Muslims are soft targets as world deals with crises

Focusing on invented threats wastes political energy required to address existential challenges from climate change to resource depletion. Muslims are not out to invade the West.



By Azeem Ibrahim (Perspective)

Published: Sat 17 Aug 2019, 9:53 PM

Last updated: Sat 17 Aug 2019, 11:55 PM

Islamophobia used to be a local problem among nationalist reactionaries in countries with substantial Muslim immigrant populations. Today, the fear is emerging into an organising principle for an international "axis of evil," whereby nationalist populist forces in many countries who would otherwise have little interest in supporting one another, find common ground and organise alliances around a shared hostility toward Muslims - along with associated issues like migration, demographic trends, liberal international institutions and norms, and so on.
Why would, for example, Viktor Orbán, the leader of a small nation in the middle of Europe with virtually no Muslim population meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of an isolated country on the other side of Eurasia that has engaged in genocide against its largest Muslim minority? To discuss the existential issues of "growing Muslim populations" and what they deem as the "Western-liberal fake news media," of course. Of like minds are Narendra Modi of India, Matteo Salvini of Italy and Donald Trump of the United States. And those are just the vocal proponents in power. Similar notable figures are depending on this path to power in an increasing number of countries, including Austria, France, Germany, the Benelux and Scandinavian countries, and increasingly in Southeast Asia and China.
All come with their own local flavour and spin to their rhetoric, weaving hostility towards Muslims into a broader opposition to migration and liberal values. Except for the shared Islamophobia, these diverse politicians might do not have much of a shared world-view - even when they do have practical common interests.
The peculiar convergence on this issue among such different movements in such disparate countries is, of course, a complex phenomenon with multiple and diverse causal links and feedback loops. I can highlight two, one a push factor and another a pull factor.
The push factor is that we live in increasingly politically unstable states. With the advent of the internet and social media, we have unregulated, and unregulatable, flows of information directly among most of our citizens. This creates an unstable information environment.
This is coupled with an ideological commitment to a notion of democracy, which empowers the individual with whatever reality he or she chooses, entitling them to expect "customer satisfaction" from their politicians. If politics is the activity of organising the collective endeavours of society, then such destabilisation of reality cripples the very possibility of politics. In this environment, political leaders are pushed to come up with any narrative that can organise their societies towards some shared vision or goal.
For some, this narrative revolves around Islamophobia. At a basic level, the most effective narratives for political coordination have tended to be us-versus-them stories.
This tendency is, from the evolutionary point of view, a much faster, less time-consuming way to encourage humans to cooperate than, say, requiring or waiting for all individuals to develop detailed appreciation over how general pro-social behavior are conducive to one's self-interest.
Some political leaders have appointed Islam as the "other" side in this story. Two aspects of history are particularly relevant. First, Islam is the most recent of the major religions to emerge dramatically from the geographical centre of the Eurasian landmass, as the state religion of a highly expansionist and successful empire.
Second, the undisputed cultural and political hegemon in the post-Cold War era, the United States, despite having little history with Islam, took a keen and negative interest in the religion after the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC. The rhetoric and actions of the United States in the wake of those attacks, perpetrated by 19 men acting on behalf of the terrorist group Al Qaeda, elevated Islam to the position of Enemy Number 1 for the global cultural community over which the sole superpower presides. In the final analysis, Islam is a target of convenience in a world destabilised by technological and communication revolutions, increasingly edging towards environmental collapse.
Many of the challenges confronting our world today are global: climate change, resource depletion, nuclear proliferation, increasing geopolitical destabilisation and so on. These are complex problems with complex solutions.
But scapegoating does not solve crises. And focusing on invented threats wastes political energy required to address existential challenges from climate change to resource depletion. Muslims are not out to invade the West. What is threatening the West are unprecedented heatwaves, rising seas, droughts, polar vortexes, more frequent hurricanes and massive forest fires. No amount of border fencing can stop these invaders. And wealthy nations can expect to suffer as people from poorer countries do.
Instead on focusing on the actual problems, populists invent easier enemies to confront - perhaps to mask the impotence or lack of real solutions to real problems.
- Yale Global
Azeem Ibrahim, PhD, is director of Displacement and Migration Program at Center for Global Policy in Washington, DC, and a 2009 Yale World Fellow


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