Which Islam are you afraid of?

Fear and obsession narrow the mind

It cannot have escaped the attention of anyone who regularly reads the blogs on the NS website, and particularly those of my colleague Mehdi Hasan, that many who post comments are obsessed with and fearful of Islam. When I blogged the other day about the American Justice of Peace who refused a marriage licence to a mixed race couple the first comment, from "Matt", was: "Good call there, Sholto. Any excuse to ignore the Islamisation of Europe."

Quite apart from the fact that this seemed a rather off-beam response (should I not have blogged about it?!), I am left less angry and more saddened and baffled that so many people appear to identify this one major world religion as such a threat - to their way of life, to their values, even to the very future of western civilisation, according to some. Because what they are doing is taking the views and actions of a minority of extremists and then claiming that they are representative of all Muslims.

It's one thing when controversialists use this odious tactic to further their media presence. When I interviewed the US commentator Ann Coulter in New York a few years ago, she consistently used the world "Muslim" when she meant "Muslim terrorists". Her response when I picked her up on this was merely to say: "You can make that argument, but all I see is Muslims killing people." (A further flavour of the irrepressible Ms Coulter's views can be found in her response when I asked her to imagine how she might feel if she had been brought up as a Muslim. "In that case," she said, "I would like a steak knife, please, so I can cut your throat and disembowel you. And then I shall kill all the Jews!")

It's another when otherwise reasonable, well-intentioned people -- and I am willing to admit that some of those posting pretty vehement comments may be precisely that -- do so too. Over lunch after the London bombings a very old friend of mine, who might be regarded by some as such a caricature of the relativist British liberal that he is even the son of a "gay vicar", told me he was scared about "Muslims". "What do you mean," I asked. "Which ones?" "All of them," he replied.

I found this honest response profoundly chilling -- not least for the ignorance it showed about the many and varied shades of Islam as it is practised around the world. Yes, there are countries that have incubated terrorism and blind hatred of the West. But that is just one extreme. What about the other hundreds of millions of Muslims? What about the liberal, syncretist cultures of Malaysia and Indonesia, the compromise with state secularism in Turkey, and the many countries, such as in the Maghreb, where Islam is more identified with than observed?

Even in Saudi Arabia, a country always viewed as a stern, backward-looking, Wahhabist monoculture, my family found plenty who differed when we lived there in the 1980s. "Please don't think this is true Islam," were some of the first words spoken to us by the Qureshis, our Pakistani neighbours in Riyadh, a family who exemplified the warmth and hospitality I have found in every Muslim country I have visited.

Some may consider these virtues, as well as an interest and appreciation of different cultures that makes an embarrassingly large proportion of British expats appear unblushing philistines in comparison, to be cultural rather than specifically religious. Perhaps so. Perhaps the ingrained sense of family, respect and courtesy that the west has discarded in favour of an individualism that celebrates freedom above all else -- too often failing to realise that it is a brutal indifference that is being placed on a pedestal -- is also primarily cultural. Nevertheless, they are characteristics that can be found in Muslim countries; and I think that religion can claim credit for their presence too.

So, two points to end with:

1.I don't know what "Islamisation" of Europe means. Again, I ask, which Islam? (Let's leave aside quite how this is supposed to happen; base scaremongering about millions of immigrants overwhelming the continent is just too ridiculous to bother engaging with.)

2.But if "Islamisation" means learning from what is best in Muslim countries around the world -- certainly the ones I spend a lot of time in -- then frankly, I'm all for it. The idea that the West could be some kind of liberal utopia if only "alien" religions are kept out or kept underfoot is not only offensive but nonsensical. Anyone who thinks so needs to collect a few more stamps on their passport.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The most terrifying thing about Donald Trump's speech? What he didn't say

No politician uses official speeches to put across their most controversial ideas. But Donald Trump's are not hard to find. 

As Donald Trump took the podium on a cold Washington day to deliver his inauguration speech, the world held its breath. Viewers hunched over televisions or internet streaming services watched Trump mouth “thank you” to the camera, no doubt wondering how he could possibly live up to his deranged late-night Twitter persona. In newsrooms across America, reporters unsure when they might next get access to a president who seems to delight in denying them the right to ask questions got ready to parse his words for any clue as to what was to come. Some, deciding they couldn’t bear to watch, studiously busied themselves with other things.

But when the moment came, Trump’s speech was uncharacteristically professional – at least compared to his previous performances. The fractured, repetitive grammar that marks many of his off-the-cuff statements was missing, and so, too, were most of his most controversial policy ideas.

Trump told the crowd that his presidency would “determine the course of America, and the world, for many, many years to come” before expressing his gratefulness to President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama for their “gracious aid” during the transition. “They have been magnificent," Trump said, before leading applause of thanks from the crowd.

If this opening was innocent enough, however, it all changed in the next breath. The new president moved quickly to the “historic movement”, “the likes of which the world has never seen before”, that elected him President. Following the small-state rhetoric of his campaign, Trump promised to take power from the “establishment” and restore it to the American people. “This moment," he told them, “Is your moment. It belongs to you.”

A good deal of the speech was given over to re-iterating his nationalist positions while also making repeated references to the key issues – “Islamic terrorism” and families – that remain points of commonality within the fractured Republican GOP.

The loss of business to overseas producers was blamed for “destroying our jobs”. “Protection," Trump said, “Will lead to great strength." He promised to end what he called the “American carnage” caused by drugs and crime.

“From this day forward," Trump said, “It’s going to be only America first."

There was plenty in the speech, then, that should worry viewers, particularly if you read Trump’s promises to make America “unstoppable” so it can “win” again in light of his recent tweets about China

But it was the things Trump didn't mention that should worry us most. Trump, we know, doesn’t use official channels to communicate his most troubling ideas. From bizarre television interviews to his upsetting and offensive rallies and, of course, the infamous tweets, the new President is inclined to fling his thoughts into the world as and when he sees fit, not on the occasions when he’s required to address the nation (see, also, his anodyne acceptance speech).

It’s important to remember that Trump’s administration wins when it makes itself seem as innocent as possible. During the speech, I was reminded of my colleague Helen Lewis’ recent thoughts on the “gaslighter-in-chief”, reflecting on Trump’s lying claim that he never mocked a disabled reporter. “Now we can see," she wrote, “A false narrative being built in real time, tweet by tweet."

Saying things that are untrue isn’t the only way of lying – it is also possible to lie by omission.

There has been much discussion as to whether Trump will soften after he becomes president. All the things this speech did not mention were designed to keep us guessing about many of the President’s most controversial promises.

Trump did not mention his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, nor the wall he insists he will erect between America and Mexico (which he maintains the latter will pay for). He maintained a polite coolness towards the former President and avoiding any discussion of alleged cuts to anti-domestic violence programs and abortion regulations. Why? Trump wanted to leave viewers unsure as to whether he actually intends to carry through on his election rhetoric.

To understand what Trump is capable of, therefore, it is best not to look to his speeches on a global stage, but to the promises he makes to his allies. So when the President’s personal website still insists he will build a wall, end catch-and-release, suspend immigration from “terror-prone regions” “where adequate screening cannot occur”; when, despite saying he understands only 3 per cent of Planned Parenthood services relate to abortion and that “millions” of women are helped by their cancer screening, he plans to defund Planned Parenthood; when the president says he will remove gun-free zones around schools “on his first day” - believe him.  

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland