Critically reflecting and distancing oneself from one's own perceptions and stereotypical constructions of realityIntercultural CompetenceKnowledge of interrelations within a given groupRefers to dimensions such as connectivity and complexity between identity, politics, society, history and others

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia – A Common Seed? Pt. 2

There is a new kind of racism growing in Europe nowadays, which is often disguised under other issues such as lack of integration, immigration procedures, defense of women’s rights, safety and security, among others. While all these issues are exceedingly important and do need our attention, we need to also be aware of who we might be accusing of not integrating, which potential immigrants we might be unjustly rejecting, whether what we perceive as the defense of women’s rights is actually protecting women’s rights or doing the exact opposite, and if we are jeopardizing the safety, security and peace of mind of certain people under the justification of protecting our own. Generalizing about entire groups of people is not generally known to be an acceptable and objective stance, and yet somehow when it comes to the perception of Muslims it seems that this is accepted and even encouraged. With part 1 of this article, we looked at what is happening around Europe and in the entertainment media regarding Muslims, and in part 2 we look at where this has happened before and where it is going, so we can have a chance at stopping it before it’s too late.

Why did I choose this tool? (same as part 1)

Having a European nationality but not having actually lived in Europe very much, I had quite a utopic view of Europe as a place where there is equality, peace, and justice. However, my experiences trying to live in Europe while engaged to an Iraqi Muslim have shown me the darker side of Europe, one that I probably would not have known about otherwise. I chose this tool because I think it’s important to understand not only what Europe stands for in theory, but what is actually happening in practice. It is my hope and dream that in the future Europe will truly be a place where there is justice, freedom and equality for all, with no exceptions.

How does this apply to being a trainer? (same as part 1)

I have seen trainers deal with the issue of racism, Islamophobia, refugees, etc., without actually having an in-depth knowledge of what is actually happening in these areas, particularly in relation to Muslims. With so many projects these days focused on these issues as well as prevention of extremism, it is essential to be able to see the situation from their perspective if sustainable solutions are to be found, and it is also important to take a look at ourselves and our own perspectives to see if we may be consciously or sub-consciously contributing to the problem.

Main content: 

Many of us believe that Europe, and Europeans, have evolved past racism and discrimination at least on a larger scale. We think that although there might be isolated instances where racism and discrimination take place, as a whole Europe is a place where equality, freedom and safety prevail.

Unfortunately, we have been turning a blind eye to a kind of racism that is much more subtle, and yet no less insidious. And it is being practiced openly not only by isolated extremist individuals, but by mainstream politicians, immigration authorities and the police as well as groups and individuals.

Bans on religious dress and customs. Burnt-out homes and community centers. Open hostility on the street and in the halls of parliament. “Random” checks by law enforcement. I’m not talking about what life was like for Western European Jews in the late 1800s or the 1930s, but about day-to-day realities for European Muslims over the past two decades.

In 2006, Paul Silverstein, a professor of anthropology at Reed College, wrote about post-9/11 realities for Muslims, saying that in contemporary Western societies “Muslims are the object of a series of stereotypes, caricatures and fears which are not based in a reality and are independent of a person’s experience with (them). Replace Muslim with Jew, and you get a relatively serviceable definition of anti-Semitism.

The main difference with “regular” racism and racism/discrimination against Muslims is that is not necessarily based on the color of their skin but more on their culture and practices. The world has come a long way in standing up to racism that is based on skin color, and we are certainly better for it. However, this doesn’t mean that discrimination based on culture, religion, traditions or lifestyle is any better.

Although it is in human nature to fear what we don’t understand or can’t relate to, this is no excuse to discriminate against an entire group of people who for the most part want nothing more than to live their lives peacefully while practicing their chosen religion and lifestyle. The last time there was discrimination in Europe based on culture, religion and lifestyle, it ended in unforgettable tragedy.

