Day after day, Europe is turning into a sick continent. Specters of racism and xenophobia, anti-immigration sentiments and a hatred for Islam are rising up and threatening to take over mainstream politics.
Signals coming from France (Marine Le Pen), Netherlands (Geert Wilders), Finland (True Finns Party) and Sweden (Swedish Democrats Party) are adding to fears of a déjà vu of the 1930s is on our doorstep. Discreet or open racism is on the march, with the likes of Geert Wilders calling for a ban of the Quran or Thilo Sarrazin, a former member of the board of Deutsche Bundesbank, spreading nonsensical claims about the genes of the Muslims and conveying hatred.
The far right is openly threatening the European project.
The worst part is, as Timothy Garton Ash recently wrote in the Guardian, “In the Netherlands, as elsewhere in Europe, centre-right parties have been trying to win back voters who have turned to such anti-foreigner populists by adopting slightly toned-down versions of their rhetoric and policies.”
A picture of the European Union in 2011 is one where unifying “European values” have stepped aside for a dangerous discourse on divisive “European identity.” It has been taking over as a dominating attitude feeding on religious and cultural fault lines, despite the foundations of the EU being based on values stated clearly in the European Convention on Human Rights.
This takes place as the concept of diversity suppresses the concept of freedom. In many corners of Europe parallel societies developed and groups continued to live without a fruitful contact with each other, all in the name of protecting diversity. But, it also led to a neglect of basic human rights. Mental barriers rose between the various groups and paved the way for growing intolerance among the locals -- who were increasingly indifferent to participation in democratic debate, financial crisis, unemployment, political apathy, etc, -- that is, mainly against people who believe in Islam.
As traditional, mainstream parties lose control of the direction of discourse, the situation will inevitably threaten the ideals of the EU. This has to be diverted onto a healthy course by engaging the mass-media, churches, NGOs, trade unions and schools.
In this context, a well-prepared report comes as a rescue: “Living together: Combining diversity and freedom in 21st century Europe,” a report of the Group of Eminent Persons of the Council of Europe, points out a set of risks and their urgency, such as “a possible clash between religious freedom and freedom of expression.” The report encourages Europeans to call for equal freedoms under a single legal system. It speaks of a “muscular liberalism” and broadening the base of the “democratic centerfield.”
Garton Ash, one of the signatories of the study (its members include prominent libertarian Europeans such as Joschka Fischer, Emma Bonino, Danuta Hübner, Ayşe Kadıoğlu, Javier Solana, Edward Mortimer, etc.) wrote: “Our motto is ‘minimize compulsion, maximize persuasion.’ Mainstream politicians, intellectuals, journalists, businesspeople, sports heroes -- all should mobilize to convince the public that so long as people abide by the ground rules of a free society, they have as much right to be full and equal citizens as anyone else, whether they be Muslim, Christian, atheist or Zoroastrian. And that we can make this work.”
“Living Together” is a text which must be spread and studied carefully, since it issues a clear SOS about the state of things. It contains a high number of lucid recommendations for action in order to end discrimination, intolerance, obeying laws, combating racism, etc.
But there is more to help the sick continent. Can the Arab awakening be a guiding force to change European attitudes to Islam? Clearly, it can. I was part of an initial meeting in Rome last week where a core group of academics and media figures from various European countries as well as from the Middle East/ Maghreb gathered to outline a manifesto which says: “In light of the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, part of a broad struggle for freedom and dignity, Europeans urgently need to rethink their attitudes. The Arab world and Islam are not immutable essences but equally open to such influences as Europeans and their various faiths have been. These events in North Africa and the Middle East will have a profound and long-lasting impact on Europe -- whether in terms of politics, security, economics, migration or cultural and religious relations. Rather than fearing such changes Europeans should welcome them as a great reinvigorating democratic challenge. In addition they provide an opportunity to examine afresh relations with Muslim communities in Europe, which are also being deeply affected.”
The Rome Group will now engage in various actions through media and academic studies, to fight continental fear and insecurity. The path is a long one, but the way things deteriorate, it is the one that must be taken.