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29 May 2014 @ 12:17 am
Reflections on the Reaction in Europe  
One of my favourite songs by The Cassandra Complex is "Nightfall (Over EC)". It's a dark 1980s vision of the EU (or EC as it was then) disintegrating into religious and ethnic chaos.
The hills are alive with the sound of gunfire
Kill them all, God will know his own
Night falls over Western Europe
Night falls, and we're alone.

Ironically, the lyrics were penned by one of the most pro-European people I know; in those days Rodney Orpheus was dividing his time between England and Germany and insisting on the band being paid in ECUs, the predecessor of the Euro. But it's an understandable feature of the EU that people should worry about it. Pro-Europeans worry that it will fall apart; anti-Europeans, that it will become an oppressive superstate dominated by gay socialist Muslim bureaucrats. It's in the nature of things to come together and fall apart, and the more recently it came together, the more people will worry that it is about to fall apart. Nobody worries about the impending break-up of France, for example, because France has been around for over a millennium and screw the Corsicans.

All this is of course leading into the recent victory of far-right, anti-EU parties in the European elections, an event you'd think they would refuse to participate in. Come to think of it, the fact that a party whose raison d'etre is withdrawal from the EU thinks it's a good idea to run in elections for the European Parliament is a pretty good sign that the EU is not some monstrous totalitarian superstate. (You can probably generalise this rule: any country in which you can run for election on the platform "This place is a shithole and we don't want to be part of it" is probably not such a bad country to be part of.) These parties range in nastiness from Finns, which "has repeatedly rejected accusations of racism and homophobia" (because this is, after all, Finland) to the Hungarian Jobbik, whose leader called for a national register of Jews on grounds of national security. In the middle, we have the traditional "don't like anything foreign" UKIP and Front National, and, more interestingly, parties whose anti-immigration stance seems to be based more on religion than race, such as the Danish People Party and the Dutch Party for Freedom. No prizes for guessing which religion they don't like.

This brings me to what really interests me, which is why relatively normal people would vote for these parties. Europe has had its share of nutty Nazis since, well, the Nazis, but in a way, WWII was a watershed which defined subsequent Nazis as nutty. Before then, we should remember, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and belief in the superiority of the white race were normal. They might not have been universal, but they were commonly held attitudes that could be safely expressed in the company of people who do not pick their noses in public or settle disputes with broken beer glasses. What is alarming many people is the thought that these attitudes may become normal once more.

I won't deny that such a danger exists, but I'm not so sure we should all pack up and move to Portugal just yet. Back in the '70s, when I first got involved in politics, it looked like there was a real fascist threat, what with the rise of the National Front and its more openly Nazi twin, the British National Party, not to mention an ugly spate of racist attacks. A friend of mine even wrote an article claiming the newly formed Social Democrat Party might be a manifestation of soft fascism. I joined the Anti-Nazi League, marched, handed out leaflets, listened to reggae … the usual stuff. The fascist threat never materialised, despite the fact that prevailing attitudes in the late '70s were way more fascist than they are now. Now I'm not saying that we were wrong to worry or to take action, and it may be in part because so many people took action that the 1980s didn't turn into the third Reich. Or maybe it was because Margaret Thatcher captured the lawful evil vote, I'm not sure. But if fascism didn't sweep over the UK and the rest of Europe in the 1970s, there's no reason to think it's about to do that in the 2010s when conditions are if anything less favourable for potential fascist dictators, or even just moderately nasty fascist parties. Remember those politically correct Finnish fascists? I have seen the future of fascism, and it is bland.

Of course not everywhere is as polite as Finland, as worrying as Hungary or as wacky as Greece (where both the fascist Golden Dawn and the hard left Syriza did well). Let's go back to the interesting middle ground, if you can talk about fascism as having a middle ground. The "I'm not a Nazi but you have to admit things have gone too far" parties owe a lot of the support to the traditional "They're taking our jobs" vote. This is particularly true of UKIP, the political descendants of the people who were complaining about Irish navvies taking all the railway jobs back in the 19th century. (And by "railway jobs", I don't mean driving trains, I mean digging tunnels.) A good sign that politicians are playing the jobs card is if they complain about Poles, because other than working hard for less money, there's not a lot else you can find to complain about when it comes to Poles. Unless you're an old-fashioned Nazi who despises the inferior Slavic race, you can't really be racist about those pale, blond Poles, can you? If a right-wing party dumps Poles in with Somalis, then either they're not really all that racist, or they're doing a good job of confusing the race issue.

