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The Politics of Islamophobia


Western peoples have long viewed the Muslim world through an “orientalist” filter –imagining a backward, exotic and vaguely sinister “other.”  But, until recently, they were seldom preoccupied with what they imagined.

There was scholarly interest, of course; and artists and entertainers sometimes employed Muslim themes.  But, with the partial exception of the Ottoman Empire, the peoples, cultures and religion of the Muslim world were, for the most part, invisible to the Western eye.

Indeed, it was not until the nineteenth century, as the French and British empires expanded into Muslim regions and as advances in transport and communications brought distant parts of the world closer together, that, for the first time in centuries, Westerners became mindful of the Muslim East.

Throughout the twentieth century, awareness increased as economic, strategic and geo-political factors made the Muslim world increasingly important to Western elites.  Even so, the Muslim “other” remained largely out of view.

This began to change when significant numbers of Muslims came to live in Western countries.  Like other immigrants, Muslims came mainly for economic reasons and to escape political repression.  And like other immigrants, they suffered discrimination.

But Muslims were no worse off than other immigrants from parts of the world of which Western peoples knew little and cared less; and their religion seldom aroused much animosity.  It had been different, no doubt, when Christianity and Islam still contended for adherents and territories, and it was certainly different at the time of the Crusades.  But that was long ago.

Unlike then, the movement of historically Muslim peoples into Europe, North America and Australasia taking place now is happening at a time of waning religiosity, especially on the Christian side.  To be sure, the majority populations of Western countries have not been especially welcoming; with immigrants (as distinct from expatriates), they seldom are.

But, until recently, Islam was not an issue.  Its differences from Christianity paled in importance compared to familiar nativist, anti-immigrant complaints: that Muslims steal jobs and depress wages, commit crimes, refuse to assimilate, turn neighborhoods into slums, and so on.

This changed, however, as the West became fixated on Islamic “terrorism” and on prevailing in a “clash of civilizations.”

With astonishing rapidity, it has, by now, gotten to the point that “islamophobia” – hatred of things Muslim — has become a factor in the politics of Western nations.

 *  *  *

Even the word is new.  However it is tempting to suppose that the phenomenon it designates is sadly familiar; that islamophobia is just anti-Semitism with Muslims substituting for Jews.

The fact that islamophobes repeat so many of the tropes of classical anti-Semitism — mutatis mutandis, with all the necessary changes — makes this supposition difficult to resist.  But the analogy is misleading.

The word combines “Islam” and “phobia.”   The reference to Islam, the religion of Muslim peoples, can be confusing.  The reference to phobias is even less helpful.

It suggests an anxiety disorder – like, say, claustrophobia.  But this use (or misuse) of a clinically meaningful term is hardly unique.  The English language nowadays is replete with “phobias,” and corresponding “philias,” that have little or no connection to phenomena of clinical interest.

Some of them — “homophobia,” for example — likely do have a genuinely phobic dimension; by most accounts, homophobes fear their own repressed sexual inclinations.  Others, like “anglophobia,” involve mere distaste.

Islamophobia does not quite fall in either category: islamophobes have no fear, acknowledged or not, of the repressed Muslim within.  But their animosities, like the homophobe’s, express a level of irrationality that transcends taste or judgment.

“Anti-Semitism” is an even more unfortunate term.  The word denotes hatred of Jews and things Jewish.  Strictly speaking, however, “Semitic” refers to a family of languages that share historical and structural features.  Hebrew is one of many Semitic languages; Arabic is another.

At the time the word was concocted, Hebrew was not the spoken language of Jews anywhere.  This had been the case since Biblical times.  Before proto-nationalists and then Zionists undertook to revive and modernize it, Hebrew was a liturgical language only.

Modern Hebrew draws on the Hebrew of the Bible, and anti-Semitism likewise draws on ancient roots.  Both of them, however, are enough unlike what came before to count as genuinely new.

From the time, several centuries after Christ, that Christianity emerged as a distinct religious tradition, opposition to Judaism has been endemic within the Christian fold.  It could hardly be otherwise; Christianity’s legitimacy depended not only on its differences from its ancestor faith but also on its purported theological superiority.

