No doubt, the road map for post-Brexit Britain, mass immigration, terrorism and climate change will dominate the political agenda. But I hope that these challenges strengthen us in our convictions, our identity and values, and that these challenges are met by us with love and respect for others’ freedoms.
2016 will be remembered as a year when the values that underpin our society – freedom, tolerance, and respect for fundamental rights – were crushed by the rise of populism in the West.
The anti-migrant, anti-ethnic and anti-Muslim rhetoric and politics of hatred used during the EU referendum and US presidential campaign gave legitimacy and a new-found voice to racist and bigoted narratives across the world. These political campaigns, and their aftermath, resulted in a frenzy of hatred towards Muslims and other ethnic minorities.
It is not just these two campaigns that vilified Muslims in 2016 – the trend has been the same across Europe. In France, a more subtle form of anti-Muslim sentiment prompted a wave of burkini bans in coastal towns under the guise of women’s rights advocacy. Germany’s anti-Islam Pegida movement staged rallies in several cities across Europe to protest against the arrival of refugees. Muslims and mosques continued to be attacked during 2016 across the UK and Europe. Islamophobia gained particular validation and legitimacy this past year.
Muslims have become the prime target of the prejudice and hatred whipped up by far right populist leaders and lazy journalists. One of the prime reasons for such anti-Muslim sentiments is the deplorable acts of violence carried out, in the name of religion, by terrorists.
Despite the fact that Muslims have lost more lives due to terrorism than any other community, every time a terrorist attack is caused by a Muslim-looking perpetrator, the whole community is either blamed or is expected to condemn it. The same principle is not applied to terrorism caused by the far right ideology, evident from the murder of Jo Cox MP. Whatever the benchmark, there is a need for level plain-field against all forms of extremism.
This hatred towards Muslims is not new in our country. Catholics, Jews, African-Americans and the Irish have all been scapegoated. Living in fear of abuse and prejudice is not only demoralising, but can also alienate groups of people creating further divisions in society, which is what IS and far right extremists desperately want. Although there are many incidents of intolerance and abuse against them, Muslims have shown resilience and patriotism. In 2016 a nationwide poll, conducted by Policy Exchange, found Muslims were more opposed to terrorism than the population as a whole, and 93 per cent of British Muslims said they felt strong attachment to Britain.
In 2017, I pray that we can again securely find our values of tolerance and mutual respect, and light the way for the future of our society. I continue to believe in the power of love and deeply believe that people can, and will do, the right things if love is the guiding principle.
I am inspired to see countless examples of extraordinary dedication and courage for the vulnerable, of selfless service to others by faith institutions and charities and protection of others’ freedoms. The incredible work of Hope Not Hate and the think-thank British Future around hatred, immigration and integration in post-referendum Britain is extremely valuable. Many churches and mosques working side by side to feed the vulnerable across the country is phenomenally inspiring.
The recapturing of territories from IS, and focusing on far right extremism in 2016, gives hope that extremism will never win. From Sadiq Khan’s victory as mayor of London to global hi-tech companies refusing to build a Muslim registry for Trump, from #BlackLivesMatter to #MoreInCommon social media campaigns – they all prove that hope over fear will always win.
Tackling of inequality and bigotry towards others must be the priority for all of us in 2017. The economic, political and security challenges that the world faces can’t be solved by dividing communities, building walls or inciting hatred.
The best gift that we can give to others at this time of the year is hope, compassion and peace. Islam encourages us to never lose hope. I am optimistic that people will choose respect over intolerance, hope over fear and peace over violence. My wish for 2017 is that we unite together against intolerance in our society!
Qari Asim is chief imam at Makkah Masjid mosque in Leeds.