The nature of Islamophobia

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Talat Ahmed's article, Islamophobia, Repression and Resistance (Feature, Socialist Review, September 2013), was an incisive analysis of the rise of Islamophobia while asserting the importance of class.

However, there is one line of Talat's argument I feel compelled to disagree with. This may prove to be a matter of emphasis; however, if so, I think it is a significant one.

Talat wishes to challenge a view held by many Muslims that Islamophobia is distinct from other forms of racism. Insofar as this can lead to the conclusion that Muslims are "on their own" and that the only possible response is a strategy based on a defence of or a retreat into Islam, the concern is justified.

Talat is also right to identify continuities in the history of anti-Muslim racism and features it shares with racism directed at other groups. However, I believe it is critically important to recognise that Islamophobia bears specific, unique ideological characteristics that are extremely dangerous, and which have the potential to provide an ideological engine for fascism in ways we have not seen since the 1930s.

In the late 19th and 20th centuries anti-Semitism emerged in the context of crisis, imperialist war, mass Jewish migration from Eastern Europe and, not least, the threat of revolution. As with Muslims, Jews were a highly heterogeneous people and, of course, were divided by class. Modern anti-Semitism drew on historic prejudices against Jews and upon other forms of racism. Nonetheless, anti-Semitism was a new development, not simply another form of racism directed at a particular group.

Jews were portrayed as owing allegiance to an alien worldview, fundamentally hostile to Western values. Anti-Semitism thus had a distinct character although it also drew on notions of cultural and biological difference. The term "Jewish Bolshevism" was coined by the European establishment before it was seized on by the Nazis, in order to paint both Jews and socialists as "the enemy within". In Germany anti-Semitic propaganda portrayed Jews as responsible for the defeat of German imperialism in the First World War and for the German revolutionary upheavals of the early 1920s.

After the Iranian Revolution in 1979 Islamophobia began to take on a specific character not evident during the horrific era of "Paki-bashing" in the 1960s and 70s. Islam was portrayed as an existential foe. This is exemplified by the current demonisation of Muslim women who choose to wear "the veil". These features do imbue Islamophobia with a specific and distinct character (even while drawing upon traditional forms of racism).

Furthermore, as a result of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this has become a global phenomenon. War hammers at the Middle East while revolution rises to haunt the imperialist powers. In the West, Muslims now form a migrant population numbering in the millions. The Muslim community are in the eye of the storm. There are specific historical antecedents for the development of Islamophobia. They should serve as a chilling warning.