The contradictions and polarisation vividly on display today are neither recent nor superficial, but have deep roots in two opposite tendencies within Western intellectual and political history. These have long competed over the hearts and minds of men and women in Europe and across the Atlantic.
The trend spearheaded by Trump and resurgent far-right populist parties trace their origins in a closed conception of national identity obsessed with mythical notions of racial and cultural purity.
This has had numerous manifestations in modern European history, from the rampant military expansionism of the 18th and 19th centuries and its grand slogans of “exporting civilisation to the backward”, in Nazism with its frenzied belief in the superiority of the Aryan race, or in fascism with its radical authoritarian nationalism, which came to prominence in early 20th century Europe.
But in parallel with this exclusionist racist current and in direct opposition to it, another trend has been accumulating in Western societies. This traces its origins back to the enlightenment tradition: to the values of equality, freedom and humanity, and the ideals of pluralism and coexistence in the framework of what the British-Austrian philosopher Karl Popper called the “open society”.
Of course, these two broad streams within European intellectual heritage have not always been wholly separate. Aspects of one have often seeped into the other, resulting in a strange mixture of emancipatory humanitarian ideals with arrogant aggressive notions of cultural superiority.
The clearest representation of this strange hybrid is found in French radical secularism, for instance, particularly in its relation to the Muslim other, reflected, for example, in the dispute over the “burkini”, or the wearing of the Islamic headdress in the public space.
The defeat of Nazism and fascism after World War II enabled the socialist and liberal trends descended from the Enlightenment tradition to tame the right, curbing its inherent egotistic nativist and authoritarian tendencies. This they did through strong political parties and a ring of institutions active within civil society which acted as the guardians of the socialist and liberal models.
This enabled ethnic and religious minorities and protest groups, including those beyond the mainstream, to find a foothold in pluralistic, inclusive Western societies, with a few exceptions such as the McCarthy anti-communist era during the Cold War.
In its different shades and tones, the right has been the greatest beneficiary from today’s climate of fear: fear of terrorism, fear of Islam, fear of immigration, fear of foreigners, fear of economic recession and loss of livelihood.
The post-9/11 world of tension, insecurity and suspicion has created the ideal environment for the resurrection and flourishing of the right in all its different manifestations, from the mainstream to the extreme, often blurring the boundaries between the two.
The latest wave of xenophobia and nativism feeds on a cocktail of anxieties and insecurities, fuelled by economic crises, terrorism, and the sense of loss of identity resulting from globalisation, mass communication and immigration, and the resulting reality of overlapping borders, nationalities, and races.
The rise of Brexit, Trump and the extreme right with their isolationist slogans of “America first”, “Britain first”, or “France first” are symptoms of this great Western malaise.
Here, we are faced with an astonishing paradox: the vaster, more diverse and more interconnected our world has become, culturally and economically, the narrower, more closed and more fanatical it seems to have grown.
Islamophobia: hatred repackaged
The last two decades have seen the emergence of a new type of hatred, where religion and culture overlap with race and ethnicity. The climate generated by the war on terror has allowed the far-right to redirect its poison of exclusionism from specific racial minorities to specific religio-racial minorities: from the black and Asian, to the Muslim black and Asian.
The far-right was thus able to remobilise and redirect its terrifying energy of exclusionism towards Muslims. Its endemic racism and anti-Semitism have been repackaged as Islamophobia, the last remaining legitimate species of hatred of “aliens” and “foreigners”.
Within these politics of fear and demonisation, the Muslim problem became a substitute for the Jewish problem. Muslims turned into a legitimate object for the racist discourse that had in the past been targeted at Jews and black people.
Under the impact of the horrors of the Holocaust, these prejudices have increasingly been forced into the shadows. The energy of hatred was reactivated against the Muslim “other” under the guise of promoting national security and combating terrorism and Islamo-fascism.
A resistance movement
But although the rise of extreme right-wing politics and discourse are an undeniable reality today, so too are the progressive currents rooted in Kantian enlightenment morality, with its commitment to the values of equality, tolerance and freedom.
Energised by Brexit and Trump’s election, they have been reinvigorated, spurred into action, forced to mobilise their ranks, reorganise themselves and seek to build cross-sectional alliances around the need to protect society from resurgent authoritarianism and xenophobia.
Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven majority Muslim countries was met by huge defiant protests in airports across the US, mounting lawsuits, even insurrections amongst government officials. A State Department dissent cable, asserting that the ban would not make the nation safer, travelled like a viral video attracting roughly 1,000 signatures in a matter of hours.
Donations to humanitarian and rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union soared. On Saturday, the first full day of the immigration ban, the ACLU raised more than $24m in online donations, nearly seven times as much as the amount raised online in throughout 2015, roughly $3.5m. The donations came from at least 356,306 individual donors, two-thirds of whom first-time donors.
Ironically enough, Trump’s politics and discourse, intended to demonise, stigmatise and isolate the Muslim community, thus capitalising on manufactured fear and hatred, appears to be achieving the exact reverse. It is generating awareness of the pernicious reality of mounting islamophobia and the grave perils it poses, not to Muslims alone, but to society as a whole and fundamental rights and liberties at its core.
To the eyes of millions across the Muslim world, this growing resistance movement, which has penetrated through all echelons of American society, from judges blocking the Muslim ban and lawyers stationed in airports to defend detainees, down to federal workers tasked with implementing the order and striking taxi drivers, has unveiled another USA, different from that of Trump and his white supremacist administration.
So, as Trump fuels the pernicious flames of hatred and extremism, acting as terrorism’s chief recruiting sergeant, these conscientious men and women are helping extinguish the raging fires. They are bringing out the nobler, more humane side to American society, that allied to the great ideals of tolerance, openness and inclusiveness, not the ugly face of bigotry and egotism associated with Trump and his cabal.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.