AHEAD of Donald Trump’s inauguration as US President, New York City is as vibrant and dynamic as ever. Locals mingle with tourists, immigrants and foreigners in the icy cold. The ferry to the Statue of Liberty is brimming with excited Chinese visitors. The stores and restaurants are full.
This is New York, proud global city, still basking in a soft post-New Year glow. It is also in combative mood, braced for a fight with the new president.
“Are you here for Trump’s inauguration,” my Dominican taxi driver asks. I say no, I’m attending a high-level forum on anti-Muslim hate being organised at the United Nations by the European Union, Canada, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation — and the US.
“So it’s Obama’s parting shot,” he chuckles. “These Americans are crazy to elect Trump. They are already regretting it. At least here in New York.”
Certainly, the new US President is not this city’s favourite son. The 58-storey Trump Tower may be the fanciest, glitziest building among other fancy, glitzy luxury stores which line Fifth Avenue, but New Yorkers are fed up with the increased security, the barricades and the gawping tourists.
A small but stalwart and loud group of protesters stands outside the Tower, shouting, “No Trump, No KKK, no fascist USA”. Policemen look on warily as tourists take pictures.
Ever since Trump won the election, the protective measures around the Tower, which is his primary residence and where his wife Melania will stay while their son finishes his school year, have caused a dramatic slowdown in business in the neighbourhood, according to PBS journalist Rhana Natour.
Shopkeepers say they are not happy with the chaos. Tourists and shoppers aren’t keen to get caught in the protests or run into policemen and police dogs. If Trump keeps coming to New York, as he has said he will, business just won’t pick up.
Americans are gearing up for a struggle. On Jan 21, a day after the inauguration, a massive Women’s March will be held in New York and other cities across the US and the world.
This city has its own heroes. New York Governor Andrew M Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, both Democrats, have made clear that they will stand firm on their principles.
Cuomo has called New York “a safe harbour for our progressive principles and social justice”. De Blasio joined actors Alec Baldwin and Mark Ruffalo, as well as film-maker and activist Michael Moore, for a protest against Trump. “This is New York. Nothing about who we are changed on Election Day,” de Blasio promised in a tweet.
Trump’s shadow looms large over the UN meeting. Outside the UN building, flags from across the world still flutter. But in the rain, they have a forlorn air. Colleagues worry about the future of the UN. Trump is not a believer in multilateral cooperation. “But this is why we have to stand firm and speak out,” says a friend.
As the forum begins the mood is understandably sober and reflective. It’s also surreal. The keynote speeches in the first hour warn of rising anti-Muslim hate and discrimination without mentioning Trump by name.
UN Secretary General Antònio Guterres refers to a recently launched initiative “Together — Respect, Safety and Dignity for All” which is designed to strengthen bonds between refugees, migrants and host countries and communities.
David Saperstein, American Ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom warns, “Anti-Muslim hatred does not occur in a vacuum…the rise of xenophobia across the world creates challenges that focus our attention and the data leaves us no doubt that this is happening.”
But then the discussions get more animated. No one can say whether Trump intends to implement his campaign promise of setting up a “Muslim registry” but there is little doubt that his election has triggered an increase in anti-Muslim hate.
In Europe, there is concern that populists are riding high in polls in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Intolerance and anti-Muslim diatribes have become the norm for leaders in Hungary, Poland and other Eastern European countries.
But the forum is not about Muslims as victims but about empowering Muslim minorities in America, Europe and in other parts of the world.
There is talk of creating civil society coalitions against xenophobia, working with other faith groups, countering misinformation and forging positive stories of Muslims in the news and popular culture.
“Some say we live in a post-truth world,” says EU human rights envoy Stavros Lambrinidis. “We must have the courage to confront narratives when they are based on prejudice, or blatant lies, so that they do not become part of the mainstream.”
Several panellists highlight the importance of establishing relationships with local political and law enforcement agencies, saying that as New York has shown, mayors are key to ensuring that cities are more open, tolerant and diverse.
I head home to Brussels just hours before Trump moves into the White House. The New York Times has an editorial chiding the new president for his pro-Russian and pro-Brexit rhetoric and his anti-Nato and anti-EU diatribes.
There is no immediate Trump tweet in reaction. But we know: it is going to be an interesting four years.
—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels
Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2017