Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Islamophobia this time around

The new wave of anti-Muslim hatred that is spreading across the Western world could lead to the burning of bridges between the West and the Islamic world, writes Salah Nasrawi

Donald Trump
Donald Trump
Al-Ahram Weekly

When US politician Donald Trump called during a raucous South Carolina rally in December to bar all Muslim foreigners from entering the United States, most of the debate that followed focussed on how his anti-Islam rhetoric was harmful to the presidential elections race and even to America itself.

Criticism of the controversial GOP frontrunner abounded. It ranged from describing the multi-billionaire-turned-politician as being naive, a demagogue, hysterical or fascist to being a hatemonger.

Such criticisms have been fine as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough. The serious threat posed by Trump’s xenophobia far transcends United States politics and US national security. Trump’s hysteria, which has dominated Republican Party debate, has given rise to a new wave of Islamophobia, as can be seen in countless cases of discrimination, racism, hate speech and physical attacks across the world.

It goes without saying that the bias in Trump’s rhetoric of hate has once again inflamed emotions and provided further fuel for extremism in the Muslim world.

Trump’s inflammatory remarks linking Muslims to terrorism have become just as damaging to his party’s campaign as to America’s polity. Once just the soundtrack to his election campaign, Trump’s anti-Muslim soundbites have increasingly characterised the presidential race as a whole in the US, with politically driven Islamophobia being pushed by the candidates.

Even American public discourse has become more negative towards Muslims. If Trump’s South Carolina rally was any indication, the support shown for his campaign will stick, according to a CNN survey. Six out of eight Trump supporters at the rally who spoke to CNN said they supported his proposal for a Muslim travel ban to the US even though it is contrary to American values of religious tolerance.

Interestingly, two supporters at the rally who disagreed with the ban still said they were likely to vote for Trump.

Another poll conducted by Fox News after the San Bernardino, California, attack by a Muslim married couple who shot and killed 14 people and injured 22 others at a town hall meeting on 2 December, found that 50 per cent of voters favoured Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States.

The agitation has already started to take its toll on Muslim freedom of movement. Last month, both houses of Congress approved a bill intended to make it more difficult for people coming from certain Muslim countries to get US visas. The bill, which passed by 407 to 19, was supported by the White House and signed by President Barack Obama before becoming law.

A lot has also happened since then which has shown the enormous consequences of the anti-Muslim measures and their many side effects. One British Muslim family travelling to Disneyland in the US was stopped at Gatwick Airport in the UK on 15 December before getting on their plane. The family insisted that they had been barred from the flight because they were Muslims.

A few days later a British woman born in Syria was refused entry to Australia after her visa was issued and then revoked without explanation. The woman was contacted by the Australian High Commission in London shortly before she was due to board the plane for a flight to Sydney to say that her visa had been revoked and that she was no longer eligible for entry to Australia.

The two incidents came in the wake of several controversial visa refusals. The Australian government had refused to grant a visa to the family of a dying Pakistani student who was too sick to fly home and was being cared for in a homeless shelter.

In the UK, a British imam was the second British Muslim to report that he had been refused entry to the US after his business visa was revoked without explanation as he attempted to board a plane to New York.

Besides restricting participation in the visa-waiver programme, US lawmakers are also contemplating requiring new pre-clearance procedures in travellers’ countries of origin. Also under scrutiny is restricting the practice of staying in the US beyond the period permitted by a visa.

The measures have sparked fears by Muslim Americans of reciprocal actions by the targeted countries. Many Muslim Americans now believe that the measures will render them second-class citizens and could undermine their ability to travel visa-free to countries in Europe and Asia.

Despite the controversy, Trump has refused to back down from his call to ban Muslims from immigrating to the United States, even after a clip showing him announcing the policy was used in a terrorist recruiting video broadcast by the Somali terror group Al-Shabab.

Trump’s other racial suggestions, like the registration of all Muslim Americans and the warrantless surveillance of all Muslim places of worship in the US, are also being used to stereotype and demonise the five million to seven million Muslim Americans.

Many Muslim Americans now say it is not as easy to be a US citizen as it used to be. A recent poll by the New York Times and the Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University found that hate crimes against Muslim Americans had tripled since the attacks in Paris on 13 November and the 2 December shooting in San Bernardino.

BACK WHERE WE STARTED: The new wave of xenophobia is reminiscent of the hostility towards Muslims seen in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001.

A backlash against Muslims in America and Europe has been on the rise again after the 13 November terrorist attacks in Paris and the attacks in San Bernardino. The number of reported hate crimes and harassment incidents today is nearly as high as it was in the weeks after 11 September.

Islam and the West are once again being put on a collision course. The rhetoric and hate of a violent minority is again being equated with anti-Americanism or anti-Westernism on the part of a peaceful, mainstream majority. With the rise of the Islamic State (IS) terror group and the challenges it poses to the West, an image of Islam as a militant and expansionist religion has once again gripped the minds of Western politicians and the Western media.

