Laïcité, the well-loved term referring to secularism in France, has been under excruciating pressure after the recent string of attacks in France, including the brutal beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty, performed by a handful of fundamentalist members of the Muslim community. French President Emmanuel Macron declared Paty’s murder to be “a typical Islamist terrorist attack” and claimed the need for France, and the rest of the world, to “fight Islamist separatism,” as Islam is an ideology which claims that “its own law should be superior to those of the Republic.” Macron’s rhetoric and actions stirred outrage all over the Islamic World, from Turkey to Tunisia, from Malaysia to Saudi Arabia, as these statements, justified by French secularism according to Macron, are positioned on the fine line between secularism and islamophobia. In this article, I will argue that President Macron’s rhetoric and actions cannot be justified solely on the basis of secularism because they challenge the established relationship between the “West” and the “East.”
During my whole life in Europe, I did not know that I was white. I knew I had pale skin and light eyes, but this was because my father was a ginger. Then, when applying to an American university for the first time, I had to indicate my race and ethnicity in the official paperwork. I learned that I had to tick the box that said “White/Caucasian.” Then, within a couple of weeks on a Midwestern campus, Americans made me understand that I was white – not only in the literal, but in the racial sense of the term. Together with my fellow exchange students from Europe, we decided pretty fast: Americans are obsessed with race. Race is everywhere; in media and political discourse, in art, in peoples’ minds. In my classes, African American and Latino students repeatedly reported racial discrimination by white police officers or in job interviews. Friends advised me to avoid specific neighborhoods – black neighborhoods.
Before going to America, it would have never occurred to me to even use the term race. Race may apply to dogs, or horses. But humans? No way. To me, groups of people were rather characterized by their different cultures, traditions, values, and beliefs. For example, I knew that I, myself, was European. As such, I identified as an heir of centuries of European culture with its Greek and Roman heritage, Christian traditions, secular art, Enlightened thinking, modern science and technology, as well as the more recent belief in liberal democracy.
When looking at the actual ideological debates in Europe, I now wonder if Europe is not as obsessed with culture as America is with race. Just as most Americans take “the” five races (white/Caucasian, black/African American, Asian American, Native American/American Indian, Latino) as naturally given, most Europeans tend to think that one can distinguish between clear-cut and mutually exclusive cultural communities, such as the European cultural community, the Muslim cultural community, the… well, it often stops here. Against the backdrop of current issues such as the so-called refugee crisis, the term “European culture” is only used in order to contrast European culture with Muslim culture. In so doing, the speaker suddenly forgets about the cultural diversity within Europe, as well as the negative prejudices toward other European nationalities (e.g., the humorless Germans, the lazy Greek, the arrogant French, and so forth).
In Europe, the cultural category has very clearly replaced the racial category that is still used in America. Culture is hereby seen as something that is inborn in individuals or trained at a very young age, and therefore cannot evolve, transform, change. I often have the impression that it is understood exactly like race was conceived of during Europe’s darkest periods – as a biological determinism that decides good and bad, superior and inferior. As a consequence, Europeans seem to be experts in exercising cultural racism – they prefer to declare that a certain culture is not compatible with Europe, instead of a certain race or ethnicity. This wording might seem more lenient, but has the same meaning in the end.
So what is real, and what is a mere construction? Race? Or culture? Maybe neither. Or maybe both. Looking at the lived realities in the United States and in Europe, one has to conclude: in the US, race is real. It is real because it has real consequences on peoples’ daily lives, and entire personal narratives. In Europe, on the other hand, the belief in incommensurable cultural communities is gaining ground in a manner that this social construction is real as well, because it influences how Europeans perceive other parts of the world. Yet, with regard to current issues such as the refugee crisis, we could try to put our convictions into question. Is Muslim culture really as opposed to European culture as right-wing populists and racists want to make us believe? Are cultural values unchangeable?
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.
In Europe, the so-called refugee crisis (better: refugee protection crisis), revealed deeply grounded reservations of Europeans against Islam and Muslims. Across the Atlantic, Islam is currently a controversially debated topic as well. Also in the United States questions about the Islam and the influx of Muslim refugees dominate public debate: How to deal with a religion in whose name fundamentalist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS commit violent terrorist attacks? How to deal with a religious group whose culture is perceived as fundamentally different from Western values? In this climate of uncertainty, a general feeling of mistrust, fear, and hatred against Islam and Muslims is gaining ground. These feelings are usually subsumed as Islamophobia, that is, according to researcher Serdar Kaya, “unfavorable prejudgments of Muslim individuals on the basis of their religious background.”
To name just a few examples: In his victorious campaign for the presidential elections of 2016, President Donald J. Trump called for surveillance against mosques and this week, the Trump administration banned people from mostly Islamic countries from entering the United States. While editorial cartoons in American newspapers regularly express attitudes that are hostile against Islam, some authors even bring claims forward that Islam does not deserve religious freedom protections under the First Amendment of the American constitution.
Especially in contrast to Europe, the U.S. have always claimed secularism and religious freedom to be at the centre of American identity. The hostility now expressed towards Islam does not fit in the dominant national narrative. How could Islamophobia evolve in the US? And is it indeed a new phenomenon?
In the decades prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Islam and Muslims were hardly on the political agenda in the U.S. Apparently, no coherent image of ‘the Muslim’ and the religion had been constructed in this period. Also, Americans did not have explicit negative sentiments against Muslims. American indifference towards Islam might be explained with the design of American secularism that declares religion to be a strictly private matter. American identity is therefore, as Zolberg and Woon put it, “no longer anchored in Christianity narrowly defined” but because of the massive influx of immigrants around the 20th century, developed into “a more diffuse deistic civil religion that easily embraces other faiths.”
