Fight the spread of the far-right with interfaith bridge-building

Fight the spread of the far-right with interfaith bridge-building
Comment: With mainstream politicians unwilling to stand up for minorities, activism to fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia must be driven by grassroots communities, writes CJ Werleman.
6 min read
15 Oct, 2018
Dialogue and shared action is needed now more than ever, writes CJ Werleman [Getty]
With Jews being attacked online and on the way to Synagogue, and with Muslims being literally "hunted" in the streets of cities all across Europe, one must ask: is this the moment adherents of these two respective and great religious faiths put aside their political differences and partner together to push back against the re-emergence of European fascism?

Last month, far right and neo-Nazi groups gave Nazi salutes and chanted genocidal slogans about Jews and Muslims as they rioted in the eastern German city of Chemnitz.

Chancellor Angela Merkel would later condemn their vulgar and alarming actions as a concerted effort to "hunt down foreigners", with others proclaiming the city had "never seen anything like it".

Muslim immigrants are being "hunted in packs" by mobs of fascist "wolves", as one Syrian refugee told The New York Times; mosques and synagogues are being firebombed and defaced in increasing frequency and ferociousness, while far-right political parties and movements are gaining traction at warp speed.

All of which has Europe asking itself the most difficult question of all: will the horrors of the previous century be revisited upon Germany and the rest of the continent again, but this time targeting both Jews and Muslims?
Increasingly our societies are drifting towards the extremes, or rather: the extremes are becoming the new normal

While the unthinkable remains exactly that - unthinkable - the rise of far-right political parties across Europe has not only become impossible to ignore, but also today's socio-economic-political realities echo the continent's darkest decade, with a loss of faith in establishment politics, stagnant incomes, and fear of the future; coupled with increased polarisation and the scapegoating of the foreign "other" - and thus mirroring the fissures Germany's Nazi Party used to lever its way into power.

"Recent changes can be seen as a movement of far-right political parties and social groups from the margins to the mainstream," observes Julie Ebner, a research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. "Increasingly our societies are drifting towards the extremes, or rather: the extremes are becoming the new normal."

Indeed, far-right extremist political entrepreneurs and parties have become the "new normal" in Austria, Poland, Hungary, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Slovakia, Sweden, and elsewhere - and while Muslims constitute the epicentre of their efforts to blame their respective nation's ills on the foreign "other", anti-Semitism and hate crimes against Jews have reached levels not seen on the continent in more than a half-century.

A recent report compiled by the University of London's Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism found that there's measurable rising fear among Jews in all five European countries that were included in the study, with 78 percent of German Jews noticing an increasing threat.

"We were shocked to see that prejudices against Jews had changed so little over the last hundred years," Monika Schwarz-Friesel, who heads the TU Berlin institute for language and communication, a group that tracks anti-Semitic hate online, told Deutsche World in a recent interview, adding that Jews were still widely viewed among far-right groups as the "scourge of the world"; one that must be eradicated.

While Jews and Muslims have experienced somewhat of a shared history of discrimination in Europe, with the former often smeared as a threat from within, and the latter maligned as a threat from the outside - divergent social, political, and economic realities continue to put a gulf between them.

At the centre of this divide, of course, is the state of Israel, with a significant minority of Muslims placing blame on Israel's hasbara for weaponising Islamophobia for geopolitical ends, and an equal share of Jews blaming Muslims for fermenting anti-Semitism as a means to challenging discriminatory Israeli policies, which together, in turn, fosters a mutual air of suspicion and mistrust between respective members of the two religious faiths.

Also, socioeconomic realities tend to place European Jews and Muslims on opposite ends of the political spectrum. While both communities are diverse and far from homogenous in their respective outlooks, Muslims tend to favour left-leaning political parties as a result of occupying lower rungs on the economic ladder, while Jews tend to favour conservative parties due to their comparative higher economic status - and there are of course huge exceptions to this generalisation.

It is true that a full-half of all Britain's 2.7 million Muslims live in poverty, thus making them the most likely religious group to live in poverty, while only one in seven of the country's 275,000 Jews live in poverty, thus making them the least likely religious group to do so.

Despite these divergences, however, interfaith bridge-building is not only necessary, but also possible in this time of rising anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim animus.

It's critical that we give impacted folks an opportunity to share their stories in schools, universities, workplaces, and community centres

"Interfaith bridge-building strategies begin with framing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as overlapping forms of animus that are sourced in white supremacy and xenophobia, and the demonisation of Islam and Judaism as foreign faiths," Khaled Beydoun, a law professor and author of American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear, told me.

"Jewish and Muslim communities should collaborate together and understand their religious identities are stigmatised and viewed as non-European and un-American, and targeted especially by Christian zealots driving populist movements in both Europe and the US. This should be done beyond just advocacy and activist circles, but also within religious spaces - mosques and synagogues."

When I interviewed Arjun Sethi, a civil rights activist and author of American Hate: Survivors Speak Out, he told me: "It's not enough for Muslims and Jews to invite each other to their respective houses of worship for interfaith conversations. They, and the rest of us, must work together to tackle anti-black racism, anti-native sentiment, xenophobia, and other destructive forces. We are all members of so many different communities, and it's critical that we give impacted folks an opportunity to share their stories in schools, universities, workplaces, and community centres."

The urgency for genuine and meaningful interfaith bridge-building is underscored by the fact that the long-time flag bearers for equality and civil rights - centre left political parties - have collapsed throughout Europe, primarily because they've been unable to offer a convincing counter-narrative to those on the far-right pushing for anti-immigrant policies. I mean, it's politically challenging for any elected official to declare him or herself pro-immigration and pro-open borders even during the best of socioeconomic times.

To this end, if mainstream political parties are unwilling to stand up for the rights of minorities, especially during times of far-right driven anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic hysteria, then the importance of grassroots social movements and efforts becomes paramount, which again emphasises the need for interfaith bridge-building between Muslim and Jewish communities in Europe.

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.