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A Blood Libel Against Muslims? It’s Not as Far Fetched as You Might Think
The blood libel, the myth that Jews rit­u­al­ly sac­ri­fice and use the blood of Chris­t­ian chil­dren as part of our reli­gious prac­tice, has been one of the most con­sis­tent tropes of anti­semitism since the ear­li­est known accu­sa­tion was lodged in 1144 against the Jews of Nor­wich, Eng­land. Indeed, the stay­ing pow­er of this patent­ly absurd notion has been remark­able. Even in the 21st cen­tu­ry, when you’d think peo­ple would know bet­ter, blood libel accu­sa­tions have been used to dehu­man­ize Jews and jus­ti­fy vio­lence against us, most recently—at least accord­ing to Wikipedia—on August 22, 2014, when Sheik Bas­sam Ammoush, a for­mer Jor­dan­ian ambas­sador to Iran and a mem­ber of the Jor­dan­ian Sen­ate, gave a ser­mon on the offi­cial Jor­dan­ian TV chan­nel in which he said the fol­low­ing:

 

In Gaza we are deal­ing with the ene­mies of Allah, who believe that the mat­zos that they bake on their hol­i­days must be knead­ed with blood. When the Jews were in the dias­po­ra, they would mur­der chil­dren in Eng­land, in Europe, and in Amer­i­ca. They would slaugh­ter them and use their blood to make their matzos…They believe that they are God’s cho­sen peo­ple. They believe that the killing of any human being is a form of wor­ship and a means to draw near their god.

Ammoush’s con­clud­ing asser­tion, that Jews believe we draw near to god through the killing of oth­er human beings, bears a strik­ing resem­blance to what Lau­rent Muraw­iec says about what he calls “con­tem­po­rary Islam­ic ter­ror­ism” in his book, The Mind of Jihad:

Grue­some mur­der and gory inflic­tion of pain are lion­ized and prof­fered as mod­els, as exem­plary actions pleas­ing Allah and open­ing the gates of par­adise. The high­est reli­gious author­i­ties sanc­tion or con­done it, gov­ern­ment author­i­ties approve and orga­nize it, intel­lec­tu­als and the media praise them. From one end of the Mus­lim world to the oth­er, sim­i­lar reports abound. (21)

The Mind of Jihad pur­ports to be an intel­lec­tu­al exam­i­na­tion of quote con­tem­po­rary Islam­ic ter­ror­ism unquote. Even in the above, very short pas­sage, how­ev­er, which con­flates the ide­ol­o­gy behind such ter­ror­ism with the ide­o­log­i­cal entire­ty of “the Mus­lim world,” Murawiec’s flawed assump­tions are promi­nent­ly on dis­play. These assump­tions, evi­dent through­out the book, led at least one seri­ous review­er to call the vol­ume racist.

Nonethe­less, pre­cise­ly because Murawiec’s think­ing seems to par­al­lel the log­ic of blood libel accu­sa­tions brought against Jews, it’s worth look­ing a lit­tle more close­ly at what he says. “Islam­ic ter­ror,” he writes, for exam­ple, “in its use of human sac­ri­fice [by which he means things like the behead­ings com­mit­ted by ISIS], has strayed far­ther and far­ther away from…the pro­hi­bi­tion [of that kind of prac­tice] enshrined in the bib­li­cal sto­ry of Abra­ham and Isaac on Mount Horeb.” As a result—and note the con­fla­tion of “Islam­ic ter­ror­ism” with the entire­ty of Islam—“Islamic prac­tice or, in a way, con­tem­po­rary Islam [has been reshaped]” (20–21).

Con­tem­po­rary Islam, in oth­er words, at least accord­ing to Muraw­iec, has become the antithe­sis of Judaism and Chris­tian­i­ty, reli­gions which, if only through their pro­hi­bi­tion of human sac­ri­fice, val­ue the inher­ent human­i­ty of all peo­ple. The ori­gin of this trans­for­ma­tion, Muraw­iec argues, can be traced to a moment of lit­er­al blood­thirst in Novem­ber 1971, when Jordan’s Prime Min­is­ter Was­fi al-Tell was assas­si­nat­ed by mem­bers of the Pales­tin­ian group known as Black Sep­tem­ber. This was how Time mag­a­zine, in its Decem­ber 13th issue, report­ed the inci­dent that Muraw­iec finds so sig­nif­i­cant, “Before secu­ri­ty forces could drag him away, one of the assas­sins knelt beside Tell’s body and sucked up some blood. ‘I drank until my thirst was quenched,’ he said lat­er in a state­ment to Egypt­ian police” (Time, “Ran­corous Road to Peace,” 45).

