Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia – new enemies, old patterns

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia – new enemies, old patterns


Written by: John Grayson, John Grayson

Two German scholar activists argue why it is important for German anti-racists to examine contemporary Islamophobia as well as anti-Semitism.

Across Europe activists and certain academics are struggling to get across an understanding in their governments and their countries at large that anti-Muslim racism/Islamophobia is now one of the most pernicious forms of contemporary racism and that steps should be taken to combat it. Nowhere has that struggle been more difficult and poignant than in Germany.

There, because of the necessary attempts to come to terms with the Nazi past and understand the dimension of the Holocaust, the horror of any form of anti-Semitism can blind people to new and different forms of racism. And even more than elsewhere the contradictions of the Middle East get transferred to internal discussions about a new anti-Semitism.

Yet there are attempts in Germany to both expose the extent of Islamophobia and to use anti-Semitism as a comparative from which to help understand it. These have not been without problems. In the aftermath of the murder in a Dresden court of Marwa al-Sherbini in 2009, Dr Sabine Schiffer of the Institute for Media Responsibility in Erlangen, who suggested that negligence in the court structures (stemming from Islamophobia) might have been a contributory factor in her death and the police’s shooting of her husband, mistaken for the assailant, found herself the object of a charge of slander and facing a court case.[1] Below she and colleague Constantin Wagner examine the issues which emerged around the highly contested conference held by the Berlin-based Centre for the Study of Anti-Semitism on ‘The Muslim as Enemy, the Jew as Enemy’.

Time and again, the comparison of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia/anti-Muslim racism generates public angst. The high point of this disquiet in Germany surrounded the conference ‘Feindbild Muslim – Feindbild Jude’ (The Muslim as Enemy, the Jew as Enemy) organised by the Berlin-based Zentrum für Antisemitismusforschung (Centre for the Study of Anti-Semitism) in December 2008.

This reaction to such a comparison is understandable and justified to the extent that there can be real doubts as to whether the horrors of genocidal anti-Semitism – the Nazi Holocaust – should be relativised (i.e., on the moral level) and there could be grounds for suspecting that mentioning both phenomena in the same breath comes from faulty analysis. For example, if someone claimed that Muslims today were in the same position as Jews were under Nazi rule. However, it is inappropriate to play Jews and Muslims off against one another as objects of racist discourses, to deny the existence of this new phenomenon of Islamophobia, which indeed exists, or to dismiss as trivial all expressions of racism that fall short of total barbarism.

To compare is not to equate, as Micha Brumlik (a famous pedagogue who analyses issues of Jewish identity, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism) and others have repeatedly emphasised. Quite the contrary. When comparing, one naturally also examines the differences between two things. To equate anti-Semitism and Islamophobia would not only be a moral problem, but an analytical one as well. But at the same time, reality forces those of us who deal with racism and seek to combat it to consider the phenomenon of Islamophobia. And, to the extent that there are parallels, why should we not try to learn from the findings of research on anti-Semitism?

A few parallels and differences will be examined below. In so doing, it seems useful to distinguish between the analytical/conceptual level on the one hand and the empirical level on the other.


There can be no doubt that, empirically, a phenomenon exists that we describe as ‘Islamophobia’ and others describe as ‘anti-Muslim racism’ or ‘hostility to Islam’. One criticism of the term ‘Islamophobia’ has been that it defames opponents of Islamist movements. Even if it is true that the term can be instrumentalised, that is not sufficient cause to stop using it. After all, ‘racism’, too, has varying definitions, and is occasionally used in highly problematic ways. This does not mean that there is no point in continuing to use the term, and certainly would not justify denying the existence of it.