As the US political debate about Muslims unfolds, one question that is being largely ignored or sidestepped is to what extent the negative perception of Muslims undermines the war against extremism and international terrorism.

Evidence abounds that the hate campaign against Muslims in the West is deepening a long history of mutual distrust. Moreover, it has boosted the view held by many Muslims that America’s and the West’s anti-Muslim culture has been fuelling extremism.

Muslims, themselves suffering from terrorism, have been mostly those who have borne the brunt of the outrage caused by provocative statements such as those made by Trump and echoed throughout America and the Western world.

Many Muslim leaders, including Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, whose country has been receiving generous American military and logistical support in its war against IS, have raised the red flag against Trump.

“Putting Muslims and extremists in one category is an insult to Islam and all Muslims. This is exactly what the extremists in Daesh and Al-Qaeda and their like want,” Al-Abadi said recently, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

Indeed, the anti-Muslim campaign is as much about the stagnant water of the Trump swamp and the nastiness it has leaked into the American ethnic landscape as it is about the division the anti-Muslim discourse has been sowing internationally, undermining an effective international counter-terrorism strategy.

Many American politicians realise what the consequences of mainstreaming Islamophobia will be for fighting terrorism. The main Democratic Party contender in the presidential elections, Hilary Clinton, has voiced concerns that insulting Islam and Muslims helps to recruit more radical jihadists.

“We have to make sure that the really discriminatory messages Donald Trump is sending around the world do not fall on receptive ears,” Clinton said during the latest US presidential debate.

The key point, therefore, is that a truly “anti-extremism strategy” intended to destroy IS and all other terror groups will need a profound restructuring of the Western culture and politics that breed Islamophobia manifested in the rhetoric of hate and bigotry. Anti-Muslim discourse appeals to xenophobia, hatred and political intolerance, and it recalls historical campaigns against other religious and ethnic groups that led to cultural hostilities and even wars.

In practice, America and the West should put in place a concrete strategy to deal with all the Middle East’s tangled conflicts, including terrorism. Hostility towards Muslims, the bombing of IS positions in Iraq and Syria, and even boots on the ground in these countries are not the answers to the problems of extremism.

Extremist religious ideology is only one factor in a complex process of radicalisation. Deeper political, economic and social problems in many Middle Eastern countries, combined with grievances issuing from globalisation, are pushing some young Muslims towards extremism and terrorist acts.

Until now, the United States and many Western countries have identified terrorism and not this combination of factors as being behind the phenomenon of radicalisation and the primary strategic threat to their national security. The counter-extremism strategies adopted by some Western nations and the European Union fall short of dealing with this global phenomenon.

To help prevent radicalisation in America and Europe, the West should work to build a broader and more sophisticated strategy to address religion in the public sphere, and one that attempts to move beyond a singular focus on Islam and terrorism. One major shortcoming is that Western strategy in the past has primarily addressed security issues and not development and human rights concerns.

With turmoil in many nations reshaping the Middle East and threatening the world as a whole, a new regional and international approach that focusses on a broader strategy for the future is needed. Most of all, a strategic approach that holds out hope of ending political stagnation and societal and state decay in the region is a prerequisite for the defeat of extremism.

PARTNERSHIP NOT CONFLICT: This strategy should be based on building partnerships with governments and civil society and with all those opposed to extremism. As Islamophobia is now taking on an alarmist turn with the flood of refugees to the West triggered by the Middle East turmoil caused by the rise of IS, any new strategy should deal with the two challenges combined.

Key priorities of the anti-extremism, anti-Islamophobia strategy should be socio-economic development, combatting poverty, improving education, human security, democratisation, and respect for human rights and the rule of law. Other priorities should include the right of migration, the free movement of people and ideas, respect for cultural diversity and the democratisation of international relations.

What many in the Islamic world are looking for is a long-term strategy for international economic relations that will ensure equality and aid programmes that address the underlying drivers of extremism, particularly through efforts to eradicate poverty, illiteracy and other socio-economic malaises.

While it remains essential to build stability and security and pursue a robust international response to counter extremist ideology, a balanced global approach is nevertheless required to promote cultural exchange that respects independence and values.

One of the fundamental elements of any anti-extremism, anti-Islamophobia strategy is promoting human contacts, mutual understanding, tolerance and non-discrimination. Participating states should respect their international commitments in the fields of migration, freedom of movement and choice of place of residence, along with rules on the treatment of migrant workers and citizens of other participating states.

Tough existing and further harsh changes in the visa and immigration policies of many Western nations, making travel and applying for refuge and resettlement difficult or sometimes impossible, are counter-productive and sometimes also fuel extremism.

The irrational demands to close down immigration flows into the United States and Europe, as expressed by Trump and right-wing politicians in Europe, threaten to transform Islamophobia and the rhetoric of hate against Muslims into institutionalised policy.

This will not only be unhelpful in the war against IS and other terror groups, but will also certainly deepen the roots of misunderstandings, negative perceptions, violence, conflicts and fears of all-out war between the West and large parts of the Muslim world.

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