Why is Comparing Islamophobia to Anti-Semitism a Valid Analogy?

Note: This Essay was written as part of my MSc in Comparative Politics (2017–18) at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), for the ‘Muslims in Europe’ Module.

Introduction

The following essay attempts to validate the analogy between Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. The work is divided into two sections, the conceptual framework and the discussion. The first strives to define the concepts of analogy, Anti-Semitism (‘new’ and ‘old’ expressions), and Islamophobia. The second section applies the formerly defined concepts to a coherent argument, emphasising how Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia can be interpreted as two sides of the same coin in their respective contexts.

Conceptual Framework

Analogy

To effectively engage with concepts of Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism, the analytical base must be detailed in order to avoid any misinterpretations. First and foremost, it should be established that the inherent “purpose of analogy is to explain” (Hayes et al. 1980:2). Therefore, one should not make the mistake of interpreting the construction of parallels between Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as a form of moral equivalency, but rather as an educative exercise. Given the widespread knowledge of Anti-Semitism (especially in the context of the World War II’s atrocities that culminated in the Holocaust), and Islamophobia’s fairly recent establishment, the legitimacy of exploring the parallels between the two concepts arises from analogy’s purpose as “a mediating link between the new concept and the familiar object” (Newby et al. 1987). In other words, the use of analogy can facilitate a more rapid and meaningful understanding of the least familiar concept.

Furthermore, it should be clarified that analogical approaches are not synonymous with absolute claims about the two concepts’ being mirror images of one another, with every single detail being replicated in both examples. In this sense, “analogies, are based on the principles of similarity” (Ortony 1978:47), which require the two concepts to be like one another, but not the same.

Moreover, as will be demonstrated below, the analogic comparison between Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia fits the two prerequisites of analogical thinking outlined by Curtis et al.. The first, requires concepts to be similar “in at least one way (…) [although] they probably have other commonalities” (Curtis et al. 1984:99); The second, necessitates a conclusion to be drawn about an unfamiliar factor “on the basis of its resemblance to a factor that is familiar or known” (Curtis et al. 1984:99). In other words, concepts involved in an analogy must be similar in at least one way (although preferably more than one), and the comparison must enable a more profound understanding of the least popularised concept based on its similarities with a familiar counterpart.

In summary, analogies are constructed based on similarities between two cases, where one is better understood or established than the other. Moreover, the primary purpose of an analogy is to facilitate a better comprehension of a newer concept, by showing it in the light of a previously-known one, thus making it easier to visualise the former. Also, analogies are not based on direct similarities but rather resemblances between the two concepts and are built on the conscious knowledge that there are as many (or more) differences than similarities.

In conclusion, as Klug explained, “there is no such thing as a perfect analogy: if A and B are exactly alike in every respect then they are identical rather than analogous” (Klug 2014:445).

Anti-Semitism: ‘Old’ vs ‘New’

Anti-Semitism has existed throughout the ages, manifesting itself through many forms and actors. Due to its lengthy existence, it would be futile (for the purpose of this essay) to give a detailed historical account of the evolving facets of Anti-Semitism. Consequently, the description rendered in this section focuses on the manifestations of Anti-Semitism as observed in more recent historical periods.

As a starting point, an overarching definition of the concept can be framed to be “the form of ideological oppression that targets Jews” (Ferguson et al. 2017:11). This description lays the foundation to further explore a complex concept, which is built upon the idea that the Jewish people are a threat and should be suppressed by whatever means available.

Historically, the concept emerged from theological differentiations in “European Christianity” (Ferguson et al. 2017:11) discriminating against Jews based on their religious identity and evolved into a “variant of Jew hatred (…) anchor[ed] in the notion of “race”” (Bunzl 2005:502). This mutation of discriminatory views was more than just a mere rhetorical adjustment, for it removed the possibility of having an escape from persecution. What is meant by escape is that, whereas on the one hand an identity based on religious attributes can be reversed (even if reluctantly) by conversion (in this case to Christianity), on the other hand, by elevating Judaism to a ‘race’ no alternative options are left for the subject to find a proverbial emergency exit. In other words, by framing Judaism as a race, Anti-Semites fixed the rhetorical loophole that was present on religious persecution: if a Jew converted to Christianity, he was no longer a Jew, and therefore there were no longer any grounds on which to persecute him or her.

Furthermore, the idea of Europe as a religio-cultural Christian continent, alongside its antithetic Jew, reflected that “Anti-Semitism was now seen as the mindset of an external enemy that threatened European civilization and security” (Özyürek 2016:44); the Jew was no longer merely an outsider, he was a hostile enemy. This binary gained traction with the rise of nationalist parties and movements focused on “creating an ethnic purity; a pure nation making the Jews as Other so that you could have a pure” (Bangstad et al. 2010:218) country. Henceforth, considering that the ‘impure’ Jewish Other was already inhabiting the same national space as their ‘pure’ counterparts, new strategies had to be orchestrated to ‘clean’ the nation. This was achieved by continuous “measures taken against the Jews [which] consisted, as is known, of restricting their civil rights in a number of areas” (Døving 2010:72), eventually culminating (although not exclusively) in the deprivation of the right to live, as seen in the Holocaust.

Moreover, central to Anti-Semitism is the erasure of the notion of individuality through the construction of generalising views of Jews. Feeding the legitimization of overtly hostile Anti-Semitism are “myths and stereotypes about Jews” (Ferguson 2017:7); An example being the early 1900’s text entitled ‘The Jewish Peril: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ (Nilus 2009), a forged document detailing how Jews plan to take over the world. The circulation of such misinformation and mythology eventually leads to the formation of stereotypes, which, if they gain enough traction, are used to deny Jews their individuality — as demonstrated by the aforementioned text, that all Jews are plotting communally to control the globe. Other stereotypes have depicted the Jew as greedy and controlling whole sections of society with an invisible hand, and although these are contemporary examples of Anti-Semitic stereotypes, the mythology tends to evolve and adapt “to different times and places, but fundamentally it says that Jews are to blame for society’s problems” (Ferguson 2017:11). Henceforth, the main problem with stereotypes is not the content itself, but rather that it paints Jews with a broad brush, morphing a whole group of individuals into an indistinguishable mass with a single identity that legitimises “hostility towards Jews as ‘Jews’” (Klug 2003:122).

The description above, is what could be called ‘Old’ Anti-Semitism, and it is the concept used throughout the essay as simply Anti-Semitism. The word ‘Old’, although, should not be understood as representing something buried in the past, but as a distinction from more recent conceptualisations or expansions of the concept of Anti-Semitism resulting from societal and geopolitical developments. The concept of ‘New’ Anti-Semitism will be defined for the sake of a clear argumentation in the discussion.

What is being dubbed as the ‘New’ Anti-Semitism lies in direct relation to the existence of Israel as a nation. This concept exists in the intersection between criticisms of Israel as a state, the ideology behind it (Zionism), and the collective Jewish religio-ethnic identity of the country; criticism fuelled mainly by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ‘New’ Anti-Semitism functions on the rationale that because Israel is a Jewish state “[w]hoever wants to defame or destroy it, openly or through policies (…), is in effect practicing the Jew-hatred of yesteryear, whatever their self-proclaimed intentions” (Wistrich 2003:65). In this sense, such concept is seen as an extension of previously exclusionary attitudes towards Jews as ‘Jews’, contemporarily materialised through an attack on their collective existence in the form of the state of Israel. Accordingly, if Israel is seen as a material representation of all Jews, even if being critical of Zionism is not automatically Anti-Semitic it can be a gateway to it because “it normalises hostility towards Israel and then to Jews” (Hirsh 2007:5).

Whether this ‘New’ form of Anti-Semitism is empirically valid, is a whole discussion in and of itself and will not be engaged further. The reason to describe the concept is to narrow-down the conceptual lens of the essay, which focuses on the manifestation of ‘Old’ Anti-Semitism, which is taken to “mean racism against Jews” (Hirsh 2007:16) as human beings, as in opposition to a sovereign nation.

Islamophobia

Anti-Muslim sentiments, rhetoric or depictions are far from being a new phenomenon. One can trace “centuries-old anti-Muslim views [which] inform, shape and extend the current discourse” (Schiffer et al. 2011:79), for example, in Edward Said’s book ‘Orientalism’ (Said 2003). Said catalogued a variety of Western attitudes (institutional and otherwise) that consistently repressed, misrepresented and legitimised derogative views of populations inhabiting in the ‘Orient’ — a space existing in opposition to the West, inhabited by ‘Other’ populations, several of whom were Muslims.

