Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

Alexander Gainem traces the origins of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in European history, drawing an analogy between the two concepts and foreseeing more violence if Islamophobia is not taken more seriously.

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: Lessons From History

By Alexander Gainem
Freelance Journalist – Canada


The current European debates on the merits of publishing the cartoons that depict the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist and portray Muslims as bloodthirsty wife-beaters may be rooted to events that took place on the continent in the 1930s.

The similarities between the socio-political conditions that allowed racism against Europe's Jewish community to flourish and the current cultural ignorance of Islam cannot be dismissed offhand.

By tracing the origins of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in European history, one can better understand the climate in which the cartoons seem to have thrived and been boisterously defended.

In reflecting on the horrific results of anti-Semitism in the Holocaust, one can derive lessons which could positively impact on Islam-west relations.

Medieval Anti-Semitism

Between 1096 and 1150, Jewish communities in Europe were wiped out or forced into accepting Christianity.

According to the Medieval Sourcebook, anti-Semitism can be traced back to the 16th century when the myth of Anderl Von Rinn, a Christian allegedly killed by Jews, spread throughout Europe.

In his book, Triumph Cron Marter Vnd Grabschrift des Heilig Unschuldigen Kindts (1619), Hippolyt Guarinoni (1571-1654) wrote of a "a boy [allegedly] put to death by Jews out of hatred for Christ at Rinn near Innsbruck, Austria."

The story is thought to be inspired by the Cult of Little St. Hugh of Lincoln, England, whose body was found in a well in 1255, his death ascribed to Jews. Noted playwright of The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in A Prioress' Tale:

O you young Hugh of Lincoln, slain also
By cursed Jews, as is well known to all,
Since it was but a little while ago,
Pray you for us, sinful and weak, who call,
That, of His mercy, God will still let fall
Something of grace, and mercy multiply,
For reverence of His Mother dear on high. Amen.

The anti-Semitic undertones in European literature built on the hostility shown to Jews during the Crusades a few centuries earlier.

The Crusaders depicted the Jews as "demonic murderers of God."

It was during the First Crusade that the Jews' legal status in Europe was seriously threatened. While Pope Urban II stirred up passions against the Eastern Turk, many Crusaders felt they could begin the purification of Jerusalem by killing off "easterners" in their midst.

Between 1096 and 1150, Jewish communities were wiped out — or forced into accepting Christianity — in several European cities.

Joel Carmichael, noted scholar of Russian history, believes that anti-Semitism took on fanatical hysterics when Crusaders labelled Jews inhumanly evil and satanically entranced.

The Crusaders depicted the Jews as "demonic murderers of God." This was taught extensively to young Christian children and nurtured a hatred of all things Jewish. (Joel Carmichael, The Satanizing of the Jews: Origin and Development of Mystical Anti-Semitism, 1992).

Jews would continue to be viewed with suspicion and hatred until the 20th century, when such passions would lead to devastating consequences.

Post-World War I Cultural Despair

It was in the aftermath of the Great War, World War I, hailed as the war to end all wars, that European society found itself at the crossroads between 20th century modernism while simultaneously grasping to long held traditions of race and creed.

The crushing defeat of the Deutsches Reich and the helplessness of the Great Depression of 1929 helped turn economic despair into a fertile forum for racial discrimination and hatred.

Ironically, the Weimar Republic, which rose from the ashes of defeat in 1918, was known to be Germany's first taste of liberal democracy. But democratic principles would not stave off the growing tide of racism.

Hatred and distrust of the Jews had been growing steadily for centuries and the defeat and helplessness at the end of the war became fodder for finding a scapegoat.

Jews were blamed for the defeat in World War I and for selling their German loyalties for financial gain.

It was during this period that anti-Semitism, specifically anti-Judaism, peaked and would transform into a powerful social and military dynamic.

Anti-Judaism was also inadvertently fuelled by the influence of the science of eugenics and the growing popularity of social Darwinism. Darwin's evolutionary theories and the notion of "survival of the fittest" fuelled the Germanic people to view themselves as superior Aryans, the infamous word of history.

