The social media profile of American synagogue shooter Robert Bowers is a disturbing window into the distorted reality produced by anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-refugee hysteria.
In the days before inflicting mass carnage at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Bowers shared posts warning that "it’s the filthy EVIL Jews bringing the filthy EVIL Muslims into the country!!" and asserting that ISIS executions are actually a form of "jewish Ritual Murder...also known as Blood Libel."
He also posted an image of 15th-century anti-Ottoman campaigner Vlad the Impaler, with the epithet "make impaling great again" – fusing Donald Trump’s promise to restore American greatness through racism, with the white supremacist valorization of the notoriously brutal Vlad as a heroic defender of European Christendom against Muslims and Jews.
Bowers’ fever-dream of nefarious Jewish-Muslim collusion continues a long tradition of intertwining anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim animus. Centuries of European Christian polemic depicted the Jew as "the theological (and internal) enemy" and "the Muslim [as] the political (and external) enemy," as Columbia University professor Gil Anidjar explicates in his book "The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy."
Some medieval European authors portrayed Islam as a perverse reincarnation of the "law of Moses," and there are clear parallels between the classic Christian notion of "the Old Testament God" as a vengeful, unloving, "obscene Father," and similar Christian representations of the Muslim "Allah."
The ruthless authoritarianism of this dual trope of Jehovah/Allah was reflected in western Christian visions of the typical Muslim ruler, described as an almighty oppressor. This "oriental despot" figure still underlies some of the current Islamophobic portrayal of Islam as the enemy of secular democracy.
Conspiracy theories of anti-Christian collaboration between Muslims and Jews were recurrent in medieval Europe. Jewish communities were accused, for example, of aiding Muslim troops against the Christian Visigoths in Spain in the 8th century, working with the Fatimid Empire to destroy the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in the 11th century, and plotting with the Muslim king of Granada in the 14th century to infect Christendom with leprosy.
The accusation that Jews or Muslims wish to dominate the world is, of course, ironic, since it was Christianity that first used the worship of the One God as the justification for building a world-wide empire.
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A common stock of stereotypes was applied to dehumanize and demonize Jewish and Muslim populations. Both Muslims and Jews were represented as monstrous cannibals, who literally eat away at humanity – even though it was Christian soldiers who were revealed to have consumed the flesh of their adversaries during the Crusades.
Popular calumnies denigrating Jews as well-poisoners and Christ-killers were also transferred to Muslims. Medieval and Renaissance paintings of the crucifixion of Christ anachronistically featured Muslim characters wearing turbans and waving the crescent flag alongside Jewish figures, while medieval English mystery plays described Jesus’s natal enemy King Herod as a "Mahumetan."
Due to the conflation of Jew and Muslim, calls for Crusades on Muslim-held lands frequently led to pogroms against Jewish communities within Europe. In 1215, the Catholic Church’s Fourth Lateran Council imposed the same clothing restrictions on Jews and Muslims, "as if the two infidel races were halves of a single body of Semitic aliens," in the words of medieval literature specialist Geraldine Heng.
Contemporary right-wing extremist movements in North America and Europe are fond of evoking medieval history to advance current racist agendas. White supremacist activists don Crusader costumes at rallies, employ Crusader slogans like "Deus Vult" ("God wills it"), and circulate memes picturing Donald Trump as a Crusading knight.
President Trump’s lamentation in the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting – that "We just don’t seem to learn from the past" – rings hypocritically cheap, when it is he and his supporters who are trying to mold the present into their vicious and exclusionary vision of the past.
At a 2014 conference hosted at the Vatican, future Trump White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon cited medieval history to bolster his narrative of an "outright war" between the "Judeo-Christian West" and "jihadist Islamic fascism":
"If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours [the sites of two well-known medieval battles], or other places. It bequeathed to us the great institution that is the church of the West."
Like the call to Make American Great Again (MAGA), what could be labelled the Make America Medieval Again (MAMA) fantasy aims to recreate an imagined past that never existed. The image of a uniformly White Judeo-Christian Europe united against Islam is a figment of modern supremacist ideology, not an accurate rendition of medieval reality. Historically, it was not Judaism and Christianity that were inextricably connected, but Jews and Muslims as the targets of animosity.
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While modern-day overt white supremacists like Robert Bowers continue to openly proclaim their loathing for both Muslims and Jews, Trump and co purport to renounce anti-Semitism with revisionist references to "Judeo-Christian" civilization and uncritical support for Israel’s policies against Palestinians.
But despite this disavowal, Trump’s anti-Semitic dog-whistles come through loud and clear. During his presidential campaign, for example, Trump ran ads vilifying philanthropist George Soros and several other Jewish figures as representatives of predatory "global special interests."
This is a common theme in coded anti-Jewish discourse, going back to the infamous forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zions, which at the beginning of the twentieth century blamed Jews for plotting to destroy Christian civilization, through controlling both global finance and the political left.
Bannon’s Breitbart News Network and other right-wing publications regularly smear Soros for funding projects to address Islamophobia and support Muslim (as well as non-Muslim) refugees. FrontPage Magazine – edited by David Horowitz, whose "Freedom Center" groomed some of the most powerful and influential figures in the Trump administration, according to the Washington Post – described Soros as an "enabler of Islam which has been expanding by conquest and deception for 1,400 years."
According to our research, the "charge" that Soros supports Muslims was first raised by a Russian propaganda site, which blamed him for financing the huge migration of Muslims to Europe in 2015, in the wake of the Syrian civil war. It was immediately repeated in the Polish edition of the Prison Planet site run by Alex Jones, the conspiracy theory-peddling dean of the American far right.
The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, then made it a centerpiece of his government’s domestic propaganda, placing Soros at the head of forces supporting a mainly Muslim migrant wave that will deal a "final blow to Christian culture."
The Trump-propagated canard that Soros financed the caravan of Central American migrants heading for the United States is thus a mutation of what was originally an Islamophobic as well as an anti-Semitic charge. As if to drive the point home, Trump felt the need to say, falsely, that the caravan included people from the Middle East.
Soros was the first to receive a pipe bomb from fanatical Trump supporter Cesar Sayoc, and was maligned by Robert Bowers on social media. In the post immediately preceding his deadly rampage, Bowers attacked another Jewish target, accused, like Soros, of facilitating infiltration by Muslims and other supposedly dangerous migrants: HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization that actually aids immigrants of all faiths. (It happens to have helped one of us, Ivan Kalmar, to immigrate to the U.S.)
It is easy to see in the context that the immigration that was, according to Bowers, causing "my people" getting "slaughtered," was part of the same threat to white supremacy as the Muslim migrants “invading” Europe.
In this uncertain world, the Judeo-Muslim enemy reappears as the alleged culprit to those who feverishly seek to protect their privileges they see as precarious against all sorts of enemies: the black and the brown, the unemployed, environmentalists, LGBT people, women organizing against sexual harassment and violence.
One way to explain it all is to resurrect as the cosmic origin of all evil the medieval spectre of the Judeo-Muslim enemy: the dehumanized object of Pittsburgh murderer Bowers’ unholy hate.
Ivan Kalmar is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. He co-edited, with Derek J. Penslar, the book "Orientalism and the Jews," and wrote "Early Orientalism: Imagined Islam and the Notion of Sublime Power." Twitter: @ramlaknavi
Azeezah Kanji is a legal academic and journalist based in Toronto. She is Director of Programming at the Noor Cultural Centre, a Muslim religious, educational, and social justice institution