Editor’s note: Here is a perspective from the U.K. which presents an overview of how some British Muslim progressives are trying to make sense of Trumpism, the British exit from the UK’s previous integration into the Common Market, and the growth of right-wing movements manipulated by elites of wealth and power.
The Fear and the Passion
By Tahir Abbas
Since the inauguration of President Trump, barely a month ago, many people around the world have been deeply disturbed by his many negative utterances, provocative put-downs of other countries, and by the people he has appointed to run major elements of the American government. The result has been a global outcry among women, the young, minorities and liberal-minded people at the narcissism and self-centred nature of much of President Trump’s limited but impactful words. Right-wing extremists have felt empowered by a form of triumphalism reflected in Trump’s repeated theme ‘to make America great again’. The impact this has on minority communities of all backgrounds, but especially among Muslim and Jewish groups, are painfully felt. In this short essay, I explore the depth of this upset and discuss what it means for communities with shared norms who would otherwise not be allied. As a British Muslim social scientist, I issue a clarion call for open-minded people and groups to reach out to each other at a time when unity, cohesion and mutual respect is the precise antidote to the bigotry, hate and intolerance seemingly engulfing us all in a Manichean good and evil world.
Not a day goes by without there being some report of acts of cruelty towards people or groups of a minority faith or ethnicity who would otherwise enjoy the life afforded to them by liberal democracies that uphold religious freedoms and protect human rights for all. We should be particularly concerned about the staggering number of reports of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and attacks on Jews, Muslims and other minorities, both physically and virtually. From students daubing swastikas on campus property walls to graves being desecrated, bomb threats called in to Jewish day schools and Jewish community centers as well as to mosques, attacks on individuals and a general sense of intimidation towards a whole host of groups are rife. Much of this has been initiated or stimulated by the discourse of the far right, alt-right and other groups whose modus operandi is to direct hate, indignation and downright intolerance towards all minority communities. If truth be told in a post-truth world, this hatred is not singularly pointed to certain specific groups in North America or, indeed, in Western Europe. Instead, it is aimed at all those who seek to uphold religious, cultural and community norms that are seen as un-American, un-British or un-European. It does not make these forms of hate any less dangerous.
Many political elites around the world are utilising methods of authoritarian majoritarianism, aiming for two simultaneous outcomes. The first is to ensure relentless projection of the idea of internal and external enemies, thereby keeping the majority populations under the iron grip of the ruling party’s rhetoric. The second is to create an ethnic (and religious) nationalism that seeks to promote the purity of the people and of the nation. This is especially the case because traditionalism is increasingly becoming the central ideology behind the current wave of populism sweeping western and once liberal nations. A large body of people in these nations are concerned that capitalism has failed them, with metropolitan elites taking full advantage of all opportunities for themselves, while leaving the rest behind. Those ‘left behind’ (a problematic term as there is a risk of the connotation that these groups are responsible for their own fates) are now rising up against the system and embracing populist politicians leading a wave of traditionalism that has swept America and Britain – and perhaps soon mainland Europe, too. And all because of globalisation and cosmopolitanism. In its path, traditionalism exposes the exceptionalism, or racist parochialism, underscoring Western and some Eastern nationalisms that have systematically eroded the ability of ordinary people to acknowledge, value or respect differences among them. These trends of Islamophobia combined with alt-right nationalism are slowly taking hold among numerous politicians turned demagogues throughout Europe and elsewhere where countries grow economically stronger but more divided between rich and poor. For example, in India where the Prime Miister Modi regularly evokes religious and nationalistic sentiments. Islam is an instrument used in authoritarianism in places such as Turkey and in many other areas of the Middle East.
Across many Western counties, majorities of citizens view Islam as the foremost enemy, not Islamism, nor Muslims, but Islam as a whole. Attacks on Islam grew in the periods immediately after 9/11, but since then critical minds came to the fair and robust conclusion that Islam itself does not cause terrorism. Islam does not lead people to terrorism, but rather terrorists use Islam to provide a justification for turning righteous indignation at an oppressive reality into violence at all those who are deemed to be “the enemy.” Unfortunately, like Islam, other major religions of the world can also be manipulated by the few, while the many lack sufficiently critical understanding or power to intervene, correct or reclaim the message of peace, humanity and humility contained in, essentially, all religions.
With all this talk of ‘Trumpism’, as it is now called, it is easy to forget that President Trump is not the cause of this malaise. He is the symptom of many different forces that are shaking up the world and democracy as we know it. How is it possible for a completely inexperienced political figure, with a dubious business history and a well-known narcissistic media profile, to become the president of the USA? It was only achieved because certain Republican Party authorities deemed him malleable enough to help them get what they want – a significant dismantling of the social support mechanisms, environmental responsibility, and many other progressive governmental policies that have put constraints on the ability of the rich and powerful to maximize their profits.
