Old Fears, New Threats

By Uriya Shavit

Europe's fears of Islam are reminiscent of the old anti-semitism--but not as much as some people think.

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ne rain-soaked evening, in a bus stop on the road leading to a castle overlooking the picturesque German town of Marburg, an especially frank piece of graffiti caught my eye: “To hell with Islam!” In this remote, pastoral setting, the words at first appeared out of place. But in today’s Europe—and in Germany in particular—this sort of attitude toward Islam should come as no surprise. Since the September 11 attacks in America, and the subsequent terrorist attacks by al-Qaida on European soil, the continent has witnessed a rising tide of hostility toward Muslims living there, from violent rhetorical outbursts to physical attacks on mosques and businesses.1
This hostility has, in turn, increased the widespread sense of discrimination already felt by most Muslim immigrants in Europe. In a recent field study of German Muslims, for example, interviewees described difficulty finding work, prejudice against their children at school, and obscene remarks frequently hurled at them on the street. Finally, they described the obstacles they face trying to observe their religious commandments (likely related, among other reasons, to the fact that Islam, unlike Judaism, is not an officially recognized religion in Germany). Mahmoud, a twenty-six-year-old of Indian extraction who volunteers as a preacher in a local mosque, recounted a job interview for a position as a social worker that began with a lecture on democratic values and the rights of women. Twenty-two-year-old Nadia from Morocco recalled what one of her Christian friends said to her when she explained her strong feelings of religiosity: “To be a true Muslim now, you have to wear an explosive belt.” And Haled, a thirty-year-old footballer of Tunisian ancestry, talked about the cries of “dirty Muslim” directed at him on the pitch, saying that he fears for his life and that of his wife, a Christian who converted to Islam.2
It is hard to avoid comparing this new animosity toward Muslims to the traditional manifestations of a much older hatred—anti-Semitism. The fear of a minority that practices an unfamiliar form of worship and is believed to be worming its way into Christian or Western culture, undermining its values, shaped the relationship between Europe and the Jews in its midst for hundreds of years. This comparison between “Islamophobia” and classic anti-Semitism is much favored among European politicians, intellectuals, and human rights workers who are trying to prevent, or at least mitigate, the “culture war” that is being waged on the continent.3 This concept is embodied in the Warsaw Declaration, adopted by the Council of Europe on May 17, 2005, which condemned “all forms of intolerance and discrimination, in particular those based on sex, race, and religion, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.”4 Opinion columns in major European newspapers now regularly claim that “Muslims are now getting the same treatment the Jews had a century ago.”5 The temptation to draw parallels between past and present is unquestionably strong—but is it justified? There are certainly some notable points of similarity between prewar European anti-Semitism and the enmity directed toward the Muslim immigrants living in Europe now. However, there is a quintessential difference between the two: The fear of a Jewish conspiracy against European civilization had no basis in fact, whereas fear of the expansionist ambitions openly expressed by senior figures in the Muslim-Arab world, and shared by some ordinary Muslims, is not groundless. Understanding this difference is of crucial importance if one wishes to properly assess the nature and magnitude of the challenge certain interpretations of Islam pose to Europe, and to deal with this challenge accordingly....

Uriya Shavit is a historian of the Middle East researching Islam in Europe for the Minerva Foundation, a subsidiary of the Max Planck Society. His book The Wars of Democracy: The West and the Arabs from the Fall of Communism to the War in Iraq will be published this year by the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. His last article in Azure was “The Road to Democracy in the Arab World” (Azure 26, Autumn 2006).

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