Naturally, Christian anti-Judaism gave rise to hatred of Jews and things Jewish.  In principle, though, what aroused the animosities of Christian peoples were Jewish beliefs and practices, not Jews themselves.

In principle, therefore, the hatred they evinced and often acted upon should disappear if and when Jews abandon Judaism for Christianity.   The evidence on that is scant because most Jewish communities held fast to their faith despite persecution.  And where evidence is available, the record is equivocal.   Nevertheless, Jews were hated and persecuted throughout Christendom not for their essential Jewishness, a metaphysical condition known only to anti-Semites and Jewish nationalists, but for their refusal to accept Christ.

However, as faith declined and as such monumental atrocities as the extermination of New World peoples and the rise of the African slave trade took hold, justifying theories more potent than the ones Christianity could provide became increasingly necessary.

And so, by the nineteenth century, pseudo-scientific accounts of the superiority of the white race and the sub-humanity of colonized and enslaved peoples were invoked to justify the depredations taking place, and to sustain the continuing subjugation of peoples of color.

In accord with the spirit of the times, anti-Semites also advanced pseudo-scientific rationales.

But it was not racial inferiority as such that anti-Semites dwelt on so much as the Jews’ essential otherness.  For anti-Semites, Jews were a recalcitrant “oriental” people ensconced within the Western fold, a foreign body to be guarded against and, in the limiting case, eliminated outright.

This sensibility took hold with varying degrees of intensity throughout Europe and its New World extensions, in part because anti-Judaism had prepared the way, in part because ruling classes used Jews as convenient scapegoats, and in part thanks to another abandoned but not forgotten Christian, especially Catholic, doctrine: the prohibition of usury.

From the Middle Ages through the dawn of the modern era, Christians were prevented from becoming bankers and financiers because the Church proscribed charging interest on loans.  Jews were not similarly constrained.  A few conspicuous banking families took advantage of the opportunities this presented.

However, before long, Christians became bankers too, succumbing to the call of emergent capitalism.  But the idea that somewhere behind the scenes, in the Dark Temples of Finance, Jews were somehow calling the shots remained fixed in popular consciousness – in no small part thanks to the connivance of ecclesiastical authorities, and economic and political elites.

The idea was so entrenched that it was natural, especially in backward quarters, for nascent anti-capitalist sentiments to take on an anti-Semitic coloration.  Thus it was that, not much more than a hundred years ago, the great German Social Democrat August Bebel called anti-Semitism “the socialism of fools.”

For these and other reasons, anti-Semitism flourished throughout Europe and wherever else European culture became established.  It superseded anti-Judaism.

Its importance in the modern history of the West can hardly be exaggerated.  Among other things, anti-Semitism became a core component of most strains of right-wing politics, and anti-anti-Semitism played a crucial role in shaping liberal, radical and socialist thought.

In short, where Muslims were absent from popular and elite consciousness Jews were very present.  Whoever ignores this momentous difference is guaranteed not to understand what islamophobia is about.

* * *

But the difference is easily overlooked because of the salience in both islamophobia and anti-Semitism of the perceived “otherness” of the populations towards which the majority population directs its hostility.

However not all otherness is created equal.  The others whom the West has subjugated from the days of New World conquest and slavery are also, in their own ways, perceived as others.  But the histories of their interactions with the dominant populations of Western countries differ profoundly from those of Muslims and Jews, and so do the animosities that target them.  No doubt, the word “racist” applies in all these cases, but it is often too crude to be enlightening.

With racialist theories discredited and Christian anti-Judaism a spent force, and with liberalism sufficiently triumphant throughout the West that states everywhere (Israel, the West’s Middle Eastern outpost, apart) are states of their citizens, not of religious or ethnic communities, there is nothing left to nourish the ancient perception of the Jew as the other.

Not surprisingly, therefore, anti-Semitism has been on the wane in the past half century; indeed, it has all but disappeared in most quarters.  Revulsion over the Nazi Judeocide accelerated the process, but it was inevitable that modernity would eventually undo what modernity began when anti-Semitism replaced the anti-Judaism of old.

