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“I'm not Antisemitic but … ”: Perceptions of Israel and Jews among British Pakistani Muslims


There has been some empirical research into antisemitism and anti-Zionism among Muslim minority groups in Europe, which focuses upon a diverse range of ethnic groups in distinct national contexts (e.g. Jikeli, 2009; Jikeli and AlloucheBenayoun, 2013). Moreover, there is a focus primarily upon Holocaust denial, rather than general perceptions of Jews and the Jewish State. Some of this research is summarised in Chapter 1. The data presented in this chapter are drawn from a qualitative interview study with a group of British Pakistani Muslims. After a brief methodological overview, the following themes are outlined and discussed:

(i) “Zionism is evil”: Making sense of Zionism; (ii) Defeating the State of Israel;

(iii) Deflecting Antisemitism through Compartmentalisation Processes; and (iv)

Carving a Space in the Islamic Ummah.

Methodological overview

The data presented in this chapter are drawn from an interview study with British Pakistani Muslim men and women. Like the preceding chapter on perceptions of Israel and Jews among young Iranians, this work had a social psychological focus upon how young British Pakistanis perceive Jews and Israelis and how they cognitively manage social representations of these groups.

Thirty-six British Pakistani Muslim individuals between the ages of 18 and 35 participated in an in-depth interview concerning “identity and social attitudes among British Pakistani Muslims” in the summer of 2012. An adapted version of the interview schedule described in Chapter 7 was used for this study. There were 21 male and 15 female respondents. Fifteen participants were from West London (UK) and the remaining 21 were from the East Midlands (UK). All of the participants described their ethnicity as Pakistani, self-identified as Muslim and regarded themselves as very or moderately religious. Thirty participants had completed, or were studying towards, a university degree; and the remaining 6 had completed high school. Data were analysed using thematic analysis, following the same analytical procedures that were described in Chapter 7.

“Zionism is Evil”: Making Sense of Zionism

Participants were invited to reflect on Zionism and to define it on their own terms. Most individuals correctly identified Zionism as the political ideology underlying the State of Israel. There was a coercive social representation that it was a negative and malevolent ideology, with the principal function of oppressing the weak and vulnerable:

Mohammed (male): Zionism is evil. It's no different from Nazism. It's a form of Nazism, like it has come from Hitler's thinking. The same thing. It's all about being superior, racially superior and they think that about themselves. They just think they're better than everyone, especially Muslims, Palestinians. And they can't get away with thinking that.

Interviewer: Why do you think that?

Mohammed: It makes me just so angry, like bad. You know, I feel bad just thinking “they are making out they are better than us?”

Most participants converged in perceiving Zionism as an “evil” ideology, which was frequently anchored to Nazi ideology (Litvak and Webman, 2009). As a complex and poorly understood political ideology, Zionism was perceived by participants through the heuristic lens of Nazism, an ideology which, conversely, is much better understood and more present in social and cultural consciousness (Moscovici, 1988). In anchoring Zionism to Nazism, participants were essentially generalising the pervasively accepted negative characteristics of the fascist ideology to Zionism, in order to construct an understanding of it. In Mohammed's account, Zionism was not only anchored to Nazism, but it was also constructed as constituting a cohesive aspect (or subdomain) of Nazi ideology. Moreover, Zionism was provided with a “human face”, not by reference to one of the early Zionist leaders but rather to Adolf Hitler. Thus, through the rhetorical technique of personifi Zionism was objectifi as having arisen from “Hitler's thinking” and, thus, interchangeable with Nazism. Hitler himself was regarded as having created Zionism, which implicitly constructed him (and his ideology) as underlying the foundation and sustenance of the State of Israel. This view, though factually incorrect, elucidated individuals' underlying social representation of Zionism. Accordingly, many participants in the study delegitimised the Zionist ideology and regarded it as an ideology that needed to be eradicated in the name of world peace.

Like Mohammed, several individuals implicitly invoked the notion of the Jews as a “chosen people”, which was then applied to the notion of Zionism, essentially conflating Jewish theology and Zionist political ideology. Indeed, Mohammed anchored the notion of Jewish “chosenness” to the Nazis' notion of Aryan racial superiority in order to render Jewish “chosenness” meaningful and psychologically tangible. It is noteworthy that many religious groups regard themselves as being
somehow “chosen” or singled out by God. Yet, most individuals focused and fixated upon the notion of Jewish “chosenness” in order to demonstrate the racism and Nazi-like characteristics of Zionism. Participants construed the notion of Jewish chosenness as outrageous partly because it conflicted with their belief in the theological superiority of Islam, which was frequently reiterated in interviews. Thus, this notion may have been construed as threatening for self-esteem because it challenged the positive self-conception that individuals derived from their religious identity, and continuity since this jeopardised a long-standing perception of the superiority of their religious ingroup.

