Analysis: Staring into the abyss – Europe’s fall to the far-right and its impact on Africa

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On 22 July 2011, Anders Breivik (pictured) shook his native Norway with dual terrorist attacks on innocent civilians; killing 77 and wounding many others. It was perhaps not the attack itself that so shocked the world, but rather the source of and ideology behind the attack.

The incident challenged many ingrained perceptions of terrorism. One of them being that terrorism is an exclusive product of left-wing dictatorships or Islamist ideologies and that such atrocities could not possibly be born in a liberal, democratic state. While the attack may have come as a surprise to many, upon closer inspection, one would have quickly noted that such an incident was, in fact, inevitable.

The years since 11 September 2001 (9/11) have been marked by growing racial, religious, and cultural intolerance, which have fed radical, far-right notions and have, in turn, brought about disturbing results. This paper will explore, specifically, the rise of right-wing extremism with particular regard to its impact on African immigrants in Europe.

The source and causes

Far-right movements have been gaining momentum in recent years, specifically in Europe where many right-wing parties have now gained a foothold in Government. The ideologies of such parties (in countries such as Austria, Denmark, Italy, and Sweden to name but a few) all mirror each other in one way or another. Common threads, which run through party manifestos, include political opposition to continuing immigration and the curbing of religious freedoms, among others.

Though the root causes of this problem are multi-faceted, certain catalysts for this type of extremism do stand out. In many ways, this has been a manufactured crisis. Governments, along with mass media and the entertainment industry, have been complicit in polarising societies across Europe over the past 10 years. Rampant Islamophobia is but one example of this worrying trend. In spite of the fact that Muslim populations have coexisted relatively peacefully within European communities in modern times, recent developments have shown intense prejudice towards Muslim populations across Europe. Such prejudices are often steered by stereotypes that are far-removed from reality. The problem lies in the fact that the very complacent masses in Europe are content with blindly accepting such perceptions (no matter how distorted) and are, in turn, comfortable with such prejudices.(2)

Cause #1: Psychological dimensions

A number of factors may give rise to the brand of violence perpetrated by Breivik. The post-9/11 world saw the advent of an era of great insecurity. Many Governments only served to heighten such insecurity by playing on the “ever-present terrorist threat.” In Europe, this led a society, which was already grappling with the challenges of multiculturalism, to view other sectors of society with even greater circumspection, fear, and loathing. In dealing with such fear and anxiety, we saw the populations of numerous countries such as Britain, Denmark, and France turn incredibly hostile, specifically towards immigrant populations. In many cases in Europe, Governments have only served to amplify this problem. While states have come out in condemnation of hate crimes, it is a fact that these very same Governments only fuelled the problems surrounding xenophobia. Rather than pacifying citizens and promoting respect and tolerance between various racial and religious groups, Governments and individual leaders have, through word and deed, created a type of siege-mentality among citizens, inspiring fear and anxiety that has undoubtedly lead to further hostile reactions from the public. A pertinent example of this is the so-called “hijab-ban” which has taken place across Europe. Here, we have seen democratic states, boasting some of the most liberal ideals in the world, clamp down on religious expression, painting a picture to native citizens of something that is foreign, strange, and unacceptable.

Cause #2: Economic issues

The problems mentioned above have only been compounded by the economic crisis of recent years. African immigrants currently make up a large portion of Europe’s workforce. Growing unemployment and the scarcity of jobs in European nations is often linked to immigration. In failing to adequately deal with the economic dilemma, those in Government (and specifically those on the far-right) have found it easier to attribute economic problems to immigration rather than finding more solid, long-term solutions to these issues. In particular, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been criticised for over-emphasising the problems surrounding immigration — what many see as an attempt to divert attention away from his administration’s failure to contain economic troubles along with numerous corruption scandals.(3)

The implications

Governments and the media have portrayed violence against immigrants as isolated events, while, in fact, there has been a systematic effort at terrorising these populations in many countries. In Switzerland, in 2007, an Angolan man was attacked with a chainsaw, suffering wounds to the face, neck, and chest. The assailants were two Swiss men claiming “We don’t need Africans in our country.”(4) In July 2010, footage that emerged out of France, showing the violent arrests of African women who were partaking in a peaceful protest, was said to only highlight the increasingly hostile attitude of the police towards immigrants.(5) In July 2011, after the stabbing of an Eritrean man in what appeared to be a racially motivated attack, it was said that African immigrants in Zurich have been reluctant to use public transport for fear of such attacks.(6) One of the more harrowing incidents was that of a 32-year old Egyptian woman, Marwa al-Sherbini, who was stabbed 18 times in a German courtroom in 2009 (while the court was in session) by a man who had been convicted of verbal abuse directed at al-Sherbini.(7)

