Will Europe take Islamophobia as seriously as anti-Semitism?

Dilly Hussain asks whether Europe is allowing history to repeat itself by ignoring the rise of Islamophobia.

Europe’s hatred towards the Jewish community is no distant memory. In fact, many of our grandparents may have been alive to have witnessed the images, or recall hearing the accounts of the atrocities committed against the Jews by the Nazis during World War 2.

The Holocaust was not a spontaneous event, nor was the social attitudes that facilitated this horrific genocide exclusive to Germany. Anti-Semitism was widespread across Europe, including Britain, at least a century before WW2. Prior to the Holocaust, there was a popular culture of repugnance against European Jews. They were demonised and perceived with suspicion because they were outwardly different. The men wore kippahs, their hair was curled on the side, and had long beards. Jewish women used to also dress differently, covering their hair with a headscarf. The Jewish religion and culture was intrinsically different to that of secular Christian Europe. They eat kosher meat, observed the Sabbath, and followed their own legal code.

Is anti-Semitism and Islamophobia comparable?

From a socio-political perspective, it was no surprise that the Nazis exploited the existing anti-Jewish fervour that was prevalent not only in Germany, but in Europe in general. It also makes sense why WW2, Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust are given such great importance in western academia, from schools to universities. With such a microscopic emphasis on the Holocaust, Europe’s selective loss of memory when it comes to addressing the unprecedented rise of Islamophobia, demonstrates how history can gradually repeat itself. Many would argue that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia cannot be conceptually or contextually compared, because the former is hatred towards a particular race, while the latter is hatred for a religion. Anti-Semitism is punishable under race laws, but non-violent anti-Muslim hostility is dressed up as a legitimate critique of religion, which is championed under secular liberal democracies.

Muslims in Austria
Muslims in Austria

Academics and commentators who criticise those who compare anti-Semitism with Islamophobia tend to forget that anti-Jewish racism in Europe during the early 1800s was justified on cultural and religious grounds. Jews were targeted and regarded with suspicion because they were considered as an isolated “nation within the nation” – a community that failed to integrate and resisted assimilation. Similar to their Abrahamic religionists, Europe’s Muslims are also outwardly different in their appearance, culture and religion. And just like the Jewish community, Muslims follow a unique religious code stipulated in their scripture. Whilst these similarities are undeniable, it cannot be rationally substantiated why anyone would deny the stark similarities between Europe’s history of anti-Semitism, and the rise of Islamophobia post 9/11. In actuality, it was only after the rise of “social Darwinism” during the mid-19th century when “racial anti-Semitism” took root, which was framed in biological terms that led to Jews being openly discriminated against, on the premise of their purported “genetic inferiority”.

The question contemporary European leaders must ask themselves is whether their respective governments are steadily moving towards the same direction with their Muslim minorities, as their predecessors did with the Jews 200 years ago. Is Europe’s increasing intolerance towards Muslims comparable to the initial stage of antagonism towards Jews?

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The rise of Islamophobia in Europe

2014 marked the peak of Islamophobia, and the rise of the far-right in Europe, beginning with the right wing “Europe of Freedom and Democracy” (EFD) bloc within the EU. In France, the president of the National Front, Marine Le Pen – who obtained one quarter of all votes – demanded that schools make Muslim children “eat pork or starve”, and blamed Muslims for Islamophobia due to their alleged backwardness and unwillingness to integrate.

PEGIDA protesters in Dresden holding a placard of Angela Merkel wearing a hijab
PEGIDA protesters in Dresden holding a placard of Angela Merkel wearing a hijab

In Britain, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) continues to campaign against the construction of mosques, with one parliamentary candidate who previously described the Prophet Muhammad as a “gang leader” and compared Islam to organised crime, announced earlier this week that he would “licence mosques” if elected. It is also important to note that UKIP were the biggest winners in the 2014 European elections, gaining 27.5 percent of the vote. In Germany, thousands have joined the anti-Muslim Pegida movement in Dresden, who are protesting against the supposed ‘Islamisation’ of their country. The most worrying factor of the rise of these groups is that many of their supporters do not consider themselves racists or anti-Muslim. Furthermore, the success of these groups is evidence of the fruits bore by the Islamophobic propaganda over the past 14 years.

