. Or perhaps she became acquainted with Islamist anti-Semitism in Minnesota, where her family settled when she was 12. In any case, her preoccupation with the Jews and Israel would otherwise be hard to explain….
As for me, I eventually unlearned my hatred of Jews, Zionists and Israel. As an asylum seeker turned student turned politician in Holland, I was exposed to a complex set of circumstances that led me to question my own prejudices. Perhaps I didn’t stay in the Islamist fold long enough for the indoctrination to stick. Perhaps my falling out with my parents and extended family after I left home led me to a wider reappraisal of my youthful beliefs. Perhaps it was my loss of religious faith.
In any event, I am living proof that one can be born a Somali, raised as an anti-Semite, indoctrinated as an anti-Zionist—and still overcome all this to appreciate the unique culture of Judaism and the extraordinary achievement of the state of Israel….