In contemporary Western Europe both minorities have been the targets of political campaigns aimed at outlawing their traditional religious traditions and practices, like circumcision, the provision of kosher or halal food, and certain prohibitions on the religious dress. Despite claiming that their real motive is concern for the physical integrity of children, animal welfare, or safeguarding separation between religious and the state, European secularists and populists alike seem to hang on portrayals of practicing Muslims and Jews as culturally barbaric peoples stuck in the Middle Ages.

Bauer’s position suggests that anti-Semitic racism in Germany-as well as elsewhere in Europe-in the first half of the 19th century was justified mainly on cultural and religious grounds. Jews were discriminated against and regarded with suspicion because they were considered alien within the German nation. In fact, it was not until the second half of the 19th century and the rise of Social Darwinism that racial anti-Semitism, framed in biological terms, appeared on the political scene, and that Jews were openly discriminated against on the basis of their alleged genetic inferiority.

It is difficult to spot this kind of racism, because it is hidden under so many other guises, including the guise of concern for safety, or integration, or women’s rights, or any other seemingly justifiable reason. We are supposed to consider anyone and everyone innocent until proven guilty, and yet this assumption of innocence seems to be so easily thrown out the window when it comes to Muslims.

When an Iraqi applied for a tourist visa to the Netherlands, the rejection letter he received included the following statement: “Rejected because of risk of illegal immigration”. The Iraqi in question had never overstayed any visa or residence permit, or broken any other law in any other country for that matter. The assumption was not in any way based in fact, and yet the decision to reject his application was made without a second thought for how it would affect his life, possibilities or future.

It brings to mind the joke about the woman reading on a boat:

One morning, a husband returns the family boat to their lakeside cottage after several hours of fishing and decides to take a nap. Although not familiar with the lake, the wife decides to take the boat out. She motors out a short distance, anchors, puts her feet up, and begins to read her book. The peace and solitude are magnificent.

Along comes a Fish and Game Warden in his boat. He pulls up alongside the woman and says, “Good morning, Ma’am. What are you doing?”

“Reading a book,” she replies, (thinking, “Isn’t that obvious?”).

“You’re in a Restricted Fishing Area,” he informs her.

“I’m sorry, officer, but I’m not fishing. I’m reading.”

“Yes, but I see you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment. I’ll have to take you in and write you up.”

“If you do that, I’ll have to charge you with sexual assault,” says the woman.

“But I haven’t even touched you,” says the Game Warden.

“That’s true, but you have all the equipment. For all I know you could start at any moment.”

“Have a nice day ma’am,” and he left.

Author Unknown

In at least a few noticeable ways, Muslims have thus become “the new Jews,” scapegoats onto whom Europeans tend to project their anxieties about the future. Conservative and far-right politicians constantly intensify and exploit these anxieties in order to enhance nationalist agendas. This is, of course, not a new phenomenon: Europe’s migrant-skeptical, populist right wing has a long tradition of fear-mongering against the newest group of immigrants. Since Muslims have been Europe’s largest migrant and immigrant community since the mid-1990s, the radical right wing has not even had to shift its core message in over twenty years.

The debate on the interconnection of Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia is extensive and emotional, but most importantly, it’s relevant. The last decade has shown an increase in fear and insecurity among both Muslim and Jewish communities in Western Europe, a place known in the 21st century as a bastion of respect, tolerance and peace. There are plenty of good arguments that try to differentiate between the two types of discrimination, but in the end their commonality is that they affect communities seen as “the other”.

The above described discrimination is not only taking place in the realm of words, rules, regulations, and policies, although that would be enough reason to sound the alarm. It is also resulting in actions and violence targeted at Muslims, as well as their homes, communities, mosques, and those who are on the very perilous journey of trying to find shelter in Europe from the war and violence happening in their countries. For this purpose, there are entire groups dedicated to training “soldiers” who are prepared to fight for the anti-Muslim cause.