Yet many who are protected by those governmental policies still feel alienated from the progressive forces that championed them. Those policies did not end unemployment, huge inequalities in wealth and power, or address the underlying and destructive value system that has shaped life in competitive capitalist societies. Those most marginalised feel that they lack a stake in society, and believe that those they put in power have forgotten them. Groups most marginalised then gain satisfaction from giving ‘a kicking’ to the establishment because they feel they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by shaking the system to the core. However, the powerful elites have been able at times to use these kinds of rebellion by channeling them into pseudo-populist rebellions which they lead or can control, directing anger away from themselves and toward previously marginalized or demeaned groups. When Trumpists throw scorn at the ‘cosmopolitan elite’, it is effectively code for hatred of Jewish groups and other minorities. The elites use the form of populist revolt they support to project the view that greedy bankers and businesses have taken American jobs away from the American people. These elites then promote protectionism, bilateralism and isolation; considering forms of international diplomacy and relations between countries not as precedents for dialogue or engagement but as ‘bad deals’ that need to be ‘renegotiated’ bilaterally.
In this dystopian world, the elites and those hoping to become part of the elites become dismissive of the needs of all others, in the process turning themselves into a cadre of uber-wealthy people whose immediacy in relation to politics is not necessarily to shore up their wealth further. This is far too simplistic a ruse for them. Rather they want to change the cultural fabric of the country. President Trump’s America is one where white Christian Americans are prioritised above all others. There is a wish for a white Christian America to flourish as the vanguard of a nation reborn. In the process, disaffected majority groups are emboldened, whose new mantra is a form of protectionism moulded by plutocrats that pull the strings of a man who is the front-facing mode of white supremacy (President Trump has admitted his preference for selective breeding in past interviews, rendering him a eugenicist in all but name).
In Italy, the traditionalist movement of the 1920s and 1930s descended into fascism. Fascism consumed Nazi Germany. Fascism devoured Turkey after Ataturk, who laid its foundations. . Most people will have nothing to gain from this post-west world order, as the East, through the likes of China and India, will take global capitalism forward.
There has been a post-west era for quite some time – some would argue as early as the late 1970s. For this reason, everything else we have experienced since then is the long tail of western decline. The rescue plan was neoliberalism, cutting back the frontiers of the state, with rampant individualism replacing collective notions of community, fraternity and belonging. Diversity, the incantation of left-liberal thinkers and activists, has been booted out of the system by the system. Multiculturalism, while alive and well among the multitude of communities who live within diverse communities, is presented by the elites as not merely deficient but also a risk to the nation.
In the U.K. the concept of values replaces discussion of difference; an amorphous and benign idea transformed into a political instrument of social and cultural hegemony. Human values are universal values. The idea of values, as espoused by the 2016 pro-Brexit utterances of certain politicians, shuns the cultural characteristics of groups belonging to minority communities, rendering them, theoretically speaking, sub-English, sub-British, or even sub-human (The hapless irony is that the idea of Englishness has not moved on from notions of Anglo-Saxon heritage, hence it is an identity only ever available to indigenous white-English Britons).
Unthinking, self-serving politicians embroiled in dubious machinations, publicly and privately, shun differences en masse, speaking the language of racism in veiled terms that are obvious to the rest of us. The term ‘career politician’ is used to describe opportunists whose sole aim is self-gain. They are out of touch and ill informed, not just at the higher echelons of politics but also amid layers below them. Many who stand by and let it happen, sitting smugly on their gilded pews, permit the status quo to prevail. Too many yield to the whims and fancies of international corporations whose power and wealth-accumulation ambitions know no limits.
However, this does not have to become the norm. Angela Merkel is a European Christian, born and raised in what was East Germany, having witnessed at first hand the tragedies of authoritarianism. She is arguably the leader of the free world today, not President Trump. President Obama is a Christian born into a Muslim household. History will be a better judge of his presidency. Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister of Canada on an anti-Islamophobia ticket. Countless other politicians, civil servants, activists, campaigners, writers, bloggers and right-minded people will not stand by while the world unravels before our eyes.
The response to this urgent history has to be forms of collective action from below. However, it will not be without its tests, as there is likely to be more harm than good emerging in the near future, certainly from a political perspective, but also economic and social, as groups draw inwards, forming stronger bonds with people like themselves, thereby reinforcing the rhetoric of the powerful at the centre. Action will be required, not just words or tweets. The fight for social justice, equality, respect, understanding and mutual appreciation must go on for it is the only battle truly worth struggling over, even if it places our own lives or our fortunes in peril.
Professor Tahir Abbas FRSA is Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and Visiting Senior Fellow at the Department of Government, London School of Economics. He tweets @tahirabbas_