Zionists today have different agendas than their predecessors did, and therefore roll out the old justifications for Zionism only when it is convenient to conjure up notions of eternal victimhood.  But it is important to recall that the original Zionist idea was that a Jewish state was needed to provide a refuge from the scourge of anti-Semitism.  Ironically, the state Zionists concocted is now the main factor keeping anti-Semitism alive.

This is because criticism if not of the Zionist project, then at least of the policies of the Israeli state, have become all but morally obligatory, while the Zionist establishment and its allies throughout the world have worked assiduously for decades to establish the transparently untenable contention that all but the most anodyne criticisms of Israel are at least implicitly anti-Semitic.

They think that charge trumps all other considerations, and they use it to beat the opposition down.  But it rings increasingly hollow, especially to young people for whom Hitler’s Judeocide, and the lesser, but still deadly, manifestations of anti-Semitism that preceded it happened long ago in another age and time.

By hurling around charges of anti-Semitism the way they do, Zionists risk making anti-Semitism respectable; indeed, irresistible.

Nevertheless, it has been well resisted, and that is unlikely to change.  But this has very little to do with the snake oil the Zionist establishment and its lobbies around the world peddle.   Anti-Semitism remains on the wane because, with advances in science and political morality and with Christian religiosity on the decline, it has become impossible to maintain the perception of otherness.

To be sure, attitudes towards Jews in parts of the Muslim world and among Muslims in Western countries are not quite so benign.  But this is a different phenomenon.  Indeed, it is more like the islamophobia from which Muslims suffer than like the anti-Semitism with which it is so readily confused.

* * *

It is in our nature, it seems, to hate our enemies, and to degrade and dehumanize them.

During the First and Second World Wars, Germans (“Huns”) were objects of animosity in Allied countries, even the United States where a large part of the population is of German or part-German descent.  There was no question of longstanding religious or ethnic hostility, but animosity was nevertheless virulent.

Italy was an Axis power during the Second World War, but Italians fared better than Germans, at least in the United States, because their country was perceived more as Germany’s reluctant partner than as a perpetrator in its own right.

In the United States, the Japanese had it much worse, and there is no doubt that racism played a role.  No one, for example, thought of interning persons of German ancestry or of confiscating their property.  Even so, when peace came, anti-Japanese attitudes too subsided.

What is often described as Muslim anti-Semitism is a similar phenomenon, made worse by the unrelenting efforts of political entrepreneurs to identify opposition to Israel with opposition to Jews.

It has little to do with the history of Jewish-Muslim relations.  To be sure, Jews lived as subaltern communities within Muslim states.  But, before the twentieth century, Jewish-Muslim relations were better than Jewish-Christian relations almost without exception – not least because Islam, unlike Christianity, acknowledges Judaism’s legitimacy and commands protection for Jewish communities.  Muslims sought to convert Jews (along with everyone else), but the anti-Judaism endemic throughout Christendom had no parallel in the Muslim world.

Now that elites in the West are, for their own reasons, effectively collaborating with militant islamists to sustain a perpetual war — officially against “terror,” but really for control of oil-rich or otherwise strategically important regions of Asia and Africa, Muslims have become the new enemy and therefore the new target of Western animosity.  Islamophobia is the result.

It is remarkable how rapidly attitudes change.  Before Communism imploded, it was Communists, or the intelligence agencies of Communist countries, that were behind the world’s “terror networks.”  Almost overnight, Muslims took their place.

Communists did precious little to fill their assigned role.  How could they when opposition to terrorism was definitive of Marxist and especially Leninist theory and practice?

Islamists have been more obliging.  This is good news for anyone interested in keeping the military-industrial juggernaut going.  For them, if Osama Bin Laden had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.

After Obama had the West’s archfiend bumped off — to the delight of his rule of law supporting, liberal cheerleaders — he didn’t even have to figure out other ways to fool (almost) all of the people all of the time.  By then, public opinion in Western countries no longer required a name or a face to sustain the perpetual fear that makes perpetual war politically feasible.

And as long as the drones keep flying, the special ops teams keep the “targeted killings” coming, and the humanitarian interveners get their way, there will be more than enough reality behind that fear for the war machine to keep rattling on.

