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Islamophobia: The New Anti-Semitism?

On January 15th, 2008, Member of Parliament Tofik Dibi of the left-wing Green Party and eight demonstrators were arrested in the centre of Amsterdam. They showed posters depicting a packet of Marlboro cigarettes, with the traditional logo replaced by a photo of conservative right-wing MP Geert Wilders and with the brand-name changed to 'Extremist.' Underneath was the warning: 'Seriously damages you and society.’ This act directly challenged Wilders’ virulent criticism of Islam. Ironically, Wilders declared that the police should not have arrested them as he promotes freedom of expression. "Just as I can say what I think, they can too," he said, even though he called their message "too disgusting for words."  A few months later at a demonstration against racism in Amsterdam, one person was arrested because he was distributing pamphlets depicting Geert Wilder’s quotes in which the words “Muslim” and “Islam” were replaced by “Jew” and “Judaism”. These recent incidents provide a clear indication of growing tension within Dutch society surrounding the issue of Islam.     

In 1997, the British Runnymede Trust defined Islamophobia as the "dread or hatred of Islam and therefore, to the fear and dislike of all Muslims,” stating that it also refers to the practice of discriminating against Muslims by excluding them from the economic, social, and public life of the nation. Islamophobia is a fairly new phenomenon which many believe gained momentum following September 11th. Yet, Islamophobia has caused many to recall anti-Semitism in The Netherlands and Western Europe during the period before World War II. It can be said that the definition of anti-Semitism held the same core concept as that of Islamophobia today. 

However, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia fit into different historical and political frames of references. Anti-Semitism connotes the atrocities of the Holocaust and the formation of Israel. On the other hand, Islamophobia implies terrorist acts and repressive totalitarian regimes in the Middle East; Muslims are seen as the perpetrator. Harry de Winter, a founder of “A Different Jewish Voice”, argued that both are completely the same. “If Wilders had said about Jews (and the Old Testament) what he is now saying about Muslims (and the Koran), he would have been charged and convicted of anti-Semitism long ago," he advertised on the front page of the Volkskrant. The question must therefore be asked: Are there parallels or comparisons which can be made between anti-Semitism then and Islamophobia today?

Why is a discussion of Islamophobia relevant?

Under the law, all citizens are equal in The Netherlands. This has not, however, been put into practice consistently, as demonstrated by the actions of the police in the examples above. The mixed reactions that exist in The Netherlands surrounding the issue of Islamophobia are well illustrated by these incidents, as well as by the murder of Theo Van Gogh by Mohammed Bouyeri in 2004. They show that the conversation surrounding Islam and the expression of Islamophobic sentiments in The Netherlands has escalated to a point where it can no longer be ignored. As Merle Boers, a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam notes, the murder of Theo Van Gogh put a face to both sides of the “conflict.” These events highlight the larger issues of exclusion and separation which have allowed the sentiments of Islamophobia in The Netherlands to develop.

Surprisingly enough, based on the pervasive rhetoric, Muslims in 2006 were estimated to number 13 million in the European Union (EU), representing a mere 3.5% of the EU’s total population (Muslims in the EU, 2006). Their presence, however, is perceived to be much greater and, due to recent world events, more threatening than their numbers might suggest. These events, including  September 11th, bombings in London and Madrid, the controversy over Danish cartoons, as well as the manipulation of symbols associated with Islam (the headscarf, the burqa, beards) have created an environment in The Netherlands in which there is political and electoral value in expressing prejudices broadly and perpetuating Islamophobia specifically. Though these sentiments may have benefited a few particularly savvy individuals (for example Geert Wilders, whose People’s Party now holds nine of 150 seats in parliament) the perpetuation of Islamophobia only truly serves to create an “us vs. them” mentality which fosters divisiveness within Dutch society and should be addressed.

The rise in Islamophobia has also transformed the conversation surrounding immigration and integration in The Netherlands. As political and societal discourse surrounding these topics is increasingly focused on the evils of Muslim migrants, already existing xenophobia is perpetuated and transformed. As Hadassah Hirschfeld, a Board Member of the Jewish Moroccan Network, notes, the word “foreigner” has come to mean Muslim and general xenophobia has been replaced by pervasive Islamophobia. 

