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Conversation with Prof. Günther Jikeli

A researcher delves into Muslim antisemitism
By Cindy Mindell

Between the growing success of far-right political parties and a rise in violent Islamist terror attacks, Western Europe looks less and less hospitable to a Jewish presence. A new book seeks to better understand one ingredient in this modern brew of antisemitism: young Muslim men living in Europe.

In European Muslim Antisemitism: Why Young Urban Males Say They Don’t Like Jews (Indiana University Press, January 2015) Paris-based scholar Günther Jikeli and his colleagues interview 117 Muslim men in London, Paris, and Berlin, delving into the roots of men’s perception and attitude toward Jews, as well as their own national identification.

Jikeli will discuss European Muslim antisemitism on Wednesday, April 1 in New Haven, in a talk presented by the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism.

Jikeli is a research fellow at the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies at Potsdam University and at the Groupe Sociétés, Religions, Laïcités at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. Last year, he was the Justin M. Druck Family Visiting Scholar at the Indiana University Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, and became founding coordinator of the France-based affiliate of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism (ISGAP). He earned a PhD at the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University of Berlin. From 2011-12, he served as adviser on combating antisemitism to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Jikeli spoke with the Ledger about his work and the emerging picture of Muslim antisemitism in Europe.

Q: One widely-expressed explanation for the radicalization of Muslims in Europe is the isolation of immigrant Muslim communities and the failure on the part of governments to integrate them. Do you agree?

A: It’s simply not true on many levels: it’s not true that most Muslims aren’t integrated; most Muslims are integrated in European societies. We should also distinguish here between fundamentalists and antisemites: it’s not always true that the antisemites or those who commit antisemitic acts are part of fundamentalist organizations. We also see that those who are part of fundamentalist organizations are not necessarily segregated. Several of those who committed terror attacks were studying at major universities, which is usually a sign of major integration, and were not marginalized in some suburb – which does exist as well. Empirically, we don’t see this connection. If you talk to young Muslims who have antisemitic ideas, they do not necessarily feel that they are disconnected or excluded – some of them do; some of them don’t. We don’t see a direct link.

There was often this theory that the far right developed among those who were unemployed and so on; this is also not true. And the same goes for Muslims: it’s not because you are in a marginalized situation that your ideas become radicalized. Rather, sometimes it’s the other way around: some fundamentalist organizations push and say openly that they want disintegration for Muslims and non-Muslims. They want a separation. So I think this ideologically-driven Islamism leads to disintegration, not the other way around.

Q: How are European governments responding to Muslim antisemitism in their countries?

A: The European governments are reacting differently [from one another]. Even within one country, the policy can sometimes be contradictory. Some of the government responses are very questionable. For example, in Denmark, they have tried to work with some of the imams who have preached hatred, to get them to say, “We are against terrorism.” This approach has a long tradition in Great Britain, where the government has tried to work together with groups that are very closely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. In many European countries, many if not most Muslim organizations are linked to Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. European governments, because they lack partners, try to dialog with these Islamist organizations, which I think gives them more power than they have.

On the other hand, from some surveys, we see that the average Muslim in Europe does not feel represented by any Muslim organization. Many young people are looking for the meaning of life and are attracted by Islamist organizations. Many of these organizations try to get a hold in the schools. If they give students quotes from the Koran that can be read as incitement to violence, the students can be very attracted and say that this is the true Islam. This is a tiny minority, of course, but it is because the ideology of Islam can be very strong and more and more Muslims get radicalized. I think it’s similar to the extreme right.

Q: How did you find the interview subjects for your latest book? What about Muslim women?

A: We were involved in educational programs to try to combat antisemitism and so we had to know what the stereotypes are, how young Muslims think about Jews. We decided that it was necessary to go not only to mosques, because many young Muslims do not go to mosques, but to find them elsewhere. Our method was to go out into the streets and approach young people and have a conversation about their neighborhood, about discrimination, about their views on contemporary conflicts, and on Jews.

We found that it was easier to approach young men than young women, even though we tried with female interviewers. We did do some interviews with Muslim women and we didn’t include them in our analysis because we would have had to do many more to have a proper comparison to the young men’s interviews. But I know that most surveys that distinguish between men and women find a difference: the level of antisemitism is lower among women than among men. But this should be investigated in more detail to see whether there are different stereotypes or why they are different.

Q: Did any of your subjects express favorable or neutral opinions about Jews?

A: There is a short chapter on the anti-antisemites, which focuses on those who spoke out against antisemitism and even spoke out against their parents’ Jew-hatred. For me, it’s the most fascinating question, because we’ve known that there are antisemites, but I also want to know how people can reject hostile views against Jews. Many of our subjects live in an environment where it’s natural for their friends and family members to not like Jews; it’s not even questioned.

We found three types of anti-antisemites. One boy said that his father wished that he would become a martyr and blow up Jews in Israel. The boy said in the interview that he responded to his father, “This is out of the question. How can you kill innocent people, and nobody should be discriminated against or killed for their religious or ethnic background.” He very much subscribed to this idea that people should not be discriminated against because of their background.

Another one said that he’s very different than others. His sense of individualism was very strong. He said, “I know Muslims and Jews, they don’t like each other but I’m not that way, I think my own way.” You could see that also in his description of his life; how he integrates with others, and that he has a very strong personality and doesn’t just adopt the views of other people. And, a third one said, “I have so many problems, I don’t want additional problems, and if I get into this business of hatred, it won’t do me any good so I just keep quiet, I just want to have peace with everybody.”

Q: In the U.S., “race” has become a much-discussed topic. There is also a strong tradition of interfaith dialog to strengthen relations and understanding among disparate groups. Do you see these kinds of conversations in Europe as well?

A: It depends on the country. If you talk about race in Germany, that’s not good because the word is so connected to National Socialism. Rather, the attitude is that there is only one race – that’s the human race – and there are different ethnicities and so on. In the French context, you have a little bit of this as well, also related to the Vichy past. The term “race” is also not used; you’re seen as racist if you make the distinction between different races, but you have different ethnicities and religions and so on. Since the French Revolution, there has been a very strong belief that people should be seen as individuals and their specific backgrounds should not play an important role. There is dialog between people of different religions, but I’m not sure if it will do very much to fight antisemitism. In France, we had a recent study by Fondapol [la Fondation pour l’innovation politique, the Foundation for Political Innovation] on antisemitic attitudes. The researchers asked whether respondents knew somebody Jewish in their family or at work or wherever. They saw that there is almost no correlation – or not a strong correlation, at least – between knowing a Jew and being antisemitic.

Q: Do you think antisemitism will ever be eradicated in Europe?

A: Realistically, over the next five years, we can be happy if antisemitism is not spreading anymore and if we can fight it a little bit. I was invited last week to talk about antisemitism at the UNESCO International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. They had this kind of approach that we should all come together and love each other. In theory, yes, everybody should respect the other and so on; but it doesn’t work. We have to find the stereotypes and we have to make sure that people adhere to certain standards of living together. In the fight against antisemitism, I think there must be at least two components: one is for the authorities to make clear that antisemitism is not acceptable; and the other is education – to really understand that antisemitic prejudices are not a healthy way of thinking.

“European Muslim Antisemitism” with Prof. Günther Jikeli: Wednesday, April 1, 5 p.m., Yale University, Whitney Humanities Center, 53 Wall St., Room 208, New Haven. For information: ypsa@yale.edu.

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