Reflections on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism

On May 6th, Magma organised a lunch seminar on the debate on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in Europe. Both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are perceived to be on the rise. A survey of over 6000 Jewish respondents by EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency, reported in 2012 that 76 % felt that anti-Semitism had increased in their own country in the past 5 years and that nearly 50 % feared that they would be verbally assaulted or attacked in public because they were Jewish.

At the same time there is a perception that Islam and increased Muslim immigration poses a threat to Europe. Anti-Islamic rhetoric is used not only by radial elements, but also heard within the growing populist parties across Europe. The attacks in Paris and Copenhagen in early 2015 further propelled hatred against Muslims and heating the debate on Islamophobia.

So what is going on in Europe, and how should we understand these concepts of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism so often debated in the media?

At the seminar, attended by over 40 people, professor Thijl Sunier from the VU University in Amsterdam presented his reflections on the topic. Read his full presentation below.

Thijl Sunier, VU University, Amsterdam:

“Stifled speech and paralyzing concepts.
Reflections on the Islamophobia / anti-Semitism debate in Europe”


While Europe was in turmoil after the attacks in Paris, I was on a working visit to Indonesia. There, too, the attack was front-page news, but the agitation was not comparable to the storm that raged in Europe. When I came back emotions were settled a bit and I was able to reflect on the comments with some detachment. I quickly got a sense of deja vu, but more importantly I was shocked about superficiality of the debate and the complete politicization of arguments.

After the confusion, the anger, the cacophony of comments and tumbling over each other of opinions followed the predictable rituals. First there was the big demonstration in Paris without a clear agenda, followed by commentaries in newspapers and magazines and the army of experts on television. The meaningless one-liners, the hate-speech (the most common at this time ' not every Muslim is a terrorist, but every terrorist is a Muslim).

Quite soon the debate on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism re-emerged again when it became clear that perpetrators of the attack had targeted Jews. So yet another proof of the deep-seated anti-Semitism among Muslims was presented, as it was argued. The number of incidents since the attacks in Paris in January increased sharply. Jews were threatened and Jewish institutions are smeared or worse.

But soon Muslims too became the victims of attacks on a large scale. Mosques were set on fire and Muslims, even children were harassed, insulted and threatened. Since the Paris attacks Muslims experience how normal it has become to make them collectively responsible for the violence. Muslims are threatened at the street. The recently published Monitor Muslim Discrimination in the Netherlands is very clear on that.

Spokesmen from both communities once again ask for attention to the seriousness of these incidents. There are calls to formulate Islamophobia more precisely in the anti-discrimination legislation in addition to the explicit identification of forms of anti-Semitism so that these practices can be more effectively compared and defeated. And there are regular conferences where the causes of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are discussed.

The question that arises here is: Are there grounds to compare both forms of victimhood? In the Netherlands, but also elsewhere in Europe, this is an extremely sensitive subject. According to some, even mentioning both phenomena in one sentence is wrong. Others suggest that mechanisms are similar. But is this about similar things? Are Jews and Muslims victims of the same fundamental practices and ideas, or are there fundamental differences? That is not at all obvious, but it creates a very problematic and highly politicized competition: who is the biggest victim?

We know, or we think we know what anti-Semitism is. This makes it very difficult to discuss causes in advance, especially if we want to compare. Is anti-Semitism an attitude that is deeply rooted in European history and that always comes in varying appearances? It is a unique form of exclusion, or is it a variant of a more general phenomenon? To what extent do contemporary fierce criticisms among Arabs and Turks towards Israel have anti-Semitic roots? Or should we consider criticism towards Israel and Zionism as another phenomenon, with another source?

In Europe, anti-Semitism is of course closely linked to the Holocaust. It is precisely this historically specific positioning and connection with genocide that implies to regard anti-Semitism as an incomparable phenomenon. It is then supposed to be a phenomenon with historical continuity that takes on different and changing disguises.

A more analytical sociological definition considers anti-Semitism as a specific form of racism because it involves biological characteristics. You cannot throw it off, just like skin color.

It has also been argued that anti-Zionism has in itself little to do with anti-Semitism, but that the connection is often made in the political struggle. It is clear that many people in Europe from the Middle-East are not very impressed by the accusations that they are anti-Semitic.

What about the sharply increased hatred against Muslims in the aftermath of the attacks in Paris? Immediately after the attacks there was verbal abuse, arson in mosques, threats, demonstrations against Islam, but also and more subtle, the argument that it is their own fault. Muslims are not seen as victims but as perpetrators and distinguishing between Muslims and others gets a certain legitimacy and self-evidence: it is their own fault and it is logical to be afraid of Muslims.