The other strand is Islamophobia, typified by Geert "I don't hate Muslims, I hate Islam" Wilders' Party for Freedom. Another good example is the Danish People Party, who, after they got some criticism from the Swedes, came out with this revealing reply: "If they want to turn Stockholm, Gothenburg or Malmö into a Scandinavian Beirut, with clan wars, honour killings and gang rapes, let them do it. We can always put a barrier on the Øresund Bridge." We're talking about Holland and Denmark here, two of the most civilised, tolerant countries in the world. They are certainly not the kind of places where honest-to-badness fascist parties are likely to get many votes. True, even Geert Wilders is seen as an embarrassment by most Dutch, but the fact that there is an Islamophobic backlash at all in the Low Countries and Scandinavia speaks volumes. Since they are not strongholds of fascism, my guess is that we are looking at something different here.

Generally speaking, lefties have been unable to deal with Islamophobia because their reaction is to just scream "Islamophobia!" and lump it in with racism, when it is obviously something different. If we want to deal with people's fears of Muslims and stop them flocking to parties who pander to those fears, then we need to understand them, and an attitude that says "You only think like this because you're a bad person" isn't going to help. When British people reacted against the arrival of Kenyan and Ugandan Asians in the 1970s, it was easy to claim they were just being xenophobic, because these immigrants/refugees were generally hard-working, law-abiding, polite people whose only fault was to have brown skin, wear different clothes and smell of curry. (If you're about to screech "RACIST!" at me for that last one, that's part of the problem: anti-racists are all too ready to brand simple facts as racist prejudices. If you eat a lot of curry, you really do smell of curry (particularly fenugreek) just like smokers smell of cigarettes, people who eat a lot of garlic smell of garlic, and I smell of funky Turkish spices when I've been eating sucuk or pastırma.) If you don't like Punjabis, chances are you're either a white supremacist or a Gujerati. Moreover, most of the immigrants were Hindus or Sikhs, and most of the Muslims were not the kind of Muslim anyone would object to. Islamophobia had yet to be invented because if you were racist, they were all wogs, and if you weren't, you didn't care much about other people's religious beliefs.

Ah, those were the days, when racists were racists and had skinhead haircuts and Doc Martins. Now it's more complicated. Pia Kjærsgaard, who came out with the Scandinavian Beirut comment, doesn't fit the type. She may well be racist deep in her heart, but she's survived two legal attempts to convict her of racism. Her anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stance would still work even if she weren't in the teensiest bit racist. That wouldn't make it right, but it does mean we have to take it a bit more seriously. First, just as we had to distinguish between general anti-immigrant rhetoric and racism, we need to prize apart the Islamophobic rhetoric from the general anti-immigrant rhetoric. Remember the Poles: if you get in a huff about Polish immigration, you're not necessarily racist, because Poles are by-and-large white, and you're not necessarily Islamophobic, because Poles are by-and-large Catholics. (On the other hand, if you hate Poles and Irish with equal vehemence, you may just have a problem with Catholics.) You may of course be all of these things, but that doesn't stop them from being different types of bigotry. Give Joe Bigot the choice of living next door to a recently-arrived family of Poles, Bosnians or Iraqis. My guess is that he'd choose them in that order: Poles may be foreign, but at least they're white; Bosnians may be foreign and Muslim, but at least they're still white; Iraqis are foreign, Muslim and brown, so Joe would probably prefer to live next door to a nest of vampires. Islamophobia and racism often coexist, but people who equate them are clearly wrong. When the Boston bombers turned out to be Chechens, nobody said, "Oh, they're white Muslims, that makes it OK."

Having made a distinction between Islamophobia and racism, we also need to separate the paranoid conspiracy theorists who go on about "Eurabia" and the death of Western culture from ordinary people who are just scared of religious nutters. Let's apply the neighbour test again. Who would you rather live next door to: (a) a family of liberal-verging-on-agnostic Muslims; (b) a family of Christian Dominionists? If your answer is "a", you're a normal person; if it's "b", not only are you Islamophobic, you may well be the kind of person other people would be scared to live next door to.

