The Undiscovered Continent, Part 2

There is a silent consensus around the notion of “Europe” and “European”. So silent, we often don't really know what it means

This is the second part of the essay. The first part was published last Friday and can be found here.

Horrified by the attacks on the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo, which were perpetrated in January 2015, I posted on Facebook the cover picture of the magazine from October 2014: a caricature of Mohammed who stands before the jihadis who want to behead him and says: ‘I am the prophet, idiot.’ Whereupon the masked man with the knife replies: ‘Shut up, infidel!’ Until then it had been more important to me to laugh about the God of my own religious denomination than about that of others. But now it became even more important to defend freedom of speech in view of the actions of the murderous jihadi gangs. I felt that laughing about God and his prophets was the basis of the Enlightenment. This had nothing to do with anti-Muslim resentment. On the contrary: the Charlie Hebdo cover distinguished very carefully between the Prophet and the jihadi murderer. It did not equate them.

I have read many articles in which commentators showed understanding for the racists of the far-right, anti-Islamic Pegida movement founded in Germany and accused the entire political left for failing to oppose Islamism out of political correctness—as if banning minarets or headscarves would have helped to prevent the jihadi crimes. Then again, other journalists declared that it was basically the so-called critics of Islam and the right-wing extremists who were responsible for the jihadi terrorist excrescence and would profit from it. Both sides are mired in a culturalist discourse about Islam and Islamophobia. Left and right blame each other instead of mobilizing first and foremost against the perpetrators.

Following the Charie Hebdo murders, Jyllands-Posten, the Danish centre-right conservative newspaper, which sparked protests around the world when it published in 2005 controversial cartoons of the Prophet as an assertion of free speech and a rejection of pressure by Muslim groups to respect their sensitivities about their religion being criticized, decided that it was too dangerous for them to publish such cartoons. The left-wing Charlie Hebdo itself printed cartoons of the Prophet just when it was important to rebel against Islamist terror.

Meanwhile, defeating the evil spirit of militant Islamism will not be achieved by focusing solely on responding to the individual terrorist attack. Iran, for example, condemned the Paris attack, but only in December a man there was condemned to death by hanging because he had posted a caricature of Mohammed on Facebook. It’s clear, therefore, that the deeper ideological context of militant Islam must be fully acknowledged. This weaponized ideology will live on so long as it is not tackled and overcome politically.

The murderers in Paris acted with clear intent. For this reason and others the fight against terrorism should also be pursued in a focused and purposeful fashion, while distinguishing between Islamophobia and anti-Islamism. But it is just as disastrous to lump all Muslims together and equate Islam per se with jihadism as it is to maintain that jihadism has nothing at all to do with Islam. Saudi Arabia, which condemned the Paris attack for sinning ‘against the true Islam’, had the blogger Raif Badawi, who was condemned to 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam, publicly flogged on the same Friday that the kosher supermarket was attacked. Meanwhile, in Vienna, where I live and write, the government runs an interreligious dialogue centre that is financed with Saudi money and is named after the country’s ruling monarch, King Abdullah.

We are witnesses to the practice of conducting business with Islamic states and of placing all Muslims in our country under general suspicion at the same time. Meanwhile H.C. Strache of all people, the leader of Austria’s right-wing extremists and the chairman of the far right Freedom Party, now warns against Muslim antisemitism, although not so long ago he himself posted an antisemitic cartoon on Facebook depicting a Jewish banker with a hooked nose and Jewish Stars of David for cufflinks.

Though there are also fundamental differences, the parallels between antisemitism and Islamophobia are obvious. The fury against the mosques evokes the erstwhile accusations against the synagogues. The campaigns against the Muslim practice of ritual killing of animals (halal) resemble those against the similar commandments for kashrut in Judaism. What today is assumed about Muslims in Europe is reminiscent of the Grand Sanhedrin that Napoleon convened two centuries ago in France. At that time Jews were suspected of forming a parallel society, which had its own laws and its own schools. It’s clear from contemporary reports that even in Napoleonic France the issue was the capacity of Jews to integrate. It was said that Jews and Judaism were not compatible with the Enlightenment.

