In February, several young men in Birmingham, England were arrested for their alleged role in a plot to kidnap a fellow Muslim serving in the British army, behead him, and record the execution for broadcast on the Internet in the fashion of jihadists in the Middle East. In many quarters in Europe, this episode was seen as further evidence of the depths to which some seemingly ordinary European Muslims—the suspects included a high-school teacher with a passion for cricket—have sunk. For others, however, the whole affair was evidence of something entirely different: the pervasive victimization of European Muslims in what the Paris-based writer Rana Kabbani has termed a “carnival of [European] hatred.”
In the latter view of things, a view by no means limited to Muslims themselves, European Muslims have become scapegoats for the society’s wider problems. Trapped in their ghettos, refused decent opportunities for advancement, taunted by the majority population, and targeted for persecution by the government, they have (it is said) come to resemble a previous hated minority. As Muhammad Naseem, chairman of Birmingham’s Central Mosque and widely regarded as a moderate, argued in the wake of the arrests: “The German people were told the Jews were a threat. The same thing is happening here. The Muslims are now the bogey people.” Among those seconding the charge was an op-ed writer in London’s Guardian: “Muslims are now getting the same treatment Jews had a century ago. Today’s anti-Muslim racism uncannily echoes earlier anti-Semitism.”
It is an attention-grabbing claim, to say the least. But it could not have surprised anyone who has observed the European debate over Islamist terrorism since 9/11. With each new episode demonstrating the radicalism of elements in Europe’s Muslim population—the Madrid and London bombings, Denmark’s Muhammad-cartoon affair, the failed attempt to blow up U.S.-bound airliners departing from Heathrow airport—there has been an increasing tendency to dismiss the seriousness of the threat, to describe necessary security measures as racist fear-mongering or worse, and to invoke the supposed lessons of Europe’s anti-Semitic past.
In December 2005, the New Statesman, the leading intellectual organ of the British Left, ran a cover story under the heading “The Next Holocaust.” The author of the piece, Ziauddin Sardar, argued that “Islamophobia”—defined as the irrational fear and/or hatred of Islam, Muslims, or Islamic culture—“is the singular rock against which the tide of European liberalism crashes.” Sardar quoted the words of Wolfram Richter, a German professor of economics at the University of Dortmund: “I am afraid we have not learned from our history. My main fear is that what we did to Jews we may now do to Muslims.”
At the height of the Danish cartoon affair in early 2006, Bashir Ebrahim-Khan, a former head of community relations at the London Central Mosque, published an article in the British Muslim News under the title “Is Islamophobia in Europe Leading to Another Holocaust?” All across Europe, he wrote, from France and Germany to Denmark, public antipathy and official policies were combining to make life intolerable for local Muslim communities, in a reprise of events not experienced since the Nazi era.
Even the leaders of Hamas have gotten in on the act. Commenting on the Danish cartoon affair, Aziz Duwaik, a professor of urban planning at the Najah University of Nablus and a Hamas delegate in the Palestinian legislative council, told the al-Jazeera television network that “when you send out thousands of hate messages against a certain ethnic or religious community every day, you make people hate these people, and when mass hatred reaches a certain point, nobody would object to the physical extermination of the hated community when it happens.” Asked if Europe’s Muslims might suffer the fate of its pre-World War II Jews, he replied: “Why not? The Holocaust was committed by human beings, not by citizens of another planet, and Germany, where Nazism thrived, was probably the most culturally advanced European country in the 1930’s and 1940’s.”
Nor are such comparisons prompted only by counter-terrorism raids or inflamed public controversies. For many European observers, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, everyday life bears witness to the Nazi-like oppression of Muslims. Osama Saeed, a Scottish spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain, recently noted that “Hitler was a product of a German society where anti-Semitic attitudes had existed unchecked for decades.” Muslims in Britain, he urged, should “listen and learn from what happened there, and be vigilant.” For Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, the debate over Muslim dress in England “echoes very much the demonology of Nazi Germany, when Hitler said it was the Jews’ fault and the problems were brought upon themselves.” And in a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, the Israeli academic Fania Oz-Salzberger (the daughter of the novelist Amos Oz) wrote that the current experiences of young Muslim women in Europe reminded her of her “own grandmother, a student in Prague who had to flee after the Nazi rise to power, and of all the other young and hopeful Jews whose dreams and lives were shattered by the European culture they so admired.”
In all honesty one is bound to ask: have things really reached so dire a pass for the estimated 21 million Muslims who now reside in the European Union? And in all honesty one is bound to answer that it would hardly seem so, judging by the lengths to which the nations of Europe have gone since 9/11 to embrace their Muslim citizens and to accommodate their needs and sensitivities.
