Recent weeks have felt particularly difficult for Muslims across the West.
From Islamophobic policies introduced under the guise of fighting “separatism” by the Macron government in France, to the Austrian government using the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Vienna as an opportunity to attack Muslims, it has been yet another period of the unrelenting onslaught.
This all comes when we are coming to the end of Islamophobia Awareness Month, four weeks that should have been spent taking on the bigotry meted out against Muslims and strengthening solidarity.
Similarly, the recent witch-hunt of Kauthar Bouchallikht, a young Parliamentary candidate for the GroenLinks party in the Netherlands, has only demonstrated how emboldened the right has become.
The 26-year old activist, journalist and soon-to-be politician are being dragged through the Dutch press over unfounded allegations that she is associated with the Muslim brotherhood, and is therefore assumed to be sympathetic to extremism.
Bouchallikht is also being condemned for her role as vice president of the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organisations (FEMYSO), a group that is being described as another front for the Muslim Brotherhood.
It matters little to the media, politicians and pundits that Kauthar Bouchallikht denies that she is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, that FEMYSO has done the same, or that Bouchallikht already has a long history of participation in and mobilisation of progressive social movements in the country.
What matters, in true islamophobic fashion, is to keep pedalling the false narrative that easily sticks to a hijab-wearing woman of colour.
Muslim women, as always, are the easiest target. And there is rarely, if ever, any accountability expected for those who spread the sexist, racist venom against women like Bouchallikht, so why should a complete lack of evidence impact those making the allegations? She is already guilty by virtue of her birth as a Muslim woman.
The considerable opposition to her candidacy is not made up solely of those from the far-right of the country, however. The state also capitalises on this campaign in order to legitimise its continued war against Muslim political spaces — as liberal commentators cheer on — and is given more opportunity to uncritically push policies that curtail everyone’s civil liberties.
The Netherlands is a country that isn’t even close to a consensus on the fact that Blackface is a racist practice that should be banned, which is a good indicator of how far behind this supposedly progressive state is regarding the public discourse on race.
Therefore, such backlash towards a Muslim woman on a mainstream political platform isn’t surprising. However, it would be a mistake to limit this issue to Dutch borders only.
It is no coincidence that following the calls to ban Muslim organisations like the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) by the French Interior Minister, FEMYSO is being targeted through the political assaults on Bouchallikht.
These types of coordinated attacks attempt to group every organisation, movement and even ideology associated with Muslims around the world under the umbrella of extremism. In this climate of heightened Islamophobia, there is no nuance when it comes to Muslims, the Brotherhood – which it might be worth remembering is neither banned nor accused of any legal wrongdoing – is on par with ISIS according to them.
None of this is about whether or not one supports the Muslim Brotherhood – given Bouchallikht has made clear she is not even a member! It is about rejecting a trend by Western states which allows the picking and choosing of political groups from the Global South, and delegitimising them when it suits their political needs.
At home, however, no such critique of conservative political parties is even raised. In the Netherlands, this goes even further to a growing normalisation of the far-right with several far-right parties being regularly invited to debates and talk shows, with their racist, sexist, or homophobic politics described as speaking on behalf of the ‘silent majority’.
Kauthar Bouchallikht no doubt predicted such violent opposition. In an interview with GLAMOUR, she stated that “[t]hey tend to associate my religion with terrorism and negativity. Unfortunately, many in the Netherlands still see the Muslim as the other – in the media, Muslims are often referred to in this way […] support for extreme right-wing parties that spread Islamophobia is increasing.”
A growing threat
These double standards, however, will not remain directed towards Muslim political spaces only. Once the state applies these “exceptions” to one group and faces no pressure, it will eventually come after all opposition — namely, the left.
In the UK, when the government started their backlisting of Muslim groups, many activists warned that if a broad collective defence is not built, the state will eventually come after everyone who opposes it.
Sadly, these early calls for solidarity were met with little support. Organisations like CAGE – the only organisation in the UK that represents those Muslims targeted by the war on terror, including in Guantanamo – were being scapegoated by the British government under the guise of “security”, whilst it intensified draconian laws.
Colonial divide and conquer tactics remain intact and other Muslim institutions who were not in the firing line in the UK remained silent. Eventually, it was the likes of more politically moderate groups like MEND – an organisation that fights against Islamophobia – which were also attacked.
Similarly, left-wing themes and groups, such as anti-fracking activists, Palestine solidarity work, and anti-capitalist activism have since been added to the list of so-called non-violent extremism, targeted by the state.
This entire affair also blows out of the water the illusion that remains so enduring amongst many in our communities, that being a model citizen is enough to shine a positive light on Muslims and to relieve us of the racism that plagues us.
Bouchallikht’s political profile is very impressive. Since her student activist days, when she led mass walkouts across the country, she is no stranger to mass mobilisations. She organised thousands to join the Amsterdam Climate March and has built broad coalitions between trade unionists, students, and climate activists. Her ability to engage a diversity of communities into climate and social justice has impressed many. She has also unapologetically used her platform to highlight how her faith has been a great source of inspiration for her political efforts, and the basis for her struggle for equality and sustainability. This makes her a considerable threat.
Dr Miriyam Aouragh, an academic and well-known Dutch anti-racist campaigner who has been fighting the rise of the far-right in the Netherlands, explained that this is also about, “her association with the Left”. She is therefore a “triple threat” as a left-wing Muslim, woman of colour.
What the attacks seek, is for her – and the movements she is associated with – to be, “disciplined and to be put back in their lane” Aouragh added.
It is clear that Kauthar Bouchallikhtis feeling considerable pressure, no doubt from her own base too.
Too often, the very political parties who want to benefit electorally from being associated with public figures such as Bouchallikht, play into the attacks from the right as soon as they raise their head, instead of refusing to engage in what is obviously an attempt to weaken progressive movements.
GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver has already condemned one of her speaking engagements from her time at FEMYSO.
Since then, Bouchallikhtechoed this line in an interview over the weekend, backtracking on her previous courageous refusal to be drawn into the controversy. This is a mistake because it legitimises the attacks against her.
Giving in never makes the attacks go away. Instead, it gives the mudslingers greater credibility next time and allows them to point out that they were right to sound the alarm. This approach will continue to be adopted against any left-wing, anti-racist or anti-colonialist political figure, activist or movement.
A strong defence and a total rejection of the racist character assassination is the only way to weather through such a storm. If we recognise that the targeting of Muslim political spaces is a political strategy by the right, we must refuse to get involved in the stream of condemnation and apologies that are expected but, ultimately, will amount to nothing as far as being “accepted” or the attacks blowing over.
That is the bottom line. Therefore, our resistance, especially in these times, must be strong and built on broad coalitions of resistance like the one that formed in support of Bouchallikht – ranging from ‘fossil-free feminists’ to the ‘Kick Out Zwarte Piet’ campaign.
Her experiences are one element in a wider attack on all of our political freedoms, our right to dissent, and the possibility to fight for a world that is just. Support for Bouchallikht against these vile attacks, like that of too many politically vocal Muslim women across the West, must be demanded from across every progressive movement in society. Otherwise, eventually, they too will face the same heat.