As for Europe’s mainstream political parties, leaders such as Prime Minister David Cameron and President Francois Hollande of France have frequently highlighted the Christian roots of their countries, as well as implementing domestic anti-terrorism laws which indiscriminately target Muslims. On the other hand, muscular liberals, neoconservatives, and even pro-Palestine ‘Muslim friendly’ leftists have also made a habit of attacking Islam. The anti-Muslim sentiment across Europe is echoed from every corner of the political spectrum. The rise of the far-right has been covertly facilitated by the hysteria created by mainstream political parties, and the media, which has made Islam and Muslims synonymous with terrorism and extremism. This growing culture of anti-Muslim prejudice has led to numerous attacks against Muslims (mainly women), and mosques in Europe.

During Christmas week last year, three mosques in Sweden were fire bombed by arsonists amid tensions over the country’s immigration debate. In Austria, violent attacks against Muslims in public have been frequent, including one that led to an elderly woman suffering a spinal injury in broad daylight outside a bank. Numerous mosques have been desecrated and vandalised in Poland, which has become a norm in Europe. In Belgium, a young Moroccan mother escaped death when she was rammed by a car, as the driver shouted racist abuse at her for wearing the hijab. Mosques were attacked by grenades, and a Muslim man was killed in France, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris. Outside of Europe, there was a Muslim school torched to the ground in Houston this week,  a Muslim teenager killed in Kansas two months ago, as well as the three Muslim students who were executed by a militant atheist last week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. These are merely the incidents that made into the media. But we must also take into consideration that anti-Muslim hate crime is majorly under-reported, out of fear of backlash, and a genuine lack of faith in the judicial system to adequately punish the perpetrators. That said, it has been documented that Islamophobic hate crime numbered over 700 from the period of 2013 to 2014 in Britain. In France, it increased last month to an amount which surpassed the total number of anti-Muslim attacks in 2014. Also in the US, physical attacks against Muslims are currently five times higher than pre 9/11.

History repeating itself

Undoubtedly, there are significant political and socioeconomic differences between the history of Europe’s Jewish and Muslim communities – namely, the former had no state but was granted one after the Holocaust, and the latter was part of a great civilisation and empire, which Europe effectively destroyed and later colonised. Nevertheless, it makes no difference to the fact that Muslims have become the new Jews of Europe; and because the question of integration and assimilation is based upon ‘cultural differences’, it is accepted as politically correct. Usually it is immigrants that are singled out as a socioeconomic threats to European countries, but it is Muslims who symbolise the “suspicious other”. The xenophobic propaganda of Europe’s far right, as well as the ideological rhetoric against normative Islam from conservative, liberal and left-wing parties, has contributed towards creating this environment.

Sweden-IslamophbobiaConsequently, Muslims have become Europe’s scapegoats upon whom the continent’s anxieties are vented on. Right-wing politicians continuously exploit these anxieties to advance their neocon, nationalist and imperialistic agendas, while most liberals and left-wing parties have jumped on the anti-Muslim bandwagon, hoping that it will consolidate votes.

Suggesting that Muslims have replaced the Jews of Europe does not imply that a genocide is imminent. Though history does not repeat itself in such a way, it can have a tendency to mimic the past, with all the premature warning signs. As the wider non-Muslim community’s suspicion and distrust of Muslims worsen, it is a fact that the state of Europe’s largest religious minority is facing an existential threat, and the possibility of a quasi-inquisition in the future would not be a far-fetched nightmare.

It is imperative that we remind ourselves of that disgraceful period in European history where animosity towards a particular religious minority nearly led to their extermination. Let’s not be bystanders in allowing history to repeat itself for the sake of our governments’ foreign and domestic policies in light of the war on terror.


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