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Backlash against liberalism shows in the world’s polls

Published in Malay Mail Online

Billionaire Donald Trump’s triumph in the United States presidential election came as a surprise to many of us observing the divisive campaign, but perhaps it should not have been.

After all, it is not only in the US that the Western world is experiencing a resurgence of the far-right and conservatism much to the chagrin of the rest of the world.

Just before the US, the United Kingdom had experienced a seismic shift when it voted in a referendum in June to withdraw from the European Union, a move dubbed as Brexit.

The resignation of prime minister David Cameron over his failure to prevent the move then saw the relatively quiet Tory MP Theresa May rise through the ranks of the Conservative Party and become Cameron’s successor.

This was not a singularity in global politics as we just witnessed with Trump’s win, and probably will continue in the next wave that is set to sweep Europe.

In France, Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the notoriously controversial Jean-Marie Le Pen, has announced her candidacy in the 2017 French presidential election.

In the Netherlands, Le Pen’s ally in the attempt to form a parliamentary group in the European Parliament, Geert Wilders and his Party of Freedom is also gaining popularity.

In Greece, the far-right Golden Dawn — which has since been accused of being neo-Nazis and fascists — led by Nikolaos Michaloliakos won three seats in the European Parliament in 2014.

Ever since Trump’s win, Le Pen, Wilders and Golden Dawn had been among the first to congratulate the magnate, even as the rest of the world struggled to come to terms with the result.

Others who joined the ranks were Frauke Petry of Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, Heinz-Christian Strach of Austria’s Freedom party, and Ukip’s Nigel Farage in the UK.

While the issues being fought over and for by these parties differ, especially in the US and Europe, it can be argued that at the core of their rise is a backlash and opposition towards liberal and progressive ideas that have gained momentum in recent years due to globalisation and human rights activism.

Pollster Pew Research Centre revealed that Christians had overwhelmingly voted for Trump, except for Hispanic Christians — a marked difference from the Jews, the non-religious and other voters. The percentage of Christians who voted for the Republican candidate was estimated to be as high as 81 per cent among white Evangelical or born-again Christians.

Ostensibly, Trump had appeared attractive to them in the face of a louder call to recognise same-sex marriage, protecting the rights of women, the blacks, and the LGBT minority — all things that Trump has paid no attention to, or even scorned in his campaign.

Other liberal agenda, such as recognition for climate change and free-trade agreement such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal must also have been seen as an opulent indulgence at the expense of the common American folk.

Among the issues both the Americans and Europeans are concerned about is immigration and free movement, compounded by Islamophobia stemming from the meteoric rise of global militants like the Islamic State (IS).

No matter that IS is rapidly crumbling, they have done their job well enough. Years of instilling terror invited the predictable knee-jerk reaction from the West; instead of targeting extremists, it had only made life much worse for Muslims who have sought liberal democracies.

IS’ struggle may now be justified. Not only that, their fight may even be rejuvenated and galvanised. No wonder jihadists were celebrating Trump’s win.

“Trump’s win of the American presidency will bring hostility of Muslims against America as a result of his reckless actions, which show the overt and hidden hatred against them,” said IS-affiliated al-Minbar Jihadi Media network, as reported by jihadist monitors SITE Intelligence group.

The situation in Malaysia as the 14th general elections draw closer, has some parallels with this worldwide backlash against liberalism and progressive ideas.

The religious card is increasingly being used, both to keep the status quo and to justify the Islamist lobby that either wishes to dismantle democracy altogether, or to utilise democracy itself to realise their goal to place religious scriptures above the Federal Constitution.

To this lobby, how someone as hostile to Islam as Trump could be voted in only demonstrates how fallible democracy is.

On the other end — the Malaysian analogue to the American alt-right — are the Malay net-reactionaries who proliferate in social media, associated with vile ideas such as homophobia, anti-feminism and men’s rights activism.

Compared to rural or even urban conservatives, this group is isolated in that it opposes liberalism for the sake of it, revering the status quo and monarchy instead of egalitarianism as the latter threatens the privileges they were born with.
Of course, the world also offers antidotes to the far-right resurgence.

Just like Trump (reality TV star), some anti-establishmentarians chose instead to support a popular, and populist, maverick e.g. the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte (former mayor) and Italy’s Beppe Grillo (comedian and blogger).

But there is also another way for anti-establishmentarianism. The Greeks have shown us the way by voting in left-wing and anti-capitalist Syriza led by Alexis Tsipras, and also the Spanish with the left-wing social democrats Podemos.

As liberal Americans are licking their wounds, there is a lesson to be learned by liberal and progressive Malaysians on how we can continue spreading such values while navigating the many hurdles.

In December 2014, I wrote in response to G25’s first open letter that liberalism here tends to be a luxury. Who cares about freedom of speech when you are struggling to live?

The elephant in the room is that institutionalised Islam is another major stumbling block towards freedoms, with its overt hostility. There is a need to break that mould — Malaysia thrives when it recognises its differences.

So where do we start and how do we do it? We might have only months left before the elections, but the struggle is a long and continuous one. There is still time for self-reflection.

Published inMMO column
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