Discrimination of African immigrants in Europe has been overlooked for a long time, and yet the sheer numbers of incidents, as well as the brutality of violence involved, indicates that the matter is much more serious than many are willing to admit. Life is becoming increasingly difficult for the millions of African immigrants residing in Europe who are dependent on their host countries for their livelihood. If the issue is not effectively dealt with, one may possibly find the effects reverberating through to the African continent as well, keeping in mind that African immigrants in Europe are important contributors to the respective Gross Domestic Product’s (GDP) of their home countries – 3.4% in Nigeria and up to 7.6% in Senegal.(8)

Another point to remember is that migrant work is a two way street. Countries such as Germany are dependent on migrant labour for “economic survival,”(9) where between 2006 and 2007 alone, the number of vacancies for engineers was as high as 30% (23,000). It is said that in Switzerland, up to 90% of factory workers are foreigners and that it is this segment of society that assumes the most undesirable jobs, which the natives will not engage in, such as garbage collection and street cleaning.(10)

Addressing the problem

In attempting to address the issue at hand, the first point is that the atrocity perpetrated by Breivik should not be viewed as an isolated event, as the actions of one, lone madman. Viewed in context, the massacre was, rather, the culmination of years of growing intolerance and a steady move towards dangerous, right-wing ideology. Furthermore, the attitude of Breivik is one that is mirrored across the spectrum. His ideas have been echoed not only by a handful of ‘internet geeks’ or ‘skinheads’ but also by regular citizens and people in places of greater responsibility. Italian Member of Parliament, Mario Borghezio, was suspended from his party earlier in 2011 for stating that the ideas put forward by Breivik were “great.”(11) A party colleague of Borghezio’s went further to state that Western identity was under threat, that a European culture of tolerance – note the paradox here – cannot accept what immigration brings in.(12) If the problem of right-wing extremism is to be dealt with, it goes without saying that an acknowledgment of the problem is necessary. Furthermore, to touch on the events of early August 2011 (during which Breivik was declared insane by a panel of psychiatrists), it is important for emphasis not to shift onto Breivik and his disposition in such a way that it overshadows the greater issues at hand. For, as a Norwegian writer explained: “…the paranoia and the crimes of Anders Breivik are his own, but his hatred does not come from a delusional mind. We recognise it as the white man’s hatred that we have known for a century. His acts of terror mirror the views and expressions of a multitude of rightwing extremists. He is not alone in his madness.”(13)

Another sizeable issue is the classification of such extremist activity. Even after Breivik’s massacre and his own assertion that the attack was a concerted effort to rid Norway of a specific part of its society, some have been reluctant to label this particular brand of attack as terrorism. To further illustrate this point, in December 2011, a right-wing extremist in Italy opened fire on African immigrants in Florence, killing two Senegalese men and wounding three others. What was interesting was the tone of certain media reports on the incident and one in particular, which carried the sub-heading: “Far-right sympathiser Gianluca Casseri, 50, kills African migrants before shooting himself dead.”(14) Herein is an indication of how mainstream media in particular is reluctant to use the word “terrorist,”(15) or “extremist” and how this reluctance, in fact, denies the gravity of the situation, which will go on to hamper any chances of greater efforts being made to prevent such attacks in future. The reality of the situation is, however, not lost on the migrant community. At a gathering to protest the killings an African migrant is reported to have said: “Don’t tell me he was crazy, because if he were crazy, he would have killed both blacks and whites.”(16)

Taking into account the strain which immigration does put on European nations, Governments should seek to focus on two key issues: 1) more effective measures to regulate immigration and 2) more effective means of integration. If immigration is handled from the top and an influx (which a state’s infrastructure cannot support) is prevented, this would prevent some of the dangerous tension we’ve witnessed in recent times. Secondly, if integration in Europe is approached differently, the success rate may be much higher than it currently is. Such approach should first and foremost go back to the basic tenets expounded by human rights law, which have been seriously violated with no prospects of reparation. By way of example:

Islamic dress has been prohibited in much of Western Europe.

In early December 2011, a German court ruled that a school was reasonable in prohibiting Muslim students from praying at school.

In June 2011, the Dutch Parliament made a bid to ban the slaughter of halaal and kosher meat (in accordance with Islamic and Jewish traditions respectively).

In 2009, Switzerland imposed the so-called “Minaret ban” on the country’s Muslim population.

Though each incident carried with it some or other rationale, these were all fished out from the same pond, which indicated the blatant nature of discrimination in these countries, and more specifically discrimination with no logical basis.

The issue of integration

While the need for the integration of immigrants into their host countries is recognised, it must be noted that integration cannot be superimposed. Rather, it should be viewed as a continuing process, which involves all sectors of society. Furthermore, integration should not translate into a loss of identity for immigrants. A society, which acts under compulsion and feels that it is being victimised will only react with hostility, defeating efforts at integration, and polarising society at large. Also important to note is that for the successful integration of immigrants to take place, native communities need to be receptive to such communities or, at least, exercise tolerance in dealing with them. Again, it is Government that holds great responsibility in this regard. The way forward, undoubtedly, begins with the education of such populations. The ultimate aim should not be the creation of a homogeneous society, which leaves no room for personal expression and development. In this regard, perhaps it would be wise to shift the main focus away from integration to greater respect for diversity and possibilities of cooperation through cultural, religious and racial lines. In this way, multiculturalism should be re-explored in its renewed context, taking into account the difficulties which European societies did not necessarily have to contend with during the pre-9/11 era.

