By Azeem Ibrahim

Islamophobia used to be a local problem among nationalist reactionaries in countries with substantial Muslim immigrant populations. Today, the fear is emerging into an organizing principle for an international “axis of evil,” whereby nationalist populist forces in many countries who would otherwise have little interest in supporting one another, find common ground and organize alliances around a shared hostility toward Muslims – along with associated issues like migration, demographic trends, liberal international institutions and norms, and so on.

Why would, for example, Viktor Orbán, the leader of a small nation in the middle of Europe with virtually no Muslim population meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of an isolated country on the other side of Eurasia that has engaged in genocide against its largest Muslim minority? To discuss the existential issues of “growing Muslim populations” and what they deem as the “Western-liberal fake news media,” of course. Of like minds are Narendra Modi of India, Matteo Salvini of Italy and Donald Trump of the United States. And those are just the vocal proponents in power. Similar notable figures are depending on this path to power in an increasing number of countries, including Austria, France, Germany, the Benelux and Scandinavian countries, and increasingly in Southeast Asia and China.

All come with their own local flavor and spin to their rhetoric, weaving hostility towards Muslims into a broader opposition to migration and liberal values. Except for the shared Islamophobia, these diverse politicians might do not have much of a shared world-view – even when they do have practical common interests.

The peculiar convergence on this issue among such different movements in such disparate countries is, of course, a complex phenomenon with multiple and diverse causal links and feedback loops. I can highlight two, one a push factor and another a pull factor.

The push factor is that we live in increasingly politically unstable states. With the advent of the internet and social media, we have unregulated, and unregulatable, flows of information directly among most of our citizens. This creates an unstable information environment where factual reality is difficult to access for most people, and where alternative realities and “alternative facts” are promoted and sold. And the business models for media in this environment need have no relationship to actual reality, but can instead tap into the attention economy. Some media outlets typically do so with outlandish claims and by feeding the outrage machine. 

This is coupled with an ideological commitment to a notion of democracy, which empowers the individual with whatever reality he or she chooses, entitling them to expect “customer satisfaction” from their politicians. Delivering “customer satisfaction” that politicians promise during campaigns would be impossible even if the entire electorate could agree on reality and what they hope to achieve by the collective exercise of public politics in that reality. But voters don’t agree on what they want to achieve, and they scarcely agree on basic facts such as the threat of climate change or the efficacy of vaccines.

If politics is the activity of organizing the collective endeavors of society, then such destabilization of reality cripples the very possibility of politics. In this environment, political leaders are pushed to come up with any narrative that can organize their societies towards some shared vision or goal.

For some, this narrative revolves around Islamophobia. At a basic level, the most effective narratives for political coordination have tended to be us-versus-them stories. As social psychology suggests, in-group/out-group distinctions are ingrained in the human psyche by forces no less powerful than evolution itself. This tendency is, from the evolutionary point of view, a much faster, less time-consuming way to encourage humans to cooperate than, say, requiring or waiting for all individuals to develop detailed appreciation and enlightenment over how cooperation and general pro-social behavior are conducive to one’s self-interest.

And to make the us-versus-them story especially effective, leaders pit good versus evil. Religious differences are an easy way to bring a moral dimension to the conflict and motivate large numbers.

Some political leaders have appointed Islam as the “evil” side in this story. This choice has less to do with calculated reasoning and more to do with historical accident. Two aspects of history are particularly relevant. First, Islam is the most recent of the major religions to emerge dramatically from the geographical center of the Eurasian landmass, as the state religion of a highly expansionist and successful empire. From its beginning, Islam has been a political tool both for its Arab proponents in the Umayyad and Abbasid empires and for its opponents in Christian Europe and Hindu/Buddhist Asia.

Second, the undisputed cultural and political hegemon in the post–Cold War era, the United States, despite having little history with Islam, took a keen and negative interest in the religion after the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, DC. The rhetoric and actions of the United States in the wake of those attacks, perpetrated by 19 men acting on behalf of the terrorist group Al Qaeda, elevated Islam to the position of Public Enemy Number 1 for the global cultural community over which the sole superpower presides. Much of the Old World in Europe and Asia was only too happy to reprise old prejudices and hostility towards Islam to curry favor with the hegemon.

In the final analysis, Islam is a target of convenience in a world destabilized by technological and communication revolutions, increasingly edging towards environmental collapse.

Nationalist populists were already primed towards tribalism and on the lookout for scapegoats. But the peculiar feature of this moment in history is that most states are feeling increasingly fragile due to a confluence of technological, environmental and political reasons. Citizens of the unregulated United States, the fractious Indian republic, waning Old Europe and the unstable, artificial former colonial states are feeling increasingly insecure and have thus become susceptible to tribal instincts and “easy” solutions offered by the populists. In that context, Islam, a religion without a central figurehead with the power to define what it stands for in relation to the rest of the world, has long been an easy target of suspicion for most outside the Muslim world. For many, it is the most obvious target.

Many of the challenges confronting our world today are global: climate change, resource depletion, nuclear proliferation, increasing geopolitical destabilization and so on. These are complex problems with complex solutions. Furthermore, there are deep disagreements at the global level about the analysis of those problems and the approaches for resolution.

Islam as a global challenge is a simple notion: “Muslims are evil and dangerous.” Political leaders scraping for a simple narrative to organize a society, just as that body politic is anxious, unravelling, holding little patience or interest in engaging with complex challenges and solutions that require sacrifice, are tempted to turn to Islamophobia as a political crutch.

But scapegoating does not solve crises. And focusing on invented threats wastes political energy required to address existential challenges from climate change to resource depletion. Muslims are not out to invade the West. What is threatening the West are unprecedented heatwaves, rising seas, droughts, polar vortexes, more frequent hurricanes and massive forest fires. No amount of border fencing can stop these invaders. And wealthy nations can expect to suffer as people from poorer countries do. Instead on focusing on the actual problems, populists invent easier enemies to confront – perhaps to mask the impotence or lack of real solutions to real problems.

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