This essay will deal directly with the concept of Islamophobia, which is fairly recent in comparison to the Anti-Muslim attitudes described above, albeit nonetheless informed by them. The roots of the term can be traced back to “the late 1990s and early 2000s (…) [to address] harmful rhetoric and actions directed at Islam and Muslims in Western liberal democracies” (Bleich 2011:1582). The emergence of such terminology reflects the modern shift in societal attitudes to a specific minority group being ostracised and persecuted based on its communal identity: The Muslim.

The construction of the word itself (Islam coupled with the term phobia) may be misleading for those who attempt to read it in an overly-literal sense, for it may hint at the idea that Islamophobia is simply the fear of Islam, a quite hollow interpretation in itself. A religion is an idea, a philosophy, a belief, a metaphysical concept, which does not exist in the material world unless incorporated through the bodies of its followers (Muslims in this case). In this sense, Islamophobia does not reflect hostile attitudes towards “Islam as a faith but Muslims as a people” (Halliday 1999:898).

Furthermore, the fact that non-Muslims are also victims of Islamophobic hostility — for example, the Sikh man who “had his turban ripped from his head” (Batchelor 2018) because he was mistaken for a Muslim, or many other cases of “those who were perceived to be Muslim because they had a “visible” identity” (Awan 2017) and were verbally or physically attacked — reflects that the phenomenon is not a matter of religious discrimination alone and has been elevated to a racial level.

In a summarised manner, according to Lòpez, the concept of Islamophobia encapsulates “a hostile attitude towards Islam and Muslims based on the image of Islam (…) irrespective of Muslims are identified, whether on the basis of religious or ethnic criteria” (Lòpez 2001:570). Consequently, Islamophobia is a discriminatory ideology targeting Muslims based on preconceived ideas of what a Muslim is — may he be a religious subject or an ethnic one (who may or may not practice Islam).

Discussion

The Validity of an Analogy: Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism

The previous section attempted to set the pillars under which the argument will be constructed, and even when simply defining the concepts of Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism separately one main commonality becomes evident: “both are exclusionary ideologies” (Bunzl 2005:506). In Europe, modern Anti-Semitism became immortalized as a consequence of nationalistic projects of ‘purity’ and exclusion of those who did not fit the imagined concept of citizenship; Comparably, the Muslim today embodies an imaginary outsider to the political construct of a unitary Europe. In this sense, the evolution towards post-nationalist realities did not erase questions of outsiders and insiders of a bordered space, it rather augmented such space to include countries instead of provinces or regions. Henceforth, “whereas anti-Semites questioned Jew’s fitness for inclusion in the national community, Islamophobes (…) question whether Muslims can be good Europeans” (Bunzl 2005:502), such questioning does not reflect a shift in forms of discrimination, but rather the evolution of exclusionary tendencies adapted to a globalised world with expanded borders — but borders nonetheless. In other words, “what antisemitism was for the project of the ethnic nation-state, Islamophobia is to the project of a postnational Europe” (Klug 2014:456).

Moreover, whether someone is ‘anti’ something or has a phobia, one thing is common: a tendency to either actively combat or avoid the subject in question. Consequently, it is legitimate to allude to the concept of fight-or-flight response, “which occurs when danger or a threat to survival is perceived by an organism” (Teatro et al. 2015:179). Those responsible for pushing Anti-Semitic or Islamophobic ideologies fit into a greater pattern of socio-economic uncertainty, which has a tendency to trigger “[p]eople [who] are afraid and anxious (…) [to] look for scapegoats, be they Muslims of Jews” (Dobkowski 2015:323). In Germany, Anti-Semitism gained considerable traction after the economic hardship following its World War I defeat, while Islamophobia escalated after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA, and the refugee crisis in Europe. Both events contribute to an increased mass-hysteria, informed by stereotypical falsehoods: the unscrupulous and greedy “Jews [who] are ruining German economic life” (JTA 2018), and the murderous Muslim pushing for “domination under the sharia” (Meotti 2016) — both wanting to take over the world. These conglomerations of individuals into a single deprecating identity reflect the analogical parallel between Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, in which both faiths are upgraded to an ethnic (unconvertable) status, and therefore display a “racialization based on religion and culture” (Romeyn 2014:92); a process accomplished irrespective of which religion or culture being targeted. Both Muslims and Jews then, share the inescapable reality of being forced into imposed communal identities, which are then used to justify hostile and discriminatory actions against them. A vicious cycle through which the attribution of stereotypes dissolves individual identities, these stereotypes then fuel the imaginary of perpetrators who act upon illusions of self-defence or self-preservation, which also works through the reaffirmation of the previously manufactured stereotypes, consequently generating more aggression towards the real people who are forced to belong to said fictitious common identity. In other words, both Jews and Muslims do not have a role in defining their communal identities but are cyclically persecuted for having them.

