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Published on May 2nd, 2013 | by Usman Butt
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What Western Muslims Can Learn From Jewish History

Shalom Aleikhem (Hebrew) or As-Salamu Alaykum (Arabic), both Muslims and Jews greet each other with “peace be with you”.  The similarities between the two don’t end there. Not eating pork, circumcision, only eating blessed meats (Kosher and Halal), Monotheism (belief in one God), Jews pray three times a day- Muslims five times a day. Also the Daily Mail hates both of them. When there is an incident in which a Muslim is against a Jew- the Daily Mail has a dilemma, who do they hate more? Beyond the similarities there is good reason for Muslims to study Jewish history in Europe. Muslims are perceived as a problem minority in both North America and Europe. Prior to post-colonial multiculturalism (before World War 2) the biggest minority group in Europe was the Jews.

Despite common perception- Muslims are thoroughly integrated into European and North American society. Whenever, opinion polls are carried out Muslims tend to respond that they are proud to be British, French, American and so on… they tend to be more proud to be British than the native white British population. One study carried out showed that 83% of Muslims are proud to be British compared to 79% of the general public. Furthermore 86.4% feel they belong to British society and identify with its values. The responses are similar for Muslims across Europe and North America. Despite this, the host countries tend to feel the opposite way about it’s Muslim populations. They see Muslims as hostile towards their country and values.

In some countries, this image is so deeply ingrained that challenging it or removing it is an uphill struggle.  In Germany, unless you are 100% northern European looking, being accepted as fully German by the society at large is next to impossible. And Muslim minorities feel this pressure. Some try to become more German than the Germans. Others reject Germaness altogether. I once met a Third-generation Turkish German girl- her grandparents moved to Germany in the 1960’s as ‘Guest Workers’. Her Turkish ancestry  makes her ‘uncomfortable’ – so much so that she dyed her hair blonde to look ‘more Aryan’ and only dates German men in order to feel ‘more German’.  The complexity of being a minority is too much for the majority of the “native” populations of Europe and North American to understand.

They may ‘tolerant’ and celebrate it, but they cannot understand it as they have never lived it. For a Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or Buddhist child sitting in schools learning about ‘British history’ from the Tudors to the Victorians can be a disconnecting experience. You’re learning the history of the demographic-majority and there are no minorities in it. As a minority, you don’t have a history. At least not one worth learning about in school. You have left the country where you were the indigenous people and come into a country in which you are not the indigenous people. And this creates an identity crisis as you’re not Pakistani/Indian/Arab etc.. anymore but you’re not white British either. So who are you?

Studying Jewish history in Europe will not resolve this question but it will help Muslims. Many of the issues that Jews have faced in Europe from persecution to assimilation- can guide today’s minorities. Jews have asked many of the same questions that many minorities now ask. But beyond this Muslims and Jews have a long, shared history together. It is a tradition in the Arab and Muslim world that when someone is persecuted in another land- you grant them asylum and let them live in your land. This was a practise in the Ottoman Empire long before it was practised in Europe. After the Muslims were expelled from Europe in 1492- many Jews were persecuted by the new Christian rulers and many had to flee Europe and seek asylum in Muslim lands.

The history of Jews in Muslim countries is a lot better than their history in Europe- there was no Muslim equivalent of the Holocaust. In fact, during the Holocaust, many Muslims helped to save Jewish lives. There was the Imam at the main Paris mosque, who issued fake identity papers to Parisian Jews stating that they were Muslim and ultimately saving them from the concentration camps. There are many similar stories in Muslim countries. There is currently a lot of anti-Semitism in the Arab world, much of it is related to the bitter history with Israel. What is interesting to note is that much of the anti-Semitic stereotypes in the Arab world mirror European stereotypes. This is no accident. A lot of the European style-anti-Semitism was imported into the Arab world in the 19th century via Christian missionaries. Christian missionaries would set-up schools for Arab Christians who in-turn would become the leaders in Arab nationalist movements.

Learning Jewish history will, not only untangle many of the stereotypes of Jews that unfortunately many Muslim in the West still have, but it will also help them see some of their own experiences reflected in another minority. This will give them the sense that they are not alone, which it can often feel like. It will also encourage ease within themselves. It will show them what works and what does not. On university campuses in Britain there are many Islamist groups that operate. These groups are home-grown and they are a response to two-things.

Firstly, the fact that so many Muslim feel assimilated, which they fear, but also that they are not full accepted here. Many home-grown Islamists emphasise their Muslim identity over their British identity but, at the same time, many don’t feel they belong to Muslim countries. They want to create a new state based on religious and not national identity but they have nowhere to build this state. They are in many respects the Zionists of British Muslims. Thus, studying the history of Zionism would make parallel between the two easier as well as charting it’s future course.

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

Usman Butt

Usman graduated in 2012 with an MA in Palestine Studies from the University Of Exeter. Before that he read Arabic Language and International Relations at the University of Westminster. Amongst his proudest achievements include winning a muffin for public speaking, winning a Lego set at age 5 and helping Palestinian refugees learn English. Usually writes about genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, Israel/Palestinian politics, Iranian/Syrian/Lebanese politics, the Arab Spring, philosophy, religion, British politics, Foreign Policy, history and social issues. He enjoys writing as he sees it as an outlet to express his opinions about the public discourse on these issues. He believes writing is a good way of keeping productive and teaching yourself new things.

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