Thus, one can reasonably easily make all kinds of generalized remarks about all Muslims when discussing the actions of a small group and one can say that Muslims who do not meet these generalizations commit 'taqiyya', being secretive about one real intention to defend Islam against enemies.

The term Islamophobia is the common denominator of this wide variety of practices. And it seems as if we deal with a relatively recent phenomenon. However, the term is over a hundred years old (Quellin, a French politician, was to define a certain colonial polity). It is not a recently devised fake-term, as is often alleged, which is invoked by Muslims to counter criticism against Islam.

Its popularity is of course much more recent and emerged in the 1980s. In the nineties, there have been attempts to define the phenomenon and to give more structure so that it was possible to indicate phenomena and to categorize them.

Thus the Runnymede Trust in the UK, a think tank came up with the following definition in 1996: "Islamophobia is the dread or hatred of Islam and therefore, the fear and dislike of all Muslims, which also includes discrimination against Muslims through their exclusion from the economic, social, and public life of the nation. Islamophobia builds on the assumption that Islam is inferior to Western cultures, a violent political ideology rather than a religion”

Adjacent concepts in the report are: racism, anti-Semitism, anti-communism, sexism
While in the Anglo-Saxon world, Islamophobia has been studied mostly in a comparative setting with racism, and Islamophobia in the United States has often been analyzed by looking at experiences of anti-Catholicism, anti-Communism, and Orientalism, many authors in central Europe and especially in German speaking countries put their focus of a comparison with insights from anti-Semitism-studies.

The question that arises is whether Islamophobia a clearly bounded and defined phenomenon, or can it be explained away?

When people who doubt whether something as Islamophobia exists, use the term they do that in a literal sense and emphasize indeed the association with fear. Islamophobia would be an (irrational) fear for Islam, just as people have an irrational fear of height, spiders, and so on. So they argue that fear is unnecessary. But the association with fear also tends to move away from intolerance and Muslim-hate and instead emphasizes the ‘truth’ that it entails: Islam is something to be frightened of.

Islamophobia then is social anxiety or social panic which is connected to the alleged violent nature of the religion. This stereotypical and stigmatizing definition of Islam is then declared applicable to all Muslims (and if they do not comply they would not understand the very essentials of their religion).

Muslims who commit terrorist acts are often portrayed as ‘hate-beards’ referring to appearance and the language they speak. Any Muslim who wears a beard, has a specific appearance and may speak Arabic becomes connected to that stereotype.

The problem is that it actually disregards any reference to religion.

In short an emphasis on fear diverts from those practices and incidents that proponents of the term would want to highlight, namely those associated with hatred towards Muslims. In itself there is nothing wrong with a discussion about whether or not ‘the’ Islam is a violent discussion. However, if we want to explore, categorize and fight acts of hatred against Muslims and try to compare it with anti-Semitism, we should move into another direction.

The discussion in the UK about racism is interesting in this respect.

In the late 1980s and 1990s there was a rapid growth of an anti-racism discourse in the UK that resonated well in other European countries. It was mainly focused on black people and the meaning of race. There was a tendency to categorize migrant communities first on the basis of origin (Asians, etc). The categories that were applied, however, were not very adequate when it comes to fighting prejudice and discrimination. The term Islamophobia that was soon applied here had the advantage for Muslims to insert themselves in the anti-racist discourse and at the same time be able to claim a special position. Later, after the Rushdie affair in 1989, the focus on religion and on Islam in particular rendered the term Islamophobia a more prominent position in the debate, especially when it was popularized after the publication of the report of the Runnymede Trust, mentioned earlier.

This is an intriguing discussion as it links in with the difference between race as a biological category and culture as a set of acquired norms and practices. Can we consider Islamophobia as a racialized practice, as a form of racist prejudice?

The idea is that that which Muslims do is the result of Islam, regardless of individual agency. Those who argue against the comparison of racism with Muslim-hatred state that race is biological whereas culture and religion is learned behavior. Islam is seen as a matter of free choice, something you can put aside. But there is a strange paradox here. One of the characteristics of Islamophobic practices is precisely the argument that Islam is a totalizing religion that relegates individuals to the status of puppets in a show. In the Netherlands there was an interesting discussion some years ago on the occasion of the law case against Geert Wilders. He was accused of Islamophobia. In his defense he stated that he had nothing against Muslims, only against their religion. This argument does not sit very easily with the idea that Muslims should be blamed for Islam.

In short, the differentiation between acquired and ascribed characteristics does not help us much further in understanding Islamophobia. To consider Islamophobia a special variant of racism is not very fruitful. However, there is a common element in all discriminating practices: the power to ‘other’.

Actually it does not matter much what Muslims think and how they practice their religion. Islamophobia is about imposing certain definitions and characteristics unto Islam and Muslims indicating that it is an alien culture that does not fit in Europe. Muslims (just like Jews, women, black people) are/were subject of an uneven power relation. Others decide whether or not they fit.

This has been coined as racilization, ‘culturalization’, or simply othering, a process of imagination of the other based on the assumption that the other threatens ‘us’. Here we see fear coming back in a different disguise as a threat to the existing order, rather than something based on personal emotions. Racialization implies that people (a) categorize; b) emphasize differences rather than similarities; (c) consider these differences as logic, natural and unchangeable, and d) that differences are generalized.

Racialization involves purification and measures to prevent mixing and boundary crossing. Whether it concerns racial purity or cultural purity does not make fundamental difference, because the underlying mechanisms at work are the same. Racialization is thus exercising a form of power over minorities in order to maintain the status quo.

The categorization of Islam and Muslims on the basis of a one-sided negative and generalized definition also ensures that allegations of racism and discrimination can be neutralized as acts of ‘over sensitivity’ by Muslims.

In short, I argue that although anti-Semitism, racism and Islamophobia have different characteristics and different historical origins, there are enough grounds to compare and to trace commonalities and similar processes. 

What are the causes for the growth of Islamophobia and anti-Islam discourses and the popularity of politicians with a strong anti-Islam agenda?

  1. Caused by systemic loss in Europe, not anymore center of the world. Therefore Islam from outside, by threatening something non-European (domestication).
  2. Globalization has caused more visibility, both in the negative sense (super visibility) and as the result of upward mobility (Muslims are everywhere in society).
  3. Part of a more general Enlightenment critique of religious phenomena.

Although I think that exploring causes and characteristics is important we have to distinguish between these scientific explorations and the struggle to fight these practices. What I see in the Netherlands is that the discussion about causes and characteristics too often blocs the debate about the struggle against it.

Systematic attention is good and should continue unabated, but paradoxically, I also believe that this quest also causes a paralyzing effect when it comes to finding solutions. Why is that the case? At this time, the discussion is dominated by causes, and the comparison. But no matter how carefully it is formulated, there is always an element of competition creeping in. What gets the most media attention, an attack on a mosque or an attack on a synagogue? Is there a double standard when it comes to cause and effect? What is worse victimization, who suffered the most? What is the most common (mosque attacks, or synagogue attack) and what is considered most importantly, and why?

The double standard is particularly very clear when it concerns the impact of international and historical events. How legitimate is it for example to mention Israel's actions in the Occupied Territories as the cause of the aggression against Jews? Before you know it you find yourself in a quagmire of allegations and claims concerning the validity and sustainability of historical events.

Such a discussion is doomed to failure because it is not about the validity of rational arguments, but about moral right. To ask whether IS acting on behalf of all Muslims is an absurd question not because you could not ask that question, but because it serves a different purpose, namely to neutralize the arguments of the other camp. Jews and Muslims are reduced to a kind of fifth column, a mouthpiece of different political powers. Politicians in the Netherlands repeatedly stir these sentiments by repeating this thinking in camps.

My plea is to think carefully about the crippling effect of such a discussion about victimization for finding solutions. Let us continue with the mapping of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, but let us stop claiming the moral high ground. In order to get one step further important just to look for commonalities and put paralyzing comparison aside for the time being. If Muslims and Jews in Europe do not step into the political trap of politicians, both in Europe as well as in the Middle East and Israel with their hidden agendas who so-called act on their behalf, we can move a step forward and give political profiteers no stage.

In the Netherlands there are encouraging efforts in that direction. On 22 February Salaam Shalom, an initiative of young Jews and Muslims, held a so-called solidarity walk from the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam to a mosque some 5 kilometers further on. A similar action took place in Oslo where Muslims made a peace ring around a synagogue. There are more examples of mainly young people who have enough of these crippling debates about who has the moral high ground. Unfortunately they often meet with insults.

Does it help? Yes it helps because in all these initiatives is the commonality that is paramount, not the question of who is the biggest victim. The initiators deserve great respect. And I am eager to hear about initiatives in this country.

Thank you.