‘Two of an Oriental Kind’ – Anti-semitism, Islamophobia and the question of racism in Europe

In his seminal work, Orientalism, Edward Said refers to anti-Semitism the “secret sharer” of orientalist prejudices. The history of both Islamophobia and anti-semitism can almost be read as the history of the European imagination of Jews and Muslims: ‘two of an oriental kind’.[1] Of course, there are notable differences between the histories of racialization of European Jews and Muslims, but what I will not go into that now. What I would like to address is the question of racism and racialization, in particular with regard to Islamophobia. In public debates Islamophobia is often denounced as a form of racism by people who state: Islam is not a race and Muslims are not a racial but a religious group. I believe that an inquiry into this issue may to lead us to some considerations about racism that are relevant for other modes, such as anti-semitism, and that it will puts many of the issues Annemarike has laid out in her inspiring paper in a broader context.

Islamophobia and the democratic debate

The debate about racism and Islamophobia is a relevant one, both scientifically but also for society. If indeed Islamophobia is a mode of racism, the door is open for Muslims to use hate speech laws to regulate (censor) statements deemed offensive. As such, many believe, it would threaten an open and democratic debate and Muslims have to learn that, since Islamophobia is not racism, instead of a religious belonging a citizen should derive his/her sense of belonging from the nation-state and its values such as tolerance, sexual freedoms, non-violence, free speech and so forth. It is not a logic that I just made up, but a recurring logic in different affairs we had in the Netherlands: Submission I, the murder of Theo van Gogh, the Muhammad Cartoons, the Fitna affair and, to a lesser extent, the Innocence of Muslims and during the trial against Geert Wilders. The important difference is here, as argued by Saba Mahmood in her reading the of the controversy surrounding the Muhammad Cartoons, that religion is seen as a matter of choice while race is not.[2] As such these issues also pertain to the question apparent in many modern nation-states of how to regulate religious minorities, in particular Muslims. I will return to that later on but for now I want to focus on the central argument of the rejection of seeing Islamophobia as a mode of racism. It centres on the idea that equating religious identity with race is making a category mistake.

Race and religion

Mahmood, and others, have already criticized the premise that religion is merely a matter of choice. As these scholars argue such an assumption is, in turn, based upon the idea that religion is about belief in a set of propositions one can agree to or not. As Mahmood argues the protest against the Muhammad Cartoons was not only against the prohibition to make images of Muhammad, but against ‘a structure of affect, a habitus, that feels wounded.’[3]

However not only the ideas of what religion actually is, are problematic; also the way race is perceived as a biological attribute needs to be examined. First of all, as Rana shows, modern biological racism has some roots in pre-modern religious antagonisms.[4] The reference to ‘culture’ is central to race and racism throughout history and furthermore, religion in general and Islam and Judaism in particular are important elements of the genealogy of race as a concept. In the past, notions of blood purity, social hierarchy, religious difference whereby Muslims and Jews were both the racial and religious other of Europe, were according to Rana important ingredients of the modern notion of race that would come about in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and that gradually secularized by excluding the notion of religion and becoming focused upon phenotypic conceptions of difference. This did not completely render the issue of religion obsolete, it merely disguised it, partly by redefining Islam as cultural difference and partly by reducing religion to a set of beliefs one can adhere to.

As a result, and secondly, as for example Werbner and Modood have argued, Muslims (and also Jews) have been the targets of a mode of racism that creates the category of the cultural and racial other ‘group’ through references to both race and religion as immutable categories that determine people’s physical and mental features, convictions and actions. Thirdly, the forms of ethnic profiling in the case of counter-radicalization policies in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands (and perhaps other countries as well) start from a logic that requires an ability among people to determine how a ‘radical Muslim’ looks like; often resulting in a list of bodily markers that may refer to Muslims in general but also to others. In fact one could say, as Rana also does, that the racialization of Muslims as the cultural other reconnects religion with race while evoking particular meanings such as terror, war, fear, intolerance and invasion.

However, contemporary Islamophobia as a mode of racism should not be equated with biological determinism and anti-semitism. By now Nazism, Apartheid-style racism and the new world racism of the US and the Dutch slave trade in the past, have been discredited and appear to be thoroughly opposed by a majority of the Dutch. In particular anti-semitism appears to be the secular benchmark of evil. This also means that racism and more in particular anti-semitism is associated with bad people, villains and the worst breed of all: Nazis. And no one thinks of themselves as bad. Perhaps this is also why there is so little research on racism and anti-semitism among minorities. There is, or at least was, a common conception of anti-semitism as white. On the other hand the idea that racism and anti-semitism are no longer something of white people, comes up in relation to contemporary political situation.

