LETTER FROM ISLAMOPHOBISTAN (opinion)
By Pepe Escobar, author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).
22/10/2010- Last Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stunned the world by declaring, in front of young members of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), that multiculturalism - or multikulti, as it is known in Germany - was dead. The day before, I was in the Lufthansa lounge at Frankfurt airport having a parallel discussion with a group of German businessmen; they had practically handed me down a news alert on what Merkel would soon make public. Not accidentally, the best seller at all airport kiosks was the Islamophobia pamphlet published by a former Bundesbank higher-up, Thilo Sarrazin, who paints Muslim immigrants at best as lazy, welfare cheats and fornicating sub-intelligent beings. Sarrazin sees Muslims as an existential threat to Germany on a par to hardcore Zionists seeing Iran as an existential threat to Israel. By that time, after three weeks roving from northern Italy to southern Sweden via Copenhagen, I had no doubts; I was deep inside Islamophobistan - that Europe-wide arc where Islamophobia is being gleefully practiced as an electoral business of fear.
Arbeit macht frei
Among other things, Merkel also said that immigration was prejudicial to the German economy - an assertion which in itself is ridiculous; to fight its severe labor shortages over the past decades the country has successively resorted to gastarbeiter (guestworkers) from Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey and the former Yugoslavia. But most of all it's those ominous, resurrection shades of a dominatrix German culture which may have sent a chill through many a European spine. What's more ominous, in fact, is that Merkel's words mirror an European-wide response to immigration. Multikulti was the concept found in the 1980s to accommodate a wave of migrants Germany never wanted to really gobble up - not with all the trouble of assimilating their culture, their languages and their religion. The heart of the multikulti bargain was that an immigrant was allowed to be attached to his native culture, but he had to pledge loyalty to the German state.
The problem is that the ploy basically led to permanent alienation of large swathes of immigrants. And a further problem is that the European definition of a nation is through nationality. So why is this ballistic "return of the repressed", the ever-so-touchy question of national identity in Germany, exploding now? First of all, because of those masses of Muslim workers, mostly Turkish. In Germany it seems to have coalesced an explosive amalgam of Turkey and Islam - which includes everything from jihadi terror to Turkey's application to join the European Union (EU). All major polls agree that a majority of Germans is not exactly fond of 4 million resident Muslims (5% of the overall population). 35% believe the nation is "swamped by foreigners" and 10% want the return of a Fuhrer with an "iron hand". In Germany there are scores of neo-Nazi groups with minimal public impact; on the other hand the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NDP) has already reached 5% of the votes in Thuringia.
Then there's the deep crisis of the EU itself. If the German government attacks multikulti, it is at the same time affirming the primacy of German national identity. And that identity is certainly not subordinated to the notion of an overarching European identity. Mein Gott; in a nutshell the EU dream is in deep, deep trouble. If Germany cannot import qualified workers - Merkel said the country needs at least 400,000 high-tech specialists - it may certainly export everything from its production lines to information technology support. But what if these much-needed new high-tech workers came from Russia? And Russia started to receive even more German investment? Now that is a completely different approach to the EU. And as the whole of Europe is now immersed in a severe cultural clash - real or imagined - within the EU borders, no wonder the proclaimed death of multikulti, beyond Merkel's electoral aims, is bound to have immense geopolitical and geoeconomic repercussions.
The new Inquisition
Austrian-American psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich, in his Mass Psychology of Fascism, stressed that racial theory is not a creation of fascism. On the contrary; fascism is a creation of racial hatred and its politically organized expression. The New (anti-Islam) Inquisition did not hit Europe immediately after 9/11; it has reached critical mass only today. The popular political sport in Europe today is not to watch Real Madrid and AC Milan playing in the Champions Football League; it is to watch populists invoking Islam - depicted as an "ideology that opposes everything that matters to us" - to crystallize all manner of phobias and fears of European citizens. Fear of Islamization, fear of the burqa - no distraction could be as convenient for people to forget the dire, unending economic crisis that has produced catastrophic unemployment rates all across Europe.
This may be part of a deep cultural and psychological crisis within Europe, with not a shred of a real political alternative; but few progressive minds are alert to the fact that this turbo-charging of racism and xenophobia is also a consequence of the overall crisis of neo-liberalism. Mad against foreigners? Mad against politicians? That's soooo last century. The new groove is mad against Islam. It does not matter that immigration to Europe has been in decline for years; still "they" have to become like "us". An aging, fearful, reactionary Europe is terrified that The Other, issued from younger or more dynamic regions of the world, is catching up. Asia - not Europe - is the future. A melancholic weekend in a tourist/trash-infested Venice turned into a replica of its Las Vegas mirror provided me the graphic illustration; I did feel like Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice - and so must feel countless Europeans.