As exemplified by Mohammed and Abdul (below), the notion of racial superiority, which was perceived to lie at the heart of Zionist ideology due to its alleged connection with Nazism, was threatening for identity. Participants rejected the social representation of Jewish chosenness because they believed that this implied the superiority of Judaism (and Zionism) over Islam:

Israelis are not better than Palestinians. Jews are not better than Muslims. Islam is the best religion in the world, the purest. But look at who is getting killed each day. Look at who is living in a nice country and who is living in shit. That is Zionism. (Abdul, male)

Both Mohammed and Abdul highlighted their intense dismay at the social representation that Jews/Zionists might regard themselvesas“superior” to Muslims/ Palestinians. This was considered the most lamentable aspect of Jewish/Zionist ideology, and Mohammed indicated that Zionists “can't get away with thinking that”. As indicated above, Abdul rejected the notion of Jewish “chosenness” by highlighting the superiority and purity of Islam (vis-à-vis Judaism), and invoked the absurdity that “superior” Muslims/Palestinians should be “getting killed each day”. This was potentially threatening for individuals' sense of self-esteem and continuity. This implied that Jews/Zionists should be the ones getting killed and “living in shit”, given their implicit inferiority. While Abdul attributed the status quo, namely that Muslims/Palestinians are unjustifiably disadvantaged vis-à-vis Jews, to Zionist ideology. Several participants' accounts provided insight into the psychological underpinnings of their intense dismay at the social representation that Jews might regard themselves as superior to other groups. Mohammed, for instance, reported feeling “angry” and “bad” when he thought about the notion of Jewish “chosenness”.

Similarly, Abdul reproduced the social representation of Islamic superiority when he argued that “Islam is the best religion in the world, the purest”. Thus, the social representation that Jews/Zionists might be superior, or regard themselves as superior, to Muslims seemed to displace a deeply held belief that Islam was a superior religion and that the Jews constituted an inferior people (Shahvar, 2009). Moreover, participants delegitimised Zionist ideology because they believed it empowered Jews politically to pose threats to self-esteem and continuity. Thus,
delegitimisation entailed attacking the source of threats to identity and might therefore be considered a form of coping strategy (Breakwell, 1986).

In making sense of Zionism, most participants attributed negative (global) occurrences to this political ideology, in much the same way that Jews have historically been scapegoated for the ills of the world (Lindemann and Levy, 2010b). Although individuals denied being antisemitic, many in fact invoked and adapted antisemitic social representations in order to delegitimise Zionism:

Samina (female): Zionism, the philosophy of evil. Zionism is evil. All of the heartache in the world, everything that has gone wrong, you can put it all down to Zionism.

Interviewer: Like what, for example?

Samina: There is an official version to every story, yeah. And like the Twin Towers, some people reckon it was the Zionists behind that [ … ] they told the Jews not to go to work the day that happened. It's just a big conspiracy, and Zionism is behind it all.

In addition to characterising Zionist ideology as “evil” and “the philosophy of evil”, Samina attributed the “heartache in the world” to Zionism. Like Samina, several participants capitalised on the opportunity to distance from their religious ingroup particular accusations popularly levelled against Islamism, such as the social representation that Islamist terrorists were responsible for the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York, which was voiced by the Iranians respondents in Chapter 7. It is understandable that participants should wish to distance these atrocities from their religious ingroup, given their awareness of Islamophobic social representations that have characterised intergroup relations (Cinnirella, 2013). In some cases, belief in conspiracy theories may constitute a means of deflecting stigma and the negative social psychological consequences of Islamophobia. By constructing Zionism as the epitome of evil, participants were able to scapegoat the ideology and, as exemplified by Samina's account, Jews for global atrocities (see Gregory, 2001). There was a constructed collusion between Zionists and Jews

– a “big conspiracy”. The constructed interchangeability between Zionists and Jews served to demonise both categories. Although participants in the study denied antisemitism, they “observed” that Jews had somehow benefited from the actions of Zionists. This suggested that, although the perpetrators of aggression may have been Zionists, the benefactors were Jews. The invocation of antisemitic motifs and the construction of Jews as the benefactors of “Zionist atrocities” served to delegitimise both categories.

There was a potent social representation among participants that Zionism posed a realistic threat, on a global scale:
It [Zionism] has just crushed humanity and they rule from Tel Aviv. It's a small group of people that have their fingers in a lot of different countries. Like sort of controlling them, controlling us, like puppets, you know. Zionism is evil. It will fall, just like fascism did. It is just a last feature of fascism. (Asma, female)

I feel so, so pissed off when I think about this. It's like they can do what they want and we can't do anything to stop them. Nothing. They are doing what they please and our hands are tied. That feels bad. It feels really bad personally. (Asad, male)