It does not mat­ter to Muraw­iec that Black Sep­tem­ber was a sec­u­lar and nation­al­ist orga­ni­za­tion, not a reli­gious one, or that the assas­si­na­tion was in direct retal­i­a­tion for al-Tell’s alleged tor­ture and exe­cu­tion of Fatah com­man­der Abu Ali Iyad in the after­math of the mil­i­tary con­flict fought between the PLO and Jor­dan in Sep­tem­ber of 1970. Muraw­iec, in oth­er words, does not even con­sid­er the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the assassin’s lit­er­al blood­lust was spe­cif­ic and per­son­al and had noth­ing to do with “pleas­ing Allah and open­ing the gates of par­adise.” For Muraw­iec, the moment that assas­sin drank his victim’s blood is the moment that “the idol­iza­tion of blood, the ven­er­a­tion of sav­agery, the cult of killing, the wor­ship of death” become “[i]nseparable from con­tem­po­rary Islam­ic ter­ror­ism,” reshap­ing what it means to be a Mus­lim today into the antithe­sis of what it means to be a human being (21).

Muraw­iec, of course, does not put it quite so blunt­ly, but the peo­ple who rely on his ideas cer­tain­ly do. One of those is our for­mer Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advi­sor, Lt. Gen­er­al Michael T. Fly­nn, who, in a book called Field of Fight, refers to al-Tell’s assas­si­na­tion, quotes Muraw­iec, and then writes these three sen­tences:

Do you want to be ruled by men who eager­ly drink the blood of their dying ene­mies? Such ques­tions are almost nev­er asked. Yet if you read the pub­licly avail­able ISIS doc­u­ments on their inten­tions, there’s no doubt that they are dead set on tak­ing us over and drink­ing our blood. (158)

The pub­licly avail­able doc­u­ment to which Fly­nn refers here—as far as I’ve been able to tell there is only one—is a video post­ed online in 2014, in which a self-pro­claimed ISIS mil­i­tant declares that “we are a peo­ple who love drink­ing blood.” That lone video, how­ev­er, espe­cial­ly in the absence of any con­crete evi­dence that the sol­diers of ISIS are in fact drink­ing the blood of their ene­mies, hard­ly qual­i­fies as a dec­la­ra­tion of an ISIS-wide prac­tice. Nor does it qual­i­fy as any­thing even remote­ly resem­bling a reli­gious jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. Indeed, giv­en that there is no con­crete evi­dence to the con­trary, it’s hard not to see this militant’s ref­er­ence to drink­ing blood as any­thing oth­er than pro­pa­gan­dis­tic hyper­bole. That Fly­nn would take it lit­er­al­ly speaks to how deeply-seat­ed and all-encom­pass­ing his hatred of Mus­lims actu­al­ly is.

Fly­nn had to resign as Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advis­er almost as soon as he was appoint­ed, and so the poten­tial for his ideas to have an obvi­ous and imme­di­ate nation­al impact is much dimin­ished; and—as far as I can tell—the same is more or less true for Murawiec’s book, which has been pret­ty thor­ough­ly dis­cred­it­ed. Nonethe­less, the fact that the ideas are out there means that they are avail­able for some­one to use, and it’s here that the his­to­ry of the ori­gin of the blood libel against Jews offers an impor­tant, and per­haps cau­tion­ary, point of ref­er­ence.

