A New Europe: Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the Nation-State

Matti Bunzl‘s work entitled “Between Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: Some Thoughts on the New Europe,” published in American Ethnologist (Vol. 32, No. 4, November 2005), is groundbreaking.  It is evident from the article, as well as the commentaries on it that appeared in the same issue, that, to understand contemporary Europe, we need to rethink some of our assumptions about it and grasp the changing landscape of the rest of the world.

The common method of comparing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, especially among leftists, is to analogize them and to see both as the “Other” of Christianity.  Bunzl argues against that method, given the decisive secularization of Europe.  He, instead, draws an analytical framework that situates these two in different projects of exclusion.  According to Bunzl, anti-Semitism was invented in the late 19th century to police the ethnically pure nation-state.  On the other hand, Islamophobia is a recent formation that seeks to make the supranational European Union a fortress against migrants.  He goes further: traditional anti-Semitism has run its historical course with the end of the nation-state, and, consequently, Islamophobia is becoming the defining condition of the “new Europe.”

Bunzl discusses two views on anti-Semitism that are dominant in Europe.  The alarmist view, often found on the right side of the political spectrum, sees a resurgence of anti-Semitism as an immediate threat to the worldwide Jewish community.  For them, anti-Zionism is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism: any critique of the Jewish state carries “potential residues” of anti-Semitism.  The other view, on the left, rejects the idea that criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic.  The left view points to the relatively small number of acts of violence against Jews and the degree of comfort Jews enjoy in the continent.  Even though those who hold the latter view do recognize that Jewish institutions and communities have increasingly become victims of abuse, they tend to see those cases as part of the larger patterns of racist violence against all minorities initiated by the extreme right.

Bunzl asserts that both alarmists and leftists are wrong.  Europe is not a hotbed of unbridled anti-Semitism.  Nor can all anti-Semitic incidents be categorized under right-wing violence.  He claims that both sides rely on static views of history: the former sees anti-Semitism as a constant and the latter, the right-wing ideology.  Bunzl cites examples from Austria, among others, to illustrate historical change.  In the period before WW II, there were three political factions that resorted to anti-Semitism: a) German national parties, which sought the exclusion of Jews on racial grounds; b) Christian factions, which fought the Jewish presence out of a mixture of religious anti-Judaism and reactionary anti-modernism; and c) even socialists and communists who regularly deployed anti-Semitism in their critiques of capitalism, even though many of their leaders were Jews.  He argues that Austria today is still dominated by these three factions but anti-Semitism is nevertheless fading.  Under of leadership of Jörg Haider, the Freedom Party opposed Austria’s membership in the EU on nationalist grounds.  However, in 1995, after Austria’s inclusion in the EU, the politics of the party changed.  The party began to accept Jews as potential leaders.  According to Bunzl, this change is common among Europe’s far right-wing movements.  He contrasts it with the dynamics of Islamophobia.  He argues that Islamophobia is a genuine political issue, part of a wide-open debate on the future of Muslim presence in Europe.  In contrast, there is no debate on the legitimacy of Jewish presence in Europe.

Bunzl recognizes some validity of the analogy between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: “Both, after all, are exclusionary ideologies mobilized in the interest of collective engineering.”  But similarities end there.  Anti-Semitism was designed to protect the purity of the ethnic nation-state, whereas Islamophobia is a project to “safeguard the future of European civilization.”

Even though Bunzl’s concern about growing anti-Islamic attitudes throughout Europe provides substantial insights, critics of his article raise some important issues.  One commentator on the article, John Bowen, takes issue with the neutrality of the term “Islamophobia”: the term is more polemical than analytical.  Bowen claims that anti-Arab racism is hard to distinguish from fear of Islam and both are mixed up with racism against Black Africans in the minds of many.  He also thinks that Bunzl’s portrayal of Islamophobia as a recent phenomenon is not well grounded, reminding the reader, for instance, of French attitudes toward Muslims that stemmed from the colonization of Algeria and the Algerian War.  At the end of the commentary, Bowen asks whether or not limiting Europe to a set of nations with a shared heritage, e.g., excluding Turkey from the EU, is necessarily anti-Islamic.  He doesn’t answer the question, nor does he argue for the exclusion of Turkey himself, but he asserts that a person who makes such a statement is not “ipso facto” an Islamophobe.

Nina Glick Schiller, another commentator, argues that Bunzl portrays contemporary Europe and its Islamophobia in such a way that makes it difficult to understand the global context in which they exist.  She shows that Bunzl disregards the current global movement to revive a Christian identity, though she admits it is still marginal in countries like Germany.  According to her, such a global movement, which seeks to merge intersecting identities of “Christian” and “European” as well as racialized national identities in Europe, must be understood within the context of worldwide neoliberal reforms that have caused a generalized sense of insecurity. “What is happening at the level of localities, nation-states and Europe as a whole cannot be separated from the global economy and its political fault lines.  To talk about Europe and Islamophobia without talking about more global forces is to miss the triangulation and contention of U.S. and European interests over sources of oil in the Middle East, Africa, and central Asia,” she argues.

Glick Schiller’s criticism of the gaps in Bunzl’s article draws upon her analysis of various nation-state building projects and comparative fieldworks in small cities in eastern Germany and in the New England region of the United States.  Based on her research on the “born-again” movement, she found that there is a strong networking of evangelical Christian bases among nation-states.  Their usage of websites, common texts, and traveling preachers has allowed the movement to successfully reach the height of political power in the United States.  She points out that, in USA, the anti-Muslim rhetoric of Christian crusade runs rampant.  Even though the number of people who espouse this form of Christianity is still small in Europe today, it is growing.  She points out that “Christianity was not vanquished as a category of identity by the growth of nation-states but came hand in hand with the penetration of capitalism, modernity, and nationalism.  And that heritage has not been abandoned in the core states of the European Union or in its newest members.  Most people in Europe may not be very religious, but enough of constituency equates civilization, Europe, and Christianity that the issue of acknowledging Christianity within the E.U. constitution was hotly debated rather than readily dismissed as an outdated and discredited idea.”  She emphasizes the anti-Islamic rhetoric that is growing in force in Europe is simultaneously a discourse about religion and a racialized discourse about culture.  Bunzl’s insistence on the end of  nationalism prevents him from noting that, by constructing the Other, people in each European state also display their nationalism.

This entire issue of American Ethnologist, a major anthropology journal published by the American Anthropological Association, in which the above articles appeared raised some important questions about contemporary Europe.  As described by Virginia Dominguez in the issue’s foreword, these articles are all about “exclusionary projects.”  The contributors deal with how such projects work, how they are sustained, and under what conditions they become more visible.  Bunzl’s article examines anti-Semitism and Islamophobia through the lens that focuses on their respective relations to contemporary supranationalism in Europe.  The commentaries on his work point out the need to connect his analysis with the dynamic global landscape.  I only discussed three articles from this issue, but the rest of the articles are also intriguing and definitely worth debating.  Juxtaposing these discussions not only with exclusionary European projects but with other exclusionary ideologies from rest of the world should prove illuminating.


Bowen, John.  “Commentary on Bunzl.” American Ethnologist 32.4 (2005): 524-525.

Bunzl, Matti. “Between Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia: Some Thoughts on the New Europe.” American Ethnologist 32.4 (2005): 499-508.

Glick Schiller, Nina (2005). “Racialized Nations, Evangelizing Christianity, Police States, and Imperial Power: Missing in Action in Bunzl’s New Europe.”  American Ethnologist 32.4 (2005): 526-532.

Sharif Islam is a Research Programmer at the University of Illinois Library Systems Office.  Read his blog: Khepa Baul