IO – Donald Trump, a master practitioner of fearmongering, likes to tell Americans that Muslim immigrants, even Muslim tourists, pose a threat to national security. For many, memories of 9/11 lent some credibility to his arguments, and, hence support for his anti-immigration policies as well as a proposal to ban tourists coming from Muslim-majority countries.
Across the Atlantic, in Europe, Islamophobia is even more intense. Signs of identity politics in its ugliest form began to appear in 2015 during Europe’s migrant crisis. Now it has manifested itself in the ballot box—and in some cases, policymaking—as nationalist and far-right parties tapping into anxiety over Muslim migrants have become increasingly popular.
For example, in Denmark, the Danish People’s Party—the second largest party in the national parliament—has exercised its influence to toughen immigration rules and pass legislation to enable the police to seize migrants’ property to pay for their upkeep. In Austria, the Freedom Party, who recently won more than a quarter of the votes in national elections and is now a junior partner in the ruling coalition, has also taken a hard-line on Muslim migrants, supporting a proposal to ban headscarves for school girls and seize migrants’ mobile phones. The rhetoric can be equally toxic in France where Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front party, once told her supporters that Muslims praying in the streets is similar to the Nazi occupation during World War Two.
In a world being held more and more captive by xenophobia and nativism, responsible politicians in America and Europe should take the time to pause, learn more about the mainstream Islamic community, and what makes them tick. If not, things could get a lot worse.
Hardcore anti-Islamists such as Le Pen may prefer alternative realities. But others, more open-minded politicians and their constituents, might be surprised with how the typical Muslim views the world. By doing so, by knowing better what Muslims are really thinking, there would be a better chance to begin a rational political discourse and more successfully push up against the ugly caricatures being sold by far-right fanatics and political opportunists.
The best place to start understanding the ‘Muslim in the street’ is a 2008 survey conducted by the Gallup Organization covering the U.S.A., Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Entitled “Who Speaks for Islam? What A Billion Muslims Really Think”, researchers explored the question of how Muslims look at democracy, radicalism and religion in politics.
One of the key insights from the Gallup survey, which is the largest ever conducted on Islam, was the overwhelming majority of Muslims admire Western democracy. In fact, many of the respondents expressed their admiration for democratic norms such as rule of law, accountability and transparency. And, looking to the West as their model, most Muslims told Gallup they aspire for their countries to allow for free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and for women, gender-equality.
Another key insight, one that would surely give cause for Islamophobes to cry foul and charge Gallup with fake news, is only seven percent in the Muslim world subscribe to radical thinking. Here it is interesting to note as well that Gallup discovered there is no difference in religiosity between the mainstream and the minority who believe, for example, that 9/11 was justified. According to Dalia Mogahed, director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, “Revolutionaries throughout history, violent revolutionaries, have looked very much like our profile of these (Muslim) radicals. They’re more educated, they’re more affluent, they’re also angry about politics and not necessarily more pious. So what distinguishes the radicals from the mainstream is politics, not piety.
Finally, the Gallup survey sheds an interesting light upon Muslim perspectives on religion in politics: while most Muslims told Gallup they want more democracy, they also said they want more democracy and Sharia.
This sounds perturbing, even confusing for Westerners, for most Americans and Europeans think Sharia is equivalent to strict Islamic rule and it is incompatible with democracy. But what Gallup found is Muslims in the survey would prefer to have Sharia as a source of legislation.
Put another way, Muslim views on Sharia are similar to how Catholics think about the Bible: What the Bible teaches a Catholic as a religious text is a matter of interpretation, which is equally true of Sharia because it is a body of principles open to interpretation by its readers. Today’s contemporary Muslims, according to Mogahed, interpret Sharia principles as being compatible with democracy. In fact, this is not any different from attitudes in the U.S.A.: more than half of Americans surveyed by Gallup believe that the Bible should be a source of legislation.
With so many similarities between the Muslim and Western minds, with the Gallup survey telling its readers that mainstream Muslims want more democracy and they are much more liberal in their political thinking than is commonly portrayed by today’s politicians, why do negative opinions remain?
One main reason why the Muslim majority is not being heard is because they rarely find their way into the Western media. This is a consequence how the media determines the news. Terrorist attacks make headlines. Moderate Islam does not.
Meanwhile, the prognosis for the near future does not look promising. European politics are adrift with weak leaders and parties, hence creating an opening for the far-right to capture more votes and influence legislation. A worsening of partisan politics under Trump is also a factor, pushing America to extremes and making it less likely that voices of moderation rather than fear will prevail. In the end, today’s political climate could prove to be the perfect recipe for a greater divide: with religious bigotry in the West becoming more prevalent and accepted, more and more of the Muslim majority might change their way of thinking.