Fear of a Populist Europe

Vintage Nazi helmet. Brussels, May.

For weeks, the European press has been citing polls indicating that populist, anti-immigrant parties are poised to make major gains in EU parliamentary elections starting May 22nd. If the predictions turn out to be true, the far-right expects to take approximately 15 per cent of seats in Parliament. This is almost double their showing in the 2009 elections, and includes parties ranging from UKIP to Golden Dawn.

The significance of such gains should not be underestimated. Although their physical presence in the 766-member legislature would still be small, such representation would give extremists a power and influence that is unprecedented in the history of the European Union. Years of austerity and recession have made Europeans distrustful of their leaders, prone to scapegoating, and skeptical about the EU project itself, with its lack of internal borders, and the freedom of movement it grants to travel between member states.

If these trends continue, far-right parties will be given an historic opportunity to influence EU policy, and put the breaks on the diversity and freedoms promoted by European federalization. This would similarly pressure the agenda of national legislatures, as well, in a manner that populist parties have been unable to exert domestically. Though anti-EU, they will be able to leverage the Union as though it were a bully pulpit, in order to externally enforce greater conformity to their agenda.

For analysts of European politics, this is the chief opportunity that getting elected to the EU legislature offers extremists. It doesn’t so much offer an alternative route to political power, at home, as much as it provides sanction for it, within a larger European framework. Given how well populist parties are polling right now – Jobbik just took 20% of the popular vote in Hungary’s April elections, a month which also saw France’s National Front making large gains in local elections – the logic makes sense.

There are other benefits, though. Fellow Eurosceptics UKIP see the European elections as part of its journey towards the center of British politics, as a mainstream conservative party, albeit a radicalized one. If UKIP can win new seats in the EU legislature (surveys currently predict it overshadowing the Tories, Lib Dems, and Labour) the right-wing party has a shot at finally entering the House of Commons, something which has repeatedly eluded the party since its founding in the early 1990s.

Hijabis in Canterbury. October 2012.
Woman in hijab. United Kingdom, 2012.

As a South Asian migrant living in Berlin, I find this all very alarming. Europe is in a state of prolonged discontentment that is set to continue. Although its far-right tries to distance itself from the brutishness of the 1930s, there is no mistaking the historical continuity of today’s populists with pre-war fascist parties.

Consider the best-known racist rhetoric of its iconographic parties: The Lega Nord’s Roberto Calderoli, called Italy’s Congo-born Minister of Integration Cécile Kyenge an “orangutan” last July; UKIP leader Nigel Farage has been known to use the word Nigger; and a National Front candidate running in April’s elections even recommended ‘concentrating’ Roma in ‘camps’.

Such statements reveal these parties for what they are: racist, and eager to translate their ideology into state policy. However, European Muslims do not have to wait for such moments to be scared. UKIP, for example, has proposed a “charter of Muslim understanding” that is essentially a loyalty oath. Marine Le Pen has pressed for halal and kosher school lunches to be banned, and her softened stance on deportation is not fooling those who remember her arguing on behalf of the systematic repatriation of Muslim immigrants.

Despite being a spent domestic political force, German neo-Nazi party NPD continues to call for a “socialist-nationalist” country. That may sound innocuous to outsiders, used to equating socialism with liberalism. However, it is important to remember that historically speaking, the construction is fascist. Hence, the word ‘national.’ This is one of the classic tropes of populism. It is both ‘red’ and brown. Thus, the NPD posters I’ve encountered in Berlin, featuring slogans such as “Put on the Gas”, alluding to the Holocaust, and the anti-immigration “Money for Grandma, not the Roma.”

As a Muslim, it isn’t paranoid for me to fear that such parties will build a Europe that discriminates against us on the basis of our religion and ethnicity (I am Pakistani, but most German Muslims are of Turkish descent.) Some readers may scoff at the idea, particularly given Europe’s frequently vaunted liberal credentials amongst Americans, who often idealize it for its welfare state, public health systems, and frequent resistance to US foreign policy initiatives, such as the invasion of Iraq. (Germany and France said no.) That version of Europe, so I am learning, is on its way out.

Muslim minorities frequently ask themselves where this tide of European racism will lead. A worst case example often comes to mind, particularly given the precedent set by the Holocaust, and, more recently, the ethnic cleansing of the Yugoslavian civil wars. What if these far-right parties become strong enough to begin deporting Muslims from their countries?

It is tempting for us to act as though only certain Muslims will be affected. After all, populists frequently target their rhetoric intelligently. It isn’t “all Muslims.” It is criminals, jihadists, and undocumented migrants, for example. However, when Islam is argued to be the problem, these rhetorical distinctions are increasingly meaningless. Every Muslim should feel uneasy.

Fascist union of Europe. July 2008.
Anti-EU flag. Spain, 2008.

That being said, I’m not sure if such an action is even possible. Expelling Muslims from Europe would be a logistical nightmare. Surveys have found there to be 4.15 million Muslims in France alone, along with 2.7 million in Britain, and at least 1.5 million in Germany and Italy. Even if a small percentage of them were deported, it would cause the biggest European refugee crisis since World War II.

It wouldn’t just be violent. It would also be incredibly complicated and expensive to undertake. The disruption it would cause would be unprecedented, which is why I am skeptical that it will ever actually happen.

It doesn’t matter, though. Even the prospect of deportation has social consequences. It reinforces the perception of ethnic and religious minorities, Muslims in particular, as being an inconvenient and alien part of the European social contract. The fact that there are also Muslim states, like my own Pakistan, makes it seem as though we have “other” places to go.

Although this isn’t true, it is part of a growing consensus that is nurtured, on the one hand, by the impact of populist anti-immigration activism on mainstream politics, and, on the other, by a genuine dislike of foreigners amongst Europe’s center-right elites, whom the populists seek to displace.

The psychological fallout of such discourses, particularly for European Muslims, is damaging. We feel increasingly disempowered, and homeless, in a region of the world that we have as much a right to as the so-called ‘natives’. It also makes it increasingly implausible to imagine a European Muslim identity, even though it has existed for a millennia.

Most significantly, it deprives Europeans of the ability to reconcile themselves to the fundamental diversity of their experience, especially in global cities such as Berlin, London, Paris, and Rome. Difference is the order of the day in these capitals, and is punctuated by ethnic variety in everything from restaurants to language. At the same time, diversity is more than a token celebration of difference. It is an expression of a yearning for fulfilling human experiences, and a call to confront the systemic problems that compromise them.

Although the civil and financial costs of this racism are bad enough, it also galvanizes a disgust for exactly the type of societies that make our short lives worthwhile. It answers the pain of modern conditions with an irrational desire for a world that disappeared long ago, and can only be recreated with immense violence. Even if I am never expelled from Germany, that populist imagery still causes me great despair. The only hope is to answer such a blind condemnation of community with alternative projects that seek to normalize and expand it.


Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit, Ariel Lopéz, and Chris Goldberg. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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