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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

It's time to take back control from the xenophobes

A proud hatred of the other has emerged across the world. We must not be complacent that this hiccup will pass

Hundreds of Costa Ricans attend a demonstration held to show support for Nicaraguan immigrants, in San Juan, Costa Rica on August 25. Jeffrey Arguedas / EPA
Hundreds of Costa Ricans attend a demonstration held to show support for Nicaraguan immigrants, in San Juan, Costa Rica on August 25. Jeffrey Arguedas / EPA

I've been sitting, head in hands, for the best part two years since the UK voted to leave the European Union. It was – and still is – a shock and the consquences of that decision are still unknown. But in the chasm that Brexit has created, an open, vocal and at times proud xenophobia has taken root among many of those who voted to leave.

Britain is not unique. Look around you and take note: the whole world is experiencing a fierce and growing resurgence of dangerous xenophobia. And this is not fear mongering. Xenophobia never ends well for those who find themselves in its crosshairs. And this time, it’s not a minor hiccup. We must not be complacent that this will pass. These are not just majority in-groups rolling down the shutters to keep "different" people out at borders, or pushing them out altogether.

Rather, it is people openly advocating dehumanisation and persecution. For the first time in decades, people are taking genuine pride in being xenophobic.

US President Donald Trump based his entire electoral campaign on xenophobia, declaring he would build a wall to literally keep Mexicans and other foreigners out. And just in case there was any doubt, he has been working hard to ban Muslims too.

Mr Trump openly played on the fears of xenophobes about losing their identity, or it somehow becoming diluted. His mantra “Make America Great Again” (Maga) is used effectively to create a scapegoat for those who feel under threat. It allows them to exalt their own culture at the expense of other, "inferior" cultures.

The irony of xenophobia as the hatred of people, cultures and all things foreign is that it is deeply global, crossing national borders. It seems as though we are liking other people less and less. It seems we are becoming more small-minded and much more parochial. We are ringfencing our small communities, fearful of others.

A study published this week in Russia by the Levada Centre revealed rising xenophobia, up 12 per cent in the past year, including against the Roma traveller community, the Chinese and other Asian communities. The number who support the idea of “Russia for Russians” has nearly doubled, echoing Mr Trump’s Maga approach.

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Read more from Shelina Janmohamed:

Dear Sondos Al Qattan: Please don't hide behind your hijab

Why Jamie Oliver's jerk rice debate is far more insidious than it seems

From mosques on Mars to meeting Martians: the dilemmas awaiting Muslims in space

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Meanwhile, the Swiss seem to base their xenophobia on symbols. Recently they have become distressed by Muslims who refuse shake hands. They reportedly don’t want minarets or halal meat.

As hundreds of thousands of refugees from Venezuela flee the crisis-ridden country, many are experiencing xenophobia, including from the former Colombian Vice President, German Vargas. Many Colombians took sanctuary in Venezuela during the civil war, but now that Venezuelans are seeking refuge in Colombia, Mr Vargas reportedly referred to them as "venecos", a derogatory term.

We rightly spend time discussing racism, its tragic rise and possible campaigns to fight it. Think of the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. But equally, think of the open, unabashed and horrific comments by Kuwaiti social media influencer Sondos Al Qattan about Filipinos, the sentiments of which were supported by many.

Racism and xenophobia can overlap but they are not the same thing. While racism emphasises race and physical characteristics, xenophobia is about being foreign or from the outside. We need to start paying more attention to xenophobia, calling it out and demystifying the excuses – like national pride – that are used to mask it.

Globalisation and migration are often blamed for the resurgence of xenophobia. The claim is that people are worried about their own countries and cultures being diluted beyond recognition. And that fervour is often stoked by those in positions of privilege who want to be seen as guardians of the people, by whipping up a common enemy.

It can particularly affect those who already feel marginalised by society; those who see the other as offering both competition for status and resources and as a threat to the in-group’s shared identity. Or, as some people in the Brexit camp might say, they want to "take back control".

Globalisation and immigration have been used to whip up xenophobia in the service of populism. It's a tragedy, because in human history we longed for globalisation. When that dream came true, did we decide we didn't like it after all?

The barometer of hatred against almost anyone different has reached a crisis point. Personally, I find it almost unbearable. If anyone is going to be taking back control from the xenophobes, it's us who must do it: The first step is to get wise to their game.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

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