By lumping together racists, paranoid Islamophobes and ordinary worried people under the general heading of "Anders Breivik", leftists encourage these groups to actually come together. Someone will probably still scream "RACIST!" at me, but I have to say it: people often have good reasons for straying towards Islamophobia. My wife, on learning the word, said "Oh, that's what I am," and she's a Muslim. Of course she was being a little tongue-in-cheek; what she really meant was not so much Islamophobia but Islamistophobia, but that word doesn't exist, and would be tough to spit out if it did. I've touched on reasons for Islamophobia before ("Are Muslims the New Catholics?"); the point is that while some of them are clearly kooky, some of them come from real fears and real cultural incompatibilities. Ironically, most of the cultural incompatibilities (the "clan wars, honour killings and gang rapes" mentioned earlier) have nothing to do with Islam as a religion and everything to do with the mentality of tradition-bound, survival-oriented communities accustomed to living with minimal oversight from the state. This is something they have in common with American urban gang culture; it's just that Pakistani villagers and Kurdish tribesmen have been doing it longer. It is also one of several cultural divides within the Muslim community, who are actually united only by a common religion that they take very different views of. Again, we need to differentiate: Islamophobia rests on a view of Muslims as a uniform mass; like the orcs besieging Minas Tirith, they may sometimes look a bit different from each other, but they're all basically orcs. This is of course nonsense, but it's the kind of nonsense that is hard to combat, especially when it's often the nuttiest Muslims who take it upon themselves to act as spokesmen for the rest. A sad example is the Happy British Muslims video, which was doing a great job of combating Islamophobia until all the mad mullahs starting denouncing it for showing music and dancing, which they claimed, without a shred of evidence, are against Islam. The worst was a supposed "halal" version, which was the same thing without the women. One of the problems with Islam is that anyone can put on a turban, give himself a title like "sheikh" and claim that this or that is Islamic or un-Islamic. The same problem applies with Protestantism, especially in its free-market American varieties, but generally people in the West are sufficiently well-informed about Christianity to recognise the nutty stuff.

These are not problems we are going to solve any time soon, especially with progressives sticking their heads in the sand, refusing to accept that immigration can sometimes cause problems and demonising those who point them out. But they may be problems that will solve themselves in the long run. At the moment the EU is trying to cope with massive economic imbalances between its member states which should even out over the years. I'm not saying that Romania is ever going to be as rich as Luxembourg; all that is necessary is for the gap to close enough so that migration between member states is restricted to people who actually want to go and live in another country. When the standard of living in Poland is comparable to England, some Poles will go back to Poland while others will stay in England because they like it there, and eventually being Polish in England won't be that different from being Polish in America (which used not to be that desirable). Non-European immigration is going to take longer to sort out, but as I said, a lot of the things people find scary about these people are the results of coming from places which have radically different cultures because they're several centuries behind on the urbanisation-industrialisation-democratisation timeline. Like I said, Ugandan and Kenyan Asians had few problems adapting to life in Britain (other than racism and lousy weather) because they were middle class, largely urban, well-educated and familiar with British culture and values. A lot of them probably exemplified British culture and values much better than the average Brit. The Pakistani and Bangladeshi villagers who came over a few years later had a much harder time, not just because they were Asian or even because they were Muslims but because they were villagers, with a culture that would have given them problems in Islamabad, let alone Leeds. Ditto Turks in Germany: the educated urban ones had no problems with the German lifestyle; the ones from the backward areas did. Such cultures take time to change, but generally what makes them change is economic security and education. The important thing is to avoid ghettoisation, as happened in France, while at the same time avoiding those cultures becoming mainstream. Racism is not acceptable in polite society, but then neither is sexism or homophobia, and no amount of respect for other cultures should change that. That requires a tricky balance: "Yes, you can have halal meat in the canteen. No, you can't segregate public baths. Yes, you can demand schools teach about religions other than Christianity. No, you can't insist that they stop teaching evolution. Yes, you can teach your culture to your children. No, you can't beat them if they rebel against it. Yes, you can have arranged marriages. No, you can't force anyone into one." It's not going to be easy, but sooner or later it's got to happen.
Bram Boroson, Master of Subtle Ways and Straight: galafractaxylbram on May 30th, 2014 04:35 am (UTC)
Wow. Thanks for the long-form discussion of fascism, the EU, Islamophobia, the intersections of race, religion, and religiosity, political correctness, cultural differences, assimilation, and tolerance. So much editorializing I read is so polemical and the screechiest voices invite rebuttals that themselves are screechy.
Robinsolri on May 30th, 2014 07:09 am (UTC)
Glad you enjoyed it!