How Western Muslims Fare May Foretell the Future

They are the canary in the coal mine; we must all take heed

How Western Muslims Fare May Foretell the Future
Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

I was coming of political age when the genocide of the Bosniaks — that euphemism that is actually about Muslim Bosnians — in the Balkans was fully underway. I saw how the promise of Europe — the rule of law, the respect of pluralism — was being challenged and how when that promise failed, it was the Muslims who paid the price.

Today, as a new war is unfolding in Europe with its own geopolitical dynamics, old concerns on the continent remain unresolved. According to Christian Schmidt, the United Nations’ high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnia now faces “the greatest existential threat of the postwar period.” And while we say “never again” about the Holocaust or the Bosnian genocide, the truth is that “never again” isn’t a default setting in the West.

It requires constant work to ensure that “never again” is maintained. Indeed, Yiannis Baboulias notes in his work: “Anyone hoping to combat the rise of the far right and its Islamophobic narratives has no choice but to reckon with the powder keg of the Balkans, where the West’s darkest impulses have festered for decades.” I’m not sure we’re truly doing enough to combat that rise. And as Baboulias implies, there is a deep connection among the far right, Islamophobia and the West’s “darkest impulses.” Consider this metaphor: If the state of Western pluralism were a mine, then Muslim Westerners would be the canary. The carbon monoxide from the burning coal would poison them first but would get to everyone else soon enough.

The Bosnian example has particular resonance for me, though I am instinctively reluctant to discuss just quite why. I have been involved in writing about issues pertaining to Muslim communities for more than 20 years, and I began in an era in which the phenomenon of what I call “identity currency” was taking off. People who claimed they had formerly been extremist Islamists, for example, demanded access to the public discussion, because they were somehow more qualified than anyone else to pontificate, presumably on the basis of their rather poor choices in the past. Others traded on their “Muslim-ness” to gain notoriety as commentators, insisting that they, as “community insiders,” had special insights, even when they had little or no expertise on the matter.

But the reality remains that while I am indeed an Englishman, of an English father and his ancestry, I’m also an Arab of Egyptian, Sudanese and Moroccan origin along my maternal lineage, raised between the Arab world and the West. And when I saw the Bosnian Muslims, I saw them not only as Europeans like me but as my co-religionists as well. One of my childhood memories was seeing my mother watch the news about the Bosnian genocide on TV and discuss the possibility of adopting a Bosnian Muslim orphan, so clear was it to her that these children were without their parents simply because they had been born to Muslim families.

And while I resisted the temptation to use my belonging to a religious community as some kind of tender for voguish-ness in the public discussion, my own sense of self was deeply affected by the Bosnian experience, as it continues to be today. Here was a community that could never be denied as European — indeed, as even white European — but because of its Muslim attachments, even if it was not particularly religious, was the subject of a genocide by European extreme nationalists. What did that mean for other Muslim communities of Europe? What did that mean for Muslim Westerners in general? Beyond that, what did it mean for Western societies at large, especially given our less-than-savory history when it came to the treatment of minority groups?

All of these questions became fundamental to how my academic enquiries in Western pluralism would develop, even while I developed a parallel research interest in the politics of the Arab world. My personal disinclination to use my identities publicly remained — but my own personal history, and that of the countries I had most affinity with via experience and ancestry, indelibly affected my work. It did as I looked at the Arab world as an Arab; it did as I looked at the Western world as a Westerner; and it did when I considered the Muslim Western presence as a Muslim Westerner. Indeed, as I researched the Arab world, my perceptions as a Westerner came into play, even as an Arab “insider”; when I researched the West, my perspective as an Arab came into play, even as a Western “insider.”

Perhaps those multiple aspects to my own identity led me to see things that others did not immediately grasp. As an Englishman in the U.K., or as a Muslim in the Arab world, I was part of a majority. But as a Muslim Westerner, I was part of a minority — all of that making me perhaps doubly attuned to issues threatening the cohesion of any pluralistic citizenship. As the son of a white Englishman, I was not an immigrant in the U.K.; as a person of mixed race, I was not “typical” anywhere — and perhaps that also made me more inclined, organically and naturally, to see how societies dealt with what they considered to be “atypical.” Sometimes, they did well, but other times, they did especially badly. And in the context of recent Western history, the targets of that bad treatment were often Muslim.

