Are Europe’s Muslims its New Jews?

European secularists and populists alike seem to hang on to portrayals of practising Muslims and Jews as culturally barbaric peoples stuck in the Middle Ages.

Bans on religious dress and customs. Burnt-out homes and community centres. Open hostility on the street and in the halls of parliament. “Random” checks by law enforcement. I’m not talking about what life was like for Western European Jews in the late 1800s or the 1930s, but about day-to-day realities for European Muslims over the past two decades.

In 2006, Paul Silverstein, a professor of anthropology at Reed College, wrote about post-9/11 realities for Muslims, saying that in contemporary Western societies “Muslims are the object of a series of stereotypes, caricatures and fears which are not based in a reality and are independent of a person’s experience with [them].” Replace Muslim with Jew, and you get a relatively serviceable definition of antisemitism.

In contemporary Western Europe, both minorities have been the targets of political campaigns aimed at outlawing their traditional religious traditions and practices, like circumcision, the provision of kosher or halal food, and certain prohibitions on religious dress. Despite claiming that their real motive is concern for the physical integrity of children, animal welfare, or safeguarding separation between religions and the state, European secularists and populists alike seem to hang on to portrayals of practising Muslims and Jews as culturally barbaric peoples stuck in the Middle Ages.

In 1844, the same year that the Ottoman Edict of Toleration eased restrictions on Jews in the Holy Land, Karl Marx published a short essay titled Zur Judenfrage, or “On the Jewish Question.” It was a critical review of two essays by the famous German philosopher Bruno Bauer, who had argued against equal rights for Jews, should the basis for such rights be religious in nature. If Jews wanted to be considered full German citizens, Bauer said, they would have to abandon their ways and embrace the Enlightenment. According to his logic, there was no space for religious demands in a secular European society. This was not Bauer’s intrinsically racist or antisemitic personal opinion, but rather what he imagined to be the widespread secular opinion of the time. Keen observers of secularist philosophies, like France’s laïcité, will see parallels of this argument in our own time, as well.

Bauer’s position suggests that antisemitic racism in Germany—as well as elsewhere in Europe—in the first half of the 19th century was justified mainly on cultural and religious grounds. Jews were discriminated against and regarded with suspicion because they were considered alien within the German nation. In fact, it was not until the second half of the 19th century and the rise of Social Darwinism that racial antisemitism, framed in biological terms, appeared on the political scene, and that Jews were openly discriminated against on the basis of their alleged genetic inferiority.

170 years later, is Europe faced with a “Muslim question” similar to the one posed about Jews (not) so long ago? In many ways, Europe’s antipathy towards Muslims is comparable to that first secular critique, sometimes hatred, of Jews in the 19th century. A hatred that ultimately led to one of the darkest chapters of modern history—the Holocaust.

The success of far-right populist parties during recent elections in several European countries seems to suggest that there is indeed a certain “Muslim question,” and one that crosses national borders. In France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the recently re-named National Front (now called the Rassemblement National) has asked school canteens to stop offering Muslim children lunch alternatives to traditional French meals containing pork. In Britain, Nigel Farage’s UKIP campaigned against the construction of mosques, and some of its members have even proposed an outright ban on Islam. In Switzerland the right-wing populist SVP-UDC successfully led a fear campaign that resulted in a referendum banning the construction of minarets throughout the country, which the party characterised as symbols of nefarious foreign influence.

All three of these parties have increased their electoral performance: while the SVP-UDC has remained the largest party in the Swiss parliament, the FN and UKIP made tremendous gains in the 2014 European parliamentary elections, with the FN and UKIP both gaining over 25% of the local popular vote and the FN reaching the runoff in the 2017 French presidential elections.

Many of these reactionary populist parties and their voters do not consider themselves racist. After all, the problem with Muslims—according to Le Pen—is their alleged backwardness, fanaticism and unwillingness to integrate. In short, whatever difficulties Muslims may face in modern European society are their own fault. Just like the Jewish question of the 19th century, the contemporary Muslim question is premised upon cultural differences and thus presented as legitimate and politically correct. The accusations often made against Islam are that the Islamic tradition seems monolithic, intolerant, primitive and inferior to the Western one. This discourse is very similar to arguments that Bauer, and even Voltaire, used when describing Judaism as a backward, unenlightened, and intolerant religion.

In at least a few noticeable ways, Muslims have thus become “the new Jews,” scapegoats onto whom Europeans tend to project their anxieties about the future. Conservative and far-right politicians constantly intensify and exploit these anxieties in order to enhance nationalist agendas. This is, of course, not a new phenomenon: Europe’s migrant-sceptical, populist right wing has a long tradition of fear-mongering against the newest group of immigrants. Since Muslims have been Europe’s largest migrant and immigrant community since the mid-1990s, the radical right wing has not even had to shift its core message in over twenty years.

Even so, hostility towards Islam would most likely persist even in the context of falling levels of immigration; highlighting security concerns after 9/11, 7/7, and the November 2015 Paris attacks has become the most salient tactic in stoking deep-seated religious, cultural and ideological fears. Unfortunately, there has not been significant enough pushback from the moderate centre or the left. Some liberal and labour parties have even jumped on the bandwagon in the hope of winning back some of their working class voters—their historical base of support.

And counterintuitively, certain left-wing movements and parties, like the UK Labour party, have more recently been involved in rows over antisemitism within their ranks. Progressive politicians and parties contributing to bigotry might sound strange to some, but personally affected commentators, like British-Muslim journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, argue that one of the major misconceptions about racism, antisemitism, and Islamophobia is that they stem from an uncultured, primitive mindset. In an almost ten-year-old article for The Independent, Alibhai-Brown argues that “the Holocaust happened in modern times; it was intellectualised, well-planned and exactly calculated in account books by cultured Europeans who pampered their dogs and adored Chopin, Diaghilev and Rembrandt.” She goes on to argue that the coat of Western civilisation is surprisingly thin and could be thrown off “by the slightest provocation or none at all.”

A 2008 EU-27 cross-national survey on religious discrimination partially supports Alibhai-Brown’s argument. It found that Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuania and Italy recorded the lowest percentage of citizens alleging religious discrimination—two predominantly Roman-Catholic and two predominantly Christian-Orthodox countries. France, the bastion of laïcité, recorded the highest rate of discrimination. This could however be due to the possibility that France’s rigorous secularism offends religious factions in its society on a daily basis.

Marx seemed to comprehend this problem early on. In Zur Judenfrage he attacked Bauer for claiming that the lack of political emancipation of Jews was the result of their culture and religion. Marx maintained that religion and tradition had nothing to do with the continued persecution of the Jewish people. The prejudice against the Jews and their lack of equal rights, Marx argued, was to be understood in the broader context of structural social inequalities. That same point could be made comfortably about the situation of Muslims in Europe today.

If Muslims are Europe’s newest Jews, that does not mean there has been an effective “passing of the torch” from antisemitism to Islamophobia. From the high profile attack on a mosque in Pittsburgh, to the Labour Party’s spate of scandals, to the beneath-the-surface presence of antisemitic attacks in France, Jew hatred is alive and well, and not confined to just European shores. A recent exposé from CNN revealed that nearly 20% of French under 34 have never heard of the Holocaust, and among the Europeans who in fact know their own history, a third think that Jews use the tragedy to advance their own positions or goals. Indeed, one needs look no further than the way that Viktor Orbán has turned Hungarian native-son George Soros into a haunting spectre and national foe to justify the closing of Central European University, one of Eastern and Central Europe’s brightest academic institutions. Furthermore, there are some who dispute the claim that antisemitism and Islamophobia are interconnected through a shared fate. Among them are a number of notable Jewish scholars and intellectuals, who caution against overstating the relationship between the two forms of discrimination.

One such argument comes from German journalist and cultural critic Henryk M. Broder, who claims that, while antisemitism has very little to do with the “Jewish experience” and is based on hysterical fears and fantasies, Islamophobia is rooted in real practices and events. According to Broder, Islamic terror and substantial support among certain Muslim communities for some of the harshest aspects of Sharia law (like honour killings, or the death penalty for apostasy) are what stoke public fears of Islam. Broder’s argumentation draws from the work of Jochen Müller, a German researcher who studies antisemitism among Muslims, who also believes that Islamophobia is based on real world problems. In doing so, both Broder and Müller implicitly blame Muslims for the discrimination they often face.

Another point of contention among scholars is the difference in the sheer size of the two diasporas, and the historic existence of the Jewish people as only a diaspora, lacking any sort of nation-state. While there are an estimated 16 million Jews worldwide, including about 1.1 million in the European Union, Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe, and the 26 million Muslims who live in the EU-28 represent a far greater percentage of Europe’s population than Jews ever did. Additionally, these scholars argue that in order to ever be subject to the same type of existential insecurity as European Jews faced in the 1930s and 1940s, European Muslims would have to lack a national homeland to protect them, should the situation become truly intolerable. Proponents of this claim point to 57 Muslim-majority countries and 1.6 billion co-religionists, representing nearly a quarter of the world’s population, to reject the notion of Muslims as a truly persecuted people.

This “diasporic” argument feeds into the larger discussion about the ramifications of antisemitism and Islamophobia on their respective victims. In 2006, British Jewish journalist Jonathan Freedland wrote in The Guardian that if he had to imagine being a Muslim in contemporary Britain, he “wouldn’t just feel frightened, [he] would be looking for [his] passport.” And yet, the last decade has shown that there has not been a mass exodus of European Muslims towards the Middle East or Asia, but rather of Europe’s Jews towards Israel.

