Dual loyalty: Jews, Muslims and the history of national-identity politics

Accusing minority groups of being a security risk because they are a minority group is not a new practice. Although most religious groups have been accussed of dual loyalty at some point we don't seem to learn from history.
Dr. Ilan Zvi Baron
14 January 2011

In Damascus in 1840, a Capuchin friar disappeared. A local Jewish barber was arrested and, after he was tortured, confessed to the disappearance. A mob subsequently attacked the local Jewish community and more Jews were arrested. The French government became involved due to its Middle Eastern ambitions, and supported the charges against the innocent barber. French Jews, however, became deeply concerned. As French citizens they should support France’s foreign policy ambitions, but as Jews they could not stand behind their government’s support of a malicious crime against Jews. Adolphe Crémieux, a Jewish French politician, eventually managed to secure the release of Jewish prisoners in Damascus. The victory, however, was a Pyrrhic one. French Jews were susceptible to accusations of disloyalty to France due to the perception that they would always choose to support Jews abroad over France.

These accusations emanate from what is often called dual loyalty, and while this example stems from 1840, it is by no means an isolated case and Jews are not the only victims of this charge. During the Second World War, Canadians and Americans of Japanese ancestry were viewed with enough suspicion for both governments to confiscate the property of these citizens. By 1942, they were interned in camps that were not closed until 1946. It took until 1965 for official compensation to be dispensed in the USA, with the first apology not made until 1988 although further compensation and legal issues continued until 1992. In Canada it was not until 1988 that the Canadian government issued a formal apology along with compensation. Today, it is Muslims who are becoming increasingly targeted as having dual loyalty, and the debate over dual loyalty is now framed as a problem of population diversity, national identity, multiculturalism, and the politics of difference.

Accusations directed against minority populations as not belonging ‘enough’ to the nation are not new, but they are deeply troubling. This problem challenges some of the underpinnings of the modern state system. This system is based on nation-states and, importantly, on the political idea that a stable domestic community and a relatively stable international community require that each state is based on a homogenous nation. In order to add credibility to the idea that there is a national body, the nation is presumed to have existed before the state came into being, and that the state reflects the national unity and similarity of its population. The problem, however, is that no state has ever been homogenous, and this retroactive reading of the national-identity does not change this fact. It would make more empirical sense to think in terms of nations-states as opposed to nation-states, but we do not use this language.

Why we do not use this language is important, because the specter of dual loyalty is all around us. In 2007 the former Attorney General of England and Wales, Lord Goldsmith, proposed a new national holiday to celebrate “Britishness” as a way for the state to further develop a national identity that was without too much difference. It is worth noting that this proposal emerged in large part out of a concern about the loyalty of British Muslims, and that this loyalty was questioned due to the deadly 2005 July bombings in London, an attack at Glasgow airport in 2007, and increased fear over the threat of so-called “home-grown terrorists.” In October 2010, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel claimed that multiculturalism in Germany had failed. Switzerland, although not a bastion of multicultural tolerance, has nonetheless prohibited the construction of minarets (although apparently there are only 4 minarets in the whole country). Right-wing nationalist parties, often with anti-Islamist ideas, are growing in popularity across Europe. The Swedish Democrats have been working on preventing the construction of any new mosques in Sweden, along with French-like prohibitions against cultural Muslim headdresses worn by women. In the past year, a national uproar developed in the United States over the falsely named “Ground Zero Mosque.” Interestingly, the neighbourhood where this Muslim community centre is supposed to be built used to have a large Arab population in the 1940s, with the area then known as Little Syria.

Accusing minority groups of being a security risk because they are a minority group is not a new practice. Individuals and groups of people from most if not all religious faiths have been involved in political violence at one point or another, sometimes in a manner associated with terrorism and sometimes not. Terrorism being committed in the name of Islam is frightening and dangerous, but it cannot and should not damn an entire people. To presume that Islam is violent and that Muslims cannot be trusted or do not belong is racist. These types of dual loyalty accusations are deeply troubling, partly because of how easy it can be to fall into a xenophobic frame of mind, especially since our political language easily predisposes us to think in nation-state terms and not multicultural terms. It is interesting how while it used to be the Jews who were the easy target of dual loyalty accusations, today the accusation is directed toward Muslims. Unfortunately, due to the politics of the Middle East, Jews and Muslims have yet to recognize this similar experience and to learn from each other. Interestingly, the Middle East has featured in dual loyalty accusations directed at both peoples. Worryingly, we do not seem to be moving away from fears over dual loyalty.

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