With this feeling now paramount in German social development, a group of people had to be termed inferior. Unfortunately, it was the Jews who were now seen as inferior — untermenschen — and harassment and persecution soared.

The actual term of "anti-Semitism" came about in 1879 when German writer Wilhelm Marr sought a scientific term to explain and legitimize the hatred Jews were now facing.

Feeding on this cultural ignorance and hatred of Jews, the media in Germany at the turn of the century slowly began a virulent campaign against the community.

Jews in Caricature

Jews were often depicted in caricature as all dressed in black, brandishing menacing looks, with thick dark eyebrows, bent over as if to conspire against Europe and the world. In some cases they were depicted as lean, disfigured entities. In others, they were obese, smiling, as if to indicate they were fattened up by greed and opportunism.

In May 1934, Der Stürmer newspaper ran the headline Jewish Murder Plan Against Gentile Humanity Revealed. The newspaper warned Europeans that Jews were the greatest enemies of the Germanic and European people.

The newspaper ran nearly daily cartoons of Jews in various depictions with captions such as "Jews are our misfortune", "The Jew is our greatest enemy, beware of the Jew", "Germans defend yourselves against Jewish atrocity propaganda", "Germans defend yourselves! Don't buy from Jews!"

The February 1943 of Der Stürmer depicted a bearded Jew wearing a skull-cap (Yarmulke) with the caption Der Satan — the Satan. Such racism was supported by the National Socialist (Nazi) ideology — people of the same blood and race share a common culture. Jews were seen outside of that culture.

The racism against Jews exploded during Kristallnacht — or more appropriately, Pogromnacht — when Germans avenged the killing of a German diplomat in Paris at the hands of a German Jew allegedly incensed by the racism against Jews in Berlin.

Thirty thousand Jewish males were detained in mass arrests as 1,350 Jewish synagogues were burnt to the ground or destroyed in one night. Up to 100 Jews were killed and some 7,000 Jewish businesses destroyed.

Fear, Ignorance of Islam Through the Ages

In Dante's Divine Comedy, Prophet Muhammad and his cousin Ali were cast to the ninth circle of Hell.

The attitudes which prevailed in early 20th century European history and gave rise to the Holocaust are similar in nature to the climate of fear Muslim communities increasingly contend in contemporary Europe.

Today, Muslims in Europe are also seen as outside of a democratic culture. During the controversy surrounding the cartoons, many pundits who defended their depictions on freedom-of-speech grounds also maintained that Muslim culture could not cohabit with liberal freedoms.

This resurgence of social Darwinism as applied to libertarian theory — that democratic ideals are inherently superior to ideals of other cultures — alienated Muslims and created a cultural backlash against cultural integration.

But the disenfranchisement of Muslim communities from those of their hosts in Europe is itself also rooted in history.

A hostile view of Islam began in the 8th century when Muslims expanded into the Iberian Peninsula. Islam as a faith was rejected as a fundamental religion and seen as a direct challenge to Christianity; Muslims were seen as heretics and their prophet a diabolical fraud.

By the time of the Crusades, Muslims were viewed as a geopolitical threat and military means were seen as the only ways to address the danger to the Church.

Ignorance of Islam and abject rejection of Muslim culture reached its peak in Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, itself considered the pinnacle of Western literature in the 13th century.

Dante saw fit to cast the Prophet Muhammad and his cousin Ali to the ninth circle of Hell — one created for schismatics and sowers of discord. The discord Dante refers to is a rebellion of the Christian church. Just as Satan was seen as the great rebel, his minion Muhammad was too, according to Dante.

The ideology that Muhammad was hell-bound was further explored in a 1415 painting by Giovanni Da Modena. The Last Judgment, which adorns a cathedral in Bologna, depicts a scantily clad, turbaned, and bearded Muhammad in agony as he is pulled into the pits of hell by demons.

As international trade routes expanded and dialogue between nations increased after the Renaissance, a more concerted effort to understand Islam was exerted by orientalists.

However, with increased migration of Muslims into traditionally Christian countries — Europe, North America, and Australia — fear of a new eastern culture in the midst of Western idiosyncrasies dominated the discourse.