In this, the lead has been taken by European officialdom. Indeed, with the rubble of the World Trade Center still smoldering, figures from Prince Charles to Pope John Paul II made an unprecedented and highly public effort to show support for Europe’s Muslim communities. Visiting the Islamic Cultural Center in Dublin on October 1, 2001, Prime Minister Bertie Ahern of Ireland promised his hosts that “we will not allow your good name to be damaged by terrorists who carry out evil deeds in the name of Islam.” The following day, in his address to the Labor party conference, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was equally adamant:
Let no one say [9/11] was a blow for Islam when the blood of innocent Muslims was shed along with those of the Christian, Jewish, and other faiths around the world. . . . We do not act against Islam. The true followers of Islam are our brothers and sisters in this struggle.
At the bureaucratic level, European officials immediately lent their support to organizations tasked with monitoring anti-Muslim acts and prejudice. Great Britain’s Forum against Islamophobia & Racism (FAIR), founded earlier in 2001, won strong backing from the government in the wake of 9/11. The French followed suit in 2003, with the establishment of the Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France (CCIF). Anti-racism bodies funded by the European Union, like the Vienna-based European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EMC) and the European Network against Racism (ENAR), have increasingly come to focus their resources on the issue of Islamophobia. Almost all national and EU-wide representative bodies—from local offices to the Council of Europe and the European Parliament—have commissioned reports, sponsored conferences, and held debates on the subject. In May 2006, senior EU officials even took part in a special conference on Islamophobia convened in London by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the 57-member international body of Muslim states.
At the local level, European governments have likewise been eager to reassure and support their Muslim citizens. In Rotterdam, for example, the municipality has subsidized the cost of the private, after-school religious lessons attended by many Muslim public-school students. And to make sure that there are enough qualified religious teachers to provide such classes, the Dutch Ministry of Education agreed in 2005 to fund the establishment of a program for training imams at Amsterdam Free University.
Europe’s public and private sectors have also bent over backward to respond to the sensitivities of Muslims, sometimes going to absurd lengths in the process. In the north of England, prison authorities recently reprimanded guards for wearing badges featuring the Cross of St. George in support of a cancer charity. Why? Because the red-and-white banner of St. George had been worn by English soldiers in the Crusader armies of the 11th century. When a Muslim customer at a Burger King in Britain claimed that the graphics used on the lid of an ice cream dish resembled the Arabic spelling of Allah, the fast-food giant apologized and redesigned the product. For its part, the Swedish home-furnishings retailer IKEA decided in 2005 to preempt any potential offense to Muslims by including only images of men in its instruction manuals. Some British contractors now ensure that the toilets in their newly built homes do not face the holy city of Mecca.
Sincere and well-meaning as these efforts may be, they have hardly been required. According to a survey commissioned by the London Daily Telegraph and published one month after 9/11, only 13 percent of respondents admitted to holding a “less favorable” view of British Muslims than before the attacks; 82 percent said their feelings had not changed; 3 percent said their feelings were “more favorable” toward Muslims; and 88 percent thought it unfair to link terror attacks to British Muslims. As the paper concluded, the “feared backlash against British Muslims . . . appears not to have materialized.”
An EU-sponsored report on Islamophobia after 9/11 came to a similar conclusion. Actual physical acts of aggression against Muslims across Europe were disparate and isolated, according to the EU’s European Monitoring Center (EMC). And though hostile attitudes did exist in some sectors of society, they were counterbalanced by the concerted efforts of European governments to eradicate them. Another EMC report, published just months after the July 2005 London bombings, lauded the UK’s political and community leaders for their immediate reassurances to the Muslim community in the wake of the attacks.
It is certainly true that, with the relentless rise in hate crimes and other forms of violence perpetrated by European Muslims (a subject to which we shall return), popular attitudes have undergone something of a shift. But the reality of contemporary life for Muslims in Europe is quite impossible to reconcile with the tidal wave of alarmist journalism and think-tank reports deploring the rise of “Islamophobia” and the supposed threat of “another Holocaust.” Policy-makers and business leaders, to say nothing of the sanctimonious elites of the media and the universities, have made every effort to placate and reassure their Muslim neighbors and fellow citizens.
In the meantime, these same leaders and opinion-makers have remained almost willfully blind to the very real threat now being posed to another and smaller ethnic community in their midst. Indeed, the great irony is that, in the midst of all the hysterical talk about Nazi-style oppression of Europe’s “new” Jews, the situation of the continent’s actual Jewish communities has grown much more imperiled.