Islamophobia is an extremely relevant issue in The Netherlands as it seeks better integration or assimilation of its minority groups. The perpetuation of a set of prejudices which sets Muslims apart and sanctions discrimination will breed hopelessness and hostility within the Muslim community. This can only lead to fragmentation, instability and social exclusion, elements which are completely counter to the goals of integration. 

What factors defined anti-Semitism in the pre-World War II period?

Before entering into a discussion of whether a comparison can be made between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, it is important to consider what vocabulary, stereotypes and prejudices define these two phenomena. 

What, then, defined anti-Semitism in Western Europe before WWII? In the most basic sense anti-Semitism is hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group. An attempt to generalize about Western Europe disturbs historic reality. There were big differences between, say, Germany, France, Brittan, The Netherlands and Belgium. Additionally, upon conducting interviews with individuals involved in combating anti-Semitism, one finds that what defined anti-Semitism in the pre-WWII period was exceedingly complex. Frieda Menco, a Holocaust survivor and champion of greater tolerance and understanding, states that before the “great act of anti-Semitism” (the Holocaust) she had never had an anti-Semitic experience in her life. According to Hadassah Hirschfeld, however, anti-Semitism existed in the Netherlands  since the 1600s or before; anti-Semitism was and still is embedded in both its language and society. This could explain why Frieda Menco, who was a young girl back then, can’t remember experiencing anti-Semitism. In the case of Nazi Germany, there was already a fruitful base from which to exploit existing prejudices. As far as we can generalize about Western-Europe, the duality of this discussion indicates that anti-Semitism existed in Western Europe in the pre-WWII period. The actions, stereotypes and vocabulary associated with anti-Semitism were so well integrated, that it was in many cases part of daily life. 

What, then, was the basis for anti-Semitism in Western Europe? We can first cite the religious prejudices associated with Judaism, which were supported especially by Christian theology and the Roman Catholic Church, which labeled Jews as the killers of Jesus Christ. Yet this alone is not, in the opinion of many, the sole or most important explanation for the “othering” of Jews in Western Europe before WWII. It is also important to consider the socio-economic status of Jews in this period and the stereotypes this produced; for example, some Jews in Western Europe were traders and bankers, professions which allowed them to achieve relatively high economic status and which prompted many to negatively perceive Jews as greedy, miserly, rich and crafty. Poverty, however, was also prevalent. The dirty, sneaky Jew stereotype stems from this layer of society. 

Despite evidence in support of the idea that Jews were isolated and demonized within Western Europe in the pre-WWII period, it is important to note that The Netherlands, according to Chantal Runne, a coordinator for the Intercultural Alliance and member of the Jewish community, was more tolerant to Jews due to its Protestant tradition. This can be attributed to the fact that in the pre-WWII period Jews in Western Europe were largely secular.  Therefore, as Cihan Tekeli, a HIA Fellow and member of the Dutch Muslim community states, they were better assimilated and more “invisible” than the history of anti-Semitism in Western Europe would lead one to believe. Hirschfeld notes that Jews were well integrated and played an active role in many aspects of cultural and economic life. Therefore, though the history of “othering” is important to consider, insofar as anti-Semitism is concerned it is only part of the story.

The most important element of anti-Semitism in the pre-WWII period was the fact that in all the dialogue, prejudices and stereotypes associated with Jews promoted the idea of Jews as one people, one homogenous group, regardless of their degree of religious affiliation or traditional connection. Therefore, as journalist Joris Luyendijk states, Jews were set apart as “a separate, essentially different, category of people.” It is this essential separation and “othering” that is imperative to an understanding of anti-Semitism in the pre-WWII period. 

What factors define Islamophobia? 

