Rasmus Paludan, a politician in Sweden who has failed to gather enough signatures to run in parliamentary elections in September, has gained notoriety by visiting Muslim neighborhoods during Ramadan to burn copies of the Qur’an.
Of course, such despicable behavior generated a backlash, and a violent one. A politician trying to make a name for himself is one thing, but the deeper question we should be asking ourselves is where the far right wants to take Europe.
Freedom of expression is sacred to Europeans, but this freedom has been abused to create polarization and hate speech. Police in Malmo, Sweden’s third-largest city, have filed a case against Paludan for incitement.
The far right thrives on Islamic fundamentalism by hyping up the fear of “the other” — who comes from Africa or the Middle East, looks different, and has different habits and a different faith. They portray “the other” as athreat to Europe’s culture. They say Islam is incompatible with the European way of life and that Muslim immigrants will change the face of their countries, destroy their identity and impose an alien culture. A threat is a great tool to rally people, and the far right have used it skillfully.
However, Europe did not open its doors to migrants out of charity, but rather out of necessity. Its population is aging, and Europe needs a young workforce. Those who view these newcomers as intruders seem to forget the economic value of immigration.
Now, however, immigration is an issue because immigrants are starting to organize; they want to integrate, not to assimilate, and they are no longer as invisible as the far right wants them to be. The straightforward argument of politicians such as the French hard-liner Eric Zemmour is that migrants must transform into Europeans and forget their backgrounds: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Zemmour has totally embraced the supposedly “French” way of life and rejected his own background as the offspring of Algerian immigrants, and he believes all migrants must do the same in order to be accepted. But in liberal democracies, a “way of living” cannot be imposed. The far right have not yet perpetrated the excesses of Adolf Hitler, but they are laying the foundation for a new wave of fascist thinking. Where will it lead?
We need an in-depth discussion about what it means to be European
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
During last week’s French presidential election debate, incumbent Emmanuel Macron warned his right-wing challenger Marine Le Pen that if she delivered on her promise of banning the Muslim headscarf she woulddrive the country into civil war. Would she have police in the streets to arrest women who wore a veil, he asked? Her answer was vague, leaving us guessing what kind of social policies she would impose. Le Pen spoke of defending everything that made the soul of France — but what does that mean, and who decides what it is? Is it about the decision whether to wear a hijab, or the rights of individuals to freedom and dignity?
Behind the slogans of the far right there is no real substance. Do Le Pen and her supporters want to run Chinese-style “re-education” camps to teach immigrants how to become “truly” French? Will those who cannot be molded be kicked out and sent back to their country of origin? What would this make of France? What would it make of Sweden if the likes of Paludan ever gained a majority in parliament?
It is valid to ask whether Europe is reliving the horrors of antisemitism, but this time with a new victim.Europeans should think twice and examine the far right. It is not immigrants, but far-right extremists who are the real threat to the European way of living and the liberal order that is the foundation of Western societies.
To make this point clear, we need an in-depth discussion about what it means to be European. A good starting point would be the concept of the European Muslim introduced into public discourse by Afzal Khan — who came to the UK from Pakistan at the age of 11, became the first Muslim Lord Mayor of Manchester, served in the European Parliament, was honored by Queen Elizabeth for his race relations work, and is now a British MP. Prominent public figures such as Khan are the key because they can streamline the relationship between Muslim communities and larger European societies, a reconciliation that would deliver a knockout blow to the far right once and for all.
• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.