THE waves of intolerance and Islamophobia that have swept Europe were not launched by President Trump, but there can be no denying the fact that the rhetoric he deployed during his election campaign and the programmes he launched since assuming the presidency has given them strength and direction.
Earlier this year, the media reported that the existing US programme, ‘Countering Violent Extremism’, would be changed to ‘Countering Islamic/Radical Islamic Extremism’. In contrast, last December, President Putin said, “I would prefer Islam not be mentioned in vain alongside terrorism,” and criticised terrorists who “cynically exploit religious feelings for political aims”.
At the opening of a mosque in Moscow he said that in the Middle East “terrorists from the so-called Islamic State are compromising a great world religion ... sowing hatred, killing people, including clergy”. He added, “Their ideology is built on lies and blatant distortions of Islam,” noting that “Muslim leaders are bravely and fearlessly using their own influence to resist this extremist propaganda.”
A Russian commentator on Islamic affairs, Orkhan Dzhemal explained the reason for the contrasting views. “Putin rules a multi-confessional country ... He doesn’t want to alienate millions of Russians”, noting that the Muslim demographic in the US is significantly smaller. But there is another factor, besides. It is Trump’s disdain for multiculturalism, and for the tolerance that diversity requires. He is a white supremacist.
In August 2016, he unveiled his dark vision of an America under siege by “the hateful ideology” of a radical version of religion — a threat, he said, that was on par with the greatest evils of the 20th century.
The Trump contagion has spread.
Asma Afsaruddin, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University and chairperson of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy, addressed the root of the phobia. “They are tapping into the climate of fear and suspicion since 9/11 ... It is a master narrative that pits the Muslim world against the West.” She predicted that “the demonisation of Muslims and Islam will become even more widespread”. India’s BJP government, led by its mentor the RSS’s lifelong activist Narendra Modi, is busy trying to cash in on this.
How far this phobia has already penetrated was revealed in a shocking incident at the San Francisco airport only last month. Alex Bastian is a native San Franciscan and the deputy chief of staff at the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. Returning from a trip to Greece and Armenia, he was detained at the airport for questioning — not because they had any information against him, but because of his face. He is an Armenian-American, and Christian by faith. This gross case of racial profiling is by no means a rare occurrence.
In the climate which Trump’s election created, such incidents become common. No wonder that the far right in Europe welcomed the event. Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, exclaimed with joy, “Yesterday a new America ... and tomorrow a new Europe!” He was speaking at Koblenz in Germany, where leaders of Europe’s radical right parties had gathered to create a ‘European moment’.
Some of his companions fared poorly at the polls that followed; including Marine Le Pen, president of France’s National Front, and Wilders himself. But the far-right Alternative for Germany made a disturbingly impressive showing in the recent election. The Freedom Party of Austria was once treated as a pariah in Europe when it was accepted as a member of the governing coalition in 2000. Now, leaders of the European radical right are well received from Budapest to Tel Aviv, and Moscow to Washington D.C.
The 13 far-right parties in Europe may not be homogeneous, but Islamophobia unites them in their opposition to immigration. Even if immigration is halted, the phobia will survive.
American journalist Timothy Egan recently wrote, “Trump opened the door to overt expressions of hatred”, by exploiting identity politics.
But, Egan argues, “The audacious idea that people from all races, ideologies and religious sects would check their hatreds at the door after becoming citizens is our sustaining narrative.
“Within our borders, Protestants don’t fight Catholics, Sunnis don’t go after [Shias], Armenians share neighbourhoods with Turks, and a family that can trace much of its ancestry to slavery occupied a White House built in part by slaves. But that tenuous construct is breaking apart. We are retreating to our tribal, ethnic and primitively prejudicial quarters. Everything is about race and identity. We come from privilege, or oppression. We choose politicians based on whether they help our tribe or hurt people like us. This is President Trump’s legacy.”
The Trump phenomenon has spread. Europe is not the sole victim of the contagion. As any observer of the Asian scene will notice, intolerance and rejection of diversity and pluralism are dangerously on the rise.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
Published in Dawn, November 11th, 2017