Will Islamophobia Swing World Elections in 2016?

Europeans in eight countries will go to the polls in 2016 in local and national elections, including in Germany, which has accepted the most refugees of any European country. These elections will likely be dominated by the continued swing of far-right xenophobic parties from fringe to mainstream, meaning that no issue will be more dominant than the refugee crisis. That trend may well be replicated in the USA, should Donald Trump secure the Republican nomination.

This means 2016 could be a huge inflection point for how western, liberal democracies approach the Syrian refugee crisis, immigration and the fight against Islamophobia.

Just last year, far-right Swedish Democrats grew to third largest party in Sweden, and sweeping victories for French quasi-fascist party Front National was only narrowly avoided by tactical voting from mainstream voters. Anti-immigrant pan-European movement Pegida continues to gain followers. So far, these movements have been welcomed as righteous guardians of ‘European values’ by the xenophobic few, and as crazy but harmless anomolies by the rest.

But fear and ignorance about ISIS is enabling creeping normalization of fear of Muslims as a rational response to the psychosis of ISIS. In characterizations of ISIS, the realities of entrenched religious division and the collapse of state-rule in the Middle East are divorced from the ideological Islamist elements in ISILS’s rise. In the popular mind, ISIL are fanatical Muslims, not strategic geo-political actors manipulating tenets of the Qu’ran. According to this view, if ISIL are just Muslims with extreme views, then all Muslims could be ISIS.

This is a gift to xenophobic nationalist movements. Suddenly being anti-Muslim, and by association, anti-anyone who looks or sounds Arab, Asian or African, has gained legitimacy. Politicians and political parties from Donald Trump to Swedish Democrats are exploiting this to gain support. Statements and policies that were politically unthinkable a year ago, now are considered as bordering on rational, if somewhat uncomfortable.

Although few would explicitly agree with Donald Trump when he says ‘Ban all Muslims’, there is tacit acceptance of the sentiment — premised on the idea that because one Muslim committed an atrocity, all must be implicated — in a way that would be unacceptable for many other religious or ethnic groups.  European and American civil society and citizens have so far failed to find an effective response to Islamophobia. Largely regarded as a fringe issue – unfortunate but not dangerous – it is rarely analyzed as the threat that historical antecedents suggest it should be. Radical threats to social orders rarely come waving a red flag. They mature incrementally, over months and years, continually altering the boundaries of acceptable political and social behavior.

The roots of Islamophobia are deep, far pre-dating the rise of ISIS. Muslim communities across Europe and the United States face the twin threat of everyday prejudice in the street, and state policies of surveillance and discrimination in the name of counter-extremism. In the UK, teachers, nurses and other public sector workers are asked to act as spies of the state, reporting any indication of religious radicalization to authorities. Last year this led to a 14-year old boy questioned about ISIS by authorities for using the word ‘l’ecoterrorisme’ (eco-terrorism) in a French class. Afterwards he had to return to class to be taught by the very teacher who reported him.

Images of terrible violence will continue to appear on screens around the world, and ISIS will continue to undermine the norms of political warfare in the West with slick videos featuring child recruits and chillingly-familiar European accents. The greatest danger that ISIS pose is to Muslims and people in the Middle East itself. The threat to Europe and to the United States in 2016 is a corollary of ISIL – Islamophobia. The existence of ISIL is enabling the maturation of xenophobic Islamophobic political movements in Europe and the US. The ability of citizens and civil society to finally recognize and challenge this threat will define elections in 2016 on both sides of the Atlantic.

The challenge in 2016 will be first recognizing and charting the growth of Islamophobia, analyzing the challenge it poses to democracy and human rights – and ultimately challenging its foundations.