Throughout Europe and the West in general, populist or extreme rightwing parties are thriving. From election to election they have steadily gained ground by capitalizing on fear, insecurity and, above all, on the absence of a clear political stance by their opponents. While all extreme rightwing parties, with their xenophobic, racist, with fascist programs, are populist, the extreme right cannot claim all populist movements. In several cases, boundaries are blurred. But in their quest for power, their main objective is to create fear and a sense of insecurity, which they then exploit by targeting a single culprit as the cause of all social, political and economic ills. Broadly, populist movements share similar features:
-* a. They promote a policy of “popular sentiment” (fear, insecurity, doubts), one that plays primarily to the emotions;
-* b. They present the causes of problems in a simplified and simplistic way to make them appear immediately clear to the man in the street;
-* c. They identify a culprit (the foreigner, the other, the immigrant or anyone who is perceived as such) that expresses an emotional consensus;
-* d. They present the nation, and the populist movement itself when it is attacked, as a victim of the designated culprit, the other, the foreigner, the bogeyman and more broadly speaking, anyone who opposes its positions.
Emotional politics, hyper-simplification, designation of an identifiable culprit and fuelling the sense of victimhood are the four features of contemporary populist movements, many of which are progressing rapidly. Add to them blind nationalism, hatred of the other, national and racial preferences, and we get the policies of the extreme right.
We must, as a matter or urgency, identify and assess the danger of these policies, and not simply enumerate or describe the parties and their leaders. In Europe, North America and Australia, we now see so-called traditional parties, from both left or right, attacking other parties or movements by labelling them “extreme rightwing” without formulating clear positions to oppose their policies. But today we are often witness to precisely the opposite (which is deeply troubling for the future of the Western societies in which we live): some political parties or political trends—which boast about how far they are from extremism—are constantly demonizing “the parties of the extreme right” while in fact they legitimize their populist policies, as if these policies were not dangerous in themselves, and not because they reflect “fascist deviations”!
Considering the absence of vision and political courage of their opponents, the populist parties are indeed thriving: the sense of insecurity is gaining ground; the answers heard most often are the most simplistic. The media is trapped in a vicious circle. By reporting on insecurity, focusing on news items that seem designed to capture public attention (and increase audience ratings), and reporting on controversial populist ideas (which are designed, with the use of striking posters and slogans, to provoke), the media publicizes their positions and provides them with exposure like no other, ensuring the widest possible public diffusion. Moreover elections and referendums are held in quick succession: all political time is short term; politicians must speak quickly and simply and target people’s fears more than their intelligence.
The phenomenon is spreading; we have entered dangerous times. The populist parties are targeting foreigners, immigrants, and, cutting across national boundaries, “Muslims” and their visibility (after two, three, four or even five generations Muslims are and remain “other”, silent and dangerous fifth columnists whose innocent “victim” is the West itself). But today, what do we hear from the traditional parties and the political leaders that are supposed to be the defenders of pluralism, human rights and tolerance?! Too often, the recipe is one of empty speeches, intellectual contortions, and even guilty and complacent duplicity. These are half-hearted answers, as Jürgen Habermas lamented recently in a New York Times article on the recent German and European controversies.
During the Swiss referendum against the construction of minarets initiated by the populist Union Démocratique Du Centre/Schweizerische Volkspartei (UDC/SVP), curious political positions seemed to be the rule. Almost all the Swiss parties had opposed the initiative banning minarets and yet 57% of Swiss supported it (to the surprise of the UDC itself). But if we analyze the arguments of the UDC/SVP’s opponents, we notice that their pronouncements were neither clear nor reassuring. As a participant in numerous debates (universities, political meetings, etc.) I noticed that each time an opponent of the UDC/SVP (whether Socialist, Radical, Christian-Democrat, Liberal, Labour, etc.) was speaking, his or her first sentence (a complex one, containing two propositions) denounced the intolerable position of the UDC/SVP before adding that she/he would not refrain from the required criticism and questions concerning Islam, “Sharia law”, violence, women’s rights, homosexuality, the “veil”, the burqa and so on. This positioning reflected caution as much as political calculation: it accepted and perpetuated the confusion between inalienable principles that must apply equally to all (and that we must have the courage to defend no matter what, even against popular sentiment) and a list of questions, always the same, calculated to nurture fear (some of them may well be legitimate and must raised with some Muslims given that most western Muslims are law abiding and are increasingly becoming ordinary citizens). It was easy for the populist party representative to react to these contortions with a simple sentence, a single proposition. His clear stance about the-Muslims-who-are-threatening-us, by being simplistic about the causes, by speaking directly to emotions without being hindered by nuances, inevitably gained broad support.
In the United States, in Australia, in The Netherlands or in France, we are witnessing the same process. The outrageous comments of Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, have contributed to demonizing her party while at the same time, its theses have insidiously made their way into the political mainstream. “The ‘Islamization’ of which the West is the ‘victim’ must be stopped” was the slogan chanted by the organizers of a conference in Paris organized by Riposte Laïque, a racist network (and other populist and extremist movements) that invited UDC/SVP spokesman Oskar Freysinger, who played a starring role.
It would be a mistake to expect politicians, intellectuals and journalists whose understanding of Islam is far from clear to speak out against these “dangerous views.” Invoking their struggle against “fundamentalism” or “Islamism”, people like Caroline Fourest or Bernard-Henri Levy (Paul Berman and Daniel Pipes in the States or Douglas Murray and Melanie Philips in the UK) spare no praise for the “good Islam” of Ayaan Hirsi Ali (a populist and atheist from Holland, now employed by the American neoconservative lobby who states bluntly that Islam itself is the problem) or of Taslima Nasreen, a fiercely anti-religious atheist who asserts that building mosques destroys the landscape, not to mention the freedom of others. By demonizing the extremes these intellectuals disguise themselves as progressives. But even as they protest against populist and/or extreme rightwing views they encourage and strengthen them. We could give endless examples, from the United States to Australia: thanks to its simplistic clarity populism is spreading almost unopposed. Political parties and intellectuals are obsessed with the next election, colonized by fear, and lacking in courage; their political agendas, whether on the national or international level, are anything but straightforward.
When Thilo Sarrazin, a member of the social-democrat party (SPD), states that Muslims in Germany are making the country ”more and more stupid” or when Geert Wilders, in the Netherlands, compares the Qur’an to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, they touch off political and media controversy and attract publicity. But their critics are barely audible and, above all, ambiguous. They may criticize the excessiveness of the conclusion but they validate the reasoning that leads to it. Populism is a double winner, by setting the framework and the terms of political debate for all other parties. Their views are increasingly seen as commonplace. At the same time, “mainstream” politicians overlook the principles of justice and equality, are obsessed with popular recognition and display a disturbing lack of vision and courage. The success of the neoconservatives in the United States, in their campaign against the “islamization of America”, and as they label President Barack Obama an “Arab” and a “crypto-Muslim”, is part of the same dynamic: their frightening simplicity is gaining the upper hand over the cautiousness and the contradictions of their opponents.
These are indeed dangerous times. The drift toward racism that afflicted Europe in the thirties and forties, and specifically in the European countries that have experienced immigration in recent years, is clear for all to see. Islam has today become the expression of a barely tolerable “difference;” Muslims have become the symbol of an “other” that can barely be integrated. In times of crisis “difference” and “the other” become the two chief targets of populists and extremists of all stripes. We will not be able to resist this toxic atmosphere and the spread of the political trends that flourish in it with wishful thinking or isolated reactions to their excesses. It is essential to have a clear stance: what values are we defending? What are the inalienable principles? Is Islam a German, British, French, European, American, or Western religion? Who has an interest, nationally and internationally, in exacerbating the clash of perceptions, fear and hatred? What are the objective alliances taking shape before our eyes, alliances that must be denounced? More generally, are we going to insist unequivocally on dignified treatment of immigrants whom we need in the West but who are criminalized in order to fulfil the security needs of a population all too thirsty for bogeymen and “culprits”?
These are questions we must ask with determination and courage, as far from populist manipulations as those raised by the very opponents who oppose while adopting a highly calculated opportunism or fearful concern about their political future. Where have the courageous politicians gone? Have committed intellectuals and resisters disappeared? Where are the journalists that oppose appeals to the emotions and oversimplification? Habermas is right: the rise of a new racism combined with the discrediting of the political class presents a grave danger for Europe and the West. Thought, politics, the sense of human dignity and universally shared values must be given new credibility. Political thought, vision and programs must abandon their cowardly and intellectually dishonest second propositions for audacious proposals; they must dare to swim against the current when that current leads to an acceptance of populism, and to justifying racism as the norm. In minds colonized by personal ambition, partisan interests or collective fears, conscience can never find a home: one simple sentence; one single proposition.