There was a sigh of relief amongst many Muslims in Europe upon the news that Austria's far right presidential candidate, Norbert Hofer, had been defeated. A welcome result, but one that provides only temporary respite for a community that is the main target of the prejudice and hatred whipped up by far right populist leaders. There is a feeling of despair and hopelessness amongst Muslim communities, as though all we can do is watch as passive bystanders, as the tide of far right populism sweeps all before it. Yet Muslims can and should respond to tackle the populism of the far right, our futures depend on it, and inaction is no longer an option.
How do we respond? Firstly, political apathy amongst Muslims living in the West must be overcome. Historically, turnout amongst Muslims eligible to vote has been significantly lower than that of the wider population, both in the UK as well as in wider Europe. Undoubtedly much of this is borne out of a feeling of despair, that even if our voices are heard, nothing much will change. Add to this mix that over previous decades the political centre has shifted to the right when it comes to Islam and Muslims, whereby demonization of Muslim communities has become normalised, there is little wonder that Muslim communities don't really see the benefits of political engagement.
Yet it is down to religious and political leaders and activists within our communities to understand and convey the benefits of political engagement, no matter how angry and frustrated we may feel with the status quo. There is a feeling that things could not get any worse, but they can get a lot worse. We must act to stop those whose electoral success depends on whipping up hatred and animosity towards Muslim communities in order to deflect from the real causes of inequality and lack of opportunities that exist.
Addressing political apathy amongst young Muslims must become a major priority. From my own experience, young Muslims often cite their frustration at a wide range of socio-political issues, ranging from Islamophobia to lack of equal opportunities to social cohesion. Yet often these frustrations do not translate into political activism nearly as much as they should.
The link between these issues and political participation must be highlighted and reinforced. We must not allow our communities to become echo chambers for one another, but popularise our concerns and struggles with others, through political participation and engagement with progressives from diverse backgrounds. For a failure to engage politically and to strengthen the progressive forces against populism, will only serve to strengthen the far right who thrive off the isolation of the Muslim community.
We must also acknowledge that the issue of sectarianism has come to affect the Muslim community, with some religious leaders keen to emphasise their differences between other Muslims as opposed to the common challenges we face. Put simply, 'united we stand divided we fall' holds truer in the case of addressing the populism of the far right. Religious leaders must come together to face a threat that is very real and is blind to the differences between Muslims that some amongst us are so keen to emphasise. This will require bold and decisive action from religious leaders.
The issue of tackling fake news has come to the fore in recent weeks and months. Yet as Muslims we are no strangers to fake news. When it comes to issues around Islam and Muslims, sections of the mainstream media have often pushed disinformation and outright lies. The populist right rely on the hostility and prejudice pushed within the media about Muslims in order to increase their popularity. As Muslims, we must continue to challenge the negative stereotypes that exist within sections of the press, whether this be through highlighting incorrect media portrayals or by achieving a greater representation within the media.
With the increasing popularity of Le Pen's Front National in France, the AfD in Germany and with Geert Wilders' Freedom Party ahead in the polls despite Wilders being found guilty of inciting discrimination, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there is nothing we can do to stop the rise of the far right, that it is inevitable. Yet we cannot afford to be mere spectators, irrespective of how bad the present situation is, it can always get a lot worse. We cannot allow the far right's narrative of Islam and Muslims being the primary threat to all, go unchallenged. More of us must act, and act beyond our comfort zones, if we are to defeat their narrative.