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.

One 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.

One of the most striking points of similarity between European anti-Semitism—both the classic and modern varieties—and the current hostility towards Muslim immigrants is the conspicuousness of Jews and Muslims, a factor that exaggerates the presence of the minority “other” in the eyes of the majority “self.” Traditional antipathy toward Jews was fed to a great extent by their obvious dissimilarity from other Europeans. Before the Emancipation, the Jews were confined to ghettos, kept commandments that were alien to Christians, spoke a language of their own, and adopted distinct modes of dress. Although the Jews were relatively few, the concentration of the Jewish population in a small number of areas and their foreign appearance ensured that every encounter between Christian and Jew would be indelibly engraved in the former’s memory, giving him the impression that the Jews were far more numerous than they actually were. The post-Emancipation “new Jews” who tried to integrate into European society at the end of the eighteenth century may have been similar in outward appearance to the Christian majority, but their assimilation into general society and culture was incomplete, while their considerable and often publicly visible achievements in various fields—science, literature, banking—and their prominent involvement in radical social and ideological movements far outweighed their relatively small population, giving birth to stereotypes bristling with suspicion and jealousy. Whether he shut himself off from non-Jewish society or assimilated into it, the European Jew was perceived as a representative of a minority whose size and influence was exaggerated in the extreme by European Christians; a delusion enthusiastically adopted by anti-Semitic propaganda.
A somewhat similar situation exists today regarding the Muslim community in Europe. Most European Muslims arrived on the continent after World War II as immigrant workers needed to provide the postwar revival of the industrial and service sectors with cheap manpower. Like most immigrant communities, they settled in the more affordable residential neighborhoods of large cities. Because of these social and economic factors, European cities developed entire neighborhoods overwhelmingly populated by immigrants—modern ghettos of a sort. Anyone passing through these areas would be confronted by such sights as hundreds of men thronging the local mosque or a row of restaurants and grocery stores with signs proclaiming “Halal” (food prepared according to Islamic law) in Arabic.
Like traditional Jews, some Muslims are distinguished by their dress, and it is no coincidence that public fear of the rise of Islam in Europe regularly coalesces into a debate over head coverings.6 A woman wearing a hijab (headscarf), or niqab (veil), and most certainly one enshrouded in a burqa (complete body covering), is inescapably visible on a busy European street and is likely to be perceived as a sign of a significant Muslim presence, even if, statistically speaking, she represents a marginal phenomenon. Thus, in November 2006, on the eve of general elections in Holland, the government declared its support for a ban on the wearing of the burqa in public areas. Although 6 percent of the population of Holland is Muslim, the number of women in the country wearing the burqa is estimated to be little more than a hundred.7
The conspicuousness of the small Muslim minority, like that of observant Jews, serves as a lightning rod for feelings of fear and hatred. However, this issue taken alone is not sufficient to explain why Jews and Muslims in particular became the primary targets of European xenophobia. It is important to note that the Jews were not alone in being alien to Europe at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. The Gypsies, for example, were also perceived as “strangers,” but while they aroused hatred and persecution, they were never considered an existential threat to Christian civilization or pestilential carriers of a diseased culture maneuvering to take power.8 In the same manner, there are non-Muslim “others” whose presence in the human and cultural landscape of European societies at the beginning of the twenty-first century is eminently conspicuous: The skin color of Africans living on the continent is no less glaring to the eye than the Middle Eastern appearance of many Muslims, and the traditional Sikh head covering is no less striking than the hijab.
It is not, therefore, the specific external signs of the Muslim presence that arouse feelings of fear and aversion, but rather what they represent to the European collective consciousness. That is, it is the resonance projected onto them by non-Muslim Europeans. The explanation for Islamophobia is to be found, therefore, not in simple xenophobia, but in one of Islam’s more abstract features, and one which it shares with Judaism: The fact that it is a religion and a nation capable of being imagined, even from afar.
The Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua’s article “An Attempt to Identify and Understand the Roots of Anti-Semitism,” which had enormous repercussions when it was published in the journal Alpayim some two years ago, may cast some light on this issue.9 Yehoshua claims that the primary reason for the enduring historical phenomenon of anti-Semitism is to be found not in Christian doctrine, envy of Jewish success, loathing aroused by Jewish business dealings as moneylenders, or disgust at the Jew’s “backward” existence in the ghettos, but rather in the fact that at the heart of Jewish identity there is a double thread of religion and nationality. Beginning with the period of the Babylonian exile, Jewish identity coalesced around a national-religious existence that belonged more to the realms of thought and imagination than to tangible reality. Thus the Jews were given “the possibility, of which they took full advantage, of remaining in voluntary exile without losing their identity.”10

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