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Xenophobia poses greatest threat to Europe's future

Discrimination against foreigners has spread across Europe like a plague, leading the continent down a spiraling whirlpool of polarization and hate

Daily Sabah WORLD
Published December 06,2019

Once treasured by outsiders as a dream destination full of culture, high living standards and a peaceful pace of life, Europe has, in more recent times, fallen under the dark cloud of xenophobia, witnessing a rise of far-right populism and a spike in hate crimes, which have caused a marked split right down the middle of European society. While data shows that discrimination affects a wide range of groups from Jews to Muslims, Blacks, Romani and many more, pundits believe that if the continent continues to overlook this escalating trend, it might eventually spell the end of the continent as we know it.

According to Mahinur Özdemir, former member of the Belgian parliament (first one to wear headscarf), the fact of widespread xenophobia in Europe goes against the founding principles of the EU, putting the future of the union at risk.

"Entering today's Europe, potential migrants now have a huge task ahead of themselves. Suddenly, they are teling these people that they are not wanted," Özdemir said, pointing to the absurdity of the situation.

Suffering at the hands of various fascist movements until the end of World War II, Europe had a relatively peaceful few decades until recently, when xenophobic ideologies once again reemerged just when the horrors of the past have slowly begun to fade from memory. Studies have shown that there are some common factors that trigger xenophobia in general: namely, differences in cultural and social perception, the rejection of any alterations within the social environment and a lack of education.

In one opinion piece, Aydın Enes Seydanlıoğlu, a Germany-based author, pointed to xenophobia as the biggest threat to the future of Europe.

"People argue over Europe's failure to keep up with new technologies, falling behind China and the U.S. when it comes to 5G technology, as a signifier of the continent's decline. However, I think Europe can recover from all of this. I think the thing that will be the end of Europe is not these, but xenophobia," he stated.

Far-right against Europe's principles

Seydanlıoğlu also stressed that the rise of the far-right has struck at the very notion of unity within Europe, adding that institutionalized discrimination is should receive greater attention as a threat.

For this latest trend of xenophobia in Europe, however, many studies have referred to the growing migration flow to the continent from conflict zones such as Syria as the main reason behind the culmination of xenophobia. Thanks to the Turkey-EU migrant deal signed in 2016, there has been a remarkable decrease in the number of migrants crossing into Europe in the last couple of years. Still, the number of reported xenophobic attacks shows that hatred is on the rise across the whole continent.

According to a 2017 report released by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), disdain towards migrants is over 60% in many European countries, including Italy and Hungary, followed by countries like France and Greece, where the percentage is lower but still higher than previously.

"Civilizations can only move ahead if they interact with one another. History shows us this: The ones who shut themselves off to the world are restricting their world view. Today, (with the existing level of xenophobia) we see a Europe that isolates itself from the world rather than uniting with it," Zafer Sarıkaya, a member of the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD) and a Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Istanbul deputy, said, adding that being isolated from the world often results in falling behind other societies.

Although debate rages as to whether increasing xenophobic sentiment has caused the rise of far-right ideologies or vice versa, one factor has contributed to the rise of both in last few years. In countries like Italy, Austria, Hungary and Poland, far-right parties have won political races, while in places like Germany, Slovakia and Croatia, they have at least entered the mainstream of political discourse. A European political group has even been established within the European Parliament, namely the Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty (ITS) group, which unites some of the continent's fiercest far-right parties. This establishment has eventually led to a remarkable presence of far-right parliamentarians within the European Parliament.

According to Serkan Soytekin, the press secretary of the DENK Party, first political party in the Netherlands established by migrants, rising xenophobia is a fact in today's Europe, and the current situation signals that this problem will continue to affect the continent in the near future as well.

"Our first aim is to make people recognize the fact that there is xenophobia; then, to find the main causes of this issue and see if there are enough measures against it," Soytekin said.

Politicians' effect

Many argue that politicians have a clear effect on the people, urging them to participate in xenophobic movements while fueling their ideologies with hateful rhetoric.

"Politicians affect society. The stronger their words, the more effect they have. So, of course, the rhetoric of politicians has a major influence on these xenophobic attitudes," said Özdemir.

"The rhetoric that politicians use puts people at loggerheads. It polarizes the people," Soytekin also warned, adding: "For instance, although in Holland I suffer the same problems as my neighbor, they create an artificial difference between us based on race and religion," he said, pointing to the fact that European citizens, in general, have more commonalities than differences.

The harshness of political rhetoric has come out regarding Islam. Although mostly among the opposition, the anti-Muslim discourse of the far-right in Europe has become mainstream since their issues have been co-opted by former centrist political parties.

Islamophobic sentiment has been a key feature of modern European discourse going back decades, from remarks by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy to those of Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, despite openly xenophobic policies contradicting EU principles. The year 2018 was no different from previous years in terms of resentment targeting Muslims, witnessing numerous remarks by politicians.

Spanish Secretary of State for Defense Agustin Conde claimed that one of the targets of the army was to prevent his daughter from wearing a burqa, while former Finns Party youth branch Chairman Sebastian Tynkkynen noted that if there were fewer Muslims in Finland, Finland would be safer.