The 4th Forum of dissidence took place on a rainy November night, not far from the banks of the Seine. Inside the conference hall, French twenty-somethings with clean-cut hair styles, elegant shirts and pointed dress shoes were distributing flyers to those who arrived. Above where they stood, a navy-blue sign displayed, in large white letters, “Defend Europe”. The flyers spelled out exactly what that meant: “No migrants in Europe! Join us to defend your people!” And then in a majestic typeface beneath a mysterious lambda sign, the flyers were signed Generation Identitaire, or “Generation Identity.”

Generation identity was made up of young, mostly-male Europeans – many of them middle-class, educated and well spoken-who held staunchly xenophobic, Islamophobic and anti-immigrant views.”

Indeed, Generation identity is today the fastest growing far-right youth movement in Europe. Though its membership is steadily increasing in Germany, Austria, Italy, the United Kingdom and Denmark, it remains the most popular and active in the country where it was founded – France. This fall, I spent a month in Paris meeting the movement’s supporters and “militants,” as they call themselves, who meet every week at a secret location, and regularly organize online and offline campaigns to promote their anti-immigration and anti-globalization ideology.

Romain Espino was there to participate on a panel about social media. He denounced social media platforms for censoring pages that do not conform to mainstream beliefs, citing the closure of Generation Identity’s Facebook page. The page had been shut down in May 2018, after a publicized campaign by GI militants, who, in April, had blocked a known crossing point in the Alps to prevent migrants from entering France.

Reiterating his Eurocentric ideals, Marc highlighted that living together could only be tolerated according to certain ethnic criteria. “Between Europeans, cohabitation works, but between Europeans and Asians, or Europeans and Africans, it does not work.” As the conversation continued, Marc remained articulate, but his clear racial bias intensified, with irregular sparks of agitation.

At times, in the way he avowed to fight for an ethnocultural identity, to Europe, Marc’s views recalled those of fascist leaders we used to learn about in school. “Multiculturalism has never existed. It’s a utopia. There are only conflicts. It’s an internal war.” He said. When Marc uttered sentences like this, there was a composure to his speech, but a violence to his words and in his light blue eyes.

For those who aren’t Muslim, or connected to the Muslim world, it can be easy to ignore this growing threat of violence and discrimination happening right in front of us. In fact, we probably don’t even know every time someone is unjustly denied a visa to Europe, or every time they are pulled aside and interrogated for no reason other than being from a Muslim country, or worse yet experiencing actual injury or death at the hands of anti-Muslim extremists. But if we care about the future of Europe and the values that it claims to uphold, we won’t turn a blind eye to this or any other racism, regardless of how disguised it may be.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.


Reflection questions:

  • What can I personally do to fight against Islamophobia?
  • What kind of activities/events can contribute towards this goal?
  • When trainings/activities/events are organized that are related to Muslims (about Islamophobia, extremism, refugees, etc.) am I making sure to actually include practicing Muslims in it? Or are we just speaking about them but never with them?
  • What do I actually know about Muslims and Islam? What do I still need to learn?


Look up the definition of cultural racism (from a few different sources if you can). After that, see if you can observe instances of cultural racism around you, in your community, workplace, shared living space or in the media. Note that cultural racism is just as bad as regular racism and that it is actually illegal to discriminate based on how someone chooses to live their life. Make it a point to stand up against cultural racism wherever you see it and to protect human rights and freedom of religion in any way you can, in the same way that you would want your freedom and rights protected and respected by others.

Leilani van Rheenen

has been active in youth work, training and coaching since 2008. Her specialty is emotional intelligence, emotional fitness, since it is the primary ingredient in competences such as inter-cultural competence, learning to learn, cooperating successfully in teams, etc. Leilani’s contribution will combine the information and methods she has created with the vast array of tried and tested materials available. Leilani has developed herself as a trainer from the Salto training for trainers, but also from renowned coaches and authors, and adapted methods learned from these sources to meet the needs of youth workers.

Click here to read more about Leilani van Rheenen

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Durie, A., & Sachs, K. (n.d.). Are We Europe. (K. Hartog & A. Hurst, Eds.).Lentin, A., & Titley, G. (2011). The Crises of Multiculturalism. Zed Books Ltd.

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