Today’s racists are no different and Austria is not without them. Nowhere is this clearer than in the graffiti scrawled on the wall of the former Nazi concentration camp of Mauthausen in Upper Austria in February 2009: ‘What the Jew was for our fathers, the Muslim mob is for us’.

At this historic moment of crisis for the EU, its member states demonstrate little unanimity about what they want it to be. This uncertainty provides an opportunity for many in Europe to foment open hatred against those from whom they want to distance themselves. And Islam is the suitable bogeyman. In the post-Auschwitz world few openly confess to hatred of Jews. Even right-wing extremists in Belgium and Italy like to style themselves as friends of Israel, if only to be able to mobilize better against Muslims. However, it would be naive to think that Islamophobic politics do not also threaten the EU’s anti-racist values, which include a taboo on antisemitism. Where there is widespread agitation against Muslims, no Jew and no outsider—ultimately no one—can feel safe.

But faced with jihadi mass-murder, anti-racist appeals are not enough. The EU must take an unequivocal stand against Islamist terrorism, which is waging war against free societies. However, this is no ‘clash of civilizations’ dividing the Occident from all Muslims and it should also not become one. For if we took that view, we would have already lost—and indeed lost everything we value and everything we are. Neither resentment nor denial of the conflict can help us.

Where the criminal force of IS has imposed its rule of terror, it must be defeated by military means. But instead of agitating against Islam in general, the key task is to ostracize those regimes which finance IS and to pursue the profiteers who supply it with arms. Only if we act in solidarity with Muslims, who are its first victims, can its death cult and Islamism more generally be defeated. Without a common European security policy it will not be possible to continue to enjoy this continent’s open society. We must defend freedom without in any way surrendering it. It would therefore be wrong to restrict human rights at this time. On the contrary: by extending them we are better placed to defend ourselves. Our struggle should not be one between civilizations, but rather one for civilization itself. It is life in all its diversity and democracy that the jihadists want to destroy. Our best reply to their terror is to maintain a robust democracy and demonstrate zest for life and moral courage.

The series of attacks in Paris and Brussels between January 2015 and March 2016 has had a significant impact on the discussion of the refugee crisis. Among the effects of the dead assassins in Paris in November 2015 was the Syrian passport of a man originally assumed to have arrived in Greece in one of the numerous rubber dinghies currently bringing to the shores of the continent thousands upon thousands seeking refuge. Those who have always seen asylum-seekers as including suspicious intruders were emboldened by this to become even more dogmatically unsympathetic. They exploit the struggle against IS to mobilize against precisely those who are fleeing from jihadi cruelty and the civil war in Syria. They want to make us believe that the children who escaped the battles and the waves of the Mediterranean are agents of Islamism. Does anyone really think that IS, a movement which sells its sequestered oil and art treasures and which therefore has at its disposal large foreign exchange deposits and heavy weapons, could not find other ways of crossing borders? Haven’t these criminals already managed to reach Madrid, London, Boston, Toulouse, Brussels and Paris in order to kill? Don’t they even mostly originate from these places? The jihadists hate the idea that a Europe of human rights could offer Muslims a better home than their own empire.

The EU was founded as the antithesis to Nazism. It united in opposition to Stalinist Europe. It did not however submit to the logic of Nato, which also consisted of dictatorships, to fight the communist East. It was not open to the fascist and semi-fascist regimes in Greece, Spain or Portugal. After the end of the Cold War it embarked on a path of enlargement, drawing on its tradition of resistance to totalitarian regimes to embrace the countries that threw off the communist yoke and show that it was committed to remembering the victims of Nazism. This was the crucial factor in the EU’s decision in 2000 to stage a symbolic protest against the coalition between the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) by taking diplomatic measures against the Vienna government. The other EU members wanted to have nothing directly to do with the right-wing extremists.

The government turned the 2000 decision of the remaining fourteen members into an attack by the EU on Austria, treating it as if it amounted to external interference—as though Austria were not party to the collective agreements that bind the EU’s members together. However, the participation of the FPÖ in the coalition was not merely an Austrian matter. From 1995, every government minister, including from the FPÖ, participated in decisions which affected many European countries, indeed the whole of Europe. Thus it was not surprising that European politicians feared such an alliance.

