"Folk Devils": The Spectre of the Evil Other Rises Again

This is an important article, making a very important point, that appeared in the Guardian today. As Maleiha Malik, a Muslim feminist, shows, the on-going demonization of Muslims – even under the cloak of targeted criticism of "extremists" and praise for "good" Muslims – is following a well-marked path that history shows can lead to horrible consequences. It's worth reading in full, and excerpting at length.

Muslims are now getting the same treatment Jews had a century ago (Guardian).
Excerpts: Migrants fleeing persecution and poverty settled with their children in the East End of London. As believers in one God they were devoted to their holy book, which contained strict religious laws, harsh penalties and gender inequality. Some of them established separate religious courts. The men wore dark clothes and had long beards; some women covered their hair. A royal commission warned of the grave dangers of self-segregation. Politicians said different religious dress was a sign of separation. Some migrants were members of extremist political groups. Others actively organised to overthrow the established western political order. Campaigners against the migrants carefully framed their arguments as objections to "alien extremists" and not to a race or religion. A British cabinet minister said we were facing a clash about civilisation: this was about values; a battle between progress and "arrested development".

All this happened a hundred years ago to Jewish migrants seeking asylum in Britain. The political movements with which they were closely associated were anarchism and later Bolshevism. As in the case of contemporary political violence, or even the radical Islamism supported by a minority of British Muslims, anarchism and Bolshevism only commanded minority support among the Jewish community. But shared countries of origin and a common ethnic and religious background were enough to create a racialised discourse whenever there were anarchist outrages in London in the early 20th century.

Most anarchists were peaceful, but a few resorted to violent attacks such as the bombing of Greenwich Observatory in 1894 - described at the time as an "international terrorist outrage". Anarchist violence was an international phenomenon. In Europe it claimed hundreds of lives, including those of several heads of government, and resulted in anti- terrorism laws. In the siege of Sidney Street in London in 1911, police and troops confronted east European Jewish anarchists. This violent confrontation in the heart of London created a racialised moral panic in which the whole Jewish community was stigmatised. It was claimed that London was "seething" with violent aliens, and the British establishment was said to be "in a state of denial". East End Jews were said to be "alienated", not "integrated", and a "threat to our security" a long time before anyone dreamed up the phrase "Londonistan".

Today the Middle East is the focus of a challenge to American political and economic hegemony, which is being presented as a "civilisational conflict with Islam". Nearly a century ago, the Russian revolution sent shockwaves through western states and financial markets. Anti-semites argued that Jewish involvement in revolutionary politics was part of a conspiracy by "the homeless wandering Jew" to replace European states with their "Hebrew nation". Winston Churchill, as secretary of state for war in 1920, wrote an article in the Illustrated Sunday Herald claiming there were three categories of Jews - good, bad and indifferent - and arguing that they were part of a "worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development"...

Both anti-semitism and anti-Muslim racism focus on belief in religious law to construct Jews and Muslims as a threat to the nation. Pnina Werbner, professor of social anthropology at Keele University, argues that Jews are predominantly racialised as an assimilated threat to national interests emerging at moments of crisis. Muslims are now being represented as a different kind of "folk devil" - a social group that is openly and aggressively trying to impose its religion on national culture. This partially explains the recent concerns about multiculturalism. "Anti-fundamentalist images provide racists with a legitimising discourse against Muslims," as Werbner puts it, which is used by "intellectual elites as well as 'real' violent racists".

The Jewish-Muslim comparison reveals another recurring pattern in recent British history: the rapid collapse of security fears associated with a religious minority into a racialised discourse of "civilisation versus barbarism". The American philosopher William Connolly predicted after September 11 that "the terrorism of al-Qaida, in turn, generates new fears and hostilities. The McCarthyism of our day will connect internal state security to an exclusionary version of the Judeo-Christian tradition".