As much as Sweden invented modern social democracy and the best performing welfare state of the latter part of the 20th century, it was hardly surprising that the extreme right, the Sverigedemokraterna (SD, as in Swedish Democrats) first entered parliament last September 19, with 5.7% of the votes. The SD, considered by many as "racist and neo-Nazi", is led by Jimmie Akesson, 31, the new young darling of the European extreme right alongside his elder Dutch counterpart Geert Wilders. Akesson stresses that Islam/Muslim immigration is the biggest foreign threat to Sweden since Adolf Hitler. (Wilders for his part was recently invited to Berlin by former CDU member Rene Stadtkewitz, who founded a new party, Die Freiheit ("Freedom"), named after Wilders' own Freedom Party; and he was also recently invited to New York to speak against the proposed Islamic Center in Manhattan near Ground Zero).
This video shows how the SD went no holds barred to get their votes (as it was explained to me, the video was banned, and later one private TV station would air it, but only with the video completely blurred out). No one needs to speak Swedish to understand an elderly lady being overrun to get state benefits by a horde of burqa-clad women. There's hardly a way to evade a direct link between the historically very low score of the Swedish social democrats and the also historic rise of the extreme right. For American, Asian, Middle Eastern observers this may sound utterly suicidal; how could the Swedes possibly reject an old-school welfare state that assures to everyone the Holy Trinity of health, education and a good pension? So if the ultra-civil Swedes were not rejecting their model, what was it? Maybe the answer is in a book first published in Italy in 2008 by Italian linguist and essayist Raffaele Simone, whose subtitle literally translates as "Why the West is not leaning to the Left".
In the extremely well-argued book, Simone proves that the European Left is intellectually dead; it simply has not understood the drive of hardcore capitalism (which he defines as "arch-capitalism", or "the political and economic manifestation of the New Right"); it has not understood the correlated primacy of individualism and consumerism; and it has refused to discuss the phenomenon of mass immigration. From France to Denmark, from Italy to Sweden, it's easy to see how savvy populists skillfully deploy those European values of free speech, feminism and secularism - oversimplifying issues to the point that their take seems logical - as ammunition against mosques, minarets, headscarves and, of course, "sub-intelligent beings". And then there are local realities. The majority of those voting SD were protesting against overwhelmingly Muslim immigrants, a great deal of them jobless, who come to Sweden, get fat government benefits and remain idle. Sweden is nowhere as tough on immigration as Denmark, Norway or Holland.
In Malmo, a mere 20-minute train ride via the stunning Oresund bridge from Copenhagen, about 80,000 (60,000 of them Muslims) of the overall population of 300,000 are immigrants. There are certified losers in Malmo's carefully calibrated transition from old industrial city to a post-mod consumer haven; the old, the poor, and most of all, immigrants. So Sweden seems to have posed the European-wide question of the necessity for the European welfare state to concentrate less on health care and pensions and more on "including" immigrants. But is this really the real question?
Shoot the minaret
Talk about an European summer of hate - from minarets banned in Switzerland to burqas banned in Belgium. The populist extreme right has been part of coalition governments in Italy and Switzerland for many years now. And they are represented in the parliaments of Austria, Denmark, Norway and Finland. The National Front in France had 9% of the vote in last spring's French regional elections. But now everywhere it feels like a Lamborghini let loose. Geert Wilders' Freedom party in Holland has turbo-charged Islamophobia to the point of almost paralyzing Dutch governance. The elegant, eloquent, peroxide-blonde populist Wilders wants to ban the Koran - which he has compared to Hitler's Mein Kampf - and impose a "headscarf tax" (how come no government thought about this in the Middle East or in Pakistan?)
French President Nicolas Sarkozy - now facing his own, self-provoked May '68 remix in the streets over his pension reform - tried to seduce (once again) the National Front by expelling planeloads of Romanian gypsies. Austrian extreme right stalwart Heinz-Christian Strache, running for mayor of Vienna less than two weeks ago, took no less than 27% of the vote. And Barbara Rosenkranz, who insists anti-Nazi laws should be abolished, came second in Austria's presidential race. The Islamophobic, anti-immigrant Northern League of Umberto Bossi in Italy is part of the government in Rome and not accidentally the country's fastest-growing party, now controlling the ultra-wealthy provinces of Veneto and Piemonte. During the latest election campaign, La Lega supporters handed out bars of soap to be used "after touching an immigrant".
In Spain, the movement Preventive Reconquista is gaining ground - a perhaps George W Bush-inspired preventive war against the 1 million Muslim immigrants and their allegedly "evil" plans to re-attach Spain to Islam. A "headscarf controversy" already erupted in Madrid last April. Local town councils have been prohibiting the burqa and niqab - French-style (although a national ban was only narrowly defeated in the Spanish Congress last July). It comes as no surprise that the extreme right is more turbocharged than ever in scores of European post-industrial cities which used to be center-left; that's certainly the case of Wilders in Rotterdam, Le Pen in Marseille, Strache in Vienna and Akesson in Malmo. Simone's assessment is being proven right.
