Shifting Hierarchies of Exclusion: Colonialism, Anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia in European History

By Katz, Ethan B. | Cross Currents, September 2015 | Go to article overview

Shifting Hierarchies of Exclusion: Colonialism, Anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia in European History


Katz, Ethan B., Cross Currents


On January 13, 2015, France's Prime Minister Manuel Vails addressed the French National Assembly. He spoke in the wake of the previous week's murderous attacks in Paris by radical Islamists, first at the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo and then two days later at the kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher. In his address, Vails received a standing ovation when he declared: "I don't want there to be Jews in our country who are afraid, or Muslims who are ashamed." (2) At this moment, the prime minister and French parliament appeared to recognize the interwoven fates of France's two largest ethno-religious minorities--and of the ideologies of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

More than most commentators have realized, such interconnections have a long history, particularly in the Francophone orbit. Much of that history is bound up with the history of colonialism. This essay seeks to begin to understand how colonialism shaped, utilized, and manifested itself in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. For precise historical reasons, we will focus on the French empire, particularly French Algeria.

This is a history in three stages. In the first stage, the mid-to-late nineteenth century, Islamophobia became much more pronounced in the colonial venture than anti-Semitism. Although Jews' position was never entirely secure, in certain instances they even benefited from colonial rule. By the period between the two World Wars, anti-Semitism had gained growing ferocity across Europe, in France included, while the colonial venture had reached its peak. Both Jews and Muslims were frequently depicted with highly racialized imagery and in many instances faced significant legal and social discrimination. At the same time, Muslims in particular were often the target of propaganda campaigns meant to win their loyalty for one European power or another, as well as provocations meant to turn them against Jews. In the third stage, during the Second World War, the increasing violence of European anti-Semitism crystallized in the horrors of the Holocaust. Muslims, meanwhile, found their position remarkably elevated as Europe's colonial powers struggled to maintain control and as political forces of all stripes saw in Muslims a possible constituency for their wartime aims.

Colonialism's attraction to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

The Enlightenment and the French Revolution introduced a series of powerful claims about the existence of the nation-state, popular sovereignty, the public "good," and, more broadly, universal principles by which polities should be organized. In the nineteenth century, countries like France and England were at once struggling at home with how far these principles should extend and expanding their imperial power abroad. Exercising colonial rule, while claiming to uphold some version of liberal ideals of universalized citizenship, forced European powers to face the question of how far the new notions of rights and equality might extend into their empires. (3)

Ultimately, by definition, the colony could not become home to universal rights. Settler colonies like Algeria attracted colonists in significant part because of the distinctly unequal opportunities that they offered to Europeans for economic and political power. Moreover, only if Europe was considered superior and the colonized world inferior could the so-called civilizing mission--the frequently invoked notion, in pursuit of colonial conquests, that Europe had an obligation to bring the light of progress and civilization to darker, more primitive parts of the world--have any compelling logic. (4)

More intangible factors served to essentialize the colonized, including Muslims and Jews, in the nineteenth-century European mind. These included long-standing, ubiquitous Orientalist images and associations that exoticized both groups. For many Europeans, the disproportionate fascination with Muslims and Jews meant that these groups were at once different and alluring, uncivilized, and intriguing as possible targets of the civilizing mission. …

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