IT was with ill-contained glee that Donald Trump seized upon the suicide attacks in Brussels to demonize Muslims. Offering no evidence whatsoever, the Republican frontrunner used his first interview on British television since launching his bid for the U.S. presidency to say that Muslims were “absolutely not reporting” suspected terrorists to the authorities.
Trump’s words were as imprecise as they were vindictive. Within a few hours of the bombings, claimed by Daesh, he gave the impression that vast communities of criminally minded misfits were plotting the downfall of Western civilization. The myth was that terrorists rely on an army of conniving civilian allies to plan and then carry out their murderous operations.
Muslims are the kind of people Trump wants to stop from entering the U.S., remember, and so he would have no problem whatsoever seeing every man, woman and child tarred with the same brush. “It’s like they are protecting each other, but they are really doing very bad damage,” said Trump, referring to followers of the world’s second largest monotheistic religion as if they were alien sub-species. Ever the bar-room bigot, he even tried to qualify his malice with the classic excuse: “I have many friends that are Muslims.”
Britain’s Home Secretary, Theresa May, has since spoken out against Trump’s dishonesty. Referencing police data, she said it was “just plain wrong” to say that Muslim communities were failing to report radicalism, adding that they were “as concerned as everyone else, both about the attacks and the perversion of Islam.”
The outrages in Brussels and prior to that, in Paris by no means suggest that Belgian and French Muslims support terrorism either. On the contrary, all the evidence points to a small group of highly motivated fanatics working outside civilized society on behalf of a death cult. Almost all the suspects were on police files and nominally under observation. Some had served jail sentences, while others were meant to be in prison. Most were said to be close friends, who had traveled to Daesh-controlled territory in Syria and returned together. In some well-documented cases, security services knew more personal details about them than their own families. Many of their victims were Muslims too.
Surveillance in both France and Belgium was often farcical. Security agents were overwhelmed and under resourced, so allowing the alleged killers to travel freely, and stockpile weapons, ammunition and explosives in a manner that went undetected. It was no coincidence that the alleged cell members had links to mafia-style gangs in both countries—ones that could supply fellow criminals with no questions asked.
I have often been to Molenbeek, the inner city district of Brussels where many of the suspects came from. It is mainly inhabited by poor, working-class people from immigrant backgrounds. The problems that afflict the area have far more to do with under-investment and the social and economic marginalization of those who live there—especially the young—than they do with faith.
Very few of the suspected Daesh operatives attended mosques—they were more likely to be found in bars and nightclubs, smoking cannabis and drinking alcohol. Anecdotal claims that youngsters are being radicalized by local preachers are not supported by statistics. Instead, overcrowded jails and Internet propaganda are the most effective training schools for would-be terrorists, according to government studies.
Ibrahim El Bakraoui, one of the Brussels Zavantem Airport suicide bombers, left a last testament on a discarded computer saying he had decided to end his days because he had “nothing to live for” and was “worried he may end up in a prison cell”—and not because of any kind of religious indoctrination. Those responsible for the carnage in Paris cited realpolitik, and more specifically the bombing of Syrian civilians, including children, by U.S.-led forces as their primary motivation.
Such facts do not discourage those with a self-serving agenda. Shortly after the bomb explosions in Brussels, the unofficial capital of the European Union, far-right propagandists in Britain were suggesting that they were a good reason to leave the bloc. It was all part of an increasingly frenzied “out” campaign before a national referendum on EU membership in the U.K. on June 23.
Trump-style generalizations are routinely used by these so-called Brexiters (Brexit is shorthand for Britain exiting the EU) to associate unwanted foreigners from Muslim countries with wicked crimes. They desperately tried to blame a series of alleged robberies and sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s eve on “thousands” of young men escaping war zones.
Despite overwhelming proof that such a sweeping stigmatization was wrong, one columnist wrote, “The EU referendum is about nothing less than the safety and security of British women—and that means we must get out of Europe.” Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), was among those who praised this portrayal of refugees as rapists.
There was no mention of the half a million adults who claim to be sexually assaulted in England and Wales alone every year, including some 85,000 female rape victims, or the fact that many of the perpetrators are Caucasians. No, the deceit is that the threat only comes from dark-skinned new arrivals, and that we should do everything to keep them out, including leaving the EU.
Such twisted fantasies are a throwback to the 1920s and 1930s, when the Nazis started issuing warnings about alien invaders, and the dangers they posed to Aryan womanhood, and indeed the aspirations of all German nationalists. It seems incredible that politicians are using the same kind of scare tactics in 2016, but populist anti-migrant parties including Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, Britain’s UKIP, and France’s Front National are enthusiastically exploiting warped racial and cultural stereotypes for electoral gain.
Manipulating reality to depict entire communities as terrorist supporting savages is not only morally reprehensible, but also hugely dangerous. It fosters alienation and discrimination and, rather than solving any problems, is far more likely to result in more violence. As the world rallies against a terrorist threat that affects each and every one of us, we should view the politics of dehumanization with extreme alarm.