Friday June 14, 2024

Countdown to Kristallnacht

By Akbar Ahmed
December 15, 2015

Part - II

The Obama administration appears ineffective in checking the Islamophobia and the opposition, which is now embodied by Trump, is fuelling the fire. Trump has now raised the stakes so dramatically that all it needs is a match thrown into the powder keg to blow it sky high.

While I am not suggesting that Trump is another Hitler or even has Hitlerian sensibilities, there are some interesting similarities between the two. Trump, according to his former wife, is fascinated with Hitler and reportedly kept a book of his speeches by his bedside. Both Trump and Hitler are master opportunists who respond cunningly and swiftly to their political and social environment. Both identify passionately with the nation, tending to fuse their personality with that of the nation. Both are charismatic figures who appear to mesmerise their followers.

The power of both rests on their public speeches and the hysteria generated in the gatherings. Both are vague on facts and on their promises to make the nation “great again”. They have emerged in a time of economic crisis, political uncertainty and widespread fear in society. Both harp on the theme that the nation has been humiliated and that they will restore its honour. Both are political outsiders and mocked by the establishment – note the critics making fun of the hairstyles of both, with Hitler providing additional opportunity with his moustache.

Both Hitler and Trump have found that by keeping the focus of animosity on one unpopular minority as the source of all the ills of society, they can unite people and claim leadership when people are desperately looking for ‘strong leadership’. Both are capable of cynically exploiting the mood against the minority and dialling it up or down based on what they think the audience would like to hear. Both blame the minority for threatening the equilibrium in society – Hitler blamed the Jews for betraying Germany after the First World War and often cited the fictitious and anti-Semitic ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, and Trump blames the Muslims for being terrorist sympathisers who want to harm the United States. Both make up lies to promote their bigotry – Hitler constantly cooked up facts about the Jews and Trump has been challenged on statements like claiming that he watched thousands of Muslims celebrating 9/11 in New Jersey.

However much the similarities, there are differences: While Hitler was obsessed with the Jews – ‘Mein Kampf’ is replete with anti-Semitism, as was his last will in the bunker just before he shot himself – Trump has had good relations with Muslims and often does business with them (only last year he was in Dubai promoting his new investments and praising the local leaders). But I am arguing that Trump does not seem to understand the dangers in the kind of rhetoric that he is using. While we may be a long way away from Kristallnacht, it is worthwhile to point out the signposts on Germany’s path to that fateful night. If Trump does become president, and there are two big ifs for that to happen – he has to get the party nomination and then actually win the presidency – the discussion in this article will no longer be theoretical. Trump has taken the first dangerous steps towards unleashing forces that could trigger large-scale violence against the Muslim community.

Thankfully, many Americans have responded to Trump in the true spirit of their pluralist identity. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have unequivocally criticised him. More significantly, the other Republican candidates who have also been making Islamophobic comments nonetheless felt it was necessary to condemn Trump – Jeb Bush called his suggestion to ban all Muslims ‘unhinged’ and Lindsey Graham told Trump to “go to hell”.

The United States of 2015 is not the Germany of 1938. It is important to keep in mind that these are two very different societies at different points in their history. Besides, the United States has a very strong base of pluralist identity coming out of the vision of the Founding Fathers and embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

It is this idea of America that will effectively stop men like Trump from taking their hateful message, which challenges the very pluralism that lies at the heart of American identity, to its logical conclusion. The American pluralist vision must be defended as much from the so-called Islamic State abroad as from the Trumps of the US, and in this battle, in the most profound way possible, Muslims need to be key allies.

As any social scientist worth their salt will confirm, there is the principle of cause and effect in society. It means that if something is done, then it invariably leads to something else. In our case, the demonisation and persecution of the Jews in Germany led ultimately to the tragedy of the Holocaust. That is why we need to understand the consequences of demonising and persecuting the Muslim community today. There are lessons to be learned from Kristallnacht.


The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair ofIslamic Studies at American University.

Courtesy: The Huffington Post