It was clear from the beginning that this dispute was a European matter, the significance of which reached far beyond the borders of Austria. The EU was going through a period of change involving deepening integration, the consolidation of its internal structure and expansion to the East. The action taken against the Austrian coalition sent a signal to future member states about what would not be legitimate in the new Europe.

A procedure for penalizing member states for human rights violations was actually codified in Article 7 of the 1999 Amsterdam Treaty and then amended in the 2001 Nice Treaty and the 2009 Lisbon Treaty. But the symbolic move against the Austrian coalition did not invoke the original Article 7. And more recently, proposals to apply Article 7 to the authoritarian Orban government in Hungary were rejected by the European Parliament and an attempt to call to account the anti-democratic Polish Law and Justice Party government looks unlikely to succeed. In fact there have been grounds aplenty for applying Article 7 given the many anti-democratic actions in recent years. But instead of decisive initiatives being taken against right wing extremist developments in some member states, the EU has been decidedly apathetic, to disastrous effect. What was still seen as an isolated scandal in 2000 now threatens to become normality. In many EU states the right wing agitators and extremists are growing in strength.

These racist and chauvinist populists, who act as defenders of the Occident and of their nation, could lead – as in the Brexit-referendum – to the demise of the EU and their own country as well. It’s clear that the EU will not be destroyed because of a few hundred thousand refugees but far more likely as a result of surrendering those foundations of human rights and democracy on which it is based. The German word Außengrenze (external border), so often heard nowadays, is itself a concept which indicates how fragile the idea of unity in diversity has become. The demand to shore up Europe’s Außengrenze out of fear of the other can only be advocated by those who have not learned to overcome the internal borders, do not want Europeans to live in harmony and solidarity, and do not want to celebrate and secure these values.

Racists and narrow-minded separatists in the EU have momentum. This is perhaps a perverse result of how a Jekyll and Hyde-like federal Europe is being constructed. We are not Poles, Hungarians or Irish because we are Europeans. We only became Europeans so that we could better remain Poles, Hungarians and Irish. By way of comparison, scarcely anyone on the other side of the Atlantic would think of saying they are only an American because they are first and foremost a Californian or New Yorker. For exactly the same reason no one in the USA would suggest excluding California from the federation when it is mired in state debt. In the EU, on the other hand, the departure or expulsion of Greece—Grexit—was and still is actively considered, even though the massive European economy certainly would not founder because of the debts of little Greece.

It’s possible that the rage of all too many Europeans against the EU has not a little in common with the phenomena which ultimately led to the break-up of other, earlier multinational entities such as the Habsburg monarchy. The centre is seen as distant and aloof. The structure which characterizes the empire does not encourage a universalist view but instead strengthens particularist perspectives.

A (pan-)European public is scarcely developing. As I pointed out above, when criticized, some governments are all too ready to ascribe to Brussels all responsibility for the laws they themselves helped to introduce. And in many countries, even if their governments distance themselves from it, chauvinist and racist populism is attaining dangerous levels of support, and doing so in part by successfully masquerading as the nation’s voice against the EU.

The foundations of a unified Europe must be defended against both the right-wing extremists and the radical Islamist racists. We do need a European refugee policy, but equally we must have unified security measures. But it would be wrong to believe that Europe can defend itself alone in the face of so many challenges. The Euro crisis, national deficits (whether in Greece or Portugal), social tensions, anti-democratic dangers and jihadi terror all demonstrate that we need a vision of a social Europe so that the European project does not collapse in a welter of resentments and violence.

What is it, I asked at the beginning of this essay, that makes me a European? My answer has not much to do with ancestry or origins, geography or homeland. Rather, it is perhaps the idea and vision of a democratic and social EU which allows me to say that I want to be a European.

If someone wants to know where is this Europe of mine, the Europe to which I want to belong, given all the problems I have discussed, I am almost tempted to reply that it has not yet been fully discovered. Or to put it differently: we are searching for it. It is both a land still located somewhere in the future and one that is already in sight.

The essay was first published in "Do I belong: Reflections from Europe", edited by Antony Lerman, Pluto Press, 2017