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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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism