Muslims the ‘new Jews’? Not by a long way

By David Cesarani, January 17, 2008

On January 27, the Muslim Council of Britain will embrace Holocaust Memorial Day for the first time since it became an official fixture in the nation’s calendar. This is to be welcomed wholeheartedly, not least because HMD was established to raise awareness of all forms of racism, not just antisemitism, and because it was always intended to use the day to commemorate the genocidal assault on the Muslims of Bosnia in the 1990s. Indeed, this is one reason why many members of Britain’s varied Muslim population were dismayed by the MCB’s six-year boycott.

In January 2006, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote that Muslims had a stake in HMD and not only because non-Jews were victims of Nazi persecution. “Nazism”, she observed in The Independent, “reminds us of how thin is the crust of European civilisation, and that it can be thrown off by the slightest provocation or none at all.” Alibhai-Brown had no doubt where the latest perceived provocation was coming from. “Today the new Jews of Europe are Muslims,” she wrote. Muslims faced the same kind of hatred that confronted Jews in the 1930s. “By remembering the Holocaust with past victims, we remind ourselves of what could happen in the future.”

The notion that Muslims are the new Jews has taken hold in many quarters. In October 2006, the columnist India Knight, writing in the Sunday Times, laid into Jack Straw MP, after he said that the wearing of the veil by Muslim women was a “statement of separateness and difference”. She wondered if Straw would have dared suggest that nuns divest themselves of their habits. What was the problem with a woman covering her hair? In a peculiar aside, she said that Orthodox Jews avoided stepping in her shadow because she was deemed by them to be “unclean”, but she wouldn’t let that bother her either. Straw’s discomfort was distinctly odd in her eyes and the sentiments he vented signified something ominous. “It’s open season on Islam — Muslims are the new Jews.”

Soon after this intervention, Ken Livingstone, mayor of London, ruffled feathers when he presented a report on the life of Muslims in the capital. It showed that they suffered from extensive discrimination in housing and employment, and were more likely to suffer religiously motivated crimes. At the press conference where the report was launched, Livingstone also condemned the way Muslims are portrayed. “The entire debate,” he said, “has been lopsided as though somehow it is the Muslims’ fault. That echoes Hitler and Goebbels and all the others who said it was the Jews’ fault.”

At first, the new president of the MCB, Dr Muhammed Abdel Bari, who was standing at his side, appeared to distance himself from Livingstone’s contentious parallel. But the following month, when Bari was addressing a meeting of MPs, he made the same point. He criticised government ministers for “unfairly targeting” Muslims in the context of the war on terror and asked rhetorically, “What is the degree of xenophobia that tipped Germany in the 1930s towards a murderous ethnic and cultural racism?” When he was asked by a journalist to comment on the implicit comparison, Bari said, “We know what happened in Nazi Germany and we have to be on guard against entire communities being demonised due to the actions of a minority.”

Bari’s comparison drew a withering response from Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies. “To try to recast modern Britain as equivalent to Nazi Germany is equally offensive and disingenuous, but also dangerous in that it will fuel alienation and anger, particularly at a time when conciliation is vital,” he told the Daily Telegraph. Yet a few months later, a similar claim was made by Dr Mohammad Naseem, chairman of the Birmingham Central Mosque, after several Muslims were arrested by the police in connection with an alleged terrorist plot. He told the press that Britain was becoming a “police state” and compared the police raids to the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany. This time it was the leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, who was on a visit to Birmingham, who dismissed the notion of Britain as a police state.

After Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, issued a lurid warning against the danger of extremism in the Muslim population, Bari returned to the attack using the 1930s comparison. Speaking to the Daily Telegraph on November 10, 2007, he complained about the endless negative depiction of Muslims in the media and warned: “Every society has to be really careful so the situation doesn’t lead us to a time when people’s minds can be poisoned as they were in the 1930s.” Bari’s words were reported more bluntly in the Daily Telegraph and on the BBC news. The headlines proclaimed that the head of the MCB had “warned the UK must avoid becoming like Nazi Germany”. This was not what he had actually said, and the Council issued a rebuttal.

But whether or not Muslim leaders were directly comparing Britain under Brown to Germany under Hitler, the implication was clear. There was, at the very least, a comparison with Europe in the 1930s when antisemitism was rampant and marked the prelude to the Nazi programme for wiping out the Jews. Although it evidently riled Jews and non-Jews alike, the analogy has proved irresistible. “The Holocaust” and the Nazis get instant recognition and have immense shock value. What better to alert people to the indignities and injustices afflicting Muslims, and gain sympathy, than by yoking them together? On Christmas Day, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee of the UK published a report on its website about a fatal attack on an Asian man in Bolton, which police suspected was racially motivated. The report was headlined: We Are Truly The New Jews.

There are, indeed, points in common between the historical experience of Jews and Muslims in the country and elsewhere. One of the most sophisticated explorations of this shared experience was by the academic lawyer Maleiha Malik in the Guardian last year. She observed that in Britain between the 1880s and the 1930s the Jews were regarded as self-segregated adherents of an obscurantist, narrow and intolerant faith. East European Jewish immigrants were depicted as a threat to the country’s morals, its health, and public safety. “There are,” she wrote, “recurring patterns in British society that racialise Jews and Muslims, which we need to understand if we are to develop an effective strategy for national security.”

But Muslims are not the new Jews. The racism they face and the current surge of prejudice against Islam have their own specific causes and contexts, and however seductive the parallels may appear they tend to be shallow and anachronistic. Britain today is not the late Victorian and Edwardian country into which Jews immigrated from Eastern Europe. Europe has not slipped back into the 1930s. Jews were vulnerable then because they had no state of their own. Today many prejudiced observers see Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons, behind every immigrant from South Asia. Before the establishment of Israel, Judaism was the creed of a stateless, powerless, dispersed minority. Someone watching the ayatollahs addressing tens of thousands of supporters in Tehran might be excused for (wrongly, as it happens) conflating Shiite Islam with the power of a sovereign state.

Indeed, the very lessons of the 1930s and 1940s mean that we deal with other faith groups and immigrants quite differently, if not always for the better. Despite their flaws and attempts to flout the letter of the law, the UK Human Rights Act, the UN Refugee Convention and a myriad other statutes prevent Muslims in Britain or the EU suffering the ghastly fate of Europe’s Jews. It is simply inconceivable to think of this body of legislation, and associated habits of thought rooted in decades of multiculturalism, being dismantled or simply evaporating.

Which is not in any way intended to minimise the fact that Muslims today suffer appallingly from Islamophobia and racist violence. But while racism has generic qualities, it has particular variants and these can only be fought by grasping what is specific about them. Using education about the Nazi persecution of the Jews to combat other forms of prejudice may serve as a good justification for keeping alive the memory of that atrocious period, but there are pitfalls to this approach.

Nazi propaganda fastened on distinctive aspects of Judaism and Jewish society. The genocidal rage emanating from Nazi believers against the Jews was singular in character and outcome. Learning about it will not necessarily explain why some people hate Muslims. Nor will it necessarily deter the haters. Specifically because they may not have anything against the Jews, they may feel that their violent fantasies about Islam are unimpeachable. Or they may have prejudices against both Jews and Muslims, but perceive each group quite separately with each meriting their antipathy for distinctly perverse reasons.

In any case, surely people of all creeds and ethnicities should observe Holocaust Memorial Day because it commemorates a crime against humanity, and we are all human. It is hardly edifying if people pay obeisance to the memory of slaughtered Jewry because they are convinced they might be next in line.

However, if Jews expect others to stand with them in solidarity while they grieve, and if we expect others to empathise with the extraordinary nexus of social tension, supercessionist Christianity, “scientific” racism, and political messianism that eventuated in genocide, then we have to reciprocate. We may know about the Holocaust, but that does not mean we know about the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade or the ravages of colonialism. Once it is established that Muslims are not the new Jews, there is no excuse for failing to get to grips with Islamophobia and the daily racism Muslims suffer, which Jews thankfully do not.

I have not argued that the Holocaust is unique (as distinct from being specific), nor that other folks should leave our genocide alone. Nor am I suggesting that if the similarities between the historical trajectory of Muslims and Jews do not run deep this means that we, as Jews, no longer have any “take” on Islamophobia. On the contrary, too many Jews use false and fatuous comparisons between antisemitism and anti-Muslim attitudes as a substitute for really understanding the struggle of Muslims in this country and the perils they face in parts of Europe. Either they think they know what is going on (they don’t), or they aren’t bothered because, well, we Jews had it worse.

Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity for Muslims to learn about the singular and often tragic course of European Jewish history. It should also be a spur for Jews to engage with the story of Islam and the vast, variegated pattern of Muslim society over the centuries. If it is to be a bridge between the two faith groups then it is one that should carry traffic in both directions. We Jews have a long, long way to go.

David Cesarani is Research Professor in History at Royal Holloway, University of London. With Prof Humayun Ansari, he co-edited Muslim-Jewish Dialogue in a 21st Century World (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Last updated: 3:09pm, March 2 2009