Sharif, a peer educator on the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for Diversion, sees the development of Islamophobia as the result of uncertainty caused by the clashes of religion and civilization. “Muslim youngsters that have no degree or a job portray an image of Islam that is not accurate.” The perception of Islam as a backward religion, and fundamentalists who use religion and quote the Qur’an to justify their actions, has created fear of Muslims, leading to avoidance and panic. Joris Luyendijk states that “Muslims are set apart as a separate, essentially different, category of people, by both left- and right-wing politicians. The right-wing politicians consider them dangerous; the left-wing politicians consider them harmless. Both talk about Muslims as if they are essentially different from non-Muslims.” Chantal Runne agrees that generalization and seclusion of Muslims occurs in The Netherlands; she notes that a significant amount of people perceive Islam with “great concern and fear.” The secular Dutch society is forced to rethink their stance on religion, says Runne. 

Fear has played an important role in the process of “defining and secluding.” The political discussion of Islam and the media have created a platform for fear to grow and for stereotypes to be shaped. Muslims have to explain themselves more. The collective responsibility of the Muslim community to speak out against terrorism is not in line with the expectations created by the individualistic culture of The Netherlands. Kai Pattipilohy, founder and partner of Diversion, thinks that the Muslim community should feel free to explain things more. She observes a sentiment amongst Muslims that there is no need to react to political events, because they are not responsible for them; yet the native Dutch community feels the need to be comforted after the events of September 11th and the murder of Theo Van Gogh by the Muslim community.

An additional complexity is that Islamophobia and its definition have become extremely elusive and difficult to classify. Geert Wilders has said multiple times that he “hates Islam, not Muslims.” This begs the question: “Is Islamophobia merely criticism of Islam or is it a product of aversive racism?” Frieda Menco thinks of Islamophobia as simple racism. She explains that the term Muslim refers to another culture and to a community that is seen as closed. Low socioeconomic status contributes to the stereotyping of Muslims in general. Menco notes that a lot of Muslims came to The Netherlands for economic reasons and have little education, bolstering a stigma that is difficult to erradicate. Cihan Tekeli adds that “even Christian Turks are perceived to be part of the Muslim community,” leading to the conclusion that the factor of race plays a role in this political debate. 

In addition, the high visibility of Muslims, due to headscarves or beards for example, is an element that should not be ignored when discussing Islamophobia. Hadassah Hirschfeld says that she gets irritated when she sees a Muslim man walking around with traditional Moroccan clothing. “When I walk around Amstelveen, I get just as irritated when I see a Jew wearing traditional clothing as well,” she says. Wearing traditional clothing has become a symbol of resisting integration. The process of “othering” is made much easier because of this visibility; discrimination is easier to perpetrate if a group can be easily identified. 

In Amsterdam “Muslim” neighborhoods have emerged where this visibility and low socio-economic status, in combination with restrictions due to discrimination on social mobility and cultural differences, have led “native Dutch” to move to different areas of the city. Amsterdam-West is an example of such a “Muslim” neighborhood. Living there gave Kai Pattipilohy more insight into the problems within the Muslim community. Together with her boyfriend, who “looks” very native Dutch, they have been spat at many times because people think she is Moroccan. She thinks that we should not underemphasize problems in the Muslim community. “These problems within the Muslim community should be addressed,” she says. The problems do not restrict themselves to the street, but translate to behavior at work as well. Pattipilohy explains that when some young Muslim men with a lower education get a male supervisor at their internship, they address the supervisor with “Sir.” When the supervisor is a woman things get complicated. “Pssst,” instead of “Miss”, is the way that a female supervisor is addressed. “We must address women’s rights issues and the male-female gender roles in general,” she says, “since the Netherlands is not doing too well on emancipation.” 

These examples show that the implications of Islamophobia effect both the Muslim and non-Muslim community. Islamophobia is a trap into which both Muslim and Non-Muslims fall. “Muslims get caught up in the victim position; some Muslims get the feeling that they are not going to be accepted anyway,” Cihan Tekeli adds. Therefore in The Netherlands Islamophobia has created a vicious cycle where the native Dutch community does not reach out and the Muslim community segregates itself. 

In what ways can anti-Semitism and Islamophobia be compared? 

