European populism on the march

Fawaz Turki
Fawaz Turki
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Don’t breathe a sigh of relief – not just yet – at the news that the ethno-nationalist, openly Islamophobic politician Geert Wilders lost in the Dutch general election on March 15. Do not yet imagine it a blow to the ascending populism that in recent years began to take root on the European continent and to encode itself deeply into the inscribed cultural norms, even consciousness, of Europeans everywhere.

Wilders may have lost the election, and his party may have been shut out of joining a coalition – despite its good showing at the polls – but he said it best: “I’ll be back.” The claim echoes the muscular line that Arnold Schwarzenneger used in his role as the title character from the 1984 science fiction film, the Terminator, and used again as a signature line in the actor’s later movies.

In effect, the bleached-blond politician and provocateur, who calls migrants from North Africa “scum,” and who wants to shut mosques, ban the Quran, close the country’s borders to Muslims, and force women who wear head scarves in public to pay hefty fines, has a message to those who locked him out of power: The ranks of the extremist movement I lead will continue to grow, and next time we head to the ballot box, we’ll win.

He may, alas, be right. Wilders now leads his country’s largest opposition, and precisely because he is deprived of the responsibilities of power, he feels that he need not compromise. That way he both empowers and emboldens his loyalists and attracts others who had not voted for him but believe he ought to have been included in a coalition, into his orbit. He is now, in short, a free agent, free of restraints.

Let’s face it, the xenophobic far right appeals to voters not just in the Netherlands, where Wilders has railed against those “who don’t want the Netherlands to be the Netherlands,” but to voters elsewhere in Europe. The phenomenon exists most notably in France, where Marine Le Pen, another populist upstart, will face voters next month, and in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel will face them, in uphill battle, in the fall.

Xenophobia comes with a price tag. It has a way about it of sneaking up on society, impoverishing it incrementally, rendering it a place where the unbelievable becomes believable, the unthinkable thinkable – and in time, the norm

Fawaz Turki

Norm of ethnocentrism

Whatever the outcome of these two pivotal election is, ethnocentrism is now the norm in Europe, and forms a major building block of the public debate. Just as in the US last November, when Americans voted for Donald Trump because he promised that they will “get their country back” – begging the question of getting it back from whom – people in Western Europe have found leaders prepared to pander to their racialist fantasies about reclaiming their land from the foreign “other.”

In that regard, consider what was said when Michael Birnbaum, The Washington Post correspondent in Amsterdam, tracked down one Linda Muis, a well-dressed, seemingly educated 51-year-old Dutchwoman, who told him, with a straight face: “There are a lot of Muslims. There are a lot of black people. The white people, the Dutch people, they’re getting less and less.” And never mind that every economist and his uncle will tell you that immigrants put in more into society than they take out.

It is not as difficult to spout racial hatred as it is to preach human coexistence. All it takes for a politician, once he shows that he is responsive to his constituency’s malaise, is to know the way, go the way and show the way – and he is in power. And never mind that every vote is precious, and we should cast it in a well-studied, thoughtful manner.

Venomous ideologies

Who would have thought, for example, that a civilized society like that of Germany, whose contribution to the Western intellectual tradition was pivotal, would embrace, as it did in the 1930s, a venomous ideology like Nazism?

In like manner, who would’ve thought that the people of Holland, that halcyon land of canals, windmills and tulips, whence came the Dutch masters, like Van Gogh, Vermeer and Rembrandt, the land traditionally associated with tolerance, would vote in droves for someone like Geert Wilders? But there you have it.

It’s happening, folks, all over Europe, in France and Germany, in Poland and Hungary, in England and Sweden, in Austria and Switzerland, in Greece and Italy, and it’s happening, well, all over. But Xenophobia comes with a price tag. It has a way about it of sneaking up on society, impoverishing it incrementally, rendering it a place where the unbelievable becomes believable, the unthinkable thinkable – and in time, the norm.

“The best in man had lifted its mask and the time of euphemistic niceties is over,” wrote Annette Dumbach, in her reflections on Sophie Schell, the anti-Nazi activist, executed by guillotine in 1943. In short, there comes a time when the mask becomes one with the face, and political failures of that society become an emotional backlash, which is, in fact, what the current populist surge in Europe is all about.

Populism, which never fails to find easy solutions to complex questions, is threatening to tear apart not only the European Union but Europe’s very political systems. And, yes, Arnold Toynbee was right: civilizations die by suicide, not by murder.
Fawaz Turki is a Palestinian-American journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington, DC.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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