Like others in the study, Asma anchored Zionism to fascist ideology, which reiterated the constructed link between Zionism and Nazism. In representing Zionism as “evil” and as a threat to humanity, Asma referred to it metaphorically as having “crushed” humanity. Use of the metaphor “crush” suggested violent destruction of humanity in superlative terms. Yet, the act of “crushing” humanity was attributed not only to the ideology of Zionism but to the “small group of people” in Tel Aviv. There was an implicit invocation of antisemitic social representations concerning Jewish world domination, which were applied to an unnamed “small group of people” who “rule from Tel Aviv” and who are the creators of Zionism. Anti-Zionism (here, the characterisation of Zionism as “evil”) was thereby entwined with antisemitic imagery. The representation of world domination, which was attributed to Zionists/Jews, may be said to be threatening for the self-efficacy principle of identity, given that the ingroup was said to be “controlled” and, thus, helpless vis-à-vis a threatening outgroup – the Jews who have historically been accused of world domination (Lindemann and Levy, 2010b).

The threat to self-efficacy was clearly discernible in Asad's account, which reflected his anger (“so pissed off”) and malaise (“it feels really bad personally”) at the lack of the Muslim ingroup's control and competence in face of perceived Zionist aggression. Given that the Zionist outgroup was perceived as having disproportionate clout and efficacy (“they are doing what they please”) and that the ingroup was perceived as being helpless in curtailing Zionist outgroup efficacy (“our hands are tied”), self-efficacy may be thought of as threatened. However, there was also a sense of optimism in some participants' accounts. Although some of them lamented the “disproportionate” efficacy of the Zionist outgroup, the anchoring of Zionism to Nazism/fascism allowed individuals optimistically to regard Zionism as a vincible movement which “will fall, just like fascism did”. This may be viewed as a means of coping with the threat (to self-efficacy) of Zionism since individuals perceive it as a transient and short-lived threat (like Nazism and fascism) and not a perpetual one. Indeed, in some Islamic contexts, Israel is socially represented as an illegitimate entity on “Muslim land”, which must eventually be destroyed (Litvak, 1998). This social representation can be beneficial if individuals accept it and believe this goal to be attainable. Consistent with participants' tendency to anchor Zionism to Nazism/fascism, Maryam objectified Zionism as a “prejudice in the world”, which she felt was deliberately obscured and concealed by non-Muslims but revealed by Muslims:

It's just like a prejudice in the world. You don't see it on BBC or CCN because they are like controlled by Zionists themselves but if you listen to the sermons in mosques, you listen to news in Muslim countries and read Muslim papers, and even like even if you read the Koran, it's all spelt out clearly. Even though it was way before Zionism. The truth is in there. Zionists want to crush Muslims and the world and we are not going to let that happen. (Maryam, female)

The social representation of Zionist world domination was employed to explain the global media's “position” on Zionism. Maryam argued that, given that the Zionists directly controlled the BBC and CCN, it was unsurprising that these infl

news outlets should refrain from disclosing the “truth” regarding Zionism, namely that the ideology poses a realistic threat to the Muslim world. Conversely, Islamic sermons, the news in Islamic countries, the Islamic press and the Koran were said to recognise the “truth” of Zionism and its genuine characteristics. Although Maryam avoided overt reference to Jews, she appeared to invoke references to Jews in Islamic scripture in order to argue that Zionism posed a threat. In short, historical threat representations were employed in order to construct and disseminate a contemporary threat representation. This served to glorify Islam and Islamic sources, since Muslims were positioned as being in a particularly knowledgeable position concerning Zionism (vis-à-vis non-Muslims who are “controlled” by Zionists and thus unaware of “the truth”). Indeed, occupation of this knowledgeable position appeared to provide individuals with feelings of self-esteem and distinctiveness, because of the positive self-conception that they derived from “knowing” more than the rest of the world. Respondents generally viewed the majority of the world's population as having been brainwashed by Zionism.

In Maryam's psychological world, this position of knowledge was particularly important because of the perceived threats attributed to Zionism. Many individuals in the study regarded Zionism as curtailing the rights and competence of the Islamic world, which was construed as threatening for the self-efficacy principle of identity. Furthermore, as Maryam's account strikingly exemplified, there was a perception that Zionism posed a realistic threat to Muslims and that it therefore jeopardised the group continuity of Muslims. Like Asma, Maryam also employed the metaphor of “crushing” Muslims, which served to construct Zionism as an aggressive and destructive entity that threatened the very existence of Islam and Muslims. Yet, by constructing a conspiracy theory regarding the BBC and CNN, Maryam was able to make sense of the seemingly anomalous position of the world regarding Israel and thereby safeguard the meaning principle. In times of threat and distress, human beings search for meaning, and conspiracy theories can indeed provide the means for doing so (McAdams, 2001). There was a hegemonic social representation that the Zionist ideology was malevolent and threatening particularly for the Muslim ingroup, an important component of identity for most British Pakistanis. It appeared that individuals perceived the destruction of the State of Israel as a necessary means of coping with the perceived threat of Zionism.

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