Forming a Muslim Political Identity in a Populist West

Recent political elections in the West have followed similar patterns. The debates have moved beyond discussions of policy to debates on ideals. On one hand, a populist runs on a ticket with a mix of bigotry and a critique of the “liberal elite” who they argue are working to subvert the people’s will. Whilst on the other hand, a liberal runs on a ticket claiming that they are the only obstacle preventing an increase in Islamophobia within their nation. Whilst this observation oversimplifies the current political patterns throughout the Western world, the simplification is a useful tool for understanding the predicament Muslims face when engaging within the West.

This pattern can be noticed across the Western world, but two elections are particularly important in understanding it: the 2016 US presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and the 2017 French presidential election between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Donald Trump infamously had the Muslim ban as a central feature of his campaign, whilst Hillary Clinton claimed that she would not “demonize and declare war on an entire religion,” in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting. This debate on Muslims’ roles within the country was mirrored in France by Le Penn, who had previously compared Muslims praying in the street to a Nazi occupation, whereas Macron during a 2017 rally stated, “I won’t accept people being insulted just because they believe in Islam.” Yet, the actions of Macron—in dissolving the Muslim charity Barakacity and arresting its founder Idriss Sihamedi—showed Muslims around the world that despite his promises, Macron has targeted numerous Muslims and Islamic organizations simply “because they believe in Islam.”

For Donald Trump, the story is slightly different; whilst he failed to implement a blanket Muslim ban, he did manage to implement policies that directly targeted the citizens of Muslim majority nations. In addition to this, he continued and escalated the Obama era policy of using drones to target Muslim countries, although, the nature of US foreign policy would have likely remained the same regardless of the nation’s leader. However, unlike Macron, Trump has not successfully used the state to launch an attack against Muslims in America. His negative impact on Muslims came not from his policy, but rather his rhetoric. In their published research, economists Karsten Muller and Carlo Schwarz write, “It is immediately apparent that Trump’s tweets about Muslims and anti-Muslim hate crimes are highly correlated.” [1] Additionally, the Southern Poverty Law Centre found that the number of anti-Muslim hate groups tripled to over 100 in 2016 alone. [2]

These elections clearly demonstrate that Muslims are stuck between two political ideologies that both refuse to acknowledge them. Whilst populists like Le Penn and Trump make their disdain for Muslims and Islam clear, liberals like Clinton and Macron hide their distaste for Islam. Their belief in Western supremacy leads to policies that target Muslims’ lives and freedoms in their country and around the world. While there is a legitimate debate regarding voting for the lesser of two evils, Muslims are clearly divided in the correct approach to national politics. According to an exit poll conducted by the Associated Press, 35% of Muslims voted for Trump in the 2020 US election. With national politics being unable to provide Muslims in the West with a robust platform for effective change, the method by which they should engage politically is up for debate. [3]

Before seeking a solution as a community, an important question needs to be considered and answered. Muslims need to figure out what they hope to achieve when engaging with the Western political system. Without a clear aim, it is difficult for Muslims to unite on a solution, especially when they make up a minority in Western countries. Before identifying this aim, two very important premises must be understood. Firstly, Muslims are a small minority in America, therefore, they do not have the same power in numbers as other groups to enact systemic change. Secondly, our ultimate aim as Muslims is to follow the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ.

These two premises need to be understood for Muslims in the West to successfully forge their own unique political space. In the UK, groups such as Muslim Engagment and Devleopment (MEND), the Muslim Council of Britain, and Cage have all attempted to work on helping Muslims forge their own political space, and while they have different approaches, their central aim of tackling Islamophobia remains the same. This is where the second premise comes into play: whilst these various organizations tackle a very serious problem in the West, they do not provide an ideological solution for the rise of Western ideological threats to the fundamental principles of Islam. Therefore, they fail to provide an adequate political answer to the question of Muslim involvement in Western politics. These organizations do play a vital role in protecting Muslim communities in the West, however, a longer-term solution is needed for the future protection of Islam as a way of guidance and not merely as a label of identity.

Education and Financial Independence

Despite being a minority, the theological and ethnic diversity within the community means achieving a united Muslim political identity in the West may be difficult – any chance that Muslims may have in doing so lies in successfully developing a comprehensive Islamic education system that gives young Muslims the tools to understand and answer questions posed by a Western world that is increasingly influenced by post-modernism. In its most basic sense, politics can be understood as the method by which a set of values are upheld in a given community. Whether that be a nation-state or a neighbourhood, politics works by introducing a set of rules and  programs in order to help maintain these values. Education is not simply about teaching a curriculum, but about helping children establish these key values in their lives. The importance of education in forming values has not been lost on Western powers, with France introducing new laws to reinforce “France’s secular republican principles” in schools and the UK making the teaching of “British values” a key part of the curriculum. Muslims throughout the West need to devise a modern Islamic curriculum that helps Muslims understand their faith. The number of Muslim communities living in non-Muslim lands may be unprecedented in Islamic history, however, the work of Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturdi and Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari in opposing the Muʿtazilites and other heretical sects can be used as an inspiration for formulating methods to protect the theological integrity of Islam.

In more recent history, inspiration can be taken from the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) economic program. Whilst there are clear creedal differences between NOI and traditional Islamic belief, understanding their success in intra-community work can help Muslims form an improved social framework. The work of Nafeesa Muhammed, a historian focused on economic empowerment, points toward the work of NOI in achieving financial independence. Trying to develop similar models of independence can help Muslims in the West establish communities based on Islamic values through masjids and schools, without the need for government support, allowing them to gain increased freedom in the educational approach. In addition to this, the setup of Islamic financial institutions with Islamic digital challenger banks would help Muslims across the West navigate a Western economic system in which avoiding interest has become increasingly difficult.

These changes will not solve all the problems for Muslim in the West, and work is needed for Muslims to impact all areas of policy, from education to foreign policy. However, the greatest political challenge for Muslims in the West is not the rising tide of Islamophobia, but setting up a system which will help young Muslims become confident enough to stand up for Islamic values on a local and national stage.

Works Cited

[1] Muller, Karsten and Schwarz, Carlo. “From Hashtag to Hate Crime: Twitter and Anti-Minority Sentiment”  https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3149103

[2] England, Charlotte. “Donald Trump blamed for massive spike in Islamophobic hate crime” https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-blame-islamophobic-anti-muslim-ban-hate-crime-numbers-southern-poverty-law-center-a7582846.html

[3] NPR Staff. “Understanding The 2020 Electorate: AP VoteCast Survey”
https://www.npr.org/2020/11/03/929478378/understanding-the-2020-electorate-ap-votecast-survey

Photo by Igor Ferreira


About the Author: Abubakr is a Politics and International Relations student and writer studying in Birmingham. You can follow him on twitter here.

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