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Editor at ReformerMag, Writing on Governance, Institution, and Liberalism.

Le Pen, Islamophobia, and a small country called Lebanon

How we’ve come to our current misunderstanding of the world

Seven years from the beginning of the refugee crisis, and three years after the brutal expansion of ISIS in the Middle East, Europeans and Americans are still trying to wrap their head around the existence of another identity alongside theirs.

Failing at providing suitable solutions in both an international setting, to stem the violence and causes of the crisis, as well as failing to tackle integration, violence, and cross-cultural understanding in a domestic setting, Western governments are now dealing with a rise in Islamophobia and the rise of populist leaders.

Populist leaders and their supporters have reacted in complete shock at the encroachment of refugees as a disruption of their Western-centric views, which have been easily shattered by bodies walking across their borders with the same disregard these previous colonial powers had when drawing and redrawing the maps of the Middle East and Africa. A shock they have now transformed into political success.

The extremist journey

This “journey” towards the current state of reactionary populism has gone through several stages. The first was presented through the lens of a clash of civilization, the inability of refugees to adapt to Western values, which funny enough no Western state has been able to clearly define as of yet. This saw its most prominent form when accusations of sexual assaults perpetrated by immigrants were at a high. At the time the political conversation was still around integration and the differentiation between refugees and economic migrants.

Slowly after that, with the increase of violence on European soil, the conversation changed to how Muslims around the world are not doing enough to condone the violence being perpetrated in the religion's name. It is at this stage that the monolithic interpretation of Islam around the world was solidified in what is no more than a version of political victim blaming. A sort of guilty by association verdict that conveniently leaves out the fact that Muslims are the first to suffer at the hands of violent extremism and that they are the ones on the frontlines fighting it.

Finally, with the election of Donald Trump and his travel ban, the rhetoric has flat out become about Muslims irrespective of whether or not they are newly arrived immigrants, refugees, or longstanding citizens.

The French connection

The most recent media fiasco in the Wests fight against “Islamic fundamentalism” has been French presidential hopeful, and leader of the right-wing Front National party, Marine Le Pen’s visit to Lebanon. On her visit, Le Pen had planned to visit Lebanon’s Grand Mufti, the highest-ranking Sunni Muslim Cleric who represents one of the many sects that participate in Lebanon’s sectarian-based government.

Preceding her visit, Le Pen was informed of the requirement to wear a head scarf whilst visiting the Mufti. Here, two conflicting narratives emerge: One, of the Mufti’s Press office saying they were shocked at her refusal to wear a veil, as she has been informed and no objection was raised. Another, where Le Pen claims that she had made it clear she would not wear the veil, and since the meeting remained on her schedule, assumed that there would be no problem. Many are insinuating that her appearance and subsequent refusal was a publicity stunt.

The importance of this rather trivial unfolding of events is not whether or not Le Pen had the right to refuse a cultural normity in Lebanon, of course she did. The importance is the way the media has once again wrongfully portrayed another country in the Middle East.

Satirists and commentators alike have been quick to point to Le Pen's behaviour as that of a staunch liberal defending the rights of women, and on the other hand, the militaristic imposition of Islamic doctrine on all who interact with it. A perception summed up perfectly in the following cartoon that has been doing the rounds on social media.

The thin line between coercion and socialisation

This is not the first time veils become a centrepiece in French politics. Veils, along with all religious symbols, are banned in public institutions (Government offices, public school, etc.) and earlier last year a ban on “Burkinis” flooded the news. The local laws were eventually overturned by Frances court system as they violated “basic freedoms”.

This issue goes well beyond France’s staunch belief in secularism and the separation of church and state. In a statement to new outlets Le Pen said that the veil for her “symbolizes the submission of women”, the issue then, at least according to Le Pen, is an ideological one—One that echoes the early arguments of the incompatibility of Middle Eastern culture with Western values. It seems according to this interpretation of Western values, it’s the states right to determine what women should or shouldn’t wear. Something made clear in Le Pen’s campaign as her platform wants to extend her veil ban to all of France.

To ponder on the issue of whether or not women in the Middle East are coerced into wearing a veil or burka, and therefore if the veil does indeed symbolize the submission of women, we would need to delve into sociological theory. Seeing how this is not the purpose of this post, it should suffice it to say that those who want to stand by that theory must provide evidence that all veiled women have been forced into this practice. One they are bound to fail spectacularly with.

The only recourse to logic from them would be to make the argument that an oppressive culture is powerful enough to dupe women into believing they wilfully chose to wear a veil, they are socialised into it and therefore need the brute force of law to be liberated from it. To stand by that claim they would need to reinforce their argument with explanations on the existence of non-veiled practicing Muslim women, and also to veiled women who have chosen to convert to the Islamic faith.

This is not to say that there is no coercion in the Middle East, and indeed in Muslim communities in the West. To say so would be completely naïve. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the most prominent examples where the veil is required by law. But those remain two examples in a multitude of Muslim majority countries. The line between socialisation and personal agency is one that is near impossible to defend or prove, making it easy to pin virtually any sort of behaviour on social circumstance. For example, who is to say that western perception of women’s empowerment through nudity is not a socially fabricated and imposed value?

