Islamophobia and anti-Semitism

The essential character of Islamophobia is not a new phenomenon at all, but is actually re-inscription of many traditional forms of prejudice and fear attached to minority and immigrant groups in the history of many countries, including the United States. In our own history, American Islamophobia is virtually a verbatim cultural reenactment of the historical anti-Semitism of the first half of the 20th century. It is, of course, hardly a new idea that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are intimately linked in western culture; Edward Said called anti-Semitism the “secret sharer” (invoking his beloved Conrad) of western orientalist prejudices. But the details of the way in which the heavily politicized post 9/11 Islamophobia has evolved into a strikingly and disturbingly precise re-enactment of the equally politicized anti-Semitism in the United States between the two world wars has yet to be widely recognized, let alone properly analyzed.

In the present moment, Islamophobic discourse is based on the explicit or implicit allegation that immigrant Muslim communities represent an alien and hostile political movement, in this case the so-called ?jihadist? international terrorist front led by terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. In other words, the idea is not just that Muslims are alien, other and ?bad,? but that, as an immigrant group, they are a stealthy vanguard of a hostile political and alien cultural movement that seeks to destroy American society and civilization.

It is often forgotten now that much of the worst anti-Semitism in the United States in the first half of the 20th century drew on paranoid fantasies about Jews and Jewish immigrants as a supposed subversive ?fifth column? of Marxist revolutionaries and Bolsheviks dedicated to plotting and carrying out the violent overthrow of American capitalist and Christian society. The notorious forgery and plagiarism ?The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,? which defined most anti-Semitism in the 20th century, originated as a czarist and ?White Russian? calumny designed to blame revolutionary political forces and developments in Russia and other parts of Europe on a supposed ?Jewish conspiracy.? Anti-Semitic discourse of the period was replete with endless allegations about communism as some sort of ?Jewish plot,? and the link between various ?red scares? and anti-Semitic discrimination and defamation was explicit and extremely influential. The fact that in contemporary American culture Muslims are seen as synonymous with Arabs who are, like the Jews, a Semitic people, adds further depth to this uncanny and disturbing parallel.

Certainly the essential themes and tropes of contemporary American Islamophobic discourse as it has developed post-9/11 has more than a striking resemblance to the traditional forms of anti-Semitic defamation that characterized the periods between the First and Second world wars in the United States. The anti-Semitic literature of the period relied mainly on the following essential defamatory allegations, which thankfully in recent decades have been pushed to the margins of American society but can still be found on fringe, extremist websites:

* Jews believe themselves to be superior to all others and are bent on world domination.

* Jewish beliefs and values are inimical to those of Western civilization and the two are locked in a global battle to the death.

* Jews are religiously authorized to lie to, cheat, steal from and murder non-Jews whenever possible.

* Jewish immigration to the United States is a weapon of this war and a mortal peril.

* Jews have already conquered or seized control of large parts of Europe (through socialism, communism or control of financial markets) and the United States is the main redoubt of western civilization and values.

* Jews employ a division of labor between the wealthy few who finance subversion and conflict and the radicals who carry the battle into the streets, and that these two apparently contradictory classes in fact work hand-in-glove.

* ?Good Jews? should be grateful to the anti-Semites whose ?exposés? would help them ?clean house? in the Jewish community.

These are exactly and precisely the charges leveled at American Muslims in contemporary Islamophobic discourse in the United States, as most recently demonstrated in aftermath of the Fort Hood tragedy. And, unlike anti-Semitic rhetoric of this kind, analogous Islamophobic ideas are much closer to and sometimes even found in the mainstream of contemporary American discourse, just as these anti-Semitic ideas were once considered, if not fully respectable, at least commonplace and unremarkable. It is also entirely clear that the purpose and the intention of these calumnies was not to convert or engage in a serious theological dialogue with Jews, but rather to stigmatize and scapegoat Jewish communities and individuals in the United States. Their intention and inevitable effect was aimed at attacking human beings and not religious precepts, doctrines or practices.

