Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: The Formation of a Secret

Article excerpt

Edward Said suggested that Islamophobia was a "secret sharer" of anti-Semitism. (1) This was more than a passing nod to a subject outside of what he was writing about; on the contrary, long, detailed passages in Orientalism make it clear that the construction of the Semite was at the core of what Said was writing about. (2) That should hardly have surprised anyone who knows the history of how Jews and Muslims were imagined from the Middle Ages to the mid twentieth century: together, as two of an oriental kind. The real question is how it came about that Said could refer, correctly, to such an overwhelmingly obvious fact as having become a "secret." It was no such thing to the people who started using the term "anti-Semite" in the late nineteenth century. That was roughly a hundred years after the term "Semite" was first used by German biblical scholars as a label for a language family, whose best-known members were Hebrew and Arabic. (3)

What I would like to do in this article is to ask what happens if we take anti-Semitism at its word, literally that is, as targeting all Semites and not only the Jews. I would like to explore anti-Semitism as one aspect of the long history of the joint construction of Jew and Muslim, and then ask how it is that in more recent times the commonality between Jew and Arab, which the term "anti-Semitism" displays unambiguously, could ever have become a "secret." I intend to stay with the very superficial, etymological issue of the "Semite" in "anti-Semitism." But I do so, of course, in the belief that this is an entry point that can take us much deeper.

"Semitism" was a term that was invented to refer to a language type and a type of human being: a race and what we would now call a culture. It referred above all to the Jews and their biblical Hebrew-speaking ancestors, and to the Arabs. It was a development of an old tradition in the Christian West of regarding Jews and Muslims as distinguishable but yet closely related species of the same religious genre, a tradition going back to the very beginnings of Islam itself. (4) The major changes were two.

First, the substitution of "Arab" for "Muslim" added a clear linguistic and "racial" dimension to the construction of Islam in the West. It was accompanied by a similar identification of the Jews, both biblical and contemporary, as carriers of a distinctive oriental, Hebrew culture and members of an equally distinctive, oriental Jewish race. Second, if the medieval habit was to imagine the Muslims as Judaizers and to compare them to the Jews, from the Renaissance on the tendency was on the increase to imagine the Jews on the pattern of what was becoming known of the Muslims.

There was a common message coming from scholars like the orientalist explorer Carsten Niehbuhr, who in 1772 compared Arab Bedouin to the biblical patriarchs, from Ludwig Schlozer, who in 1781 first used the term "Semitic," from the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who in about 1821 declared that Judaism was part of "overall Arab religion," from the writer-politician Benjamin Disraeli, who in 1847 wrote that "God never spoke except to an Arab," including under that label the Jew, and, unforeseen by all of them, from the pamphleteer politician Wilhelm Marr who, according to tradition, invented the term "anti-Semite" in 1879, when he founded an organization called the "Anti-Semites League." (5) That message was, "look, the Jews are like the Arabs." To philo-Semites, including many Jews, this just made the Jews even more interesting in a period of romantic orientalism. (6) But to the enemies of the Jews it gave intellectual support for claiming that the Jews were, as they liked to say, an "Asiatic" element unassimilable to Christian Europe and western civilization ("Palestinian" in fact was used to describe in a derogatory way the Jews of Germany by the proto-Nazi orientalist and pamphleteer, Paul de Lagarde). (7)

Orientalism was ambivalent: in some ways it feared or condemned the Orient and in others it loved and romanticized it. …