2014 was a record year for emigration towards the Jewish nation-state, with almost 9,000 Western-European Jews becoming Israeli citizens—an 88% increase from the previous year. This statistic precedes the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Parisian kosher supermarket, Hyper Cacher, in January 2015, which spurred further emigration from French Jews. Altogether, 4% of the entire Jewish population of Belgium and France and around 1.5% of other Western European countries left Europe for Israel between 2010 and 2015. Today, nearly 40% of European Jews say that antisemitism has caused them to consider doing the same.

A 2013 study by the Fundamental Rights Agency found that 29% of European Jews have considered leaving the Old Continent, leading some to argue that the “new Jews” might just as well be the same as the “old Jews.” However, the Institute of Jewish Policy Research (IJPR) says that it sees “no evidence of an exodus of Jews from Europe, even though the numbers of Jews emigrating to Israel from some countries in recent years—most notably France—are unprecedented.” An IJPR spokesperson explained that while Jews in parts of Europe are genuinely concerned about rising antisemitism and their place in their societies, “the levels of anxiety and apprehension are nowhere near those experienced during previous periods of intense stress, like the 1930s and 1940s. Drawing those types of parallels has no basis in empirical reality.” 

Interdependence and the search for interconnection sometimes yield strange results. One of the most hotly debated topics when comparing antisemitism and its relationship to Islamophobia is that both minority groups might contribute to the persecution of the other. To be more blunt, some say that a big chunk of Europe’s current problems with antisemitism come from a distinct and undeniable brand of Muslim antisemitism, most noticeable in countries with large—and often segregated—Muslim populations, like France, Germany, the UK, or Sweden. All of these countries have seen tensions flare in response to troubling news out of the Middle East. Is today’s antisemitism just disguised as, hidden within, and justified by anti-Zionist sentiments?

Of course, anti-Zionists are not at all exclusively among Muslim populations: hatred of Jews used to be pedalled from the extreme right wing in the 1930s with the slogan, “Jews out of Europe, go to Palestine.” That has been transformed into the condemnation and “Nazification” of Israel by the extreme left under the slogan, “Jews, out of Palestine!”

Though largely anecdotal, evidence of a new form of Muslim antisemitism shouldn’t be discounted out of hand: the Hyper Cacher attack, the Ozar Hatorah shooting in Toulouse, the Sarcelles attacks of 2014, and the Great Synagogue shooting in Copenhagen are only a number of highly publicised attacks on Jewish congregations in Europe perpetrated by terrorists claiming to do the work of Allah. But however strong this emotional evidence may be, the claim that European Muslims are disproportionately antisemitic is statistically contested, to say the least. A 2014 report from the Anti-Defamation League states that roughly 29% of Europe’s Muslim population holds antisemitic prejudices. That number is alarmingly high, but it is only two points higher than the German average (25-27%), and over 40 points lower than in Middle Eastern and North African countries (74%), which are the regions of origin for a majority of European Muslims. These numbers suggest there might be a moderating effect of living in an open society, especially one where Jews and Muslims interact.

Another study, this one commissioned by the German Ministry of the Interior on the state of antisemitism in Germany, concluded that there was no detectable existence of a distinctly Muslim “brand” of antisemitism in Germany. The finding lines up with arguments from respected antisemitism scholars like Jonathan Judaken, or Pierre-Andre Taguieff, who both claim that the alleged emergence of the “new antisemitism,” perpetrated by a coalition of Muslims and lefty anti-Zionists, is not backed by a lot of empirical evidence.

The debate on the interconnection of antisemitism and Islamophobia is extensive and emotional, but most importantly, it’s relevant. The last decade has shown an increase in fear and insecurity among both Muslim and Jewish communities in western Europe, a place known in the 21st century as a bastion of respect, tolerance and peace. There are plenty of good arguments that try to differentiate between the two types of discrimination, but in the end their commonality is that they affect communities seen as “the other”.

What seems indisputable is that Muslims today face some of the same monumental challenges regarding assimilation into “enlightened” and progressive European societies that confronted Jews in the 19th century. Declaring some sort of transmutation of Muslims into the “new Jews” is too narrow a view of vastly different contexts, but European progressive and universal values demand that those who profess them stay vigilant and stand up to bigotry. The Shoah is inextricably linked to European identity, today and forever. Its lessons should be universalised, because they relate to much more than just Jewish suffering or antisemitism. They should serve as a stark reminder for all forms of discrimination that fictional fears, bigotry and hate ultimately only lead to tragedy.

Europe’s migrant sceptical, populist right wing has a long tradition of fear-mongering against the newest group of immigrants.

If Muslims are Europe’s newest Jews, that does not mean there has been an effective ‘passing of the torch’ from antisemitism to Islamophobia.

European secularists and populists alike seem to hang on to portrayals of practising Muslims and Jews as culturally barbaric peoples stuck in the Middle Ages.

There’s many more magazines full of articles just like it. By buying magazines, you not only get a carefully assembled and beautifully designed publication, you also help support the next generation of independent European journalists.

Illustration by

Eddie Stok