‘Anti-Semitism’ vs. ‘Islamophobia’: How language creates hierarchies of discrimination and whitewashes bigotry

 

Protest against Islam at Foley Square in New York City, June 10, 2017. (Photo: Mark Peterson. markpetersonpixs @ Instagram)
Protest against Islam at Foley Square in New York City, June 10, 2017. (photo: Mark Peterson. markpetersonpixs @ Instagram)
A look at linguistics and changing the normative hierarchy of discrimination in Western discourses of racism.

By Timo Al-Farooq  |  Mondoweiss  |  Aug 22, 2019

Where the anti-Semite is by definition dangerous, a term like Islamophobe makes the Muslim-hater seem rather timid, implying that he is not a source of danger, but a victim, merely reacting to an exogenous bogeyman, and understandably with the most human of emotions which all of us have experienced at some point in our lives: fear.

From the ivory towers of academic knowledge production to the lowlands of cracker-barrel Stammtisch-culture, tactical language is omnipresent in everyday political discourse, employing certain symbols and ciphers designed to obscure bitter realities under the smoke-screen of sweet euphemization. The controlled natural language of Newspeak from George Orwell’s spot-on dystopia 1984 for instance is an – albeit extreme – example of how language manipulation is a key modus operandi for the powers that be in stifling critical thought and thus consolidating their grip on potentially subversive populaces.

Let’s talk semantics
One such example of strategic linguistic flexibility, taken straight from our fiction-turned-fact and prophesy-fulfilled Orwellian times: someone who hates Jews is known as an “anti-Semite”, but someone who hates Muslims is merely an “Islamophobe”, a person afraid of Islam?

With a suffix borrowed from medical jargon and pinned to the name of a religious denomination, the latter term seems lackadaisically artificial and somehow comes off as rather less harmful than any compound word with the threatening prefix anti preceding its root (as a kid I always thought antipasti was Italian for “someone who hates pasta”, regardless of the fact that the language of a country in which the staple food is pasta would most probably not have a word for hating it in its vocabulary).

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