Racism undermines European democracy

, by Rhiannon Erdal

All the versions of this article: [English] [italiano]

Racism undermines European democracy
Credit: Thisabled, Pixabay.

The ideal of democracy is at the heart of European identity. It is interwoven in the fabric of our shared history and its advancement is our common goal for the future. Today, however, it is being eroded by waves of hate and division. These in turn lead to inequality, marginalisation and discrimination, violating the foundations of democracy: equality, pluralism, and the common good. Racism enshrines hate and divides us, rather than allowing us to remain a whole, a ‘demos’, deconstructing democracy and reconstructing it along the divisive lines of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

The European myth of democracy

Europe as we know it today was largely built on the backs of its colonies, achieving ‘accumulation by dispossession’ by taking resources from its colonies to enrich the European colonists. This was done on the premise that Europe was the cradle of civilisation, and because the global south was considered to be uncivilised, Europeans had a supposed duty (i.e., ‘the white man’s burden’) to intervene in the running and structuring of their economies, lands, and lives. And since the ‘uncivilised’ were considered unable to manage their own resources in a way that Europeans saw fit, they were better off in ‘civilised’ European hands, or pockets.

How does this tie into democracy? Asides from the fact that occupied lands were denied self-determination, the uneven dynamics of power that spurred colonialism were then reproduced through its activities and legacies. These power relations, of the dominant and the dominated, were predicated on the division of people into the categories: ‘us’ versus ‘them’. According to the philosopher Achille Mbembe, this historical demarcation allowed Western democracies to keep violence and disorder abroad and therefore maintain the modern, democratic image of the homeland.

Although these are deeply rooted in history and the geopolitical scene has since shifted in many ways, those power dynamics and the narratives that underpinned them still permeate the structures of our society. Indeed, the contemporary way people of minority backgrounds are often perceived, treated and subsequently marginalised, draws striking resemblance to colonial logic. Therefore, failing to reckon with our colonial pasts means that the instruments that made them possible will continue to enact more violence, and ultimately, stand in the way of the realisation of true democracy.

The contemporary exclusion of the ‘other’

Recent understandings of racism have revealed the true extent of the sheer number of people that it affects, expanding to include anyone who may be seen as ‘different’ on a basis other than their perceived ethnicity. One such example is the racialisation of Muslims. This is manifested in the contemporary rhetoric of the populist right in which Muslims are described as inextricably belonging to a culture that is antithetical to Western democracy. As the English Defence League claimed on their website, “Islam runs counter to all that we hold dear within our British liberal democracy”, reinforcing the idea that Muslims belong to the ‘them’ that cannot be integrated into the demos therefore normalising their discrimination and exclusion.

Hence, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief has argued that: “in a context of intensifying bigotry against all who are different from the preferred norms of the powerful, we must hold accountable those who seek to divide us and reaffirm the equality of all regardless of their religion or belief.” Yet, Islamophobia is becoming more accepted across Western democracies. In the case of France, the country with the greatest population of Muslims in Europe, many coming from ex-French colonies, it has particular potency because of France’s identity as a secular society (and the country of the enlightenment) which may see itself as threatened by the accommodation of religious (and supposedly ‘unenlightened’) groups.

Indeed, Macron has claimed that radical Islamic terrorists attack the country because they are against the French way of life. But, when we look at what Macron and the French government have been focusing on in Islamic communities; their dress, their diets and their praying, it would seem that they are specifically calling out Muslims because they don’t like their way of life, rather than the other way around. Additionally, a recent study found that French Muslims largely identify with the Republic and they seem to trust in its institutions more than the control group. It would therefore seem that efforts to paint normal religious practices (restricted diets, dress) as signs of radicalisation or illiberalism are just part of a political strategy to marginalise a religious community.

As for the argument that radical Islamic terrorists target the country because they hate democracy (they are, after all the perpetually illiberal other) emerging studies show that the leading causes of radicalisation are marginalisation and exclusion; “extreme pro-group behaviour seems to intensify after social exclusion”. So rather than rejecting Muslims on the basis of their perceived inability to assimilate, which perpetuates hostility towards certain groups, it would behove us to fulfil the promises of equality and an indivisible demos that must be maintained for a successful democracy.

Moving forward

Next year’s French presidential election threatens to exacerbate the situation. It is predicted that the competition will be close between Macron and Le Pen, but that Le Pen will ultimately come out as the victor. In anticipation, Macron has been appropriating extreme right narratives and practices in order to cater to the electorate who seem to be drifting further into populism. France is one example of the contemporary phenomenon of the extreme right playing kingmaker, dictating the rules of the game across Europe - a trajectory that has been historical in the making.

But the exclusionary and discriminatory outcomes of this don’t seem immediately applicable to the majority, by definition. Yet, there has been a perceptible shift closer to authoritarianism, shrouded in narratives of security and sovereignty which isn’t just on the part of the authorities: another study shows how prejudice for outer groups correlates to a lower valuing of democracy. Democracy requires us to respect each other’s differences in order to function, thus, people who hold prejudices are likely to want to throw the baby out with the bath water. But, there are also those who don’t necessarily identify as racist, but feel left behind by globalisation and neoliberalism and therefore take issue with systems that purport to stretch themselves in order to help everyone, the so called ‘left behind white working class’.

Is there reason for hope? Despite it all, it would seem so. The global cry against racism has never been so loud, so connected: today it is echoing in the assemblies of national and international political bodies, including in the walls of the EU. The public murder of George Floyd coupled with the inequalities exacerbated and laid bare by Covid-19 have shaken our democracies to their cores. What we do now in response to these historic injustices will reveal what kind of world and what kind of political ecosystem we want to live in. As the etymology of the term ‘crisis’ shows us: it truly is decision time.

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