This would also reach its peak in the 20th century.

Rise of Islamophobia

With Muslims' increased migration to Europe, fear of an Eastern culture in the midst of Western idiosyncrasies dominated the discourse.

Just as anti-Semitism endured into the modern age, anti-Islamic — or Islamophobic — attitudes also survived into contemporary times.

Soumayya Ghannoushi, a researcher in the history of ideas at the School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London, believes "the medieval Christian view of Islam as a deviant, violent, licentious and heretical creed was secularised, stripped of its transcendental character and rearticulated within a modern essentialist philosophy that continues to define the terms of Western discourse on Islam, in its mainstream at least."

Islamophobia in its basest terms is defined as prejudice against Muslims. In 1997, the London-based Runnymede Charity published a report entitled "Islamophobia: A Challenge for Us All."

Launched by then Home Secretary Jack Straw, and updated in 2004, the document found:

1) Islam is seen as a monolithic bloc, static, and unresponsive to change.

2) Islam is seen as separate and "other." It does not have values in common with other cultures, it is not affected by them, and does not influence them.

3) Islam is seen as inferior to the West. It is seen as barbaric, irrational, primitive, and sexist.

4) Islam is seen as violent, aggressive, threatening, supportive of terrorism, and engaged in a "clash of civilizations."

5) Islam is seen as a political ideology and is used for political or military advantage.

6) Criticisms made of the West by Islam are rejected out of hand.

7) Hostility towards Islam is used to justify discriminatory practices towards Muslims and exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society.

8) Anti-Muslim hostility is seen as natural or normal.

The findings echo anti-Semitic attitudes prevalent in early 20th century Europe.

Similarities Between Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism

Given the growing distrust of Muslims as the "other" and the conclusion that anti-Muslim hostility is itself found normal, the publication of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons in recent weeks can no longer be dismissed as mere experiments in libertarian freedom of speech and censorship.

The cartoons were not borne in a vacuum.

Earlier political cartoons of Jews and Christians had been rejected on the grounds they would be deemed offensive. No such considerations were appropriated to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons.

Furthermore, in April 2005, Danish Queen Margrethe told a biographer, "We are being challenged by Islam these years. Globally as well as locally … We must take this challenge seriously. We have simply left it flapping around for far too long, because we are tolerant and rather lazy."

The cartoons depicted the "challenge," if not danger, of a terrorist Muhammad. Could such a depiction have been totally unaffected by social conditions (encouraged by Queen Margrethe) existing in Danish society?

The recent Jyllands-Posten cartoon depicting a bearded Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban is suspiciously similar to the Der Satan cartoon.

Both Muhammad, a Muslim, and the Der Stürmer Jew are bearded. Both wear religious head gear, and both are depicted as icons of evil in contemporary society.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, Muslim communities in non-Islamic countries have come to fear the very pogroms which targeted the Jews in 1930s Europe.

For example, as shown above, Pogromnacht came about when a German diplomat was killed by a Jew. The stage had been set with repeated anti-Jewish commentary in German media.

In the days following the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who directed a film many Muslims found offensive, by an Arab immigrant in 2004, attacks against Muslims soared in the Netherlands. Just as in Nazi Germany, the stage here had also been set by repeated anti-Islamic commentary in the media.

Just as synagogues were burned during Pogromnacht, mosques and Islamic schools in Rotterdam, Breda, Huizen, Utrecht, and Eindhoven were attacked, vandalized, and in some cases set ablaze.

Attacks Against Muslims

Given the growing distrust of Muslims, the Danish cartoons can't be dismissed as experiments in libertarian freedom of speech.

Even prior to the tragic 9/11 acts of terrorism, in which 19 Muslim Arabs are purported to have caused the deaths of some 2700 Americans, attacks against Muslims were frequent.

According to data compiled by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) several mosques and Islamic centers were vandalized or attacked by arsonists in Michigan, Indiana, New Jersey, Colorado, Illinois, Tennessee, Minnesota, and Georgia between 1994 and 2000.

Once again, these attacks were inspired by media coverage of Muslims as outsiders unable to conform to Western ideologies and overly militant in nature.

