by Lily Cichanowicz
The current shift in Europe’s demographic composition towards a more diverse populace comprised of non-whites and higher proportions of Arab people has left lasting impacts on the continent’s social and political climates. There is no doubt that the magnitude of these effects can be attributed in equal measure to our society’s reactions against the influx of newcomers.
For one, many fear that the abrupt introduction of so many people from different cultures could have detrimental impacts on the preservation of European values and resources across future generations. These fears exist so widely that they have resulted in the significant aggregation of support for rightwing political agendas. Yet, whether or not we choose to seize it, the shifting demography of Europe offers us an excellent opportunity to reflect more candidly on the true state of western society.
Examining our responses to the influx of refugees on ‘our’ continent, for instance, will also help us to understand the kind and degree of threat that such newcomers actually pose to European society, in addition to—and perhaps more importantly—allowing us the chance to assess whether or not our own cherished values are actually functioning in the ways we’d like to believe that they are.
Here, I will offer a few examples to set the stage for broader societal self-reflection about who we really are as ‘westerners’, something I argue is crucial to the survival of the things we in the west hold most dear: pluralism, universalism, democracy, civil liberty, and so on. These values and freedoms are often pontificated in our constitutions and plastered on the walls of our parliamentary buildings as being, by nature, available to all people residing within a western society. In fact, this is often regarded as the cornerstone of their functioning. It may be that the backlash against the influx of refugees exposes the truth that so-called ‘rights’ are merely privileges.
The limits to rights-based universalism and the western response to the ‘burkini’
Europe has emphasized its pluralist nature, where all people are welcome to freedom of expression. Yet, overtime, this notion has taken on a contradictory, perversely rigid form. This is most obviously expressed with regard to the burkini controversy that has played out over the summer in France, serving as the ‘latest battleground’ in the country against the civil liberties of Muslim people.
The viral photos of an older woman sitting on the beach surrounded by the imposing presence of police officers that are forcing her to remove some of her clothing certainly sparked conversation on both sides of the political spectrum, and hopefully things will ultimately move in the direction of tolerance. Yet, in the meantime the so-called ‘burkini’ is actually banned under the law in many cities, and women are eligible for fines if their swimwear appears to be in transgression due to its modesty.
The thing I’d like to draw your attention to, in particular, is the large-scale societal outrage we feel when people choose to apply their freedoms of expression in ways that vary from the norm.
While western women may have fought tirelessly for decades to create a social climate where it is acceptable to reveal their bodies without being shamed for it, the burkini controversy has exposed the fact that women’s newfound right to expression has only been granted in a narrow, socially sanctioned way within the structures of western patriarchy, functioning as yet another manifestation of the ethnocentric exclusionary nature of what has been termed ‘white feminism.’
When the failure to adhere to western notions of what freedom of expression, especially if one is from a minority culture or ethnic background, results in institutional oppression, it becomes clear that this freedom is a guise. Rather, the fact that women continue to be punished for their swimwear choices reveals that what we westerners practice as ‘freedom of expression’ is limited to a limited set of acceptable norms laid out within existing power structures, which often favor the privileged majority. In return for exercising our freedoms of expression within a narrow set of constraints, we can avoid persecution and harassment. In this current scenario, other variations of this ‘freedom’ are simply not tolerated, meaning that our actions in this regard cease to be freedoms at all, which is something that concerns all of us.
Contextualizing western-ness in relation to others via the Dakota Access Pipeline
We can also turn our fear of foreigners on its head by examining the ways that we have treated native peoples when our own forebears were in need of refuge. In recent times, this calls to mind the creation of the Dakota Access Pipeline through First Nations’ reservation lands of the Standing Rock Sioux in the US. While our history books may have at one time deceived us, these people are the ones entitled to the lands on which the United States has been built.
Yet, the white refugees, who were at one time fleeing from religious and social persecution, have massacred the natives and institutionally destroyed their cultures by degrading their lands, recklessly killing off their food sources, subjecting their children to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in schools, and confining the survivors to barren reservations where many still suffer from addiction and poverty. Today, the reverberation of these abuses is felt in many other ways as well, particularly when American industry and government violate the treaties the latter created to further destroy the lands and resources these indigenous groups have worked so hard to conserve and protect.
While it may be easy to disregard these rights abuses solely as an American problem, we should not be so quick to do so considering that the refugees who fled to the Americas were Europeans. More than this, Europe harbors its own disastrous legacy of colonialist imperialism throughout almost the entirety of the global south, where similar patterns exist. We are descendants of people who degraded cultures under the justification that they were inferior, looting societies of precious resources, murdering and raping countless souls, selling others into slavery. Our ancestors pillaged and ravaged their foreign hosts so badly that the balance of wealth and power is still gravely shifted to the disadvantaged of those living in these countries today, while we continue to benefit.
Likewise, the proxy wars and regime change tactics—that both Europe and the US have backed—in order to subsume greater economic control over the Middle East in times that has largely created the harrowing conditions from which many refugees are currently fleeing. Here, context is important, and our woes regarding the unfamiliar presence of Arab refugees pale in comparison to our own wicked histories.
Examining the trajectories of western societies via the rise of the right wing
The most widespread and foreboding of the responses to foreigners and social others is the rise of the right wing populism across the west. Growing factions of people are aligning themselves with political platforms that are built on foundations intolerance, which blatantly state that only some members of society are entitled to western values and freedoms.
Marine Le Pen and Frauke Petry of AfD, who has largely used the fearsome anti-Islamic zeal of Pegida as the wind in the sails of her campaign are rising to undeniable prominence in France and Germany, respectively. In the United Kingdom, many justifications in support of the Brexit referendum were racially motivated. Meanwhile, the worrisome rise of Trump in the U.S. has come not in spite of his bigoted comments and anti-immigration stances, but because of them. It is clear that such threats to western values may, indeed, come in greater measure from within.
These candidates, whether blatantly or more treacherously, have founded platforms on exclusionary tactics for disallowing large swaths of people access to their civil rights, based on their races and countries of origin while simultaneously claiming to do so as a celebration and a return to the foundations of our governments and constitutions. In reality, if this were so, then why wouldn’t we want to share them with more people, to demonstrate the true merit of life within our free and liberal societies? Here, the appeal of reactionary political ideology masks the stark reality of the state of western society.
Cultivating a sense societal self-awareness by sifting through the smoke and mirrors of western idealism is utterly crucial for the preservation of the rights and liberties we value most. One way to do so is by scrutinizing the way we respond to the influx of foreigners within our borders so that our freedoms are not merely ideological illusions, but things that can be practiced openly, in many different forms, with tolerance.
We mustn’t let our governments deceive us into believing that their tactics for wealth and excessive power over other nations and cultures is in fact an exertion of our cultural values—i.e. democracy, freedom of expression via bodily exposure, blind patriotism in the face of its transgression and so on. In the words of Angela Davis, true freedom is a constant struggle. Its maintenance is not always pretty or comfortable.
One way to ensure the proliferation of western values into future generations is to aid the integration efforts of refugees, rather than showing them our ugliest and most ruthless sides. When people are not familiar with cultural norms for behavior, when they are barred from the formal economy and their hosts simultaneously berate and exclude them, no good will come.