Post-9/11: The Muslim as Security Threat
In the context of ideological and geopolitical struggles in the Middle East such as the Palestinian armed actions, the hostage crisis in Iran, as well as the Iran-Iraq war, Muslims were increasingly depicted as aggressive individuals that were easily seduced by ruthless religious leaders from the 1980s onwards. In the aftermath of 9/11, this conflation of Muslims and terrorism was fueled and has now gained significant ground in public debate. Hence, Muslims are now mainly associated with the fundamentalist positions of Islamist terrorist groups and are often framed as a threat to the safety and security to American society. Accordingly, Islam is constructed as an inherently violent and intolerant religion. The image of the Muslim as an extremist criminal and of Islam as a violent ideology is successfully enhanced by right-wing populists such as Donald Trump who exploit people’s anxieties for their own electoral successes. Moreover, Islamophobic sentiments were reinforced by further terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, and Paris in 2015. In the course of these events, Muslims became seen as both a threat from the outside (Middle Eastern terrorists attacking the Western world) and from within (so-called “homegrown terrorists” planning attacks, as has happened in France in 2015).
The Muslim as Cultural Other
At the same time, the Muslim is increasingly constructed as a cultural Other in America, especially by anti-Islam think tanks. Muslims are depicted as an out-group that is essentially “un-American”. This perception was revealed first and foremost in the political debates related to Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency. Many prominent voices implicitly questioned if a Muslim could ever become president of the U.S. – even though in Obama’s case only his father identified as Muslim. In addition to that, the presumed anti-American character of Islam has also been articulated in the controversies on banning Islamic Sharia law as a source of American law.
Muslims are not only perceived as different, but also as a threat to American culture and identity. In the aftermath of 9/11, multiple books have been published that contribute to the spread of conspiracy theories of Muslims planning to dominate the world. These theories, e.g. in America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It by the Canadian author Mark Steyn (2006), use the relatively higher population growth of Muslim minorities in Western countries as a key argument to predict the decline of Western civilization.
American Islamophobia – Not as New as One Might Think
Many political analysts argue that American Islamophobia is not a recent phenomenon, but that the terrorist attacks rather served as a catalyzer for a longstanding fear and hatred of Muslims in America that preceded 9/11. Hence, although the anti-Muslim discourse became visible only after 9/11 in America, it has a longer history. In fact, American Islamophobia embraces cultural tropes that predate the US itself: British Islamophobia that developed during the colonization of Islamic parts of Asia fuelled Islamophobia in the US. As a consequence, Muslims usually had to fight for their whiteness in order to get naturalized – even if they were phenotypically white. Once arrived in the U.S., the Muslim minority has been regarded with the same suspicion as any other religious minority such as Catholics, Jews, etc. Last but not least, the Islamic religion might have also played a role in racial discrimination against people of color throughout American history and still in the 20th century. All in all, it seems as if the anti-Islamic propaganda of the post-9/11 era merely revives old racial and religious prejudice.
“… a complete and total shutdown of Muslim Immigration” (Donald J. Trump, December 7, 2015)
In Europe, the so-called refugee crisis (better: refugee protection crisis), revealed the deeply grounded reservations Europeans had against Islam and Muslims. Across the Atlantic, Islam is currently a controversially debated topic as well. The religion and its followers are challenging American society in many ways: How to deal with a religion in whose name fundamentalist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS commit violent terrorist attacks? How to deal with a religious group whose culture is perceived as fundamentally different from western values? In this climate of uncertainty, a general feeling of mistrust, fear, and sometimes hatred against Islam and Muslims is gaining ground. These feelings are usually subsumed as Islamophobia, which is, according to researcher Serdar Kaya: “unfavorable prejudgments of Muslim individuals on the basis of their religious background.”
To name just a few examples: In his campaign for the presidential elections of 2016, Republican candidate Donald J. Trump called for surveillance against mosques and a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S. While editorial cartoons in American newspapers regularly express attitudes that are hostile against Islam, authors also bring claims forward that Islam, uniquely, does not deserve religious freedom protections under the First Amendment of the American constitution. Continue reading “Islamophobia: Made in America – A New Phenomenon? US Elections and Discrimination”→
On February 6, 2016, people demonstrated all over Europe. In cities as diverse as Dresden, Prague, Warsaw, Bratislava, Krakow, Copenhagen, Dublin, Graz, Tartu, Amsterdam, Birmingham, Montpellier, and Bordeaux, up to 9,000 people held banners in the air declaring ‘Nein zur Einwanderung – Stoppt die Merkelisierung,’ or ‘Non au grand remplacement, Non au changement de peuple, Nous sommes le peuple.’ On April 9, 300 people participated in a blockade of a part of the Czech-German border. On May 16, 2,500 people gathered in Dresden with a similar message. All three events were organized by a recent political movement, the so-called Fortress Europe. The movement’s spokesperson advocated the demos on her webpage with the following words:
“[It’s] about identity, appreciation and mutual forgiveness for everything that ever separated us, the European peoples. This event shall be the starting point for real cohesion, for a European sense of community and a strong, European esprit de corps – to fight together as united Europeans for the preservation of our continent.”
Reading this statement, a student of Euroculture gets alerted. Fortress Europe apparently seeks to strengthen a collective European identity; a concept that is usually considered a possible solution to the current challenges in the process of European integration. Yet, Fortress Europe is an openly xenophobic and EU-skeptic movement. EU-skeptics that aim at the creation of European identity? It’s definitely time to have a closer look at Fortress Europe. Continue reading “Patriotic Europeans United in Fortress Europe”→