It is part of human behavior to differentiate between people. We categorize to simplify the world around us. The group that we belong to is our “in-group;” the “other” belongs to the “out-group”. This categorization creates an “in-group and out-group effect”. The in-group is seen as more heterogeneous, as opposed to the out-group which is seen as homogeneous. Furthermore, we use stereotypes to understand our social world, including the out-group. It makes us feel better about ourselves and helps us understand which group we belong to. These stereotypes are perpetuated by paying attention to the things which fit our stereotypes about the “other”. For example, when a Muslim woman walks one step behind her husband, it’s because she is oppressed and not because she wants to go window shopping, something which her husband has no interest in. When we do see things that are inconsistent to our stereotypes, we see it as an exception to the rule instead of the rule itself. 

In both cases of Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia we see that religion is used as a powerful tool to create fear and maintain the status quo. In his movie “Fitna”, Geert Wilders used quotes from the Qur’an several times, thereby endorsing an image of the “terrorist Muslim”. The common pre-WWII stereotype of the Jew that wants to take over the world and rule is highly comparable with the terrorist Muslim that will chop off your head if you do not obey the rule of Islam. An element of fear is that “Europe” will no longer be Europe, but a “Eurabia” in which native (Christian) Europeans will no longer have a say. The difference is that the Jews were seen to be “penetrating” from within, and the Muslims are “invading” from outside; nevertheless the effect, is similar. 

Merle Boers argues that Anti-Semitism in the pre-WWII period and Islamophobia today are comparable with respect to social and psychological processes. “The way the stereotypes are formed, are exactly the same”. By defining different cultural minorities as one big group and labeling them as the “other”, a social process of segregation is activated and maintained as described above. The “in-group: out-group effect” reinforces prejudice and discrimination. Fear is a powerful seed that diminishes the contact between the in-group and the out-group and therefore maintains stereotypes. 

In what ways can anti-semitism and Islamophobia not be compared?

Insofar as they both “define and isolate,” in the words of Joris Luyendijk, specific communities, Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia can be seen as comparable. This comparison stems from the fact that they are both part of the same socio-psychological process of “othering.” This is where we would say the comparison ends. 

In the first place, a comparison of Anti-Semitism in the pre-WWII period and Islamophobia today is constrained by the fact that these phenomena existed in completely different historical periods. Anti-Semitism in the pre-WWII period evolved into the Holocaust. The Holocaust is, for many, the paradigm for demonstrating how far astray prejudices can lead a community.  Therefore, in this post-Holocaust period it is unlikely, at least in Western Europe, that prejudices will evolve to this point again. As Luyendijk notes, though Islamophobia might define and isolate Muslims it will not lead to their elimination.  Chantal Runne states that in her opinion there is no way that Islamophobia will ever lead to a Holocaust of Muslims; there is just too much awareness. Furthermore, because of the Holocaust there is much greater dialogue and visibility surrounding the development and perpetuation of the “in-group and out-group” effect. 

In addition, the fact that laws have been much more effectively developed in The Netherlands since WWII, specifically to protect minority groups against discrimination, means that Muslims enjoy the protection of the law. Jews did not have nearly the same rights or protections in the pre-WWII period as Muslims have now. To put it bluntly, as said by Hadassah Hirschfeld, Muslims have someone they can complain to; this provides an entirely incomparable context in which group discrimination occurs. 

Another impediment to comparison is found in the level of social integration enjoyed by the two groups. When considering Jews in the pre-WWII period many of those interviewed emphasized the fact that they were well integrated into Dutch society; Jews considered themselves to be Dutch. Conversely, Anti-Semitism was also a highly integrated sentiment in Dutch society; though this contrast existed it is important to note that until they were asked to identify themselves Jews were largely “invisible” in society. Muslims in The Netherlands do not enjoy the same level of integration and Islamophobia does not have the same amount of historical longevity. Numbering 850,000 in The Netherlands as of 2006 (Statistics Netherlands), or 5% of the population, Muslims are a much larger minority than Jews were in the pre-WWII period. Due to the racial and cultural backgrounds associated with Muslims in The Netherlands they are also a much more visible minority. Furthermore, the vast majority of Muslims in The Netherlands would be classified as allochtoon, therefore providing an easy link to anti-immigration and xenophobic sentiment. These are all important elements of what we observe as Islamophobia in The Netherlands and they differ greatly from how Anti-Semitism in the pre-WWII period was conceived. 

What can be learned from this comparison and lack of comparison?

