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'Us vs. them' is not 'Islam vs. the West'

So far, the summer of 2016 feels a bit like we're all strapped into the world's most hectic roller coaster. An unexpected referendum result here is followed by an unanticipated election triumph there. The horrific murder of an MP on one day was overshadowed by horrendous crimes against civilian targets days later.

Perhaps one of the most sobering signs of the times is that when tragedy strikes the identity of whomever is behind it seems to matter more to the press than the scale of the crime or the stories of those whose lives have been lost. Simply put, while there are Facebook filters available to protest against terrorism in Paris and you're asked to pray for Orlando or Nice – all of which are quite legitimate expressions of sorrow and defiance in the face of barbarity – the coverage of similar (and often even more deadly) attacks in Baghdad, Kabul or Turkey is subtler to say the least.

The selective use of language in the coverage given to such attacks is even more obvious when the identity of a terrorist is not immediately clear and observers are left to speculate. For example, last weekend's attacks in Munich garnered responses which condemned it as terrorism, until it turned out that the teenager who murdered nine people wasn't an "Islamist radical" but – according to CNN – a "mentally troubled individual who extensively researched rampage killings, and had no apparent links to terror groups and no political motive." Thus the coverage quickly shifted from outrage about terrorism to concern about a "lone shooter". Robert Fisk explained the grim-racist subtext behind this shift in language: "Somehow, 'shooter' doesn't sound as dangerous as 'terrorist', though the effect of his actions was most assuredly the same. 'Shooter' is a code word. It meant: this particular mass killer is not a Muslim."

Democracy in trouble

It is perhaps unsurprising then that our current political environment both reflects and reinforces this feeling of unending crisis. From an attempted coup and a far-reaching purge in Turkey to the near election of an unequivocal fascist in Austria, and the dominance of populist authoritarians in Russia, the Philippians, India and Israel, not to mention the bona fide despotism in Egypt, the Gulf and across most of the world, there are clearly plenty of reasons to worry about the stability of democracy.

As the Economist Democracy Index explained last year, there is a very real and global "threat to democracy emanating from the fearful mood of our times, which informs the reactions of ordinary people and political elites alike."

Yet, if there was one figure who is the ideal personification of riding the crest of the populist wave it would, of course, be Donald J. Trump. This man – who only half a year ago was considered to be a joke candidate – has now become the official nominee of the US Republican Party for the post of President of the United States of America. This former reality TV personality, inheritor of vast wealth and man who has bankrupted four companies stands a reasonable chance of taking over the most powerful job in the world in January next year.

A puff of hot air and a lingering bad smell

If we were wondering how and why this remarkable turn of events has taken place we can look to Trump's acceptance speech last Thursday at the Republican National Convention for answers. It bore all the hallmarks of his campaign so far. It was politically vacuous – without a policy prescription in sight (apart from his lunatic "wall") – while at the same time both vindictive and posturing. It was also self-aggrandising and deeply pessimistic. Trump sold himself as the only anchor of stability in a dark and hopeless world. And the audience lapped it up.

If it is still debatable whether it's appropriate to call Trump a fascist because of the way that he carries himself, the manner in which he speaks without concern for any consistency and the methods he uses to first stir up fear and then take advantage of the discontent it produces is clearly reminiscent of Mussolini's rise to power. (Although given his almost comic appearance he sometimes looks more like Homer Simpson impersonating Il Duce.)

Even worse, and most importantly of all, Trump has gone out of his way to reinforce some of the worst predilections of his base supporters. He plays on racism and stereotypes, exploits ignorance and sometimes lies openly. Of course, in his nativism and paranoid nationalism he targets non-whites of all backgrounds, but among his various favourite narratives is the trope that Islam is at war with "the West".

This is a lie

Trump has made much of the fact that he is willing to "name" his enemy, but in reality he just promotes another lazy mistruth about Islam. Notably, this is happening while his neo-liberal and neo-conservative opponents, like Obama and even George W. Bush, at least try to make the case that there is some nuance to the their views on terrorism, Islam and war.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, makes no bones about it. He regularly blames "Islamic terrorism" – not even identifying it as a "radical" phenomenon – for violent attacks on civilians, while ignoring any and all violence carried out by non-Muslims. His proposed "Muslim ban" – which has gradually become slightly more nuanced, perhaps after it was pointed out to him that a "religious test" is expressly prohibited in the US constitution – is the very epitome of this. Indeed, back in 2011, before he was running for president, Trump told an interviewer that he believed that there was such a thing as a "Muslim problem".

He obviously believes that there is a clear division in the world between Muslims and the rest. For him it's about "us" vs. "them" whereas in reality (a) by far the vast majority of victims of terrorism are non-Westerners and (b) Muslims do not cause most violent deaths in the West.

In fact, there is not a scrap of evidence to support Trump's worldview, only the feelings of fear and hatred driven by cynical politicians and the compliant media. Astonishingly, one of Trump's closest political allies, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said as much recently: facts are less important than emotions.

"Us vs. them" – but in another way

I'm not arguing that it's necessarily wrong to divide the world into "us vs. them" (though I concede that any such statement represents a tremendous over-simplification). Rather, the main thrust of my argument is that it isn't at all reasonable to pretend that the major dividing line between human beings is down to religion or culture, because it isn't. How could it be when the vast majority of people of all faiths and none are far happier in circumstances when their lives and livelihoods are not threatened by violence and political tumult than when they are?

In my view, it is far better to approach the notion of societal cleavages in terms of the political motivations and methods of the people who seek to promote them. Trump obviously stands to gain enormously from emphasising division, playing on fear and prodding at latent hostility. The same goes for regressive populists elsewhere, including anti-immigration zealots in Britain, racists in France and – of course – Daesh, whose barbarity may be indiscriminate, but is always self-serving.

If it is going to be "us vs. them", then "us" should stand for everyone who would rather engage in political discussion (even an argument) than an uncivilised brawl; everyone who would rather live and let live with their neighbours no matter how they conduct their private lives. "Us" should mean everyone who understands that is possible to respect (and be respected for) each other's individuality, uniqueness and inherent dignity while also honouring the notion that community sometimes means putting the needs of others before one's own.

Correspondingly, "them" should mean those who use fear as a weapon; those who use petty antagonisms to distract from real opportunities for progressive change and the real dangers that face us all; those who fetishize natural and healthy differences between people to divert from the value of social diversity.

Simply put, it is not – and never has been – "Islam vs. the West". If anything, it is "Trump and his ilk" vs. "all that is good about the rest of humanity".

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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