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the best way of dealing with xenophobia

new york times, 28 july 2011

Far right and populist parties have made major gains in many European countries. Such movements have certainly fed off a diet of racism, anti-Muslim prejudice and anti-immigrant sentiment. It would be simplistic, however, to explain the advance of populism and the far right simply as an expression of an aggressive new climate of racism and Islamophobia. It would be more simplistic still to suggest that such a climate would inevitably create a horror such as the Oslo massacre.

Far right parties throughout Europe draw upon two distinct constituencies. The first is a core of hardline racist bigots– many of these parties, such as the British National Party and the Sweden Democrats emerged out of the neo-fascist swamp and many still live there. The bigots have, however, been joined by a swathe of new supporters whose hostility towards immigrants, minorities and Muslims is shaped less by old-fashioned racism than by a newfangled sense of fear and insecurity. Many have traditionally supported social democratic parties but feel abandoned by organizations that have largely cut links with their working class constituencies. Polls have shown that, even more than the rest of the population, such supporters appear dissatisfied with their lives, anxious about the future, and distrustful of any figure of authority.

There is little that can be done to sway the opinions of the hardline racists. We need, however, politically to engage with the wider support that now surrounds far right organizations. This does not mean pandering to their prejudices. It means, to the contrary, challenging those prejudices openly and robustly. It means, for instance, rebutting the idea that immigration is responsible for the lack of jobs and housing, or that lower immigration would mean a lower crime rate, or that Western societies are becoming ‘Islamized’.

Most mainstream politicians have, however, taken the opposite approach, responding to the advance of the far right not by challenging its prejudices but by appropriating its arguments, believing that the only way to stem support for such groups is by promising to further cut back on immigration, to step up deportation of asylum seekers, and to curtail civil liberties. ‘We know we need to target immigrants’, seems to be the argument, ‘but only respectable politicians should be allowed to do that, not those who belong to far-right organizations.’ It is an approach that can only deepen the belief that Europe’s social problems stem from too much immigration and so strengthen the hand of reactionary figures.

The question many Europeans are asking is ‘How can we stop the far right?’. The question they should be asking is ‘How can we challenge anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment?’ The answers to the two questions may seem to be the same. They are not necessarily so. The danger is that in being obsessed by the first question rather than by the second, politicians help strengthen, not weaken, xenophobic attitudes.