The Specter of Xenophobia Stalks Europe

Radical Nationalism, Not Islam, Is Continent's Biggest Threat

Immigration Instigation: European politicians have tried to link Muslim immigrants to terrorism while ignoring their own xenophobia.
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Immigration Instigation: European politicians have tried to link Muslim immigrants to terrorism while ignoring their own xenophobia.

By Robert Zaretsky

Published June 20, 2013, issue of June 21, 2013.
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Clearly, a specter haunts Europe — and it isn’t the hammer and sickle of communism. But neither is it the crescent and star of Islam. Instead, it is the feverish specter spawned in the European imagination by brutal but isolated acts of Islamist extremism. Earlier this year, a poll taken by Le Monde revealed that an astonishing 74% of French citizens agreed that Islam was an “intolerant” religion incompatible with republican values. This more or less mirrors, according to the mass daily Bild Am Sonntag, the percentage of Germans who agree with Sarrazin’s view of their fellow Turks. And while there is no German equivalent to France’s xenophobic National Front, which won nearly 20% of the vote in last year’s presidential election, German polls revealed that nearly 20% of respondents would vote for a political movement led by Sarrazin.

The traditional political parties in both Germany and France have largely failed to respond to this growing unease. Or, more accurately, they have responded either demagogically, confusedly or both. During last year’s presidential election, Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to chip away at the National Front electorate by playing the immigrant card. His successor as head of the neo-Gaullist Union for a Popular Movement, Jean-François Copé, has adopted his anti-Muslim playbook (and, more recently, extended it to homosexuals). At the same time, the Socialists under François Hollande have been, in political commentator Serge Federbusch’s phrase, “enfumer” or blowing smoke to disguise their confusion. Thus, at the very same moment the government announces its plans to improve the situation of the Roma, the public learns that the police have demolished yet another Roma camp.

The political situation in Germany is no less confused. The Socialists, which first sought to expel Sarrazin from the party, were checked by the popular outcry on the economist’s behalf. As for the Christian Democrats, while Angela Merkel publicly expressed her disgust with Sarrazin’s racialist claims, other party members acknowledged that a chasm divided the political elite from most Germans. In a carefully phrased sentence, one regional leader, Peter Hauk, declared: “While I do not share some of Sarrazin’s views, he does address issues that our citizens are concerned about.”

This is the heart of the political problem in both countries: Mainstream parties must acknowledge the legitimate economic and social concerns of their electorates without pandering to their prejudices or playing on their fears. Inevitably, there are German Turks and French Muslims who reject the secular and republican values of their nations. But they are the few: The great majority of Muslims on both sides of the Rhine have shown their commitment to these very same values. The danger comes not just from the few Muslim extremists, but also from those who pretend to defend the nation against them.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and is the author of the forthcoming “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning” (Harvard University Press).


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