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Trump, Empathy and Hope

You’ve tried your best to counter an individual who spreads lies, hatred and fear of the Other. Despite your best efforts, this individual has come into a position of significant power and seems poised to deliver on cryptic promises to handle the Other. And because this individual seems to have so much support from folks of backgrounds similar to you, you despair that people will think you are a bigot, too. Are you:

  1. A US voter who did not vote for Donald Trump?
  2. A Russian citizen who opposes the leadership of Vladimir Putin?
  3. A citizen in a Western liberal democracy who campaigns passionately against the rise of Far Right politicians, from Marine Le Pen to Nigel Farage to Geert Wilders?
  4. A Muslim who is enraged by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or any of the other despots in Muslim-majority countries?
  5. More than one of the above?

The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency has stoked equal amounts of visceral triumphalism and fear. Amidst the barrage of punditry responding to this surprising electoral outcome, there have been calls for self-professed liberals or progressives to start listening more to the grievances of those who support the likes of Trump. Sound advice, certainly. But there’s also the question of whether paying attention to these grievances will entail throwing other people under the bus – working class African Americans, Muslims, Mexicans, asylum seekers and refugees?

How do we reconcile these positions, especially for those who consider themselves politically progressive? Perhaps the answer lies in how we expand our circles of empathy – for others who find themselves in similar situations but in different contexts and for those whose fears lead them to come up with drastically different social diagnoses and prescriptions. As a Muslim who is socially liberal and politically progressive, I know what it feels like to love my religion and bang my head against the wall every time some idiot beheads, shoots or rapes innocents in the name of ISIS, Boko Haram or some other violent group.

And so, I genuinely understand how some people cannot help but fear Islam, since this is the religion that ISIS and its ilk claim to represent. But I hope these people can also empathise with my fear of Western governments, intelligence agencies, media outlets and armies whom I feel constantly pressure me to stick up my hands and yell, “But I’m not an extremist!” I also feel the pain of the many US voters who tried their best to look for kinder, more humane and more sensible alternatives to Trump. I understand their shame when they wonder aloud what has happened to their beloved country. My glimmer of hope is that they will use this as an opportunity – if they haven’t done so already – to understand the pain of Muslims like me as we try to figure out how to respond to the likes of ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, Al-Shabaab and (why not go there as well) the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The US presidential elections consisted of rancorous debates and mud-slinging that were devoid of empathy for the Other, arguably on all sides of the political spectrum. Amid the post-election tremors, however, progressives and liberals do not need to eschew or rebrand their political positions. What’s more important is to use this moment to expand our circles of empathy and get to know and care for people that aren’t usually on our radar. Maybe that’s one way forward to a better future. 

Shanon Shah is deputy editor of Critical Muslim.