A third way, yes, but one that acknowledges the complexity of today's realities
Frederique is an owner of an opticians store in a Paris suburb. At the time of the terror attacks, she received an anonymous letter. It arrived by post. In it, Frederique was called a "dirty Jew" and asked to "get out" of France. A last warning, the letter said. It was written in the first person plural and signed "the Islamic front". Frightened, Frederique handed over the letter to the local police. The investigations are ongoing.
Hassan Agraou is a doctor in accident and emergency in the small town of Cambrai in northern France. Hassan's children attend a Catholic high school, his family celebrates Muslim holidays and Christmas at home. In the aftermath of the Paris terror attack, Hassan discovered a pig's ear in his garden. Frightened, he communicated the incident to the local police. The investigations are ongoing.
Hassan and Frederique now live in fear, and this is understandable. These people are not detached globetrotters, ready to pack their bags and move elsewhere. They grew up in France, settled, built their lives and raised families.
Lecturing targets of hate-crimes about their security
The cases of Hassan and Frederique are symptomatic of the oppressive force of hate-crimes. Hate-crimes, by their nature, target individuals on the basis of their group membership. As a consequence, all members have a reason to be worried when some suffer threats of violence motivated by their group membership. The underlying message is destined for all of them.
Moreover, these incidents did not occur in a vacuum. French Jews have not forgotten Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish Frenchman kidnapped and set on fire by an openly anti-Semitic gang after 24 days of torture in a Paris suburb in 2006. They remember the execution-style killing of three little children and a rabbi outside a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012. They saw Jewish-owned shops burned down after riots in the Parisian suburbs of Sarcelles last summer. They are aware of the openly anti-Semitic robbery and rape in Creteil in late 2014. And they rightly understand that they could have been among the four victims in the Paris kosher supermarket shootings. They don't need Netanyahu to arrive at this conclusion, to whom they readily responded by singing the French national anthem in the Grande Synagogue of Paris.
Similarly, all Muslim Frenchmen have a legitimate reason to be worried in the wake of anti-Muslim attacks around France. The country has seen as many anti-Muslim incidents this January as throughout all of 2014. The attacks are on an individual level, yet they target French Muslims as a whole.
The number of violent anti-Semitic actions in France has risen 130 per cent in the last year. In the same year, 22 physical assaults with an Islamophobic context occurred, nearly two every month. Targets of group-directed hate certainly don't need anyone lecturing them about how secure their lives are. If we choose to minimise the impact of hate-speech and hate-crimes, we are playing into the hands of those behind them. What we need to do instead is to face up to the apologists and conspiracists.
The flawed logic of the apologist
Islamophobia has never made much etymological sense. "Phobia" is a pathological term that designates "anxiety". It is often caused by a traumatic situation and requires medical treatment. The pig's ear was not thrown into Hassan's garden by a person with a certified illness. The author of this act had no fear of Hassan and no fear of the consequences. His motivation was hate. Needless to say, there is no point in lingering over false terminology. Islamophobia designates a real phenomenon: animosity towards Muslims.
As with every type of animosity towards a "group", Islamophobia relies heavily on rationalisation. The reason for this is that few bigots will admit to illicit forms of hostility. Instead, the majority will do their best to mask the irrational nature of their hatred with supposedly rational explanations. That is why the role of the apologists is so central to any kind of animosity nowadays. Apologists are needed to exonerate irrational behaviour and keep on generating new "excuses" in order to avoid any true explanation.
Apologists for the anti-Muslim incidents in France this year might, for example, say things like is it any wonder anti-Muslim hate-crimes occur when a terror organisation commits atrocities in the Middle East while bearing Islam in its name and featuring the Muslim declaration of faith on its flag? Is it any wonder, when two French citizens leave France every day to join the ranks of the Islamic State? Is it any wonder, when those states that proclaim themselves Islamic Republics or apply the Islamic law oppress non-Muslim minorities? Note that here, a causal link is being constructed between facts in order to whitewash hate and violence against ordinary people in France.
