The limits of analogy? Comparing Islamophobia and Antisemitism

The limits of analogy? Comparing Islamophobia and Antisemitism

Brian Klug (University of Oxford)

A number of commentators have suggested that Islamophobia is ‘the new antisemitism’, as if they were fundamentally analogous. But are they?

Any analogy might, at first sight, seem to fall at the first hurdle: the terms themselves. In both the public debate and the more scholarly literature, a great deal of attention is paid to the terms, as if a great deal hangs on this. Commentators point out that both words are complex; and, assuming that a word is the sum of its parts, they proceed to enumerate the differences of meaning by adding up the parts. ‘Antisemitism’ is the product of placing the prefix ‘anti’ before the substantive ‘Semitism’. ‘Islamophobia’ combines ‘Islam’ with ‘phobia’. Now, ‘Islam’ names a religion, while ‘Semitism’ (at the time that ‘antisemitism’ was coined) signified ‘a body of uniformly negative traits supposedly clinging to Jews’.(1) ‘Phobia’ means fear, ‘anti’ indicates opposition. Put the parts together and what do you get? What you seem to get, in the one case, is opposition to a particular group (or the traits ascribed to them), and, in the other case, fear and trembling in the face of a certain religion. These are not similar. They could hardly be more different.

But is this the way to understand the meaning of words? Salman Sayyid refers to this species of reasoning as ‘etymological fundamentalism’.(2) It consists in thinking that the meaning of a word – the concept for which it stands – is given by its semantic origins. You could also call it a form of literalism. Or, to use an analogy, imagine asking someone what a pen is and they answer: a pen is a thin object, normally made of metal or plastic, usually about six inches long. Just as the etymological fundamentalist reduces a word to the parts that make it up, so this answer reduces the pen to its material properties; consequently, it fails to explain what a pen is. So, what is a pen? It is a writing implement of a certain kind. To understand the concept it is necessary to look beyond the list of the pen’s physical properties and to grasp the use to which it is put. Similarly, to understand the concepts of antisemitism and Islamophobia we must look and see how the words are used. Wittgenstein remarks, ‘For a large class of cases – though not for all – in which we employ the word “meaning” it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language’.(3) ‘Islamophobia’ and ‘antisemitism’ fall into this class. Despite the disparities in the origin and composition of the two words, their uses turn out to be similar. Thus, the analogy clears the first hurdle.

At the heart of the concept of antisemitism is the figure of ‘the Jew’. Likewise, the figure of ‘the Muslim’ is at the heart of Islamophobia. The scare quotes indicate that these are essentially figments or stereotypes (which is not to say that there is a definitive version of either stereotype, nor that they remain unchanged over time). One way of comparing the two concepts is to parse them into form and content. So, in the case of antisemitism, the form of the concept – the form of the figure at its heart – is this: ‘to be a Jew is to have traits a, b, c …’, as though those traits constitute the being or essence of a Jew. The content of the concept would be a set or subset of traits that flesh out the form, describing what the ‘Jew’ is like; for example arrogant, legalistic, cunning, conniving, clannish, rootless, parasitic, power-grabbing, money-grubbing, and so on. At any given moment in time, the set is open-ended. And, as time passes, new traits might be added while others drop out. Moreover, in different instances of antisemitism different traits or combinations of traits might be selected or emphasized. But there is a family resemblance between the different instances that holds the concept together. It is the same, mutatis mutandis, with Islamophobia; and in this point of similarity the analogy between the two concepts is at its strongest. They share the same general logic.

The specific logic of antisemitism and Islamophobia, however, is determined by the content of the concepts. That is to say, in each case there is a particular bigoted discourse, and this discourse is shaped by the particular traits that make up the figures of ‘Jew’ and ‘Muslim’ respectively. Here the comparison becomes complicated. I shall speak first about similarities and then about differences.

Judaism and Islam share a similar fate in certain ways. First, they have both had a troubled relationship to Christianity. Second they were often bracketed together in the eyes of the Enlightenment. Third, they are both part of the history of what Edward Said calls ‘Orientalism’.(4) These three ways overlap and between them give rise to a number of affinities between antisemitism and Islamophobia.

For example, the so-called lex talionis, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ is in Exodus (21: 23-25) and in the Qur’an (5:45). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus refers to the Exodus passage as a foil: he advocates turning the other cheek as a superior ethic (Matthew 5: 38-39). From this teaching there developed, over the centuries, a persistent and powerful binary in Christian polemics, with Christianity on the side of the angelic – the loving, the forbearing, the forgiving – and Judaism and Islam occupying the other side: the legalistic, the vengeful, the merciless. This binary morphs into a duality between Us and Them, where the Us is conceived as ‘western’ or ‘British’; and this duality is played out on many different sites.

To Said, the connections between anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish bigotry are so strong that in the introduction to Orientalism he goes so far as to say, ‘I have found myself writing the history of a strange, secret sharer of Western anti-Semitism’.(5)

There is, however, a limit to the sharing. Thomas Linehan points out that there is no counterpart in Islamophobia to the image of the rootless Jew as the agent of materialistic modernity, threatening traditional values and ways of life.(6) Furthermore, in contrast with the antisemitic image of the money-making Jew, Muslims are not, according to Linehan, correlated with capitalism in Islamophobic discourse. He adds: ‘neither is there an equivalent discourse alleging Muslim control and orchestration of international finance, as in the Jewish ‘hidden hand’ myth’.(7)

That said, several commentators draw a parallel between the antisemitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Islamophobic ‘theory’ of Eurabia, in which Muslims are, in the words of Matthew Carr, ‘agents in a conspiratorial program of world domination’.(8) But, it could be argued, the ‘hidden hand’ of the Protocols is absent from the fantasy of Eurabia, where the ‘Islamicization’ of Europe is open to the naked eye.

So, are the concepts of antisemitism and Islamophobia analogous? There is no simple answer. Or rather, the simple answer is: yes and no.

(1) Richard S Levy, ‘Antisemitism, etymology of’ in Richard S Levy (ed), Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, vol. 1 (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc. 2005), 24-25 .
(2) S. Sayyid, ‘Out of the devil’s dictionary’, in S. Sayyid and AbdoolKarim Vakil (eds), Thinking Through Islamophobia: Global Perspectives (London: Hurst & Co, 2010), 5-18 (13).
(3) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958), 20.
(4) Edward Said, Orientalism (NY: Vintage Books 1979).
(5) Said, Orientalism, 27.
(6) Thomas Linehan, ‘Comparing antisemitism, Islamophobia, and asylophobia: the British case’, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, vol. 12, no. 2, 2012, 366-386 (380). I have slightly embellished what Linehan says.
(7) Linehan, ‘Comparing antisemitism’, 380.
(8) Matthew Carr, ‘The Moriscos: a lesson from history?’, Arches Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 8, 2011, 10-17.


Brian Klug is Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy, St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, University of Southampton.  His latest book is Being Jewish and Doing Justice: Bringing Argument to Life.

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