Islamophobia and Antisemitism

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by Tenzan Eaghll

In a hundred years from now when historians and scholars of religion look back on the perceptions of Muslims between the later half of the 20th and the first half of the 21st Century I wonder what conclusions they will come to? Will they look at contemporary perceptions of Muslims in the same light that scholars now view the Antisemitism of the late 19th and early 20th Century?

The rise of Islamophobia in public discourse and the intersection between it and Antisemitism has been examined before on the Bulletin and by news agencies (e.g., here and here) and I do not have the space nor the time to rehash these positions here. I raise the issue because of a recent blog post I read by University of Toronto professor Dr. Ivan Kalmar. In his post Kalmar discusses his recent rejection by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for a study on the connections between Islamophobia and Antisemitism. Apparently, he and several other distinguished scholars were unsuccessful in their application to study the “important parallels as well as differences between these two forms of hatred.”  As Kalmar writes:

Our research was meant to demonstrate that in the imagination of the mainly Christian Western world, they have been intertwined for centuries. We think that important parallels exist – along with major differences – especially between how Muslims are defamed today and how Jews were defamed about a hundred years ago, before antisemitism progressed to the Nazi genocide.

No one is predicting a Holocaust of Muslims, yet there are still moral lessons to be learned. We do not want to subject anyone, Muslim or otherwise, to the hostility and humiliation that Jews suffered, or to ignore the potential that such mistreatment, if unchecked, has to grow to ever more monstrous proportions.

What Kalmar and his colleagues wanted to study was how Islamophobia and Antisemitism are linked in the Western imagination; they sought to trace out these parallels in order to avoid future hostility and humiliation to Muslims. They did not want to sanction the violence committed in the name of Islam by self-proclaimed radicals (whether in Iraq or in Madrid) but show how this violence is used to justify the creation (and subsequent subjection) of a ‘dangerous Muslim Other.’

Sadly, Kalmar and his colleagues were turned down by SSHRC for the exact same reasons they wanted to conduct their study in the first place: religious essentialism. As Kalmar relates, the SSHRC reviewers felt that the comparison between Islamophobia and Antisemitism was unfair because, whereas the idea of an international Jewish conspiracy is delusional, Muslims clearly are engaged in violent acts. As one reviewer writes:

Due to a complete absence of empirical evidence and actual experience of an international Jewish conspiracy, scholars rightly reject antisemitism as delusional. The same cannot be said about contemporary Western perceptions of, and reactions to, radical supremacist movements in the Islamic world that have taken responsibility for many attacks on civilians in Asia, Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East.

Kalmar rightly notes the Islamophobic nature of this comment, and is rightly shocked that SSHRC would base its decision on this kind of judgement. Not only is this reviewer merely reinforcing the correlation between Islam and violence (reducing them to mere synonyms), but universalizing the position of radicals to be representative for Islam as a whole. What is perhaps most alarming about this statement is the underlying assumption that a fear of Muslims is justified because of the violence committed by a minority of radicals. This not only overlooks the fact that, as Kalmar points out, “even the most extreme and despicable of “radical supremacist movements,” such as al-Qaeda, have never called for the whole world to become an Islamic State,” but ignores that even if such views exist they will always remain marginal in Islam. The idea of an international Jewish conspiracy is just as delusional as the idea that Muslims want to rule the world.

The fact that the perception of this reviewer influenced the council is alarming not only because their objections have nothing to do with scholarship but because it exposes how deeply entrenched religious essentialism is in the academy. When a SSHRC reviewer so firmly believes in the world religions paradigm that they draw a direct correlation between a bomb in New York and Islam (as some imagined “world”) we are in serious trouble.

To repeat my initial question:  In a hundred years from now when historians and scholars of religion look back on the perceptions of Muslims between the later half of the 20th and the first half of the 21st Century, I wonder what conclusions they will come to? Will they think of us as wilfully blind to the obvious, or worse, complicit in the essentialization and subjection of whole cultures under a mirage of our own creation? At what point will Islamophobia and Antisemitism be treated with the same scrutiny?

As Dr. Sarah Farris notes in her article for Al Jazeera, “Muslims have thus become, at least in many ways, the new Jews. They have become the scapegoats onto whom Europeans are projecting their anxieties about the future.” What needs to be examined from a scholarly point of view are the psychological, political, and sociological factors, etc. at work. How do otherizing and essentialism function in the West as transhistorical, cross-cultural forces that legitimate violence upon Muslims? Though SSHRC seems to disagree that this topic is worthy of investigation, I think it is precisely the kind of thing that scholarship should be aiming to problematize.

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