Our political environment is now one where fact becomes fiction and fiction becomes fact. The election of Donald Trump has inaugurated a new age of anxiety for many within diverse communities in the United States, and also globally.
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Hand-in-hand with these changes has been the rise of so-called 'alt-right' movements with strong online presences who have repeatedly and openly denigrated Muslims and refugee communities as part of their antagonism towards diversity within our societies.
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At the center of this far-right thinking is the trope of Muslims as sexual predators: the contention that Muslims constitute a horde of marauding rapists who seek to wage war on Europe and take it over. These websites actively promote terms such as ‘rape jihad’ to perpetuate the notion that Muslim men as a whole cannot be trusted and that they are fueled by a desire to spread Islam through rape and insemination. Subverting women’s bodies, for political gain or personal gratification, is attributed solely to Muslims, rather than recognizing the sad truth that such abuse is clearly not the domain of one set of communities, let alone one faith group.
For those who consume toxic material like this, such extreme thinking about Muslims has further been ‘confirmed’ through recent scandals in the United Kingdom, where males of Pakistani heritage were found to have been ‘grooming’ young girls for sexual exploitation. Rather than seeing this detestable behavior through the lens of criminal gangs of men preying on vulnerable young girls, the focus of the extremist far right narrative has been on the idea that Islam itself indoctrinated young men to rape white women.
The spread of similar ideas, that Muslim men ‘cannot control their sexual urges for white women,’ has been a key tool for 'alt-right' sites to radicalize young, vulnerable white men who find it hard to adapt to a changing global environment and are being left behind socially and educationally.
However, these corrosive, extremist narratives have also spread further online past the darkest corners of the web, to be adopted by more ‘mainstream’ hard right social media activists and journalists. When White House news site favorite Breitbart and other more ‘respectable’ 'alt-right' sites push this same ‘rape Jihad’ narrative they not only exponentially grow the audience for these accusations (not least because of those sites’ popularity with the 16-40 white male demographic) but spawn an ever-wider web of individual blog posts and cross-posted articles on them.
But the 'alt-right' has gone one step further in its search to legitimize anti-Muslim bigotry. That step is the adoption of what they see as an ‘ethno-state’ of kindred interests: Israel. Far right extremists (including alt-rightists and ultra-nationalists), have appropriated Israel as a country and identity that they vocally defend, as a means of agitating against Muslims and with the intention of defusing, even co-opting, support from Jews in Israel or abroad.
Yet, these same sites downplay or deny key elements of Jewish history, most glaringly the Holocaust, and simply use Israel as a symbolic firewall to cover their inherent hatred of diversity and pluralism within society.
Sadly, a handful of Jewish community members support such sites, narratives and groups, buying into the narrative that hostility to Muslims proves commitment to Israel's security: a version of my ‘enemy’s enemy’. Such alliances are poisonous not only in themselves but because of their consequences for Jewish: Muslim relations.
The involvement of a handful of Jewish individuals in hateful anti-Muslim tropes play to small groups within Muslim communities who are already partial to anti-Semitic positions, from subtle to extreme views, and who exploit these alliances to prop up an idea of eternal enmity between Jews and Muslims with the Holy Land as proof text. This ‘tit for tat’, or cumulative extremism, feeds itself.
I have had recent personal experience with this. For the past three years, I have been a trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. The charity works diligently throughout the year in raising awareness across the U.K. about the Holocaust, and educates about other genocides, culminating in the Holocaust Memorial Day held on 27th January, the day that Auschwitz was liberated. This year, the Trust produced a video showcasing a survivor of the Holocaust; the script reflected on the need for all of us to stand up against the hatred, intolerance and prejudice targeting many communities in the U.K., including Muslim communities. A Muslim woman wearing hijab was pictured; she wore a yellow flower that some took to be in the shape of a star.
You can guess the rest, really. Responses from anti-Muslim bloggers and alt-right sites was swift, blaming two Muslim trustees, myself included, of ‘manipulating’ the video to equate the Holocaust with anti-Muslim hate crimes, a charge so bizarre as to be laughable. However, this accusation was far from being an isolated incident; thanks to social media, this prejudice and bigotry, not to mention the aspersions cast on me, circulated wider and wider with no regard for the truth.
What at first seemed a claim too marginal to challenge, had become a libel that had gained far more traction. This has pushed me to set out the facts, once and for all. Firstly, I was not personally involved with producing or scripting the video, but I stand squarely with its intention to reach out to other communities, by demonstrating an empathy with them. I believe this is a welcome approach - to widen the circle of minority communities exposed to understanding the genocide of Jews in the Holocaust.
Secondly, I have never and would never equate the Holocaust with other genocides, let alone hate crimes, given the unique, mechanized and meticulously planned horrors of the Holocaust.
Thirdly, we should recognize how anti-Muslim conspiracist thinking is on a constant alert for any news or media hook, and it has a well-oiled mechanism for provoking antagonism specifically between the Muslim and Jewish communities. That conspiracist view even co-opts some of the tactics and accusations used by the far-right against Jews for centuries.
In this case, and in many others, alt-right extremist sites saw an opportunity to create a ‘them vs us’ narrative out of a simple visual, to play to anti-Muslim tropes that manipulative Muslims are secretly promoting their own agenda. The transposed language of ‘manipulative Muslims’ versus the ‘well-wishing but nave Jews’ narrative is indeed familiar to all of us with even a passing understanding of the language of anti-Semitic conspiracy thinking. The core of the far-right's bigotry targets both Jewish and Muslim communities.
Let us be in no doubt that far-right and alt-right groups, especially online, will continue to try and drive a wedge between the Muslim and Jewish communities here in the U.K. and around the world. Spurious stories and articles based on pure conjecture and bigotry will continue to erupt from these websites, co-opting the fear of terrorism to collectively anathematize all Muslims. On the other side, Islamist extremist websites play up the card of religious war and a victimization narrative that they have co-opted deeply into the worldview of some.
It would indeed be a tragedy, if not a disaster, for coverage of the Middle East and of our minority communities at home to be appropriated by the alt-right with their message that Jews and Muslims are incapable of coexistence. That, not least in my experience as an activist for the Muslim community with years of experience of working with U.K. Jewish communities, is simply not true and frankly, the most dangerous form of fake news.