Looking at critical portrayals of Muslims from an anti-racist perspective, there can be no doubt that Islam is openly being attacked as Islam, and Muslims are openly being attacked as Muslims. The same applies to physical violence. Islamophobes often try to legitimise their racism by arguing that they have nothing against ‘foreigners’ in general, and even add to their credentials by explaining they are ‘pro-Israeli’; the problem, they explain, is Muslims. Such Islamophobia has recently begun to be studied in Germany and reported in a number of published pieces on racism and anti-racism.[2]

Given the enormous popularity of blogs such as Politically Incorrect, which publishes nothing but racist incitement specifically against Muslims, it is undeniable that there is a racism that is directed primarily at (supposed) Muslims. The known racist blogs are merely the tip of the iceberg, and can build on very widespread, historically based anti-Muslim resentments.[3]

Although many images and points are familiar elements of the ‘anti-immigration’ discourse and thus recognisable as elements of racism, the empirical phenomenon of ‘Islamophobia’ is not entirely coextensive with the definition of ‘racism’ (to the extent that there is a universally valid definition of the term). This is because centuries-old anti-Muslim views inform, shape and extend the current discourse. This gives anti-Muslim racism a specificity that distinguishes it from other racisms.

Furthermore, Islamophobia can be considered a new form of racism, a ‘cultural racism’. The target of Islamophobia is not an imagined ‘race’, but a group perceived as a religious community. It is easier to incite hatred using supposed cultural as opposed to ‘racial’ characteristics and this also affects the intensity and nature of the ‘necessary resistance’.[4]


Although anti-Semitic attitudes are much more heavily stigmatised in post-Nazi Germany than other forms of racism, it is by no means true that there is no longer any anti-Semitism. On the one hand, there are phenomena known to researchers as ‘secondary anti-Semitism’ and ‘structural anti-Semitism’.

‘Secondary anti-Semitism’ refers to the cultivation of resentments against Jews not just by reference to the traditional prejudices that continue to exist, but also by using new motifs. One example of this is the idea that Jews, allegedly, prevent Germany from ‘putting its past behind it’. This is an ‘updated’ form of traditional accusations, such as greed and lust for power. Jews are once again painted as disrupting German national identity – but this time through Vergangenheitsbewältigung (the process of coming to terms with the [Nazi] past).

‘Structural anti-Semitism’ refers to ideas that are not explicitly directed at Jews, but are similar to anti-Semitic ideas in their concepts and argument. One example of this is the differentiation between and personification of ‘money-grubbing’ financial capital and ‘working’ productive capital (This refers to Hitler’s terms ‘raffendes/schaffendes Kapital‘) This personalising and abbreviation of Marxist social criticism is structurally anti-Semitic and can also promote hostility towards Jews.

On the other hand, there are still explicitly anti-Semitic statements being made and attacks taking place. In 2008, 1,089 anti-Semitic crimes were recorded in Germany. Between 2000 and 2008, approximately 470 desecrations of Jewish cemeteries were recorded. Approximately 10 per cent of all Germans agree with anti-Semitic statements, such as that Jews have too much influence, Jews are more likely to use underhanded methods than others, or that Jews are peculiar and do not quite fit in with ‘us’.[5]

Varying levels of explicitness

While such views may not be held across the board, there is a definite tendency for abuse of Jews to be expressed less openly and explicitly than other prejudices. In Germany, there is a stigma attached to the expression of clear anti-Semitic views and to attacks on Jews (as Jews) – although this taboo is occasionally broken. Post-Shoah, anti-Semitism in Germany is mostly indirect, overwhelmingly in the form of secondary and structural anti-Semitism. Muslims, on the other hand, are abused more openly than any other marked group.

To claim that fear of Muslims – unlike fear of Jews – is legitimate by referring to Islamic fundamentalism, does not pass muster. This use of alleged fact is, in itself, racist, because it rests on a fundamental, racist generalization – the acts of very few individuals are explained in terms of their religious background and then attributed collectively to all Muslims. This group is evaluated based on the accumulation of (negative) facts. This pattern is familiar from other racist discourses, including, in particular, anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitic discourse is the example par excellence of how an apparently coherent racist system – that appears to be regularly confirmed – can arise over centuries.

Parallel discursive patterns: related images

Collective constructions, dehumanisation, misinterpretation of religious imperatives (proof by ‘sources’), and conspiracy theories are the patterns that we find in both anti-Semitic and Islamophobic discourses. The frighteningly clear parallels are unmistakable when one analyses styles of argument and even images. To an extent, the exact same metaphors and ideas are used to incite hatred against Muslims as were and are used to incite hatred against Jews. This can be seen in the many parallel terms, such as ‘Islamisation’ and ‘Judaisation’.