Anti-Semitic bigots, for their part, have tried to rationalise their hatred of Jews for ages. A remarkable apologist in this field was the inventor of the term "anti-Semitism" in its modern sense: Wilhelm Marr. It has nothing to do with the Holocaust. The usage of the term as we know it is a legacy of an anti-Semite.
Origins of the term "anti-Semitism"
In 1879, Wilhelm Marr founded the Antisemiten-Liga, an organisation committed to combating the alleged threat to the "Germanentum" posed by Jews (the "Semitic" race). Marr's Jew-baiting rationalised the old Jew-hatred with increasingly popular theories of Social Darwinism and the belief in races. In doing so, he borrowed from the vocabulary of linguistics. He chose the term "Semite" rather than "Jude" (Jew) in order to shift the focus away from religion and thus make Jew-hatred accessible to secular audience. Needless to say, the word "Semitic" does not denote a race or a people, it only refers to a language group. Marr of course didn't care whether Jews spoke Hebrew or any other language. Nor did he care about the Maltese or the Ethiopians, who both speak Semitic languages. His league campaigned against Jews only.
The rationalisation of Jew-hatred nowadays follows a different path. It has a lot to do with Israel. And so, we might hear that it is no wonder that Jewish Frenchmen were killed while buying food to mark the Shabbat; after all, they got buried in Israel – an event posterior to their killing that is supposed to explain the killing that came first. Others may explain that the State of Israel proclaims itself a Jewish State, which is why a Jewish supermarket in Paris is perceived as an extension of the Israeli policy. The perception is presumed understandable; the logical leap in argumentation is built in to whitewash the killing of innocent people.
As with Islamophobia, there is no reason to fall for this flawed rationale. Hatred is irrational by essence. It attributes collective responsibility to individuals regardless of their personal involvement. In the case of the Israeli policy, it justifies animosity towards Jews as a whole with accusations for which clearly only some Jews can be responsible. Its irrational cause shines through when the right to hostility to Jews in France is claimed because of acts committed thousands of miles away. Indeed, the common essence of animosity is that its objects are perceived as something other than what they really are. Berber Frenchmen are stigmatised as Arabs, Arab and African Frenchmen as Muslims, Muslims as Islamists, non-Jews as Jews and French Jews as an extension of the Israeli policy, which in turn is equated with the Nazis.
This is not 1938
Ignorance and distortion of reality are exactly the patterns that anti-Semites and Islamophobes employ. This should be reason enough for us to avoid these patterns in our own analysis. A "third way", one that seeks to gain credibility, has to acknowledge the complexity of today's realities rather than engage in overblown comparisons of Europe with the Nazi regime. The Nazi card has always been a cheap fallback that compensated for intellectual laziness and a lack of arguments.
This applies to Israel's ambassador to Germany when he claimed that German Jews are being hunted again like in 1938. It also applies to all voices claiming Muslim Germans are now in the position of Jews in 1938. When the German Chancellor tells Germans in her New Year's speech not to attend anti-Islam rallies; when Germans stage counter protests all over Germany, far outnumbering those attending the anti-Islam rallies; when the German police provide protection for mosques in Germany; when the German state offers scholarships for talented Muslim Germans through the Avicenna programme, then it is nothing short of an exorbitant exaggeration to allege a similarity between the state-orchestrated terror of the Nazi regime and the treatment of Muslim Germans nowadays.
A "third way" approach has to combat, rather than to rationalise the conflation of facts and fantasy. Of course the fight against hate-speech and hate-crimes would be easier if we exploited the idea of victimhood, employed far-fetched comparisons and played the Nazi card. But by doing so, we would be acting no differently to those whose approach we criticise. Precisely for that reason, a "third way" has to resist the temptation and come up with a well-thought-out concept, one that does not create a fictional, simplified version of the larger and often confusing reality, but instead confronts the narrative of extremism and of exaggerated victimisation.
© Qantara.de 2015