An anti-racist of Jewish descent asks if the time has not come for Jews to speak out against Islamophobia.
It is, I suppose, given the politics of the Middle East, inevitable though not excusable, that some Jews will be vociferous about emphasising Muslim extremist crimes here. But what is not inevitable and is certainly unforgiveable is the way in which certain people speaking as Jews are currently upping the ante on a generalised Islamophobia. Far from pointing out the parallels that both communities – of Jews and Muslims – face in terms of the construction of ideologies and policies against them, some Jewish opinion-formers are actually joining in to the creation of new Islamophobic stereotypes using the same tricks and tropes that were being used against Jews just over half a century ago.
This became particularly clear after Baroness Warsi delivered a speech on 20 January against Islamophobia – describing it as the form of racism about which we had a ‘blind spot’, allowing it therefore to become acceptable and respectable. ‘You could even say that Islamophobia has now passed the dinner-table test.' Significantly, her talk was delivered as the annual lecture organised in memory of Sir Sigmund Sternberg, a Hungarian Jew (for ten years president of the movement for Reform Judaism), believer in interfaith dialogue and philanthropist.
The response to Warsi
Interfaith indeed! The reaction against her speech was immediate and vitriolic. And in the cacophony one could detect the Christian timbre in critics such as Norman Tebbit, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali and Philip Hollobone, the MP wishing to ban the burka. The phone-in responses to Any Questions (BBC Radio 4 Saturday 22 January) were truly frightening in their bigotry. One respondent had so long a list of Muslim ‘crimes’ across the globe that one could not but believe him to be a political professional defender of religion, race and nation. Richard Littlejohn, too, in his Daily Mail column managed to include, while cocking a snook at upper-class dinner party conversation, a wide range of Muslim sins – from wearing burkas to harbouring extremist preachers – while citing British fears over the intrusive call to prayer and increased immigration. But it is not just a Christian tone that runs through the cacophony, now we can hear a decidedly Jewish tone as well in the responses of columnists like Melanie Phillips and academics like Geoffrey Alderman.
Phillips on her Spectator blog admonished the baroness. ‘Instead of using her unique platform to defuse extremism by telling a few home truths to the British Muslim community about its inflated and perverse sense of its own victimisation, Warsi has merely poured fuel onto the flames.’ And shrill and ad hominem, she went on to say that Warsi ‘has now outed herself as at best a stupid mouthpiece of those who are bamboozling Britain into Islamisation, and at worst a supporter of that process.’ She went on: ‘Either way, how David Cameron now deals with her will tell us much about how the Prime Minister will deal in turn with the great civilisational crisis that Britain now faces.'
Geoffrey Alderman, true to the academic he is, was less vituperative but in fact more insidious in his arguments against Warsi on Radio Four’s religious Sunday debate with Sheikh Ibrahim Mogra of the Muslim Council of Britain. But why was a Jewish spokesman chosen to respond in the first place? Why not a Christian or a layman? And if a Jew why not someone from an organisation with a proven record of tackling racism across faiths? Presumably Alderman was chosen precisely to make the debate more combative. But more informative? When first asked about Islamophobia, Alderman’s reply was derisive. ‘Islamophobia’ he explained, ‘is the irrational prejudice against Muslims and against Islam … But the prejudices, thoughts and feelings that many people have about Islam are not based on irrational thoughts but very rational thought processes.’ How are they rational? Well he, too, like Warsi, had been at dinner parties where guests recently asked themselves round the table, ‘what sort of a religion is it whose clerics praised the assassination of a Pakistani politician simply because he criticised their blasphemy laws? Or what sort of a religion is it whose adherents praised the actions of a lady now in an English prison for trying to murder a British member of parliament?’ But, surely, to select your facts to suit your case is the essence of prejudice, which is in itself irrational.
When pulled up by Mogra for judging an entire religion on the actions of a handful of criminals, he quickly changed tack. Muslims apparently are not just criminal; they are also, according to him, downright liars and bigots. He went on to quote from the scaremongering Panorama programme ‘British Schools, Islamic Rules’ (23 November 2010) which had already come in for much criticism from the Muslim community for its fallacious arguments, innuendo and lack of hard information.
‘I am not just talking about criminal behaviour’, said Alderman, ‘We had a BBC Panorama programme a few weeks ago where proof was given to the audience that children in this country, children of Muslim parents are taught in religious schools that Jews are descended from pigs and monkeys.’ A canard, repeated often enough, apparently becomes gospel. Mogra’s protest that this was absolute nonsense: ‘I have seen the programme and how distorted it was. A historical fact is taken out of context’, fell on deaf ears.
When asked by the interviewer as to whether there were not parallels between anti-Semitism in the 1930s and Islamophobia today, Alderman replied, ‘There was a lot of Judeophobia in Britain in the ’20s and ’30s, some of it was certainly irrational – the idea that Jews in Britain were part of a conspiracy to take over the governing of the world was irrational. But I am afraid it is true that the British Union of Fascists did latch on to some genuine fears …’ Ultimately, and after some pushing from the interviewer, he conceded that ‘irrational prejudice’ against Islam needs to be challenged and violence against Muslims needs to be condemned.
Jews take a stand
Some Jews in the West have realised that today they have to take a clear and unequivocally different position from their appointed spokespeople when it comes to the policies of the state of Israel and the redefining of anti-Zionism as a new anti-Semitism, as evidenced in groups such as Independent Jewish Voices, Jews for Justice for Palestinians and the Jewish Socialist Group.
But it looks now that we need to take the brief wider and come out as ‘Jews against Islamophobia’.
Why us, why Jews? Because we would not be true to our history of oppression if, to subvert that anti-Semite TS Eliot, ‘we have had the experience’ but ‘miss the meaning’. We cannot stand by and see sets of stereotypes being created the way they were created against Jews, see the whole discourse being imbued with hatred as it was against Jews, see prejudices passed off as facts, what is irrational deemed rational and acceptable. The point is not to equate anti-Semitism with Islamophobia (they are not the same, have different geneses, appeared at their most virulent at completely different points in time), but to reveal the ways that stereotypes are created. One can find many parallels and the fact that they are parallels should itself be instructive. Look at the examples above. There is Phillips with her version of ‘a conspiracy theory’, Muslims are the greatest threat to civilisation. There is Alderman generalising from one or two people’s conduct on to a whole people and repeating canards until, presumably, they become accepted truth. Like the Protocols or the Blood Libel?
Work in this field has been started and, ironically, in Germany, where a handful of scholar/activists have, in the interests of combating a growing anti-Muslim sentiment, gone back to basics. Sabine Schiffer and Constantin Wagner have been examining the constructions of stereotypes against both communities. Whilst they are at pains to say that the two hatreds are not the same and that there are differences on the conceptual and analytical levels, they point out that ‘collective constructions, dehumanisation, misinterpretation of religious imperatives (proof by “sources”) and conspiracy theories are the patterns one finds in both discourses.’ They call the clear parallels in style of argument and of images ‘frightening’ and say that to some extent the exact same metaphors and ideas are used, including terms such as ‘Islamisation’ and ‘Judaisation’. They show how recent empirical shifts have moved the ‘Muslim’ from an external enemy to the ‘internal enemy’, from ‘foreigner’ to ‘the enemy within’.
The Muslim in Germany, they show, is now the archetypal ‘Other’. And not just in Germany, but across Europe. It is time we really began to heed that cacophony, the rumblings of a real hatred and bigotry which is beginning to take hold. It is time to stand up as Jews against Islamophobia.