Particularly in times of crisis, identity can be constructed by designating subjects and groups that allegedly constitute an internal and/or external threat as ‘foreign’. While it was already a classic anti-Semitic motif in the 19th century that ‘the Jews’ identified with ‘their race’ and not with the country of which they were citizens, we see a similar motif in the discussions of ‘Muslim parallel societies’. This goes so far as to reactivate the clearly anti-Semitic metaphor of ‘a state within a state’, this time in relation to Muslims. In this way, the fact that one belongs to a religious community becomes a total identification, as if ‘being Muslim’ were the sole and decisive factor explaining all of a Muslim person’s actions and attitudes.

Varying functions of racist worldviews

Despite the commonalities in the arguments and argumentational styles, there is a difference on the conceptual and analytical level between the internal logic of ‘anti-Semitism’ and of ‘Islamophobia’.

Both Jews and Muslims have historically been perceived as a danger for ‘the Christian West’, though in differing ways. The ‘Turks at the gates of Vienna’ (part of collective memory) has long been a popular motif both in relation to the immigration of Muslims and with regard to ‘Islamisation’. The Moors in Spain were always ‘foreign’ in the sense of ‘outsiders’. Opposing them and driving them out was not only permissible, it was required. Thus, they fit the classic notion of the foreigner in racism – the external, visible enemy. Jews, on the other hand, were primarily viewed as an ‘internal’ enemy. Modern anti-Semitism faced an enemy which was ‘invisible’- because of assimilation. This was combined with the idea of destroyers from within who needed to be exterminated rather than driven out. Thus, the Crusades were directed against an actual and/or perceived external enemy, while anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism were directed inward. In this regard, anti-Semitism is located on a different historical continuum from Islamophobia.

Furthermore, it should be noted that Muslims tend to be viewed as inferior, while anti-Semites generally view Jews as superior. Thus, Jews were always considered the representatives of modernism, whether in the form of liberalism, capitalism, or communism, while Muslims are perceived as ‘backwardness’ incarnate. Here it can be seen that both Muslims and Jews are seen as the counterpart to an ideal, though in different ways.

Additionally, there are differences with regard to explanatory content. Anti-Semitic discourse seeks to explain not only a part of reality (as do other racist discourses) but the entire world. Thus, ‘the Jew’ can be seen to be pulling the strings of virtually any evil: capitalism and communism, Washington and Moscow, godlessness and the most devout faith. Anti-Semitism is a total, universal theory.

It is important to understand these differences in order to be able to unpick and combat the respective analyses. However, the differences in resentment – against inferiors, on the one hand, from those perceived as omnipotent, on the other, between the external and internal enemy – relate to a conceptual level. Things are not always this clear in (racist) reality.


Although this analytical distinction still tends to be valid, there have recently been empirical shifts that make it more and more necessary to use findings from the study of anti-Semitism to analyse Islamophobia.

In addition to being represented as the external enemy, Muslims appear more and more as the ‘internal’ enemy in racist discourse, a figure most clearly personified – even today – by ‘the Jew’. This can be seen in the treatment of Islamism as a matter of internal security. A growing number of Muslims are German citizens, and therefore no longer ‘foreigners’ or ‘external enemies’. Additionally, more and more Muslims are targeted with accusations that they are ‘camouflaged’, particularly those who seek to participate actively in civil society or professional life. They are presumed to be loyal to ‘their own group’, based on their religion. This breaks through the traditional classification, with Muslims now being promoted to the ‘internal enemy’ in the paranoid imagination.

The idea of the superiority and privilege of the ‘other’ is applied more and more frequently to Muslims. The debates about ‘special rights’, whether with regard to the right to wear a headscarf at work or participation at school, show no sign of stopping. Both in popular debates and in various publications, the idea is being expressed that Germany is being ‘islamised’, with substantial financial support from the ‘Near East’, through the purchasing of land, building of mosques, and influence in the media.