It is here where we come at the dangerous importance of the ideological threat that Le Pen and the above cartoon continue to propagate.

First, and for this ideological presentation to succeed, Islam needs to be presented as a monolith; that Islam is an indivisible entity with one form of practice and interpretation. Second, is the assumption that any country with an Islamic presence has succumbed to the violent imposition of that monolithic image of Islam, an argument the cartoon wishes to make of Lebanon.

This perception leads to an unfounded fear that coercion into Islamic law, regarding the veil or other methods of archaic punishments for what is seen in the West as petty crimes (such as drinking), will spread to Western countries, and that this needs to be pre-empted with extreme measures. A fear easily justified when the complexities of religious politics in the Middle East are left unquestioned, which it more than often is.

Lebanon revisited

The above cartoon does exactly that, it completely ignores the political context of Lebanon in order to portray any country with an Islamic presence as one that is in favour of the implementation of Islamic law by force, or meek enough as to not be able to oppose it. Imagery also used in the Brexit campaign. To mistake that as anything but the intended message of the cartoon would be ridiculous and anyone seeking to speak in defence of the cartoon as comical will need to strip it of its political context.

To clarify the inaccuracies of this one doesn’t need to know much about Lebanese politics in the region. Lebanon has over the years been involved in a long-standing counter-terrorist battle with no other than the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, the very people the cartoon seems so eager to include Lebanon with.

Recently, Lebanese security forces foiled a suicide bombing in the heart of the capital. In 2014, ISIS was able to capture a Lebanese border town with Syria, to be later regained by Lebanese troops who faced several casualties. The situation there remains tense. That same year intense clashes in Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli, saw the army come against al-Qaeda-inspired rebels. In 2013 the army cleared out Islamists in Lebanon’s southern city of Sidon, a loss of 17 soldiers. In 2007, an Islamist group took hold of a Palestinian refugee camp in the north of Lebanon. A military operation was launched to clear the camp, close to 200 Lebanese soldiers lost their lives. Even earlier in 2000, a similar issue occurred in a northern village of Donieh. This is not to discuss the several suicide bombings that were successful within the country and have claimed countless civilian lives.

Additionally, Lebanon has taken in more than 1,000,000 registered refugees. This is not to count the many Syrians that have sought refuge in Lebanon and have not registered due to Lebanon’s open border policy.

To paint Lebanon then, as inviting to the same Islamic fundamentalism that is found in movements like ISIS is not only insulting to those that are willing to lose their lives due to the same, very present, terror now feared in the West. It’s politically counterproductive if anything Western countries like France should be providing near unconditional support to a government mitigating, at high human cost, the spread of fundamentalism.

Blame the media

Cartoons with a narrowly crafted political mission are not the only things at fault here. The level of misunderstanding of political dynamics in the Middle East, as well as the impact of interventionism, is propagated en mass by media and news channels. Last April, in light of the Iran nuclear deal, media outlets began running pieces on the longstanding Islamic divide (Sunni vs. Shia) between Iran and Saudi—the two “superpowers” of the Middle East. Throughout the Syrian civil war, there has also been no shortage of romanticism around female Kurdish fighters. For what else is the Middle East good for but some brutal religious warfare and exoticism?

This Western centred view of the world is not limited to the media but even scholarly platforms. Just last year I watched a special panel on the future of Iraq put forward by a prominent think tank in DC. To my surprise, the panel consisted purely of previous US military generals and a previous diplomat. God forbid an Iraqi was present to discuss Iraqi issues. Later that year I would come across a tweet commentating on the rarity of an all Iraqi panel organized by the UK-based think tank, and a few months ago through conversation, a published author who has extensively written on the Middle East and Islam in Europe and works as a senior fellow at several think tanks lamented to me about being called out for “providing analysis from afar”— referring to his work in the Middle East.

Coverage in the Western world on events in the Middle East has always been belittling, removing any sense of agency within the individual countries themselves. Relegating their entire histories to worldwide power struggles to a near conspiracy level analysis. As if countries in the Middle East had no governments, governors, citizens, individuals, or aspirations. News has nearly almost exclusively been ON the Middle East, never from it.

Even as you read this, how many do you think know about the operations taking place right now to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, from ISIS? Who do you think is doing the fighting? Why do you think they’re doing it?

Liberal superiority

The above is just a splice of the kind of misinformation that the general public in the “West” is getting. This is the information that is being used to shape strategy and take decisions that impact the lives of thousands. You’d expect at the very least that these countries, who have always had an affinity in meddling in Middle Eastern affairs to at least be able to understand it in a bit more depth.

That is obviously not the case as proved by Le Pen’s visit. On her trip she seemed to have no problem in making the claim that she wanted Syria’s Bashar Al Assad back in full control, forgetting the number of Lebanese with extended Syrian family members who have suffered under Bashar’s rule. And that Lebanon was once actually considered part of Syria before French and British diplomats decided to carve it out as a piece of its own.

She also seemed to have no problem drudging up Lebanon’s bloody past. A 16-year civil war that lasted from 1975 to early 1991. A war which started out on ideological lines and devolved into a sectarian one. What she conveniently left out was that for the years that Lebanon was under French mandate, the very sectarian divides that appeared during the civil war were the ones the French used to maintain power over their hold on Lebanon. A hold that went against the wishes of the Lebanese who had fought for their independence in the Arab uprising during the First World War.

Much of this history in the Middle East is forgotten or brushed under the table. Ignorance is bliss, and when it comes to establishing the moral liberal superiority Le Pen is so keen to capitalise on back home, it’s convenient to leave out the fact that this superiority was maintained through creating sectarian strife. Unfortunately, now she, and the rest of the Western world will have to learn the same lesson the Lebanese did through 16 years of civil war. Ideological strife on the basis of religious identity will lead to nothing more than mutually assured destruction.

Trump's America and the non-European UK

Until that lesson is learned, the ideological rhetoric perpetuated by a monolithic perception of Islam will continue.

In North America, the rhetoric has gotten violent. Just a few days ago 1 person was killed and two seriously wounded in an apparent hate attack, the attacker had mistaken two Indians for Muslims. Earlier this month 6 Canadians were killed when a Canadian opened fire inside of a mosque.

But the hate in North America and Europe has spread beyond Muslims; immigrants of any sort are now targets, even individuals with dual citizenships. In the UK anti-immigrant rhetoric has seen bullying on the rise in schools, most recently leading to a confirmed report of suicide.

Populists have been successful at harnessing the very real fear of terror and economic strife into herding their supporters to see all but a puritan few as the threat, from Islam, immigrants, and even members of the LGBTQ community. Petty and dangerous politics is now centre stage.

The best the West had to offer

But it seems that so far, petty politics has been the best the West has to offer.

In Canada, bickering in the federal government is unfolding around a motion that calls for the government to denounce Islamophobia. The motion, not law, “requests the Commons heritage committee to study how the government could develop a government-wide approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination, including Islamophobia”. The Conservative party in Canada is countering the motion. That’s right, in Canada, the welcoming community, not only has a mass shooting failed to push the government into full gear to counter Islamophobia but a motion suggesting action start taking place is being criticized.

Across the Atlantic, the EU is still struggling to cope with the refugee crisis. With all the good intentions that Germany had in opening its borders, it failed to consider the effect this would have on the state of the Union and the populism it would lend power to. This is not to mention the fact that Germany failed to provide the necessary integration logistics to many of the refugees it accepted, with many still waiting to access German language classes.

Now the EU is having to depend on what is close to legalized human trafficking, increased financial support provided to authoritarian regimes such as Turkey and Egypt in order to stem the flow of refugees into Europe. A policy being pushed through even though the camps in which immigrants and refugees are being held in have been described as “The closest we have to concentration camps in the 21st century”.

How sad of a day it is when those on the far-right have a more solid case to proclaim liberalism as their own than liberal parties themselves.

Counteracting the wave of populism

So what is to be done? How does one counter all of this and attempt to reset the balance of liberal acceptance in a world where stereotypical and unscientific arguments are winning over the majority.

It would be idealistic to expect Western countries to suddenly accept their role in creating hatred through modern colonial and interventionist practices. Ironically, the closest person to actually come to that has been Donald trump.

It may also be wishful thinking to expect media to provide the many “Lebanons” of the Middle East with more airtime, especially now that all of it is being taken up by petty political actions by Trump and others.

Either way, these are all longer term solutions. The question remains, how do you stop someone from being racist?

A suggested answer has been through violence. However, an interesting observation from a Canadian reporter has been that many on the “right” are more concerned with their right to be hateful and fearful, this means that shutting that down would make them more entrenched in that fear.

This difficult spot brings the paradox of tolerance into full view, how tolerant can you be of another group's intolerance? And where is the proverbial line in the sand? People have already lost their lives, and with the curbing of many other fought for rights dawning in the near future the fight is indeed an existential one.

The disruptions of town hall meetings in the US are a good sign of a rejection of these politics, but rejection alone is not enough. The ultimate answer lays in local door to door, non-violent activism. A mobilisation which might be too much to ask for, but is the only solution that can counter the large platforms that reactionary populists have. Especially since some populist leaders are already behind the reins of power, the media, and legislation. For this to succeed, any confrontation must be de-escalated away from ideological fault lines and should re-align with traditional liberal ideals taking into consideration broad values including conservative ones.

Finding balance

In all of this, it remains important to understand that those running on reactionary populist platforms are gaining power through legitimate support from a majority. It’s important to stay away from the hysterics, as difficult as that may be, understand the connectedness of the issues that have helped shape the currently misunderstood world on an individual level, and tackle them with precision and effort that are within our means. Otherwise, it’s easy for liberal goals to be obfuscated by those who control the current narrative and hold democratic power.

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