The Islamophobic ideologues at the heart of the new US administration have allies on this side of the Atlantic. We must all fight the spread of their divisive lies
While Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration has dominated headlines, it is important to place his anti-Muslim policies in an international context. Far from an anomaly, this is part of a much wider process of mainstreaming anti-Muslim prejudice, which has been present on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond for a decade or more.
Hope not Hate’s report, published on Wednesday, outlines this worrying trajectory of anti-Muslim prejudice in Britain and Europe. Specifically, it maps the journey of conspiratorial anti-Muslim ideas – so-called “counter-jihadism” – from a marginal and ignored, primarily internet-based political discourse, on to the streets and then into the White House and the parliamentary chambers of Europe.
The “counter-jihad” movement is a broad alliance of organisations and individuals that believes western civilisation is under attack from Islam. Some elements are more extreme than others but all generally agree that Islam is a supremacist religion, and many see little difference between violent jihadis and ordinary Muslims who live their lives quite peacefully.
In eastern Europe there has been a worrying adoption of these conspiratorial counter-jihadi ideas by supposedly mainstream politicians. In Slovakia the prime minister, Robert Fico, has called for the “restriction of the freedom of Muslims in Europe”, and last year a law was passed that effectively bans Islam from gaining official status as a religion.
The Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has become a hero of the anti-Muslim movement because of his Islamophobic and anti-refugee views. Of all the European leaders Orbán has gone the furthest in adopting conspiratorial counter-jihadi rhetoric about a planned invasion by Muslims.
A key milestone in the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim prejudice in Europe came in late 2015, when the Czech president, Miloš Zeman, addressed an anti-Islam demonstration that included former English Defence League (EDL) leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (Tommy Robinson) and a contingent of leaders from the anti-Muslim Pegida movement in Germany.
Meanwhile in western and central Europe there has been a rise in the number and size of explicitly anti-Muslim parties, as populist radical-right parties such as the Alternative für Deutschland, Geert Wilders’ Freedom party and Marine Le Pen’s Front National have brought anti-Muslim prejudice to the forefront of their political agendas in Germany, the Netherlands and France. Elections in these countries later this year will be an important yardstick for measuring how far into the mainstream these policies have moved.
While we have seen the collapse of street movements such as the EDL in the UK, this has by no means heralded the end of anti-Muslim prejudice. Quite the contrary. Instead we have seen a normalisation of anti-Muslim prejudice in the UK and a rise in anti-Muslim hate crime. A recent report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) criticised rising “racist violence and hate speech” by both the press and politicians in the wake of the Brexit vote.
Ukip has been a key part of the process of mainstreaming of anti-Muslim ideas
Ukip has been a key part of this process of mainstreaming of anti-Muslim ideas, with a raft of leading Ukip figures being openly anti-Muslim and echoing “counter-jihadi” rhetoric. The ECRI criticised former Ukip leader Nigel Farage for claiming there was “public concern about immigration partly because people believe there are some Muslims who want to form a fifth column and kill us.”
And so, President Trump. For those of us that monitor and research organised anti-Muslim movements, any hope that Trump would renege on his anti-Muslim campaign promises once in office always seemed unlikely. In May last year, Hope not Hate revealed that Trump had attended the launch of a counter-jihadi group called the United West in Miami, Florida in March 2011. He posed for a picture with one of America’s leading anti-Muslim activists, Frank Gaffney, and a European anti-Muslim activist called Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff.
Gaffney has been an important influence on Trump. The new president relied on discredited research produced by Gaffney’s thinktank, the Centre for Security Policy (CSP), for some of his openly racist comments about Muslims during his presidential campaign. Likewise, Trump’s comments about Muslims creating no-go zones in the US and the UK also appear to have originated with Gaffney.
Further proof of Trump’s willingness to associate with and be guided by anti-Muslim activists has come with the appointment of his advisers and appointees since winning the election. As shown in a recent report by the Chicago-based Center for New Community, as well as our latest report, the Trump administration is full of people with links to the “nativist” movement who are either part of or have extensive links with America’s organised anti-Muslim movement.
One example is Trump’s appointment of Walid Phares as an adviser to his foreign policy team. Phares was named in a major Center for American Progress report, Fear Inc, as one of the “validators” that made up an Islamophobia network in America. Importantly Phares sits on the board of advisers of America’s largest anti-Muslim organisation, Act for America. More worryingly an email sent to activists by Act bragged that it now has “a direct line to President-elect Trump through our allies such as … Walid Phares”. Phares is also a former board member of the anti-Muslim propagandist organisation the Clarion Project, and a contributing editor to the anti-Muslim online publication Family Security Matters.
And then there’s Trump’s national security adviser, Michael T Flynn. Last year he tweeted: “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL” and at a meeting of the Dallas branch of Act for America he said of Islam: ‘It’s like cancer. […] And it’s a like a malignant cancer, though, in this case. It has metastasized.’ Trump’s nominee for director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, also has links to the organised anti-Muslim movement, as do his senior policy adviser Kellyanne Conway, and Katharine Gorka from his Department of Homeland Security landing team.
So the protesters who marched around the UK this week are absolutely right to be angered by Trump’s draconian executive order. However, it is worth remembering that anti-Muslim prejudice has also entered the mainstream much closer to home, here in Europe. We’re setting up a new unit to look into fake news and the oft-repeated lies and exaggerations from populist movements, which will partly tackle such prejudice. Elsewhere, all of us need to remain vigilant and be prepared to defend the tolerant society that protects us all, including minorities such as the Muslim community.