LONDON – Often when repeating words and phrases, a person is either trying to learn, or convincing themselves of the spoken words. As the impact of #Brexit is felt across the UK, we hear the Conservative Party’s mantra of a ‘Strong and stable’ leadership echo like the piped music pumped into every house in North Korea, delivering their twice daily pro-government propaganda through songs.
The reality of course if very different, as Prime Minister Theresa May demonstrated when questioned on the Andrew Marr show: “We have nurses going to food banks, that must be wrong?” Her reply, “We have…and there are many complex reasons why people go to food banks.” – A response which while short of detail, says so much. It beggars belief why anyone would vote for her ‘leadership.’
This near identical mantra is being played out across English Channel in France, where Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen came head-to-head in the first round of the French Presidential Elections with 23.8% and 21.5% respectively, takin them both into the next round.
Many years ago, as a student studying for my undergraduate degree in Portsmouth, we hopped onto a ferry to Le Harve, and then took the train to Paris. There, we checked into the Hilton, before returning back to university along the same route. It was a one-off decadent spend that a few of us opted for; what better way to celebrate good exam results.
One moment in the hotel I was greeted by an ambassador having a pleasant conversation, the next, I was on the metro and being questioned by French police, simply for walking with a backpack. It so happened that in my backpack I had a note with Paris Hilton stamped into it. After they saw that however, they treated me again as normal.
Some years later, I found myself in Paris with a group of British friends on Bastille Day, meeting a group of Parisian friends. Attitudes had improved, so much so that there’s a photo of me hanging off of a tank in a suit. The silly things we do as youngsters. No bad intentions, just proud to be alongside the security forces that protect and keep us safe.
I relay these varying accounts as relations in France between the native population, the immigrant population, and the authorities have over the years fluctuated.
One minute the nation is deeply divided, the next it is celebrating its diversity, where the richness of French culture is a melting pot, remnants of the French presence across other parts of the world.
When ‘austerity’ hit the UK, that is the post financial market recovery, which resulted in the cutting of services across the board, lower than inflation pay rises, cuts to teaching, health, with every industry being affected, we saw the slow rise of nationalism fueled by the xenophobic. There is nothing wrong with being proud of your country, in fact this should be encouraged.
It is the blame game, the lure of the weak-minded, that it is someone else’s fault that such and such has happened. This is wrong.
Often, it is a call to a time that once was, or at least a romanticized image of a time that once was. Muslims generally suffer the same struggling to bridge the gap between how life really was at the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and how they perceive life must have been then.
It is the rejection of how the world through technology and innovation has changed, bringing down borders, enabling faster travel. The world for many of us is no longer global, as the new global is local.
Some who struggle with these changes, combined with their fear of austerity are pushing for increasing isolation; how else could openly racist parties, such as UKIP in the UK and Front National in France gain, visibility, traction and presence?
The problems we face are not new. France’s approach to the ghettoization of the immigrant population for a generation have simmered and been the cause for conflict over the years. There is a fear of dilution of traditional French values – whatever those are, just as here, there are fears of losing traditional British values – whatever those are. And as citizens of either, indeed any nation, we can adopt isolationist theology, or, as I refer to it, adopt the philosophies, some throughout the ages have tried: multi-faith societies.
Prophet Muhammad’s Constitution of Madinah was intended as such, a model which brought tribes and communities together – as the Qur’an says, to get to know one another – where the underlying objectives included freedom of religion, respecting different cultures, etc.
Whether it was treating his non-Muslim neighbors with respect, or buying some of his sheep from a pagan, or eating food prepared by non-Muslims (e.g. Christians), or standing up in respect for a burial procession of a non-Muslim, or defending the rights of non-Muslims, or respecting every human being irrespective of their position in society.
Religion was never meant to be divider, rather an enabler. And his Constitution of Madinah was an effort to bring different faiths, cultures and traditions together under a single platform of mutual benefit; with no priority given to a one faith over another, justice and fairness were the cornerstone.
We learn from Prophet Muhammad’s life that nothing is stagnant, and that change is perpetual, he was perpetually innovating, changing, improving customs and culture to find better ways. So, it must be with the European Union.
The EU came out of the second world war, an effort to bring nations together and so avoid another war. It did away with barriers and within the union found ways to bring people together. The model is good, but, as with many things, over time, is in need of reform. Marcon in France has made this one of his election commitments.
But, it is not just the EU which needs to change, it is our societies.
For France to no longer allow fear to thrive – the same fear which led to my being randomly questioned as a student many years ago on the Paris metro – the French much move away from ghettoization to a society that enables all who are French, whatever their origin, to have opportunities.
Similarly, though to a lesser extent, while some British immigrant communities are also ghettoized, we too can improve.
So much of what drives Brexit in the UK, and the rise of the far right, such as Le Pen in France, can be overcome. And despite their hateful rhetoric, or the efforts by external parties such as terrorists trying to cause division, I still feel safe in the UK, just as I feel safe when visiting France, Belgium, indeed most nations on earth. This is a testament to the security forces who endeavor to keep us safe, and while nothing is every perfect, we can either dismiss something or work to improve it.
An American Muslim of Indian heritage, Hasan Minaj, recently spoke at the White House Correspondents dinner.
After outlining how President Trump simply tweeted whatever came to his mind, he said, “In the age of Trump, I know that you guys have to be more perfect now, more than ever. Because you are how the President gets his news. Not from advisors, not from experts, not from intelligence agencies, you guys. So that’s why you got to be on your a-game. You got to be twice as good. You can’t make any mistakes. Because when one of you messes up, he blames your entire group. And now you know what it feels like to be a minority. “
Yes, there will always be racists and xenophobes in every society – just look at how so many brown Muslims treat so many black Muslims. The difference is that we continue to educate, and we do not allow our dislike of those who are different to us, allow us to be unjust to them. This is a philosophy taken from the Qur’an, and its message is universal. Be just, be fair, be kind.
Whether the upcoming elections in the UK, which many view as a vote for or against Brexit, or the upcoming elections in France, where division is also clear between Le Pen’s far right or Marcon’s progressive forward thinking approach, the future for both nations is where it should be, in the hands of the electorate.
Let us hope however, that instead of repeating phrases in a desperate attempt to believe in them, we show strong and stable leadership in our individual thoughts, look past any bigotry, and use our God-given capacity for thought and comprehension, combined with our passions, to find a positive way forward.