Different 'Enemy,' Same Rhetoric: 21st Century Anti-Islamism Sounds Like 20th Century Anti-Semitism
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
They live in a parallel society, a world apart, where they obey an alien law and pray to an alien God. Their liberal allies foolishly promote toleration and claim these strangers can be assimilated, but that will never happen. Whatever their public face, their real goal is to take over our society and make it serve them. If we don't wake up and fight them, we will lose our homeland! Twentieth century right-wing propaganda about the Jews? Nope. These tropes are 21st-century right-wing rhetoric aimed against Muslims.
Dipping into the writings of Anders Behring Breivik, the confessed Norwegian mass murderer, I've been struck by this fact: He is no Nazi stooge. He is proudly pro-Israel and thinks himself a knight of Europe's "Judeo-Christian" culture. Yet the tropes of the rhetoric he admires and repeats—the anti-liberal, anti-Islamic ideology that says tolerant fools are letting Islam take over Europe—are the same ones that European anti-Semites once deployed against the Jews.
If this were an aspect of a lone disturbed mind, it would be a minor curiosity. But the people with whom Breivik identifies are writers and politicians who have a following, and are taken seriously, both politically and intellectually. If they have successfully revived the tropes of classic anti-Semitism and turned them on the Muslim populations of Europe, this is a danger to civil society, and to democracy. (It is also, of course, testament to the enduring power of these images, which appeal to the innate Us-Them psychology of the human mind.)
Any person who wants to live in a civil society should reject this kind of xenophobic imagery, precisely because it is easy and congenial to think of "Them" in these terms. These tropes reduce our capacity to engage political issues in a civil and rational way. Right-wingers, both sane and crazy, often object that this is "political correctness," suppressing a natural and frank discussion. That's like sneering that it's "medically correct" to wash your hands after tossing out rotten food. This kind of rhetoric about them—whoever they are, it doesn't matter—is inherently uncivilized and dangerous. The sad events in Norway are evidence of that.
Lest this sound overblown, here is an unsystematic and preliminary bestiary of accusations that shouldn't get a hearing in a democracy, period. It's derived from reading a bit into the sources that impressed Breivik and helped him go nuts. That the modern targets are not Jews, or gypsies, or gay people does not make these tropes any healthier. Their particular target has nothing to do with their toxicity, which stems, instead, from their form.
1. "They are all the same, there are no good ones."
Modern example. Geert Wilders: "There is no such thing as moderate Islam."
Older example: Josef Goebbels (found at this valuable archive of Nazi and East German propaganda): "All Jews by virtue of their birth and their race are part of an international conspiracy against National Socialist Germany."
2. "They will take our country and make it theirs."
Modern example. Wilders, again: "Take a walk down the street and see where this is going. You no longer feel like you are living in your own country. There is a battle going on and we have to defend ourselves. Before you know it there will be more mosques than churches!"
Older example. Goebbels, again: "The enemy is in our midst. What makes more sense than to at least make this plainly visible to our citizens?"
3. They're Disloyal! They Help Our Enemies!
Modern example. Melanie Phillips in her book, Londonistan, page xix: "Since even 'moderate' Muslim representative institutions in Britain convey such a message, it is therefore hardly surprising that so many young Muslims are easy prey for radical Islamism and the call to violent jihad from the internet, or the Wahhabi or Muslim Brotherhood imams who have infiltrated many Muslim institutions and leadership positions in Britain."
Older example: Goebbels, again: "Even today the Jews sti ll have secret connections to our enemies abroad and use these not only in their own cause, but in all military matters of the Reich as well."
4. Their Ugly Foreign Ways Pollute Our Beautiful Culture
Modern example. Daniel Pipes, decrying the appearance of an "Islamic Fashion Festival" in Monte Carlo, New York and London: "I mark this and plan to follow the IFF's career in Milan: Will hijabs and abayas take the fashion world by storm? Does this new example of da'wa succeed and the Islamification of the West continue?"
Older example. A Nazi handbook for teachers: "To break the German powers of resistance, the Jews worked to poison our cultural life. Their filthy theatrical productions and dirty movies corrupted many Germans, particularly the young. Lovely old German fables were replaced by dirty books, Jewish jazz music drove out German folk songs. The German soul was increasingly poisoned, and the German people made ready for conquest."
5. They follow an alien book and a savage law.
Modern example. Wilders: "The root of the problem is fascist Islam, the sick ideology of Allah and Mohammed as laid down in the Islamic Mein Kampf: the Koran."
Older example. Julius Streicher: "The Jewish law book the “Talmud” (Schabbath, 89 u) expresses with brutal openness what Sinai really means: “Sinai is a mountain on which Moses received from the God Jahwe the Jewish laws. The hatred of the Jews for all other peoples of the earth spread from this mountain.”
6. They and their allies are causing the decline of our civilization!
Modern example. Niall Ferguson, on Oxford's new Center for Islamic Studies: "In addition to the traditional Oxford quadrangle, the building is expected to feature 'a prayer hall with traditional dome and minaret tower.' When I first glimpsed a model of that minaret, I confess, the phrase that sprang to mind was indeed 'decline and fall.' "
Older example. From a Nazi party bulletin for public speakers, 1935: "We know well enough that the decline of the German people could be seen in various places even before the collapse of 1918, and that there were other reasons for Germany’s fate. Everything cannot be blamed on Jewry and its effects. But we also know that many, many things along this catastrophic path were caused by the systematic work of the Jew, or encouraged by his best efforts."
7. They Act Friendly But They Secretly Despise Us!
Modern example. Bruce Bawer, in the Wall Street Journal, gamely trying to salvage xenophobia from its association with Breivik: "Norway, like the rest of Europe, is in serious trouble. Millions of European Muslims live in rigidly patriarchal families in rapidly growing enclaves where women are second-class citizens, and where non-Muslims dare not venture. Surveys show that an unsettling percentage of Muslims in Europe reject Western values, despise the countries they live in, support the execution of homosexuals, and want to replace democracy with Shariah law."
Older example. Goebbels: "For that reason alone the Jews hate us. They despise our culture and learning, which they perceive as towering over their nomadic worldview. They fear our economic and social standards, which leave no room for their parasitic drives."
For 19th and 20th century European anti-Semites, Jews were an alien, unassimilable bunch of conspirators, who served an international plot to take over the world (Communism). For 21st-century anti-Islamists, Muslims are an alien, unassimilable bunch of conspirators, who served an international plot to take over the world (Islamic fundamentalism). It reminds me of the old proverb: Whether the water is salt or fresh, shit floats.
Illustration: Poster depicting Europe being menaced by an alien culture—America's. Nazi Propaganda, from James Vaughn's photostream.
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