And what makes these populists even more dangerous is their cross-pollination. Austria's Freedom Party copied a game from the Swiss People's Party in which players shoot at minarets popping up in their The Sound of Music-like landscape (with the added Austrian bonus of shooting at the muezzins as well). The SD learned a lot from Wilders as well as the Danish People's Party and its chairwoman, Pia Kjaersgaard. They are all copying Wilders' trademark tactic of pitting immigrants against old pensioners - Islamophobia mixed with the widespread fear of the welfare state being plundered by foreigners.
In France, the revamped National Front - targeting Islamophobia - may be even more dangerous, now led by non-dogmatic, "intellectual", business suit-wearing Marine Le Pen, the daughter of Jean Marie, the party's founder; Marine wants to conquer the political center, to the point where Sarkozy simply won't be able to win anything without her. This cross-pollination might even lead to an European-wide alliance, also including the US and Canada; an Atlanticist Islamophobistan. In fact that's Wilders' dream; the outfit is actually called International Freedom Alliance and was launched last July - to "defend freedom" and "stop Islam". Marine Le Pen is not so hot about it - her preferential agenda is to conquer power in France. The US is also a dodgy proposition - after all Muslims make up only 1% of the US population, leading to the surrealist American phenomenon of Islamophobia without Muslims. Anyway it's troubling that virtually 50% of Americans say they have a negative impression of Islam. Allah needs a good PR firm, fast.
So what to do? We are smack in the middle of the second globalization. The first globalization took place between 1890 and 1914. It's a back to the future scenario mixed with a return of the living dead; then as now the acceleration of capital transfer, migrations and transportation is generating regression - misguided nationalism, xenophobia, racism, and a New Inquisition. At a recent meeting of writers and journalists organized by the magazine Internazionale in Ferrara, in Emilia - one of Italy's and Europe's wealthiest provinces - arguably the most crucial debate was titled "Islam; a specter hovers around Europe". The key speakers were Tariq Ramadan, professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford and a real academic rock star in Europe, and Olivier Roy, professor at the European University Institute in Florence and one of Europe's top authorities on Islam and jihad. It's fair to say both have provided a road map for sensible citizens to follow through.
Asked about the reasons for the widespread fear of the Muslim immigrant, Ramadan noted that this "perception harks back to the construction of the European project". These immigrants were supposed to have come to Europe just to work. "But now we have immigrants of second, third and fourth generation, they leave their ghetto, they are more visible, they feel at ease to express themselves, and their voices are heard." That causes a tremendous conflict with their overall perception. Ramadan insists "European Muslims have it very clear in their minds the European concept of freedom of expression." And he is adamant; "Integration is a thing of the past; we are already integrated" (but try convincing Angela Merkel about it, or the citizens of Malmo for that matter).
Ramadan's key point is that Europeans - and Americans as well - should "make a clear distinction about the instrumentalization of these fears by movements and parties, derived from ignorance and fear itself. We should go beyond the theme of integration and stress common values. There is a consensus now in Europe that immigrants from second and third generation are more visible, in the cultural, political and sporting spheres. It's passivity facing instrumentalization that could become a tremendous risk for all European citizens."
Roy attacks the impasse from a different perspective. For him, "now there's a sort of fake consensus. Our consensus on Islam is related to the fact that we Europeans don't agree on what we are. Now in most European parliaments the left and right vote together to forbid the burqa, the construction of mosques ... Left and right seem to be in agreement against Islam, but for different motives. There's a disconnect between a religious marker and everyday life. What is religion? And what is culture? We should say religion is religion, and citizenship is citizenship. That's how it works in Europe. City of Man and City of God. Muslims in Europe have adopted and are adopting the European model of separation between Church and State."
Roy defines "two aspects about the fear of Islamization; immigration and Islamization. For most of public opinion, they are synonyms, but that's not true. In France, for the second and third generations, there is everything, Muslims who pray all the time, some that pray sometimes, those who have no practice but say they're Muslims, Europeans converting to Islam, Muslims converting to Catholicism ... Everything depends on the political culture of the country. Freedom of religion in Europe is not a consequence of human rights. It was defined as a compromise after centuries of religious wars. But this compromise - in each European country - is now in crisis. For two reasons. One, the nation-State is in crisis. Because of globalization, European integration, national compromises overrun by supra-national laws. And now the freedom of religious practice is an individual right. That's something entirely new in European political culture."
Not sure that would be enough to convince Wilders and Akesson. They are not for inclusion; they're for exclusion - and more than ever they know the electoral business of fear sells. The New Inquisition will go on no matter what (and it will go out of control if one of those ghostly al-Qaedas, from Iraq, from the Maghreb, from the Horn of Africa, from wherever, crashes a jet on the Eiffel Tower). With that bleak prospect in mind, I left Islamophobistan the best way I could - boarding a flight to a non-hate, non-fearful, certainly hopeful, boundless dynamic and religious war-free part of the world: South America.
© The Asia Times