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The American Winter – OpEd

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By Muddassar Ahmed*

First there was the Arab Spring, now we have the American Winter. The USA now is where the Arab world was five years ago. That means that the Muslim (and particularly the Arab) world has an obligation to help America lead itself through this difficult stage.

We must rise to the challenge. We don’t know what this means for Americans, or what kind of a president Donald Trump will be. Our only option is to engage with them — and him. Protest is not a luxury we can afford. Only the weak rely on marches, and the Arab world’s experience since 2011 is something America needs to learn from.

We must teach them. There was no way of knowing that the (sometimes legitimate) economic and social grievances of the Arab Spring would indirectly lead to an environment where radicalization would become a problem and Daesh would thrive. Similarly, no one could predict that the combination of economic deprivation, family breakdown and social isolation would lead many ordinary white Americans to vote for what many see as “fascism-light.”

But 60 million Americans are not fascists. What they are is radicalized. The causes of the Arab Spring, beginning in Tunisia and Egypt, are eerily similar to the antecedents of the American Winter: An out of touch elite, job insecurity and a collapse of the route to a normal family for many youth. Coupled with this, in both the Arab and American cases, the elite underestimated the power of social media to cut through the “mainstream media.”

We must help America realize that radicalization is not just a Muslim problem now. It has jumped — like a globalized virus — from the East to the West, from Islam to Christianity, from Brown to White. And right now it is early in the process; my analogy is made extreme if only to help us understand where all this could lead to, if not addressed.

Many traditional Republicans insist that Trump has nothing to do with true Republicanism, that he is a perversion of their most cherished values. Sounds familiar? And just as the fight against Islamist radicalization is being won by an active promotion of true Islam, the struggle against Trump’s Republican radicalization will be fought by a promotion of traditional moderate Republican (and American) values. Even the medium used for white radicalization — the Internet — is the same as its Islamist equivalent. This is how a young white man in an overwhelmingly white town can feel intensely threatened by minorities — when the only minority he sees may be the Latino maid his family hired by choice. Similarly, Muslim schoolgirls from my native East London can fly to Syria to wage war on “the kuffar” (infidels), when the only “kuffar” they meet are their neighbours who befriend them and their teachers who educate them.

Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik and the murderer of British Member of Parliament Jo Cox had a similar pathway. Many Muslims are angry that there isn’t the same probing conversation around their white radicalization that there is around Muslims who commit similar acts. This is understandable — and the solution is for us to start that conversation with America and the West, because we’ve been through it already. Online is a different world. It is why a 16-year-old who puts makeup tutorials on YouTube can be a household name with millions of fans — all of whom are other 16-year-olds — without anyone 17 or older ever knowing who she is. It is why a mother in Cairo or a father in London can be shocked at what becomes of their child after they simply bookmarked the wrong websites. And it is why 60 million Americans can vote for a fascist, sexist platform, when they are not fascists or sexists: They truly believe that it is militant feminists, globalists, anti-racism activists and liberals who are the true “fascists.”

Younger white voters were attracted to Trump’s radicalism just as Muslim youth are attracted to Daesh’s extremism. Our radicalized youth know that Daesh are not “moderate.” They tried moderation, and it was no help to them. Similarly, many voters tried the two-party political orthodoxy and it was of no use. What else could explain the cognitive dissonance of Trump supporters indulging white supremacist discourse while still having non-white friends? When we feel powerless and we have no future, we will follow anyone who makes us feel special. Therefore, non-whites are seen by some in his camp as inferior and deserve to be enslaved in the same way as a Yazidi girl in Raqqa does — they deserve it, because it makes me feel good. And I have no other way of feeling good about myself, and my masculinity. Contrast this with the vibrant traditions of both the white embrace of multiculturalism and the Islamic history of peaceful coexistence (or convivencia as it was called in Muslim Spain).

I mention masculinity because it is a big part of the challenge. Both Daesh and Trump rely on angry young men to fuel their nostalgic revolutions. Jihadi brides are the honeypot for Daesh recruits. And the “Pick-Up Artist” community on Reddit planted the seed for Trump’s alt-right revival of fascist ideas, fueled by a return to Men Being Real Men. And what can sum up the Daesh aesthetic of hairy young guys cradling machine guns while trading slave girls than the perverted desire for Men to Be Real Men?

It took the Muslim world a long time to quantify and resist the tide of online radicalization. The West is only now beginning to look in the mirror and see how deep their scars go: a recent study found that nearly half of Europeans harbored extremist nationalist views. I describe both causes as “nostalgic revolutions” because they both want to replace everything with something different — but something that, in their minds, at least, has already existed.

Trump promised to Make America Great Again. Daesh promised to Make Islam Great Again. We must show America that, if it returns to its true values, it is, and always will be, great; — just as we have restrained Daesh recruitment by showing our youth that true Islam is great. To realize that, Islam doesn’t need to return to the 7th century, just as America doesn’t need to return to the 50s. The world is relying on us Muslims to show our American friends that.

*Muddassar Ahmed is Managing Partner at Unitas Communications Ltd, an intercultural strategic communications company based in London.


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Arab News

Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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