Another politician in Denmark, Mette Frederiksen, leader of the country's Social Democrat Party, said: "A school with a foundation in Islam is not part of the majority culture in Denmark."

According to Sarıkaya, rather than political rhetoric, the fact that the existing laws are not being applied properly is the main cause behind rising xenophobia.

"The EU should reconsider its values regarding equality and social cohesion," Sarıkaya said.

The 2018, Islamophobia report of the SETA Foundation shows that there have been hundreds of thousands of Islamophobia attacks recorded in Europe in that year alone. The greatest number of incidents occurred in Germany, with 678 attacks on German Muslims, followed by France and Austria, with 676 and 540, respectively. When attacks on mosques and various discrimination cases are included, the numbers escalate even more. The report also shows that compared to the previous year, there has been a remarkable rise in the number of attacks.

In Sarıkaya's opinion, discrimination is multifaceted and multitiered depending on the community it targets. Giving the example of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiments, Sarıkaya pointed to the fact that these two phenomena do not receive the same amount of attention and interest from European society.

"Recently, an attack on a synagogue in Germany was prevented. Immediately, many German politicians expressed their solidarity with the Jewish community. Unfortunately, when it comes to the attacks on mosques, we cannot see a similar sensitivity," he said.

"They should have this type of attitude against all the xenophobic actions," he added.

Turkophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments

According to a Turkish Foreign Ministry report released Friday, Turkish citizens living abroad faced at least 88 attacks based on xenophobia and racism in the first nine months of 2019.

In response to rising xenophobia, discrimination, racism and Islamophobia across the world, especially in Europe, where up to 5.5 million Turks live, the ministry has set up a database to track attacks on Turkish citizens living abroad. In addition, the ministry has also established a 24-7 call center in order to help Turkish people targeted by such attacks and inform them of their legal rights. The call center also records attack statistics.

So far, 2019 has seen a total of 88 xenophobic attacks reported to Turkish foreign mission representatives. Fifty-six of them took place in Germany, while Austria and Switzerland both ranked second, with seven attacks apiece.

Six attacks were carried out in France, and two apiece in the U.S., the Netherlands and Greece. Turks living in Belgium, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the U.K., New Zealand and Poland reported one attack apiece. Given that most attacks are not reported to police or authorities, the true attack figure is thought to be much higher.

Underlining the importance of differentiating and recognizing different types of xenophobia, Özdemir said that specific recognition was crucial in preventing these types of cases. "There is Turkophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-black racism... If these are not specific recognized specifically, then we cannot come up with any solutions," she said.

Giving the example of anti-Muslim sentiment as a type of xenophobia that still awaits recognition, Özdemir said that as long as Islamophobia failed to be recognized as a notion by European countries, a solution to these attacks was not likely to occur.

"Since Islamophobia is not being recognized as a specific type of discrimination, we still have this problem (in Europe)," said Özdemir, adding that the attempts to include anti-Muslim sentiment into the overall racism is not helpful in solving the problem.

Despite the overwhelming increase in Islamophobic attacks, most European countries refuse to include Islamophobia as a separate category of hate crimes, an essential first step to uncovering the real scale of this problem, as is the case regarding anti-Semitism.

An OSCE report shows that negative feelings toward Muslims, which were already fairly high in most of Europe, increased in recent years. For instance, in Italy, it rose 69% while in Britain it rose by 36% and in France, 34%.

Being Muslim in Europe

"People are being targeted just because they are Muslims. From the discrimination in the workplace to mosque attacks," Özdemir added. According to Özdemir, some of the main reasons why there is such a dramatic rise in xenophobic attacks against Muslims are rise of populism, migration crisis and failure of political parties to meet people's demands.

"In the past, there was a Muslim model that was mostly inside the house. However, as Muslim women with headscarves started to be outside and have a place in every part of the society, things have changed," she said.

Özdemir also pointed at the fact that the target of discrimination differs from country to country.

"For instance, in Germany, it is toward Turks, while in Belgium it's toward Moroccans and in France it is toward Algerians," she said.

Studies show that determining the nature of hate crimes is a tricky job since each country has its own criteria for classifying an incident and many countries do not even keep a statistical record of the hate crimes, relying on NGOs to handle the issue.

Pointing out that women with headscarves suffered the most from racism in Europe, Aydınlıoğlu said that it is not as likely for a modern-looking Muslim man to experience the same problems as Muslim women.

"My wife, as a woman who wears a headscarf, suffered a lot. Once, in Italy, we had a really bitter experience where an old lady attacked us. I was shocked, but my wife told me that she has been going through similar things all the time," he said.

In 2017, the European Court of Justice allowed employers to ban staff from wearing headscarves. Currently, nearly one-third of all the member states of the European Union have placed legal restrictions on Muslim women's religious dress at either the local or national level.

Nevertheless, Seydanlıoğlu underlines that the far right is not quite at the center of European politics yet.

"There are so many great people in Europe who are completely against xenophobia. And they are far larger in number than the xenophobes. I put my hope in them. I want to have a positive perspective for the future," he said.

*Şeyma Nazlı Gürbüz