Watch out for xenophobia

The philosopher George Santayana’s warning, that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, is applicable to one of the most repugnant motifs of history: xenophobia. Its rise lurks in the existential shadows of these times. To not take it seriously would be to invite its recurrence and invite the continuing deterioration of the human condition.

Xenophobia is an attitude of aversion or hostility to, disdain for, or fear of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers. In its least offensive versions, xenophobia makes people turn their faces away from those they consider to be “others”. Thus, they would switch television channels should their favourite broadcaster be showing a documentary on starvation in sub-Saharan Africa. They are not interested in the fate of strangers from the “dark continent”. In its most toxic manifestations, xenophobia displays a violent attitude to the presence of foreigners in one’s society.

Thus, Germany witnessed a spate of violence against refugees in 2014 and 2015 that included right-wing demonstrations, assault, arson attacks, and attacks on refugee housing such as the spraying of swastika graffiti. According to Deutsche Welle, the German public broadcaster, about 1.1 million refugees fleeing conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa reached Germany in 2015. Public opinion was initially welcoming, but changed after reports of sexual assault by migrants in Cologne and other German cities on New Year’s Eve 2016. While the acts of sexual assault were reprehensible, such violence was not the preserve of foreigners. Yet, the attacks were cast xenophobically as refugee ingrates preying on German females in spite of the protection that (male) German society had provided them. Gender combined with xenophobia to victimise all males of Middle Eastern and African origin although only a handful of more than a million refugees had molested German women. (It is interesting to ask: Would the German right have been able to capitalise on the sexual assault incidents had the victims, too, been from the Middle East and Africa? Obviously not. Race came into play, compounding gender in turn.)

It might be argued that the German right’s response was abhorrent but was an “emergency” reflex related to the arrival of so many refugees so closely together. Perhaps the degree of its response was, but not its logic. Neo-Nazis possess a fundamental, biological distaste of “others”, a trait manifested in the Nazi extermination of six million Jews in the Holocaust. What is different now is that there is no Hitler and his Third Reich to orchestrate genocide on that scale. What is the same now is that there are xenophobes who wish to recreate Hitler’s world. Except that they cannot. But what if they could?

The Italian novelist and essayist Umberto Eco provides an answer in his book, How to Spot a Fascist. Having once been a devotee of the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, Eco came of intellectual age when he turned away from the accursed ideology to discover the meaning of freedom and democracy. He writes: “If we think of the totalitarian governments that dominated Europe before the Second World War, we can easily say that they are unlikely to return in the same form in different historical circumstances… Nonetheless, even though political regimes can be overturned, and ideologies criticised and delegitimised, behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a series of cultural habits, a nebula of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives. Is there then another ghost wandering through Europe (not to mention other parts of the world)?” Eco calls this ghost Ur-Fascism (original or primitive Fascism). Ur-Fascism and Ur-Nazism are very much in evidence in Europe, including Germany. In January this year, according to the BBC, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz voiced concerns over the rise of far-right extremism as his country marked Holocaust Memorial Day. He warned of “neo-Nazis and their dark networks”, and called on people to fight racism and anti-Semitism.

Let me make it clear that I am not condemning Europe or Germany. It was the former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to admit so many refugees that demonstrated how far the country has come from its Nazi days. Germany is a beacon of enlightenment in a darkening world. However, the virulent racism with which the German right reacted to the arrival of the refugees attests to the persistence of the xenophobic virus in the body politic of even the most humane countries on earth. France is another example. Its openness to foreigners has rescued millions in the Third World from poverty and injustice, and affirms a proud Enlightenment tradition that privileges reason over fear in the conduct of human affairs, whether at the domestic or the international level.

Yet France, too, has a powerful xenophobic right which does not fail to draw traction in national elections. This world would have been a terrible place without Germany, France and like-minded countries. But xenophobia lurks in those countries, which is bad news for the rest of the world. Europe has come through some of the worst chapters of international history, having turned over pages marked by wars of religion and eras of persecution based on something as fundamental as a person’s right to profess her beliefs. What is remarkable about the European Idea — the idea that human society can function on the shared basis of reason, tolerance and reciprocity — is that it has withstood the ravages of contrarian time. But Europe must now confront the threat of xenophobia.

In the United States, an article by human rights experts argues that xenophobia and anti-immigrant extremism “perpetuate the idea that immigrants, or people who are perceived to be ‘foreign’ or ‘outsiders’, threaten America’s founding ideals and must be excluded from positions of power, citizenship, or even residence in the United States. Today’s xenophobic movement explicitly targets migrants and asylum seekers crossing the southern border and also seeks to further policies and violence against immigrant and non-white communities. The movement and its ideology are reactionary. Movement leaders often leverage social anxieties about demographic shifts, social change, and political and economic uncertainty to fuel xenophobia”.

Other Xenophobias

This is not to say that Europe, and its historical creation, America must accept every other world order as legitimate because their own orders are implicated in so much racial injustice. Eco puts the point well when he argues that “the war on intolerance has its limits. Fighting against our own intolerance does not mean having to accept every world view or make ethical relativism the new European religion”.

Absolutely so. There is no reason to believe that Asians or Africans or Latin Americans are free of xenophobia simply because they have collectively been the target of Western xenophobia in the past. If anything, Asians have proved to be supreme masters in borrowing the most abhorrent ideas from the West and turning them against other Asians. The classical case is that of inter-War Japan, which falsely sought to liberate Asia from Western colonialism only to bring swathes of it within its own imperial ambit in the form of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Imperial Japan taught the rest of Asia a lesson that it cannot afford to forget. The lesson is that the most virulent manifestations of xenophobia — Fascism and Nazism — are not purely emanations of particular national or regional histories but emerge from an Ur complex — the primeval desire of a human group to dominate and if necessary eradicate another human group in the pursuit of its core material and cultural interests. Of course, post-War Japan changed course under the tutelage of the West which had defeated it, and this is a reality that should guide other Asian nations in their dealings with Japan. However, Ur-Xenophobia is a phenomenon that cannot ever be dismissed.

This point bears on the more pressing case of religious extremism and terrorism. The manipulation of religious tenets for political ends is so common that it has become unremarkable. The ascendancy of certain groups in West, South and Southeast Asia proved just how lethal that misappropriation could be. Secular xenophobia (based on race) is bad enough: Tied to twisted religious ends, it permits infinite violence. It is to the credit of Southeast Asian states that they have controlled the menace through a combination of ideational and police powers. Indonesia stands out powerfully in this regard. However, the phenomenon of religious xenophobia is real and will not go away any time soon.

What is to be done? To reiterate what Santayana said, the first task is to remember history. History is the present’s engagement with the past. The second task is to remember civics, the art of living socially in the present. History warns of follies past: Civics warns of follies being committed now as if the past never existed. Xenophobia must not be allowed to rise through the cracks between history and civics.

Xenophobia will not fade away. But it does not have to win. Absolutely not.

The writer is the founder and CEO of Pereira International, a Singapore-based political and strategic advisory consulting firm. An award-winning journalist and graduate alumnus of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, he is also a member of the Board of International Councillors at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. This article reflects the writer’s personal views.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like