When the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, spoke on Saturday about the “utter failure” of German attempts to foster a multicultural society, the move was widely seen as an attempt to bolster her position in a coalition increasingly focused on the issue of immigration.
In the aftermath of Thilo Sarrazin’s controversial book that accused Muslim migrants in particular of sapping the country of its intellectual vigor, her comments to young Christian Democratic Union (CDU) members seem particularly opportunistic.
Meanwhile, prominent members of Merkel’s coalition, chief among them the premier of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, have called for a halt to migration from other cultural spheres. Claiming to reflect the popular will, Seehofer has chosen to frame a thorny, complex and multifaceted issue in starkly populist terms.
While clearly immigration is a problematic issue in many European countries that struggle with economic uncertainty and immigrant populations of varying degrees of integration (and facing a variety of challenges from entrenched unemployment, language barriers and discrimination), the increasing acceptability of xenophobic rhetoric is a deeply worrying phenomenon that is taking root beyond the geographical margins of Europe. In addition to the well-documented cases in Holland, Switzerland and most recently Sweden, German politics seem to be lurching in a similar direction.
Instead of debating the issue constructively, and engaging positively with those immigrants (whether Muslim or not) that seek to integrate- the public debate across Europe seems to be moving towards the blanket-stigmatization of immigrants. A sense of xenophobic dread and a wish to turn back the time on increasingly diverse and ethnically, socially and religiously diverse societies seems to underlie this trend.
The tone of this ‘debate’ is particularly worrying, as is the increasing acceptability of racism, veiled as sensitivity to the concerns of the ‘common man’ and the ‘people’. Europe’s anti-immigrant tide hides the need to engage actively with immigrants and to seek out a solution-oriented dialogue with those that, to some degree, have isolated themselves (and been isolated) in the past decades. It also dumbs down the public and legitimizes, by inferring society-wide sentiments from those on its political fringes, a discourse of intolerance. While the ‘ghettoization’ of Muslim populations in Britain, for example, is clearly a problem and one that any cohesively functioning society should address, is stigmatization the solution?
It is a historically and psychologically well-documented phenomenon that people seek out scapegoats in times of crisis and self-doubt. As European economies struggle with the prospect of a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape and their own, increasingly uncertain place within it, ‘alien’ cultures and peoples, particularly Muslims, are bearing the brunt of an insecure European populace and a political class that seeks to capitalize on this insecurity by using populism to gain votes and leverage.
Echoing the Tea Party movement’s anti-establishment platform in the US, European right-wing populists are framing their resurgence as a return of ‘common sense’ to a politics supposedly divorced from the ‘realities on the ground’. Although it would be foolish to deny the fact that European politicians may have failed to address the issue of immigration head-on in the past and to understand and address rising, long-term concerns about integration and diversity, this populist wave will do little to solve real problems because its seductively simple narrative is the very antithesis of the messy, difficult, and often painful reality of policymaking.
But isn’t it the job of politicians to seek out solutions to problems, to engage positively with their population (whether immigrant or native) and to raise the tone and quality of the political debate in times of uncertainty and doubt – to give people a dose of hope instead of fear; to be the ‘philosopher king’ instead of the scare monger?
Imam Yahya Pallavicini, the Vice-President of the Islamic Religious Community in Italy, a speaker at our recent ISN Junior Associates kick-off event, pointed out that the ‘securitization’ (and now, I would add, the ‘economization’) of the integration issue has prevented people and politicians from focusing on the very real need to constructively manage the pluralism and diversity that is the de facto reality in most European countries, and crucially, to address Muslim immigrants as citizens (with all the responsibilities and rights that this entails) and not as problems. He pointed out that it takes much more political will to implement positive long-term change than to feed the negativity that naturally arise from a period of change and uncertainty.
Seehofer said Sunday night in a debate on German TV that ‘apologists’ on the opposite side of the debate were failing to address the uncomfortable reality of an immigrant population that has not integrated and for all accounts (or so they imply) does not want to do so either. The true uncomfortable reality, however, is that a challenge that is real and needs to be addressed by instituting more effective, culturally sensitive, well-funded integration policies that weigh both the rights and responsibilities of immigrants as European citizens equally, and that seek a healthy balance between pluralism and unity of purpose and societal values, is being overlooked and drowned out by populist babble.
Ugly populism is rearing its ugly head once more and too many European politicians seem happy to play along.