There is a dire need to expand interfaith work in the West
Last week, the newly inaugurated 45th US President Donald Trump initiated a flurry of executive orders. He swiftly attempted to implement much of the policy agenda that he promised to deliver on during his campaign, from building a wall on the border with Mexico, to sacking senior officials at the Homeland Security and State Departments, and revoking visas from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Trump has simultaneously delighted those who voted for him and unleashed a flurry of condemnations and protests by many in the US and abroad who see his actions as undemocratic. Polls show that the US is dangerously divided, which is not good for the world. There is an old saying: “When America sneezes the world catches a cold.”
Far-right movements are on the rise across Europe. This year there are important national elections in Germany, France, the Netherlands and other European countries. Empowered by Trump’s success, far-right parties are openly campaigning on anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, protectionist platforms.
These elections will have significant implications due to Europe’s importance as a destination for millions of people worldwide and as one of the most important trade blocs in the world. With the rise of Trump, Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, we are entering a new phase of divisive and controversial politics.
Nonetheless, Trump undeniably represents the will of a significant number of Americans, just as Brexit represented the will of a significant number of Britons, and the far right represents a significant portion of Europeans. We all need to find a way to connect with and understand the forces that are driving these extreme views. We need to move beyond the rhetoric of talking about how to fight Islamophobia, to actually doing something to fight it.
While a completely understandable response, protest alone is not a long-term solution. It is an important method of showing dissent, getting media attention and mobilizing one’s base, but it has often failed to change opinions in the long run. While protest might have helped lead to Trump’s victory, the fact that he has the lowest approval ratings of any US president, and has inherited a deeply polarized country, show the limitations of such tactics.
We need to move beyond the rhetoric of talking about how to fight Islamophobia, to actually doing something to fight it.
In 2003, record numbers of people worldwide, including myself, protested against the invasion of Iraq. Despite this, international governments did not heed the will of the people, and the fallout is still being felt by Iraqis who feel less safe, and by Western countries that have spent lives and money in a conflict that still binds them. In today’s world of Twitter and Facebook reports, protests without a broader strategy are manipulated to divide people further, and likely to be used to justify more draconian policies.
What we need is sustained long-term trust-building with Western communities. Muslim communities in the West are on the frontline of far-right attacks. In the past year alone, the number of attacks against mosques and Islamic centers has increased significantly. Last week, mosques were set alight in the US and UK, a gunman attacked those in prayer in Canada, and innocent Muslims faced physical assaults throughout the US and Europe.
A proper and thorough strategy is needed to increase trust and understanding between communities. Muslim leaders have been working on this, but it has been sporadic at best. More resources and investment are desperately needed.
Similarly, other religious groups have been facing increased persecution. Jewish and Muslim communities have been coming together on a local level to support one another and allow safe worship. This interfaith work needs to be expanded, highlighted and supported.
Internationally, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and all Muslim governments desperately need a more sophisticated public diplomacy strategy, to protect their own interests in the West from being consumed by this tsunami of hate, and to help communities in the West from turning on each other.
It is vital that ordinary citizens in the Muslim world also engage in efforts to bridge this increasing divide between the Muslim world and the West. From participating in international forums to engaging in one-to-one conversations, inviting individuals from the West to visit them and engaging positively on social media, many things can be done.
We must not forget that Trump is fundamentally a politician and simply reflecting the views of those who elected him. We need to reach out to the millions of Europeans and Americans who feel there is no place for Islam in the West, before they begin to feel there is no place for Islam in the world.
• Muddassar Ahmed is managing partner at Unitas Communications Ltd., a cross-cultural communications agency based in London. He was an adviser on anti-Muslim hatred to the UK government.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view