Racism feeds itself

Academic Tabish Khair ponders the simulataneous rise of antisemitism and Islamaphobia and the "struc

The latest Pew Survey of Global Attitudes indicating a significant rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe offers a disturbing revelation of how such prejudices operate.

Every type of ‘racism’, indirectly or directly, leads to conditions that favour other kinds of prejudice, even at times seemingly ‘opposed’ ones.

For instance, given the global political scenario, one would have expected an inverse ratio between antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe.

That is, Europeans who hate Islam might be expected to feel an affinity with Jewish people, and vice versa – for in the Middle Eastern context, Muslims and Jews often stand opposed to each other. This, however, is not the case. The survey indicates that both Islamophobia and antisemitism have been rising in Europe.

I would go further and say that if the current climate of ‘permissible hate’ is not opposed by public figures and, in particular, popular politicians, it will gradually lead to a rise in other kinds of type prejudices aside from racism including homophobia and anti-feminism. This is so because of three major reasons.

First (and least significantly in the context of my article), Antisemitism and Islamophobia share similar cultural, historical and religious affinities in the European context, though this is seldom faced up to today.

Second, and more intricately, such ‘racism-type’ prejudices share a similar structure: once one accepts the structure, it is very easy to switch the targets.

The targets actually do not really matter; what matters is the structure of hatred that enables individuals to be targeted under larger rubrics. This structure is sometimes considered (and increasingly condoned in European political discourse these days) to be only an honest response to perceptions of difference. The argument runs that “we” are different from “them”, and we do not want ‘political correctness’ to stop us from stating this fact.

This, of course, is a lie. The structure of hatred that permits Islamophobia, homophobia or antisemitism is not just based on a recognition of difference. A simple recognition of differences between people or individuals is never a problem.

Both, however, become problems if the difference is essentialised and considered totally unacceptable.

Antisemites and Islamophobists share this habit of 1. generalising and essentialising about Jews/Muslims and 2. considering them unacceptable as they are. Once one starts thinking along these lines, the target can be easily switched and one can even live with the logical contradiction of hating two very different targets. What finally matters is the emotional and ‘intellectual’ satisfaction afforded by such a hatred-based structure of ‘understanding.’

Third, political and public discourse that makes it permissible to indulge in any one such ‘racism-type’ prejudice, automatically makes it possible to indulge in other kinds of racism because of the fact, outlined above, that they share similar structures. Unfortunately, in recent years, it has become permissible to make sweeping and at times very disturbing remarks about Islam and Muslims. Such leeway in one area always allows space for similar license in other areas.

The morality (and logic) of this is simple. No matter how opposed Israel and Islamic Arab states might seem to be, antisemitism and Islamophobia have to be counteracted simultaneously – along with other types of discrimination, ranging from racism to homophobia. One cannot make an exception in any such case and expect to be excused from culpability in another case.