Questioning whether Anti-Semitism in the pre-WWII period can be compared with Islamophobia today in The Netherlands has lead us to find many more questions than answers. Surprisingly, however, when asking what can be learned from this comparison, or lack thereof, we find that some powerful conclusions can be drawn. 

It is generally agreed that by examining Anti-Semitism in the pre-WWII period and the resultant Holocaust we get a picture of how far people can go if stereotypes and discrimination are not addressed. Therefore, for all people expressing Islamophobic sentiments, the history of Anti-Semitism should in theory serve as an example of the ultimate danger of such expressions. Frieda Menco relayed an acquaintance’s expression that every act of discrimination leads to a gas chamber, it just depends how this gas chamber is conceived. 

It can be more effective to consider how all human beings, regardless of their existing level of prejudices or discrimination, can use the legacy of Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust to fight all exclusion, of which Islamophobia is merely one thread. Some have said that the most effective way to use this legacy is not in fact through citing the Holocaust itself because, as Merle Boers notes, every prejudice does not lead to the Holocaust. Though the Holocaust is an important historical event it has less relevancy today for those experiencing discriminations. Rather it is perhaps more relevant and effective to stress The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a “modern tool” which has evolved out of the Holocaust to fight current prejudices. Though it may be radical to say that the Holocaust has become obsolete it is not so farfetched to say that for new generations dealing with new types of prejudice and discrimination it is less relevant or effective than a tool to promote human rights that more effectively mirrors and addresses the variant experiences of those being discriminated against today.

Additionally, it is important to consider the fact that for the Muslim community, in attempting to counter and fight Islamophobia using the example of anti-Semitism, all relevance is lost due to the connotations it inspires. As Luyendijk states very concisely, the best way to fight Islamophobia vis-à-vis Anti-Semitism is “Don’t mention the war.”  For the Muslim community Anti-Semitism implies the Holocaust and therefore Israel.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, consequently, greatly impedes any further conversation. Therefore the current political connotations for a Muslim/Arabic community of Judaism and Anti-Semitism are far too large to be ignored and, in most cases, nullify any relevance or potentially effective comparison. 

In conclusion, we must remain cognizant of the fact that survivors of the Holocaust will not be alive in the next decade and the direct memory of the Holocaust will inevitably fade away. The power of forgetting is both unforgivable and unavoidable; therefore we should seek other tools to keep the lessons of this history alive. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a product of the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust should be used as a “first source” to fight all stereotypes and prejudices, including Islamophobia. Though a comparison of Anti-Semitism before WWII and Islamophobia today is not very productive, this does not imply that valuable lessons and tools have not be gained from the Holocaust that are indeed relevant today as we attempt to fight discrimination in its many varied forms.

References

Interviews

Merle Boers: PhD Candidate, Universiteit van Amsterdam, June 25th, 2008.

Hadassah Hirschfeld: Chair of the Intercultural Alliance, June 25th , 2008. 

Sharif: Peer Educator, Diversion, June 26th,2008.

Joris Luyendijk: Journalist, received via e-mail June 27th, 2008.  

Cihan Tekeli: HIA Fellow, member of the Dutch Muslim community, June 27th, 2008.

Chantal Runne: Project Director, Intercultural Alliance, June 28th, 2008.

Freida Menco: Holocaust survivor and champion for tolerance, June 29th, 2008.

Kai Pattipilohy: Partner, Diversion, June 30th, 2008.

Other Sources

 “Muslims in the European Union: Discrimination and Islamophobia” Available:

http://fra.europa.eu/fra/material/pub/muslim/EUMC-highlights-EN.pdf

Webster, Richard. “Our common inhumanity: anti-semitism and history.” Book Review of Anti-

Semitism: The Longest Hatred. By Robert Wistrich.

“Islamophobia on the rise in Europe, report says.” Associated Press, 12/18/2006.

Imam Dr Abduljalil Sajid’s “Islamophobia: A new word for an old fear.” 9 June 2005.

Available: http://pressthat.files.wordpress.com/2007/09/islamop.pdf

Statistics Netherlands. www.cbs.nl

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Netherlands Netherlands 2008

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