In France, where Europe’s largest Jewish population resides, attacks against Jewish targets increased considerably after 9/11. The Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF) put the number at 320 violent incidents in 2001. In April 2002 alone, there were 400 such acts, and more than 1,000 extra police had to be deployed at Jewish sites. The French union of Jewish students described the wave of violence, not inaccurately, as the “implementation of anti-Semitic terrorism in France.”
In the UK, home to Europe’s second-largest Jewish community, anti-Semitic incidents rose by 150 percent in September and October 2001, compared with August of that year. Since then, things have gotten consistently worse. A recent report by the highly respected Community Security Trust (CST), a Jewish self-defense organization, noted almost 600 anti-Semitic attacks in 2006, the highest number since such records started to be kept over two decades ago and an increase of 31 percent over the previous year.
The same trend holds in countries with smaller Jewish populations. In the Netherlands, the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI) has recorded a significant increase in the number and seriousness of attacks against Jews in Amsterdam over the last six years. Most of the interviewees who had been accustomed to wearing yarmulkes in public testified to incidents of verbal abuse, and almost all said they no longer wore yarmulkes in the center of the city, especially at night. Other incidents noted by CIDI include children forced to leave soccer clubs because of anti-Semitic abuse; Jews beaten for driving cars displaying stickers with the Star of David; and students at a Jewish primary school no longer able to travel safely on public transport for school outings.
In Germany, some five anti-Semitic crimes a day were reported in 2005, leading the authorities to advise members of the Jewish community to conceal their religious identity to avoid attack or intimidation. Similar warnings have been issued by officials in Belgium and Sweden. More than six decades after being forced to wear yellow stars so that they could be targeted for persecution, Europe’s Jews are now being instructed to hide any signs of their Jewishness lest they become subject to a new round of persecution.
What makes this state of affairs particularly galling is that the majority of anti-Semitic attacks in Europe since 9/11 have been perpetrated by members of the very same Muslim communities now claiming to be Europe’s “new” Jews. In almost every case of harassment and violence documented by CIDI in Amsterdam, the victims reported that their persecutors were of North African Muslim origin. It is Muslim gangs who have been responsible for many of the anti-Jewish hate crimes across the rest of the continent as well. In mid-2006, for example, in the heavily Muslim area of southwest Berlin, a group of young local women assaulted a twenty-six-year-old female student, a dual citizen of Israel and Germany, because they heard her speaking Hebrew on her cell phone.
By the end of last year, following the summer’s conflict between Hizballah and Israel, Muslim offenses against Jews in Europe had reached unprecedented heights. Holocaust memorials in Brussels and Berlin were desecrated with swastikas, and in scenes reminiscent of Kristallnacht or the pogroms of the czars, twenty Jewish shops in Rome were vandalized.
As a result of this increasingly hostile environment, record numbers of European Jews have been anxiously looking for safe havens elsewhere. Since 2000, the number of French Jews emigrating to Israel has tripled to some 3,000 a year, the highest figure since the Six-Day war of 1967. According to a poll conducted by a Jewish organization, another 20,000 or so have announced their intention to relocate to Israel in the coming years. In 2006, the number of British Jews moving to Israel increased by more than 45 percent over the previous year, with 700 new arrivals. In the meantime, a growing number of European Jews are buying second homes in Israel, in what they think of as an “insurance policy” against dangers in Europe.
Why have European elites ignored or deprecated this rising anti-Semitism? There are many explanations. Some leaders have chosen to define anti-Semitism as a hatred confined to the past, an ugly chapter from the days when church and state were mingled or when bloody nationalism ruled the continent. Having worked to defeat the ideologies that culminated in Auschwitz, they see only exaggeration in present-day charges of animus against Jews. As Romano Prodi, then the president of the European Commission and later to become prime minister of Italy, said in 2004, anti-Semitism is a “monster” of the 1930’s that no longer exists in Europe.
More important perhaps, European politicians stand to gain nothing by acknowledging that the “old” anti-Semitism of the far Right has been supplemented, and in many ways surpassed, by the “new” anti-Semitism of young European Muslims—Muslims who make up an increasing part of the electorate, especially in France and Britain. Indeed, in November 2003, there was an attempt to suppress an internal EU-commissioned report that traced the majority of attacks on European Jews to “radical Islamists or young Muslims, mostly of Arab descent.” The attempted cover-up was exposed; but less than six months later, another EU-sponsored report, while acknowledging a rise in anti-Semitic assaults, insisted that the violence could not be attributed mainly to Muslim perpetrators.