E. M. Rose traces this his­to­ry in her book The Mur­der of William of Nor­wich: The Ori­gins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe. I haven’t read the book, but Madeleine Schwartz’ review in The Nation pro­vides a sum­ma­ry that is ade­quate for my pur­pos­es. In March 1144, the body of a young man named William was found in the for­est out­side the town of Nor­wich. No one paid much atten­tion to it until, in the ear­ly 1170s, a monk named Thomas of Mon­mouth wrote The Life and Pas­sion of William of Nor­wich, which blamed the Jews for William’s mur­der. This is Schwartz’ sum­ma­ry of Thomas’ absolute­ly invent­ed account:

[A]s the Jews began to cel­e­brate Passover, they grabbed William from behind and tor­tured him with a fuller’s tool. They then shaved his head and pricked him with thorns in a cru­el imi­ta­tion of Christ’s Pas­sion. They bound his right foot with chains and pierced his left side. When blood began to flow uncon­trol­lably, they doused the dying boy with boil­ing water. Final­ly, after a few days, they hung the body from a tree, until passers­by even­tu­al­ly buried it.

Grue­some as that descrip­tion was, how­ev­er, it appar­ent­ly did not cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of the peo­ple of Nor­wich, who seemed to for­get about William pret­ty quick­ly. It was not until five years lat­er, in fact, when William’s death was invoked dur­ing the tri­al of Simon de Novers, a knight who stood accused of killing his Jew­ish money­len­der, that the blood libel as we know it today began to take shape. De Novers’ “defense attor­ney,” though I am sure that was not the title they used back then, was one Bish­op Turbe, who built his defense on a nar­ra­tive in which the dead money­len­der turned out to be the per­son who orches­trat­ed the rit­u­al mur­der of William of Norwich—just as Thomas of Mon­mouth had described in his Pas­sion. The strat­e­gy was effec­tive; de Novers was released, and, from that moment on, the blood libel became the remark­ably con­sis­tent anti­se­mit­ic accu­sa­tion it con­tin­ues to be today.

There’s an awful lot that can be said about the medieval blood libel, as there is also, I think, a lot to be learned from com­par­ing and con­trast­ing the dif­fer­ent forms that anti­semitism and Islam­o­pho­bia have tak­en over time1, but that is not why I decid­ed to write this post. I decid­ed to write it because I think it’s impor­tant to pay atten­tion: Just like Thomas of Monmouth’s The Life and Pas­sion of William of Nor­wich gave the blood libel a form that oth­ers could and did and do use against the Jews, both Michael Flynn’s Field of Fight and Murawiec’s The Mind of Jihad do the same for a blood libel against Mus­lims. We should not take it for grant­ed that no one will notice.

The image at the top of this post, of a wood­cut made in 1493 by Hart­mann Schedel, depicts the so-called mar­tyr­dom of Simon of Trent, a boy whom the Jews of Trent were accused of mur­der­ing in 1475 so that they could use his blood dur­ing their Passover seder.

  1. Islam­o­pho­bia and anti­semitism have, of course, their own his­to­ries and tra­jec­to­ries, but there are, nonethe­less, some par­al­lels that are worth pay­ing atten­tion to. Michael Fly­nn, for exam­ple, is on record as hav­ing likened Islam to a malig­nant form of can­cer, and he called on Twit­ter last year for Arab and Per­sian lead­ers to agree with that diag­no­sis. This is not so dif­fer­ent from how the Nazis talked about the Jews. In The Nazi War on Can­cer, Robert Proc­tor offers this exam­ple “[from] a 1936 lec­ture on radio­ther­a­py in Frank­furt, [where] the SS radi­ol­o­gist Prof. Dr. Hans Holfelder showed stu­dents in attendance…a slide in which can­cer cells were por­trayed as Jews (the same slide depict­ed the X-rays launched against these tumor-Jews as Nazi storm troop­ers).” Nor did med­ical­ized anti­semitism did not orig­i­nate with Nazi sci­en­tists. Paul Anton de Lagarde, an influ­en­tial Ger­man Ori­en­tal­ist of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, for exam­ple, believed the Jews to be a can­cer and thought, there­fore, that they should be exter­mi­nat­ed. Indeed, even as far back as the Renais­sance, peo­ple saw the Jews as, in Richard S. Levy’s para­phrase of Bernardi­no of Sien­na, “a plague attack­ing the body of the civic com­mune and all of Chris­ten­dom.” Not so dif­fer­ent from what Fly­nn and his ilk have to say about Mus­lims and Islam. []

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