Furthermore, both Anti-Semitism in the past and Islamophobia today share the fact that they are regarded as issues deeply embedded in the political realm. An example is a poster from the interwar period utilized by the German Nazi party during parliamentary elections depicting “[a] sword with a swastika stab[ing] a snake with a Star of David on its head, labelled with the words ‘Usury, Versailles, Unemployment, War guilt, Marxism, Bolshevism, Lies Deception, Inflation, Locarno, Daves-Pact, Young-Plan, Corruption, Barmat, Kutisker, Sklarek, White slavery, Terror, Civil war’” (Anne Frank House 2018) [see appendix 1]; such propaganda, as a mode of persuading voters, reflects the importance of addressing the ‘Jews’ as a political issue. Similarly, during France’s 2010 presidential elections, the far-right Front National party, headed by the Le Pen family, produced a poster depicting a fully-veiled woman (head and face) dressed in black, standing in front of a map of France populated by minarets and covered with the Islamic symbols of the star and crescent; Furthermore, the picture bore the caption: “No to Islamism. Youth with Le Pen” (Balmer 2010)[see appendix 2]. In today’s political reality “Islamophobia is politically (…) important” (Bangstad et al. 2010:225), as was Anti-Semitism during the period leading up to the Holocaust. In this sense both Jews and Muslims have been objects of political constructs demanding such threats to be addressed. Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism are both dehumanized as a consequence of being bundled up into political strategies aimed at harnessing votes — issues of economic prosperity, homeland safety, education, the ‘Jews’, and the ‘Muslims’ (among others) are all topics which competing parties use as a political base. Henceforth, both Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism are (past and present) stereotyped, racialized and then, when such tendencies morph into socially constructed realities, they are politicised.

Overall, there are many other ways in which parallels can be drawn between the two concepts — both target religions as the Other, both ostracise subjects from society, both promote and sustain racist stereotypes as a means to justify aggression, etc. — although this essay focused on three main perspectives that are not as obvious: the intruder of borders, the fight-or-flight response caused by stereotypes, and the politicisation of subjects. Furthermore, there are differences between Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia — both have different histories, they are different religions, they have different cultural backgrounds, and only one group, so far, has suffered through the Holocaust, etc.– which were not explored due to the essay’s conscious attempt to validate the analogy between the concepts.

Conclusion

The essay attempted to illustrate the fact that any “‘form of hostility towards Jews as Jews’ might be paralleled by a form of hostility towards Muslims as Muslims” (Meer et al. 2009:339). The first section served as an informative pillar to the discussion, which attempted to defend the legitimacy of an analogy between Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. There are various commonalities (and differences) between the concepts, although this work focused primarily on three main points: (1) both ideologies revolve around exclusions from bordered spaces, (2) they trigger mass fight-or-flight responses from perpetrators motivated by self-perpetuating stereotypes, (3) the two concepts have been highly politicised.

Overall, the search for the analogical legitimacy of such concepts is not a mere intellectual exercise, nor an attempt to create moral equivalences between the very distinct outcomes of both phenomena; it rather serves the greater purpose of suggesting that maybe history does repeat itself, and in this case with catastrophic repercussions.

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Appendix 1:

‘An antisemitic Nazi party poster for the parliamentary elections’ (Anne Frank House 2018).

Appendix 2:

‘“No to Islamism” campaign boosts France’s National Front in poll’ (Balmer 2010).

Observing & Commenting.● MSc Comparative Politics ■ London School of Economics and Political Science《》 B.A. Journalism & Media ■ Birkbeck, University of London