Islamophobic conspiracy theories are quite popular in the relevant blogs. These conspiracy theories do indeed seek to explain various political developments, and not just individual phenomena. While a closed anti-Semitic worldview begins from an attempt to explain the world, in the case of Islamophobia, there is the tendency to explain more and more facts from social life by reference to the religious background of Muslims. Thus, any number of problems – from youth violence to homophobia – appear to be explainable by referring to ‘Islam’.

Based on these shifts and adoptions, we must acknowledge that other marked groups may also fall into the role historically assigned primarily to Jews – an element of negation that destroys healthy collectives. This requires, first of all, a group that is ‘marked’ as such. Today, we see that actual and apparent Muslims are perceived ‘as Muslims’ with increasing intensity. Concepts like ethnic pluralism (on the right side of the spectrum) and multiculturalism (which tends to be used on the left) can even help along this racist process of marking out a religious group as ‘the Other’.

This practice of marking, in itself, must be understood as a racist thought pattern that leads to further steps of attributing negative characteristics, defamation, and discrimination. The act of physical racial violence by an individual is the end product of a whole process of racialisation which begins with the stereotypes that society as a whole generates and perpetuates through laws, the media, the education system etc in popular discourse.


Among other things, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia differ in post-Nazi Germany with regard to the degree of openness with which they are expressed. And, in terms of ‘traditional’ interpretations of racism, they have separate – one might say complementary – functions. In this regard, it is important to examine the differences in the operation of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia analytically; this also aids in finding shifts and adoptions. Both phenomena empirically exist, and have a function as racist – false – explanations of the world.

It is obviously absurd to claim that Muslims today are in the same situation as Jews ‘back then’. In comparing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, we should not relativise the Nazi holocaust – instead, the goal should be to recognise racist mechanisms before even the threat of a comparable situation arises. The thesis that the Nazi holocaust, while historically singular, is capable of repetition is not a new one in the study of anti-Semitism and the Shoah. The fact that we must assume that a total catastrophe is capable of repetition must be treated separately from the fact that the Shoah is a historically singular phenomenon, and that victims and perpetrators can be named specifically.

However, memory alone will not suffice, particularly because we know today that the destruction of the Jews in the Third Reich would not have been possible without a decades-long and centuries-old preparatory anti-Semitic discourse. Based on the historical imperative to deconstruct racist discourse before it is too late, a racist discourse that threatens to become highly dominant in society must be exposed as such. To this end, we must also expose and analyse the, occasionally frightening, parallels to anti-Semitic discourse. While there is still evidence of anti-Semitic explanatory styles and resentments, anti-Islamic voices are becoming more and more influential in public discourse.

The achievement in the study of anti-Semitism of examining Jewry and anti-Semitism separately must also be transferred to other racisms, such as Islamophobia. We do not need more information about Islam, but more information about the making of racist stereotypes in general. In order to do this, it is necessary to understand that the ideas and images of a ‘foreign group’ say more about the group that produces them than about the group marked as the ‘out group’.

Related links

Read an IRR News story: ‘Germany: freedom to speak on racism under threat’

Read an IRR News story: ‘Freedom of speech upheld for German academic’

References: [1] Parker N and Moriarty R, 'Blears campaign worker is an illegal', Sun 1 May 2010. [2] Cadwalladr C,'David face facts - no immigrants means no NHS', Observer 18 April 2010. [3] Burns J, 'Immigration could sway coming vote in Britain', New York Times 4 May 2010. [4] Basketter D, 'Racist lies kick off election campaign' Socialist Worker 17 April 2010. [5] Flanagan P., 'Fury over 1m Illegal Migrants', Daily Express 26 April 2010. [6] Fagge N., 'Gypsies: Britain here we come' Daily Express 26 April 2010. [7] Glaeconomics (Gordon ., Scanlon K, Travers T, and Whitehead C) 'Economic impact on the London and U.K. economy of an earned regularisation of irregular migrants to the UK', Greater London Assembly, May 2009. [8] Travis A,'Back-door immigration amnesty has been in place for 20 years', Guardian 23 April 2010 and Travis A.,'Immigration amnesty was a modest plan. Electioneering has killed it', Guardian 30 April 2010.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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