The West is turning towards extremism

Developments on one side of the ocean impacts the other side


Shahid Javed Burki June 16, 2020
A Reuters image.

The world is splitting apart. This is a moment in world history that is bound to bring about enormous and lasting changes. We could go one of two ways. Those in power in the United States and in several countries of Europe may double down and consolidate their positions. They have built up a following among those in the citizenry that are against people of colour and against those who follow the Muslim faith. If they attain and retain power in their countries through the ballot box, they will influence both national and international politics. The man who has done the most in bringing about this situation is Donald J Trump, America’s 45th president who took office on January 20, 2017, and has succeeded in reshaping not only his country but also many parts of the world. For three years we have seen the extreme right consolidate its hold, prodded by President Trump.

However, if those who have been deprived of their rights for a long time finally get what they want and believe they deserve, they will move the US and the countries in Europe that have turned to the right towards normality. That was the process begun by president Barack Obama, the first black man to occupy the White House in Washington. Trump has not hidden from public view his efforts to turn back almost everything Obama did to advance the US and with it the world in the right direction. The fight is on between these two positions as the US moves towards the next presidential election to be held on November 3, 2020. In it Trump will face Joseph Biden who had worked with Obama for eight years as vice president.

In fact, the fight between these two groups and their line of thinking began on Monday, May 25, when a black man was mercilessly killed by police in the city of Minneapolis in the state of Minnesota. In the attempt to arrest the 6 feet 6 inches tall George Floyd, a white policeman put his knee on the black man’s neck and pressed hard until he died. Floyd’s last words as he died were “I can’t breathe”. These became the slogan for those thousands who came out in the streets of urban America to protest Floyd’s death. This movement’s only precedence was the Black rights campaign led by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr who gave a speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in 1969. His phrase, “I have a dream”, was to enter American history. King was gunned down later that year by a white supremacist. His murder, like that of Floyd half a century later, brought tens of thousands of people out on the American street. After 14 days of street protests, Floyd was buried in Houston next to the grave of his mother.

Not guided by any kind of leadership, protests in several American cities seemed to be heading towards chaos. As The Washington Post wrote in its assessment of the situation, a week after the Floyd murder, “Washington teetered on the brink. After a night of riots and looting followed by the use of tear gas by federal law enforcement officers to disperse peaceful, demonstrators at Lafayette Square on June 1, demonstrators looked ready to descend into the kind of unrest last seen in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.” The security forces cleared Lafayette Park that faces the White House so that President Trump could walk over to the small church on the other side and have a picture taken holding the bible. The picture only earned the President ridicule at home.

Developments on one side of the ocean impacts the other side. White supremists in Europe are being inspired by the groups in the US. Security experts and officials in Europe are frustrated that the US is not taking bolder steps to combat right-wing extremism. Their concern has been exacerbated by President Trump’s focus on “antifa”, a left-wing group that has vowed to fight fascists in America. The President blamed the street protests that followed the murder of Floyd on this group. Groups that promote fascist ideologies are gaining strength in several European countries. For instance, Atomwaffen, which was founded in 2015, has been linked by prosecutors to five killings in the US and holds “hate camps”, as seen in videos and online postings. The group whose name means “atomic weapons” in German adheres to the teachings of James Mason, an American white supremacist whose book Siege is required reading for Atomwaffen and other far-right groups. Atomwafen has expanded to Canada, Britain, and Switzerland in addition to Russia where it announced its launch in May 31 its translation of whites-only agenda into Russian. In April 2020, the United States designated an ultranationalist movement based in Russia as a terrorist organisation, the first time it has applied that label to a white supremacist group. Muslims in Germany found fliers in their mailboxes in May 2019 warming them to leave the country as they would be attacked.

The political base that supports Trump and made possible his election to presidency in November 2016 has a high proportion of white supremacist who are also anti-Muslim. While canvassing for the presidency, Trump was open about his anti-Muslim sentiment. He promised that if elected president he would bar the entry of Muslims migrants into his country. Stephen Miller, one of his closest advisers, was similarly disposed. He drafted a presidential order banning the entry of all citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries that the new president signed the moment he took office. Challenged in the courts, the order was softened a bit but it went to the law book. According to Pew Research, a Washington-based think tank, the proportion of Muslims in the United States is about 0.8 per cent of the total population. This amounts to about 2.5 million people, about a third of whom are from Pakistan.

Wajahat Ali is a playwright, a lawyer, a political commentator of Pakistani descent who is also a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. In an article published by the newspaper on June 10 he took up the question of the struggle the members of his community is waging daily to be understood in the country in which they were born. “If you are not writing your story, others will write it for you,” he wrote. “That’s what has happened to Muslims in America for too long. We’ve been in this country since the 16th century, but we’ve rarely had the opportunity to tell our own stories in history books, movies and television shows. Instead we have been cast as America’s villains, as foreigners and invaders.” The American Muslims and Muslims in Europe need to meet this challenge or they will be violently excluded from the places they call home.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 16th, 2020.

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