When Islamophobes convert to Islam, it's an opportunity for everyone to build bridges.

At some point or another, I’d wager we’ve each heard at least one, if not more, of these arguments before: Islam isn’t European and can never be compatible with Western culture; Muslims don’t want to integrate into Western society; Muslims are trying to impose Sharia law on non-Muslims; the “infidels” will never accept Muslims; the West is out to destroy the Islamic faith and way of life.

These arguments have been put forward by two extremes. On the one hand, a resurgent European far-right with often openly fascistic elements. On the other, extremist Muslims who cannot abide by the notion that Muslims can and have successfully lived in peace with non-Muslims.

The societal convulsions caused by these two extremes have caused a negative feedback loop that nourishes both sides of this radical divide and is often fed by an insensitive and sensationalist mainstream media that thrives off demonisation, hatred and fostering mistrust between communities. 

But what does it mean when extremists turn their backs on their ideologies?

Far-right politicians ‘defect’ to Islam

Two of Islam’s most intemperate far-right opponents in Europe have accepted the religion they once vociferously attacked as their own.

Arthur Wagner of the German AfD party and Joram van Klaveren who, up until recently, was one of Dutch Islamophobe-in-Chief Geert Wilders’ top lieutenants, have both turned their backs on their parties and “gone over to the enemy” – Islam. The AfD, or Alternative for Germany, is the third largest party in the German parliament, and the largest opposition party in the country.

While the AfD’s website proudly proclaims that “Islam does not belong in Germany”, Wagner, as one of its former executive committee members in Brandenburg, apparently disagreed when he became a Muslim in January. 

Oddly enough, the AfD has sought to distance itself from any controversy arising from Wagner’s conversion by saying that the religious beliefs of its party members are “a private matter”, despite its storied and intolerant history of anti-Islam marches.

Wagner has said that since his conversion weeks ago and changing his name to Ahmad, he has received Islamophobic letters telling him to get out of Germany before he starts making bombs.

Although he still technically holds AfD party membership, Kai Berger, the head of the Brandenburg party chapter, said that he is “really disappointed” that Wagner converted to Islam and said that many party members want him to leave the AfD “but unfortunately we can’t expel him.”

Wagner has told Germany’s Bild newspaper that he intends to remain in the party to build bridges between conservative non-Muslim and Muslim Germans.

Mere weeks after Wagner apparently “defected”, the Netherlands’ Joram van Klaveren announced that he too had accepted Islam and had written a book in defence of the ancient religion. The mother of all ironies is that the book had initially been intended to be a polemic railing against Islam and its followers, but the more van Klaveren studied the religion, the more he felt a growing love and attachment for it before he ultimately converted, much to Geert Wilders’ dismay.

Wilders said that he had “no words” to describe how he felt about his former confidante’s conversion to the faith they had both conspired to blot out of Dutch society. He did, however, liken van Klaveren’s decision to a “vegetarian working in an abattoir” while Jan Roos, another far-right ideologue described it as a “PR stunt” and was suitably despicable enough to add that it was like “a black man joining the Ku Klux Klan” - managing to insult all manner of different people all at once.

A slap in the face of extremism

Judging by how these two conversions – which are by no means unique, considering another former Wilders ally, Arnoud van Doorn, also converted in 2013 – have managed to trigger angry radical right-wingers across Europe, I believe this is yet another opportunity for people to de-escalate social tensions. The conversions of these two men, given their public standing, is a slap in the face of rejectionists on both sides.

Islam is widely recognised as the fastest growing religion in the world, with the Muslim population of Europe set to more than double to 11.2 percent of the total population by 2050, according to the Pew Research Center. 

According to the same research, even in the unlikely event of total prevention of Muslim immigration, they would still rise to 7.4 percent of Europe’s population. As such, it is clear that Muslims are not going anywhere.

That message applies equally to Muslim extremists and European fascists, both of whom think violence and hatred born of irrational fear and radicalism is the answer. If Muslims are here to stay and will represent ever higher proportions of European populations, then it is up to sensible Muslim and non-Muslim Europeans to build the kind of bridges between communities that allow long-term harmonious and peaceful coexistence that we all know is possible.

The only solution to the tensions in Europe is for a concerted effort to stop the maligning of Muslims in the mainstream media, whipping up hatred against them because of their beliefs and practices, and discriminating against them in terms of job opportunities.

Similarly, it is incumbent upon Muslims living in the West to accept that they are living amongst people of other beliefs, traditions and customs that differ from those of their own or, if they are born in the West as I was, are different from those of their parents.

It is entirely unhelpful when some communities decide to isolate themselves and not engage with those whom they share the land, living space and resources with.

If communities reach out to one another in a spirit of openness and do not leave the middle ground open for extremists of both bents to invade, then a more peaceful and cohesive society can be forged. Who wouldn’t want that?

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