After 9/11, these attacks multiplied with fatalities reported in various hate crimes committed against Muslims, or in one case, against a turban-wearing Sikh who was mistaken as a Muslim.

In Australia, Muslims fared no better: A report by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission showed that 90 percent of Muslim women there report harassment, attacks, or verbal assault.

"We listened to stories of women, mostly Muslim women wearing the hijab, anxious to walk their children to school in fear of being spat on, abused or ridiculed," acting discrimination commissioner William Jonas said at the release of the report (Agence France Presse, June 16, 2004).


Can Islamophobia Be Combated?

The murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh led to soaring attacks against Muslims in the Netherlands.

While many countries around the world have enacted anti-hate speech laws and legislature to combat anti-Semitism, Islamophobia is still leagues away from being internationally recognized as racism.

In fact, Islamophobia is dismissed as a myth.

Kenan Malik, a British writer and broadcaster, wrote in 2005: "In reality, discrimination against Muslims is not as great as is often claimed … For Muslim leaders, inflating the threat of Islamophobia helps consolidate their power base, both within their own communities and wider society."

Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, believes Muslims should abandon the "discredited term" of Islamophobia and examine the problems that Islamic societies have. "Rather than blame the potential victim for fearing his would-be executioner, they would do better to ponder how Islamists have transformed their faith into an ideology celebrating murder and develop strategies to redeem their religion by combating this morbid totalitarianism," Pipes wrote in the New York Sun in 2005.

By ignoring the existence of Islamophobia (as much a socio-political phenomenon as anti-Semitism) fear and ignorance of Islam continues to grow.

In its 2004 annual report The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) found "certain groups of persons, notably Arabs, Jews, Muslims, certain asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants, and certain visible minorities have become particularly vulnerable to racism and racial discrimination across many fields of public life."

ECRI also said that Islamophobia was on the rise in Europe:

Islamophobia continues to manifest itself in different guises. Muslim communities are the target of negative attitudes, and sometimes, violence and harassment. They suffer multiple forms of discrimination, including sometimes from certain public institutions. ECRI is worried about the current climate of hostility against persons who are or are believed to be Muslim.

There is, indeed, a cultural divide as ECRI points out: "One of the new faces of racism today is "cultural" racism. According to this notion of racism, cultures are pre-defined entities, largely seen as homogenous, unchangeable and, more importantly, incompatible with each other."

Islamic Holocaust?

By ignoring the existence of Islamophobia, fear and ignorance of Islam continue to grow.

If the conditions which led to the Holocaust exist now as they did then, is it far-fetched to consider that Muslims in Europe could face a similar outcome?

While a Holocaust against Muslims may seem far-fetched, the rhetoric against the Islamic world has increased significantly in recent months. There is no means of predicting how violent a backlash against Muslims will be if another Von Gogh is killed, or another crime on the scale of 9/11 is committed.

The phrase du jour is that Muslims simply cannot accept Western ideals. By such presumed predisposition, Muslims are rendered outcasts, or in Adolf Hitler's terms, untermenschen.

So popular was anti-Semitism that Hitler would expound himself as a proud anti-Semite. "Gradually I began to hate them. For me this was the time of the greatest spiritual upheaval I have ever gone through. I have ceased to be a weak-kneed cosmopolitan and have become an anti-Semite" (Adoph Hitler's Mein Kampf).

Jews around the world hold remembrance ceremonies of the Holocaust and say "never again."

As violent demonstrations against the cartoons continue to rage in a few Muslim countries, it becomes incumbent upon Muslim and non-Muslim leaders to carefully face the great cultural gap that divides them.

First and foremost, Islamophobia needs to be recognized as an existing and imminent racial threat to cultural cohesion. By the same token, Muslims need to carefully ponder how actions within their communities are perceived by those who may not be knowledgeable of their cultures and norms.

Violence must be rejected outright, whether that includes the burning of a mosque in Holland or an embassy in Libya.

If wiser minds do not prevail, Europe may soon find itself repeating the horrors of the past.

**Alexander Gainem is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle East issues


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Güncelleme Tarihi: 20 Eylül 2018, 18:16