It's fashionable now to say that anti-Muslim sentiment is the new anti-Semitism. Arabs, after all, are Semitic people, so the rash of ugly rhetoric that spread this year during election campaigns in the United States and Europe might resemble a new mutation of an old disease.
"I'm afraid that we are going through a process like the beginning of the '30s of the last century," said Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, head of a huge international Muslim group called the Organization of the Islamic Conference, in early November, "when an anti-Semitic agenda became politically a big issue (together with) the rise of fascism and Nazism. ... I think now we are in the first stages of such a thing."
The parallels are strong. Hatred of Islam seems to have risen recently with unemployment (in 2009-2010), not with the worst terrorist attacks over the last decade (in 2001, 2004 in Madrid, 2005 in London). Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have noticed the suffering and fanned the flames. The idea also isn't new — in 1993, the noted Holocaust scholar Richard L. Rubenstein published an article accusing Western powers of tolerating the mass murder of Muslims in Europe during the (then-current) Balkan civil wars.
"Just as the nations of Western Europe tolerated, where they did not actively facilitate, the elimination of the Jews during World War II," he wrote, several years before the NATO bombardment of Serbia that brought those wars to an end, "so in the Balkans they are willing to tolerate the elimination of a Muslim political presence from contemporary Europe."
But some historians argue that "anti-Semitism" doesn't apply to Muslims, since a 19th-century German invented the term to describe his own specific resentment of Jews. Wilhelm Marr, an anarchist and leftist agitator from Magdeburg, founded the "Anti-Semitic League" in 1879. The idea was to simultaneously trumpet German nationalism and oppose big bankers, who were seen in those days as a class of rich, largely Jewish, scheming, foreign-minded puppet masters.
Muslims don't play that role now, in America or Europe. And by the time Hitler came to power, vilifying Jews had become a tool of the right, so that Nazi anti-Semitism rested on "the idea that Jews, especially Jews as Communists," Rubenstein says, "were responsible for Germany's defeat in World War I. There was a need to say 'We didn't do it, we were betrayed.'
"The issue with Islam is different," he argues. "There is undoubtedly some irresponsible anti-Islamic stuff going on, but what I've heard is mostly people who are afraid that a growing Muslim population will be able to transform European society and American society."
Rubenstein himself is against this transformation. He's wary about anti-Israel rhetoric from some Muslim leaders in the West, and he says he's changed his position since he wrote the Balkan essay.
"Quite honestly, no," he said when I asked if recent anti-Muslim rhetoric reminded him even slightly of anti-Semitism before the Holocaust.
But the notion of a Muslim fifth column in the war on terrorism — of betrayal from within — does turn up in the new anti-Muslim rage. One difference between Islamophobia and other forms of xenophobia in Europe is that Muslims are already settled. Like European Jews in the 19th century, they're not arriving: They've arrived.
For more, read our Islam and anti-Muslim fear in America article on Miller-McCune.com
"To be blunt, Muslim communities aren't going anywhere," says Matthew Goodwin, a lecturer at the University of Nottingham who specializes in the British far right. "The only thing that's going to happen over the next 10 to 20 years is that they'll get bigger in size, and to an average, white, working-class voter, chances are, they're going to see this as immigration."
Goodwin argues that anti-Muslim sentiment has risen because mainstream parties on the center-left and -right in both Europe and America can't address the rise of Muslim populations by making the usual reasonable noises about immigration.
"Anxiety about that community is a much more difficult thing to respond to if you're a mainstream party," he says, "because you can't talk about reducing numbers, or tightening borders, or having an annual cap." You have to talk about cultural invasions, or even deportation. "So it's quite difficult to articulate the concerns of voters without alienating your center ground."
In that sense a fear of Muslims is like fear of Jews: Radical politicians can exploit it. Liberal leaders, not so much.
But "anti-Semitism" may still be the wrong label for the mania. Europe has a long history of expelling Muslims as well as Jews, and even if there's no good term for the reflex, the effects of intolerance and homogenization on the European societies that indulge it can generally be summarized in a single word — decline.