Moreover, it should be recognised that the citizens of a host country also have a part to play. In recent years, we have seen both sides going to great lengths to provoke the other. One such illustration would be the controversial issue of the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed.(17) The insistence of the European press and public to go forward with publishing such inflammatory matter, in spite of the distress it caused to Muslim populations all over the world, shows a stubbornness which prevails over respect for human rights and the will to create a better, more peaceful society. Examined in-depth, one may conclude that the issue was more about asserting some or other sense of superiority rather than freedom of expression. To be sure that the issue was not really about expression, we may simply look at the way in which the European media and public carefully tread over the issues of the Holocaust (and rightfully so) so as not to be labelled anti-Semitic.(18)

In looking for a progressive model on multiculturalism, Europe would do well to take heed of an African example and the South African example in particular, which also has to deal with the challenges of a rapidly growing immigrant community. South Africa, as many European countries, has a deep history of discrimination, racial hatred, and cultural intolerance. Although there are pressing issues, which South Africa finds itself working through over time, it has done well in sticking to legislation created as safeguards against xenophobia, racial hatred, etc. Unlike Europe, South Africa’s far-right(19) has not been given leeway to fester. Both Government and the media have played active roles in the condemnation of far-right ideologies; sending out a signal that such ideas are simply not acceptable in a growing democracy. Europe’s history of anti-Semitism means that most European nations have solid laws and policies already in place regarding discrimination. This is probably why it is hugely surprising that the continent seems to be drifting back to its dark era of intolerance; the results of which show themselves in the harassment, intimidation, and alienation of immigrant communities and, specifically, African immigrant communities.

In conclusion

Exploring the ideologies favoured by many right-wing parties in Europe, one draws several, unmistakable parallels to Nazi Germany. It was Hitler who maintained that ethnic and linguistic diversity weakened the state and called for a country uniform in nature, which left no room for religious, racial or cultural differences. In Switzerland, a country renowned for neutrality and democracy, a law taken straight out of Nazi Germany was tabled before Parliament. This law, which proposes that the entire family of an immigrant criminal is to be deported in case of an offence, has been likened to the practice of Sippenhaft whereby relatives of criminals were also punished for the deeds of one perpetrator under the Nazi regime.(20) In examining every facet of this pressing issue, we have seen a great lack of Government responsibility. Europe’s march to the far-right and its implications for foreigners and natives alike needs to be addressed without shying away from the potential for disastrous consequences, which have already begun to unravel.

NOTES:
(1) Contact Raeesah Cassim Cachalia through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Conflict and Terrorism Unit ([email protected]).
(2) By way of example: the public is fed the idea of the “oppressed Muslim woman” in need of Western liberation, not giving heed o the fact that in a number of Muslim countries, the numbers of university graduates are predominantly women and that such figures are sometimes higher than those in Western, liberal democracies.
(3) ‘Sarkozy under fire after video shows brutal treatment of immigrants’, The Independent, 3 August 2010, http://www.independent.co.uk.
(4) ‘Swiss Fury at Foreigners Boiling Over’, The Washington Post, 9 October 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com.
(5) ‘Sarkozy under fire after video shows brutal treatment of immigrants’, The Independent, 3 August 2010, http://www.independent.co.uk.(6) ‘Man Injured in Racist Stabbing in Switzerland’, Racism Daily, 26 July 2011, http://racismdaily.com.(7) ‘The headscarf martyr: murder in German court sparks Egyptian fury’, The Guardian, 7 July 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(8) ‘Key facts: Africa to Europe migration’, BBC News, 2 July 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk.
(9) ‘African Migration to Europe’, Council on Foreign Relations, 10 July 2007, http://www.cfr.org.
(10) ‘Switzerland: A Bout of Xenophobia’, Time, http://www.time.com.
(11) ‘Anger as Italian MP Praises Norway Gunman’, Al Jazeera, 5 August 2011, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(12) Ibid.
(13) ‘Anders Breivik’s hatred does not come from a delusional mind’, The Guardian, 30 November 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(14) ‘Florence gunman shoots Senegalese street vendors dead’, The Guardian, 13 December 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(15) Breivik has been instead referred to as “the Norway Gunman”/extremist/radical which gives no heed to the political motivations behind his atrocities.
(15) Ibid.
(17) Peace be upon him.
(18) ‘Thierry Ardisson: A hypocrite’, You Tube, 31 August 2009, http://www.youtube.com.
(19) The notorious “Boeremag” movement, though it does hold a following, is for the most part redundant in South African society today.
(20) ‘Switzerland: Europe’s heart of darkness?’, The Independent, 7 September 2007, http://das-schwarze-schaf.ch.