There of course have been other examples of a canary in the past. The European story takes heed of some of their lessons in the Holocaust. It’s why Holocaust denial is illegal in so much of Europe today; the recognition of the horrors of the Holocaust has played an integral part of the maturation of Europe, and it is sacred in a way.

Yet we haven’t quite recognized the canary related to colonialism, and we see how the effort to redress this in how we teach history is so challenged in Europe; how slavery in the Americas is so controversial, from what is taught to whether the statues and icons that glorify it should be torn down.

The canary of the Muslim, however, remains another issue entirely. The antipathy toward Muslims in Western societies today has become so mainstream, in ways that would have hitherto been unthinkable. Indeed, as I consider the analogy of the canary and the invisible carbon monoxide that a canary can perceive before humans, it’s worthwhile to question whether the analogy is the most appropriate. As Islamophobia isn’t invisible or odorless — it reeks pungently, so it’s less about the odd smell of carbon monoxide in a mine and more about the intense stench of methane on top of a landfill. That’s perhaps advancing the case too dramatically, but it’s worrying how the direction of travel seems to be.

Indeed, in recent months we have seen two vivid examples in public life. The first is associated with two members of the U.S. House of Representatives: Republican Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Democrat Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Without any evidence, the former publicly suggested that the latter, a Somali-American Muslim woman who wears the hijab, was a terrorist. Congress is now planning to advance Omar’s legislation to create a special envoy to combat Islamophobia, similar to the one that exists to combat anti-Semitism. But it is unthinkable to imagine a Jewish member of Congress being subjected to that kind of hate speech from another member.

As Baroness Warsi of the United Kingdom Parliament has noted, this kind of anti-Muslim bigotry has ​​passed the “dinner table test,” and a long time ago at that. It is no longer considered beyond the realm of decent public or private discussion to be openly bigoted against Muslim communities, and as a result the far right is gaining ground in the mainstream. In that regard, Muslims are not the first to be problematized in this fashion — once upon a time, in the not too distant past, it could well have been other minority groups in America, such as Jews or Blacks. But there is arguably something unique about this kind of anti-Muslim bigotry, in that unlike other minority groups, there is this fear about Muslims who are seen as enemies overtaking Western civilization from the outside — and as a fifth column within it.

Boebert is one recent example. But there are many others, the most prominent of which is among those running for the French presidency, Eric Zemmour. Convicted more than once for inciting racial hatred, Zemmour blatantly promotes the racist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which supposes that Europeans are going to be “replaced” by immigrants, and is so bigoted against Islam that he wants to ban the name “Muhammad” in France. Openly declaring that “Islam is incompatible with the republic and France,” Zemmour comes in second to sitting President Emmanuel Macron in opinion polls, defeating even traditional far-right political figure Marine Le Pen.

There are many other examples to note, including Hungarian President Viktor Orban or the Italian Northern League leader, Matteo Salvini. The latter described Islam as “incompatible” with Europe, while the former depicted Muslim refugees as “invaders.” The former American president, Donald Trump, said that Islam “hates us.” As nationalism rises, so does this chauvinistic extremism against Muslims and Islam in particular.

It’s important to recognize how that mainstreaming leads us as the West right back to a common choice: to uphold either pluralism or chauvinism. The latter has been selected more often than the former. It doesn’t get defeated by default. We have to work at it, and we have to take heed now.

Islamophobia has become so outrageous that new legislation is being proposed in Congress to combat it. It’s regrettable, of course, that it has become so pernicious — and it is also poignant that Congress deems it necessary to advance legal measures against it. One cannot yet say that there is a counter-Islamophobia trend that is overwhelmingly more powerful than the forces of bigotry. But there is at least a fight underway. Perhaps that fight took far too long to come to the fore; perhaps the swing to the right has gone so far that it makes it exceedingly difficult to swing back. Only time will tell. But do we really want to be in a position where a hundred years from now, our descendants look back at us in bewilderment, wondering how we could have ignored the slow asphyxiation of the canary in our midst, as it warned us about the dangers of the West’s impulse for bigotry and xenophobia? One hopes we will make a better choice than that.

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