Racism as governance

In this sense it may be good to think about racism, anti-semitism and islamophobia in a rather different way. Modern racism, according to Foucault, is not merely an irrational prejudice, a form of socio-political discrimination, or an ideological motive in a political doctrine; rather, it is a form of government that is designed to manage a population. According to Foucault, racism emerges at the intersection of techniques of disciplining the body of individuals and biopolitical technologies that target the population. While racism in the case of slavery and colonization was aimed at dominating people outside the nation-state, internal racism is concerned with the composition, reproduction and development of a population by isolating and excluding the abnormal.[5] The latter is still aimed at an outsider, but an outsider within the borders of the nation-state. Racism then on the one hand distinguishes between desirable and undesirable citizens as a governmental technique. Therefore as Remco mentioned in his paper, the municipal authorities interfering with what is going to be said at a commemoration is not so extraordinary, nor is the attention given to the Holocaust in schools; it is the state at work in constructing a moral community.

Since the 1990s integration is increasingly based upon the idea of culture as a hindrance in the process of integration; the culture of migrants to be more precise. In to be even more precise, the culture of migrants from the global South or non-Western world, and even more precise on Muslims. Culture, ethnicity and religion, in this context, are increasingly viewed as obstacles to social cohesion in society. This dominant cultural representation is coupled with an increasing emphasis placed on citizenship, which now no longer indicates only a legal status, but a moral idea as well. So immigrants have to be properly integrated (culturally) first, before they can be considered members of the moral community. The fact that they have already obtained formal citizenship makes little difference; this does not make them full citizens. This distinction between formal and moral citizenship based upon perceived, immutable, and essentialized cultural differences has been normalized based upon the ideas that a so-called ‘we’ was here earlier and that newcomers of course have to adapt their culture. This enables the state to target and regulate migrants; apparently to integrate them into the whole of society but because they target them in cultural terms (such as Muslim) it only reproduces and strengthens the idea of an outsider that cannot be integrated. Jews on the contrary have been included in the Dutch moral community after WWII; that is at the level of governing them as a particular group.

The politics of anti-semitism

Now of course there is much more to it, and Foucault’s ideas about racism need much more scrutiny then I can provide here, but it does have consequences for how we look at modes of racism. Racism is often reduced to ideas, speech and particular acts of violence and anti-racist strategies are devised to counter prejudice, discrimination, and structural biases. But if racism is a form of government designed to regulate a population, then it is highly unlikely that such anti-racist strategies will be effective. What does this mean for the phenomena of Islamophobia and anti-semitism? In such a situation expressions of Muslim youth against the Shoah or denying it may well be fed by labelling the Shoah as ultimate evil and relegating it to the past of Dutch people and the contemporary situation of Muslims as a problem in Dutch society. The often provocative way in which anti-semitic and anti-zionist positions are taken by youth, as explained by Ensel and Stremmelaar in the book, may be evidence for that. The same can be said for the sometimes anti-semitic slogans such as ‘Khaibar!’ used in demonstrations by so-called radical Muslims in the Netherlands; they use it (together with other slogans such as ‘Obama, Obama, we’re all Osama’) as a means to provoke and get media attention. This is not to say those slogans are not anti-semitic because as they refer to the Jew as an abstract figure they still are. Nor is it meant to say that anti-semitism among Muslim youth is not a big problem. Anti-semitism among Muslim youth presents serious problem and notwithstanding different manifestations and roots, it can still be qualified as anti-semitism.

What I do mean is that my observations point to an extra layer of the anti-semitism among Dutch Muslims which of course also begs the question what is the relation between the state’s policies, the Dutch Islam debates and holocaust memories.

This is the written text of my lecture at the expert-meeting Changing Perceptions of the Holocaust – Competing Histories and Collective Memory at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam 5 June 2013


[1] Ivan Kalmar, “Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: The Formation of a Secret”, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 7, nr. 2 (20 maart 2009): 135, http://scholarworks.umb.edu/humanarchitecture/vol7/iss2/11.

[2] Saba Mahmood, “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?”, Critical Inquiry 35, nr. 4 (januari 2009): 851–852, doi:10.1086/599592.

[3] Ibid., 848–849.

[4] Junaid Rana, “The Story of Islamophobia”, Souls 9, nr. 2 (2007): 148–161, doi:10.1080/10999940701382607.

[5] Kim Su Rasmussen, “Foucault’s Genealogy of Racism”, Theory, Culture & Society 28, nr. 5 (9 januari 2011): 38, doi:10.1177/0263276411410448.