The spontaneous connection between political exigencies and the rise of group animosities is especially evident in the thinking of the small number of, mostly elderly, Jewish Republicans (and Democrats too) whose hard Right Israeli politics is, as it were, more popish than the pope’s, and who, needless to say, have no interest in living in the Promised Land themselves.  From out of nowhere, their Israeli chauvinism took an islamophobic turn.

The broad outlines of the story behind this strange transformation are easy to discern.

Once it became clear to the indigenous population of Palestine that Zionists were intent not just on living among them but in taking over their land, Palestinian Arabs began to fight back.   And so, from the mid-1920s on, Zionists who, like most colonial settlers, had been largely indifferent to the native population began to view it as hostile.

Palestinians became enemies and, before long, so did Arabs generally. When they could not be ignored, they were marginalized and despised, and never more than when they fought back.  American Zionists followed in tandem.

But even as this history was unfolding, it was clear to most Israelis, and therefore to most “diaspora” Zionists, that while Palestinians and Arabs generally might be suitable targets of animosity, Muslims generally were not, and Islam certainly is not.

It was not just the historical memory of (comparatively) good Muslim-Jewish relations that underwrote these convictions; there was also a strategic imperative.

In the Zionist view, good relations with non-Arab Muslim countries on the peripheries of Arab lands – with Iran, especially, but also with Turkey and, to a lesser degree, with Muslim majority states in east Africa – had long been held to be almost as important as good relations with the United States.

Even the 1979 Iranian Revolution didn’t change this perception, though it did install a theocratic regime in Iran that tried to expand its influence throughout the region by projecting an anti-Zionist public image.  The present Iranian government has a knack for saying things that “existential threat” mongers in the Zionist camp can exploit, but worse words were commonplace in the 1980s, while Israel and Iran covertly maintained decent relations.

This changed when the Soviet Union imploded, leaving the United States the sole superpower in the region, and when the Gulf War effectively removed Iraq as a threat to Israel.  Israel no longer needed Iran to keep Iraq down.

However it did need Iran to substitute for Iraq and other Arab countries as an existential threat.  Israel may no longer be able to justify itself on the grounds that it provides world Jewry a refuge from anti-Semitism.  But existential threats are no less useful on that account.  How better to keep the domestic population in line and American money flowing in?

The Iranian clerisy and important sectors of the Iranian political class found it useful too for Iran to be pictured as an existential threat to the Jewish state.

This helps explain why, two decades ago, anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab sentiments began to take on an islamophobic tone – not so much in Israel itself, since in any conceivable future, Israel would remain an island in a vast Muslim sea, but in right-wing Jewish circles in the United States, where islamophobia was an almost costless posture to assume.

This was especially the case after 9/11, as islamophobia increasingly became an American obsession.

Islamophobia accords nicely too with Israel’s courtship of evangelical Protestants.  One would suppose that the gulf separating Zionists, both secular and religious, from (very) low-Church Anglo-Protestant proponents of dispensationalist theology would be unbridgeable, especially since Jewish Zionists well know that their Christian allies want Jews gathered into the Holy Land to hasten the End Time, when Jews who do not accept Christ will be cast into Hell for all eternity.  But Zionists these days have no shame; there is nothing they will not do to help keep America in tow.

And so, Jewish islamophobes make nice to perhaps the only Christians left who still promote anti-Judaism –touting “Judeo-Christian values” in opposition to the values of terrorist “jihadis,” Jew-hating anti-Christs, in whose lands Jewish communities had lived in peace for almost one and a half millennia.

This ahistorical madness too will pass.  When islamophobia no longer serves any Israeli purpose, Jewish islamophobia will disappear.  Historical norms have a way of reasserting themselves.

In the United States, that could happen sooner than we think, not because islamophobia in general is about to fade away – not with the war on terror continuing indefinitely – but because most islamophobic Jews are old and their influence within the Jewish community is spent. Their influence in the larger political culture remains a problem because their Paper Tiger lobbies hold Congress in thrall.  Before long, however, reality is bound to overthrow that illusion as well.

This prospect bodes ill for those who benefit from the perpetual war our Nobel laureate President now leads.  That is perhaps the one hopeful prospect in this whole sorry state of affairs; that and the realization that historically anomalous irrationalities that erupt on the scene with amazing rapidity can and usually do just as rapidly disappear.

 ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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