The elements of American anti-Semitism listed above are virtually identical in every respect to the principal tropes, themes and claims of contemporary American Islamophobia. Just as the target of anti-Semitism was not Judaism but Jews, the target of Islamophobia is not Islam, but Muslims themselves. These two themes should guide the further study of this newest form of bigotry in the United States: first that Islamophobia is not an attack against Islam but an attack against Muslims and their civil and human rights; and second that Islamophobia is a virtually verbatim reenactment of the anti-Semitism in the United States in the first few decades of the 20th century.

As we consider the substance and the effect of contemporary American Islamophobia, we could not be better guided than by keeping in mind the main themes of traditional American anti-Semitism listed above. Both the anti-Semitism of the ?red scare? era and the Islamophobia of the present moment were based on a perceived subversive threat ? left-wing revolutionary and Islamist plots respectively ? that were attributed to entire ethnic and religious immigrant communities.

In the 1920s and 30s, anti-Semites typically defended their bigotry, and distinguished it from traditional folkloric and religious Western Christian anti-Semitism, by citing the supposed threat of subversion by ?Jewish revolutionists, ?anarchists,? and ?Bolsheviks,? just as today Islamophobes cite the threat of “jihadists” and ?radical Islamists.? In neither case was the danger fictional, but in both cases threats of political subversion were attributed to entire identity communities in an irrational manner reflecting much deeper prejudices and hatreds. Then and now, discrimination and bigotry has been rationalized on the grounds that either most people in these communities were somehow implicated in or supportive of the subversive threat, that subversives were hiding in or being sheltered in these immigrant communities, or that it is simply impossible to tell the difference between dangerous subversives and well-meaning citizens from these ethnic and religious communities, and that therefore discriminatory attitudes and practices are necessary, sensible and justified.

It will be objected, no doubt, by the purveyors of contemporary American Islamophobia that while there indeed may be some superficial parallels between the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the 1920s and 30s and the present anti-Muslim discourse, in fact the perceived Jewish link to leftist subversion of that era was a paranoid fantasy while the threat from radical Muslims is all too real. However, it is crucial to recognize is that in the period between the First and Second World Wars, to have suggested to the anti-Semites of the era, and even to conventional wisdom, that the Communist movement was not a real and clear and present danger to American society and its system of government would have been generally regarded as an absurdity. This threat was perceived as every bit as real and menacing, indeed probably more so, as the violent and subversive threat posed by Muslim extremists is today.

The idea that Communism, anarchism and Bolshevism were in any serious sense ?Jewish,? or that Jews in general were the epicenter and mainspring of a subversive Marxist plot against Western civilization, Christianity and capitalism, was a paranoid illusion, although many left-wing and radical leaders of the day were, in fact, Jewish. The threat from a violent and extremist fringe of Muslims is all too real today, just as there were, in fact, numerous violent and radical Jewish revolutionists in the first half of the 20th Century. However, it is no more reasonable or accurate to conflate terrorists with Muslims and Islam in general now than it would have to describe Communism as some sort of ?Jewish conspiracy? then.

It is a sad irony that some of the most enthusiastic and vicious purveyors of these familiar, almost clichéd, anti-Semitic slanders that have now been transferred onto Muslims are themselves Jewish, just as it is a sad irony that some of the worst forms of European anti-Semitism have found a new and historically improbable home in parts of Arab and Muslim discourse. This tragic development is, for the most part, an appalling byproduct of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the sympathies that people in both communities share with the respective parties in the Middle East, and the false but widespread sense of a zero-sum relationship between the two. An additional irony is that by smearing Muslims as inherently and irredeemably anti-Jewish, contemporary American Islamophobia has the effect of transferring onto the Muslims, and especially the Arabs, what are in fact Western traditions of anti-Semitism that lack historical corollaries in the Islamic world, and thereby effects an implicit transfer of guilt for this tragic history, including the Holocaust in Europe during the Second World War, away from Western Christian societies and onto Arab and Muslim ones.

On the other hand, it is certainly true that just as Islamophobia finds some of its most passionate promoters in the American Jewish community, so too is some of the worst anti-Semitism in the United States to be found emanating from or aimed primarily at Muslim-Americans. The fact that in both communities these are distinctly minority attitudes and that this ironic, tragic and frustrating situation is primarily an unfortunate side effect of passions arising out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not mitigate the urgent need for the responsible majorities among both American Jews and Muslims to take a more proactive role in combating these reciprocal and closely related prejudices.