For their part, Muslim groups have worked assiduously to manipulate European feelings of guilt over the Nazi past. Radical organizations like the French Union d’Organizations Islamiques (UOIF), the Muslim Brothers in Germany, and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC) in the UK have been increasingly able to use the Trojan horse of “Islamophobia” to establish themselves as the dominant voice of the Muslim communities in their countries. MPAC, for example, emerged as a serious player in British politics by launching a campaign targeting “anti-Muslim MP’s” in the May 2005 parliamentary elections.
The rising influence of such groups should be as great a cause for concern as the wave of anti-Semitic violence that has emerged in Europe in recent years. As immigration, higher rates of childbirth, and conversions to Islam have rapidly increased the number of Muslims within Europe, spokesmen for these radical organizations have grown more strident, prophesying Islam’s eventual triumph over the West. Since the late 1980’s, the UOIF and other French Islamist groups have looked upon their growing success as evidence that France, too, has already become part of the House of Islam.
At the communal level, this militancy has translated into a concerted effort at indoctrination. In 2003, Bonn’s King Fahd Academy—a multinational Saudi-funded enterprise—was infiltrated by a German journalist who videotaped classroom sessions in which young Muslim students were being taught racist, anti-Western messages. This February, a disgruntled former teacher at the London-based King Fahd Academy revealed that textbooks used by the students there depicted Jews and Christians in the same harshly negative light as at the school’s German counterpart.
The internal effect of this supremacist training and rhetoric has been predictable—and alarming. A much-commented-upon recent poll, commissioned by the London-based think tank Policy Exchange, found that among British Muslims aged sixteen to twenty-four, 37 percent would prefer to live under shari’a law in Britain and would like to send their children to Islamic state schools. Almost the same proportion—36 percent—believe that Muslims who convert to another religion should be punished by death. A poll published in Ireland around the same time told a similar story, with 57 percent of young Muslims wanting to see Ireland become an Islamic state.
To their credit, some brave voices among Europe’s Muslims have attempted to draw attention to these trends and to promote a moderate Muslim path. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s efforts to highlight the oppression of women in Muslim society have been widely reported, in large part because of her forced flight from the Netherlands in the face of death threats. Less well-known is the decision of a group of Danish Muslims in Copenhagen and Arhus, in the wake of the Muhammad-cartoon affair, to organize against extremist imams and those within their own community who demand the implementation of shari’a law. After the Birmingham anti-terror arrests, the London Times columnist Murad Ahmed undoubtedly expressed a feeling widely shared among British Muslims when he wrote that the desire of almost a third of the community’s young people to live under shari’a law made his “blood boil.”
The Herculean task facing reform-minded Muslims has been made more difficult by a European political elite eager to pander to the myth of Islamophobia and to appease Islamist radicals. By tolerating or in some cases instigating wildly irresponsible attacks on the state of Israel, European elites have also provided a safe environment for outright anti-Semitic attitudes and behavior.
Perhaps the greatest damage of all has been done by decades of official adherence to, and promotion of, the ideology of multiculturalism. This left European governments disarmed in the face of a concerted Islamist effort to brainwash Muslim children in an extensive network of schools, mosques, and charitable organizations, and helpless to confront imams openly inciting violence and hatred. In the words of Munira Mirza, one of the authors of the Policy Exchange report, both today’s Europe and today’s European Muslims are suffering the effects of policies that have “emphasized differences at the expense of shared national identity and divided people along ethnic, religious, and cultural lines.”
To overcome their misplaced faith in multiculturalism and their negligent handling of its baleful consequences, European leaders might make a start by refusing to countenance any longer the idea that the experience of Europe’s Muslims today bears any similarity to the Jewish experience under the Nazis. Until they are ready to draw this fundamental and self-evident distinction, and to declare that the concrete threat to European society stems not from “Islamophobia” but from the refusal of substantial numbers of Muslims to integrate and to accept the legitimacy of non-Islamic values, the Muslim grievance industry in Europe will go from strength to strength. So too will its dogged struggle, under the cover of alleged victimhood, to promote an Islamist political platform aimed ultimately at undoing Europe itself.
Efraim Karsh is head of Mediterranean Studies at King’s College, University of London, where Rory Miller is a senior lecturer. Mr. Karsh’s Islamic Imperialism: A History is due out in paperback this month from Yale. Mr. Miller is the author of Divided Against Zion: Anti-Zionist Opposition in Britain to a Jewish State in Palestine, 1945-1948 (2000).