This article is a follow-up of “Fearing the Other: Islamophobia in the United States” written by Sabine Volk and published on the Euroculture Website on the 30th of January, 2017.
In times where hate crimes against Muslims and Islamic religious sites become more frequent in European countries, and the new American president calls for surveillance against mosques and a total shutdown of Muslim immigration, one cannot help but wonder: are Muslims the new Jews? After all, it is easy to draw parallels from now to past times where Jews were heavily discriminated against and excluded from social life in both Europe and the US. And still, comparing the contemporary situation of Muslims in Western, predominantly Christian societies with the situation of Jews in the past might be an illegitimate endeavor. Right-wing populist hate speech against Muslims is terrible, no doubt, but it does not include the genocidal rhetoric that was spurred in Nazi Germany. At least not yet.
So, the claim that ‘Muslims are the new Jews’ is normatively problematic. Nevertheless, the resentments against both groups appear to be comparable phenomena. Both present-day Islamophobia and the anti-Semitism of Nazi-Germany fuel fear and hatred towards a religious minority, and both reduce individuals to their membership within the minority. Can we thus make the claim that Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism? Let’s take a closer look at anti-Semitism in order to compare these two.
Western Anti-Semitism Before and After World War II
The discrimination against Jews in Western, historically predominantly Christian societies is many centuries old. The term anti-Semitism, however, has been coined only in the second half of the nineteenth century. Ever since, it has been used as a synonym for racial Judeophobia, i.e., the fear and hatred against the ‘Jewish race’. One can detect geographic, cultural, and temporal variations of anti-Semitism in the Western World. Anti-Semitism was at times merely a social issue, especially in the U.S. and Great Britain. At other times, anti-Semitism became a highly politicized issue, especially in Germany and France at the turn of the nineteenth century.
In order to compare Islamophobia with anti-Semitism, it is crucial to look at the different phases of anti-Semitism. History short: prejudice against Jews essentially evolved from the early religious (ergo: Christian) anti-Judaism over modern anti-Semitism to contemporary anti-Zionism. The modern and secular anti-Semitism racialized Jews by conflating religion and race and in doing so, constructed an essentialist Jewish identity. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Jews became Western societies’ most important constitutive Other. In other words, they became the cultural out-group (‘them’) that was opposed to the in-group (‘we French/Germans/Americans’). The atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust did not eradicate anti-Semitism. Contemporary anti-Semitism, however, does usually not appear as blatant racial discrimination against Jews. It rather appears in the form of anti-Zionism, that is the opposition to the state of Israel and its politics.
Comparing Islamophobia and anti-Semitism
To begin with, the claim that Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism must be narrowed down. Islamophobia cannot be in itself the ‘new anti-Semitism,’ since we have seen above that the new anti-Semitism has a rather geographical focus. The claim only makes sense if we say that contemporary Western Islamophobia strongly resembles anti-Semitism in its content. More precisely, it resembles the racialized anti-Semitism of the pre-World War II era. This is because both Islamophobia and this racialized anti-Semitism conflate race and religious identity, and are directed against members of a minority – not against them as foreigners, immigrants, upper class, etc. They construct Muslims and Jews, respectively, as an essentially different and dangerous cultural Other.
Looking at how right-wing populists all over Europe and the U.S. use Islamophobia to push their hateful political agendas, it seems as if Islamophobia has similar functions as anti-Semitism had in the past, such as the construction of Western identity by creating a scapegoat for current issues and challenges. Hence, Islamophobia not only resembles anti-Semitism, but has also replaced anti-Semitism in public discourse. Indeed, although anti-Semitism still exists in the Western World, it is publicly tabooed and sanctioned since World War II (especially, but not only in Germany). Islamophobia is a comparable form of racism against a religious minority that is nowadays acceptable in political discourse. This becomes apparent when observing European right-wing populist discourse such as by the French far right party Front National: whereas party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen was an outspoken anti-Semite, his daughter, Marine Le Pen, has worked to distance the party from its anti-Semitic image. She for instance banned all anti-Semitic discourse from party communications. However, Front National merely seems to have substituted anti-Semitism by Islamopobia. Islamophobic paroles and slogans play a big role in many of her speeches.
We can conclude that Muslims might not be the new Jews, but Islamophobia can indeed be called the new anti-Semitism – not in the meaning of the concept itself, but in the functions that this form of racism has for right-wing populists in Western societies. The heated public debates about Muslims and Islam reveal a deeper negotiation of cultural identity and the perceived loss thereof in increasingly heterogeneous societies. Islamophobia has herewith become a tool for counter-cosmopolitan collective identity building both in the U.S. and Europe.