Bernie Sanders recently offered the most frank explanation for the spread of racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia. We are pitted against each other, he said, when most people really just want the same things. I have seen the rise in racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia, and I am forced to ask myself how have I helped stem its tide?
On October 22, 2015, nearly 200 people crammed into the School of International Service on the American University (AU) campus to watch Ambassador Akbar S. Ahmed’s last film. Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University and former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland, spent months with his research team traversing Europe to understand the complex role and influences Islam has had in both historic and contemporary Europe. The efforts of their research resulted in an extraordinary film, “Journey into Europe”.
The film screening on the AU campus brought together distinguished community members, academics, and students from around the Washington DC area. James Goldgeier, Dean of the School of International Service at AU, introduced and praised the film for its interdisciplinary approach, acknowledging that the film will help people understand the dynamics in Europe. Even diplomats from the Spanish and German embassies in Washington attended the screening.
It is much easier to write racists off as ignorant and misguided, but what does that accomplish?
The film provided the audience with unique and unparalleled access to a wide spectrum of religious, political and opinion leaders and communities throughout Europe. We were introduced to survivors of the Bosnian genocide, the archbishop of Canterbury, leaders of right wing parties, migrants, journalists and activists, and equally important, ordinary citizens, all of whom shared their vision for Europe. As an audience member, I was struck by the raw personal stories and people’s visions for the region and their countries. This was reflected in both anti-immigrant sentiments and in the voices of those advocating for an inclusive Europe. The film opens space for a much-needed conversation about the kinds of communities we want to create. It gets at the underlying issues by bringing in a wide variety of voices from across the region.
There were also many Europeans who attended the screening. After the movie, I talked with Mr. Mathias Zeumer, a German peace-building practitioner living in Washington. He had mixed emotions while watching scenes from Germany. He was “horrified and ashamed” while watching people protest the building of a mosque in Cologne, but then “relieved and proud” of those who counter-protested and supported its construction. Zeumer internalised the protests against the mosque as a protest against his ideals of a welcoming multi-cultural Germany.
After the film, in his closing remarks, Ahmed attributed part of the rise in Islamic extremism to growing feelings of isolation, and said Muslim communities must reach out to their local non-Muslim communities to decrease isolation. I think there is also a fear of losing a personal sense of identity and economic opportunities in a rapidly changing community. I believe that these are the same fears that increase Islamophobia and racism. It becomes a vicious circle, pitting the “other” against the “other”, which increases isolation from one another. We must find ways to break the spiral we are currently in.
In the middle of a presidential election cycle in the US, it is critical that we have an honest dialogue about the kind of community we want to live in. However, in order to have this dialogue, we have to understand all sides. This means acknowledging that those who advocate xenophobic ideals (and even extremists) have deeply held fears, which need to be addressed. As a staunch progressive, it is sometimes difficult for me to set aside my personal feelings toward people on the far right. But that is what is required ifI want to create inclusive communities: I cannot shun those with whom I disagree. It is much easier to write racists off as ignorant and misguided, but what does that accomplish?
How can I help make those who feel isolated and afraid of losing their identity see themselves as being connected with those who have the same concerns? I feel these dialogues must also be buttressed with action and policies. I have to ask myself: what are the concrete steps that I am willing to take and support to create the inclusive community I advocate for? As someone moving closer to establishing a family and creating my own community, I have to ensure that I do so in a city and community that is diverse and prioritises inclusivity. I must surround my family with neighbours and peers that reflect the diversity of the United States.
I must also demand city and community policies that create socially, economically, and religiously diverse communities. When a mosque or Islamic centre is being proposed, I need to be down at City Hall to welcome it next to the church and the synagogue. I must advocate for mixed-income neighbourhoods and equal distribution of funds to schools in low-income neighbourhoods. When low-income housing is built in my area, I need to be there with a fruit basket in hand, welcoming my neighbours. All people deserve the same opportunities no matter who they are or where they live. I need to ensure that my future children learn to see that the “others” aren’t “others” but rather “another”: another friend, another family member, another colleague, all of whom are working to provide for their family, just as so many people who are migrating to Europe and America are trying to do.
Joseph Marcus is a Masters Student and Research Assistant at the American University’s School of International Services, where he focuses on peace and conflict resolution