Threat from the antidemocrats

by Hugh Cortazzi

The recent massacre perpetrated by a lone gunman in Norway has made leaders in democratic countries review the threat to their societies from extremist anti-democratic elements.

In recent years the security services have focussed on the threat from Islamic extremism. This threat has not diminished despite the elimination of Osama bin Laden and there can be no relaxation of vigilance of Islamic extremists.

The peace process in Northern Ireland has gone a long way toward bringing the Protestant and Catholic communities to a recognition that violence will not solve the problems of the province, but recent acts of violence by disaffected elements on both sides show there is still a long way to go before everyone in Northern Ireland realizes that there is no place for extreme sectarianism in a democratic society.

During the Cold War there was a real threat to democracy from communist dominated organizations. For the most part this threat has been removed, but there are still some disaffected elements in our society, inspired by Marxist rhetoric, which have no respect for democratic values and are prepared to challenge law and order to promote their special interests. They still have to be watched.

The terms left and right are no longer valid in any analysis of the forces which threaten our democracy. Those on the extreme left and those on the extreme right are often indistinguishable. Many disgruntled elements have little or no ideology. Their grievances, economic and cultural, are sometimes imaginary.

Unemployment remains too high. Some unemployed may be work-shy but a fair proportion of the unemployed do actively seek work. Many do not, however, understand the workings of the market economy which they blame at least in part for their ills. They denounce greedy bankers and their fat bonuses.

They rail against immigrants who, they claim, are taking jobs that should rightly be theirs. Many do not understand the advantages of the European single market or recognize that East European workers are employed to perform tasks such as fruit picking on the minimum wage which they are unwilling to undertake.

These grievances are exacerbated by culture. Britain and other European countries during their decades of prosperity in the 20th century absorbed large numbers of immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia. Some worked as as refuse collectors and bus drivers which at a time of full employment could not be filled by indigenous people. Others came as refugees from autocratic regimes. Some were economic migrants from countries with very low standards of living.

Many of these immigrants qualified as settlers and were entitled to the benefits under health and welfare services. As they often had or brought with them large numbers of children they often took precedence over indigenous people in the queue for social housing. Inevitably this aroused resentment.

Immigrants also brought their own customs and religious practices which indigenous people often found strange and sometimes unpalatable. Many immigrants arrived and were accepted without any knowledge of English. This inevitably made them seem alien even when they had been in their adopted communities for many years.

Britain and other European countries came to see multiculturalism as the accepted ideology of a tolerant democratic society. But in many places this has meant a divided society where jealousies and racial tensions cause trouble and may result in violent disorder.

Politicians in European countries in the various democratic conservative, liberal and socialist ruling parties have now come to recognize that multiculturalism is not a sufficient response to underlying social tensions. The British government seem determined to limit immigration from outside the European community although this has proved controversial and possibly damaging. They also recognize the need to instill among immigrants an understanding of the nature of British society and an ability to speak English.

Islamic immigrants arouse particular problems in societies where women have equal status and gay people no longer suffer discrimination. Some Muslims reject both these norms and emphasize their different attitudes by women wearing head scarves or full body and face covering. Islamic condemnation of homosexuality arouses particular concerns. In France and Belgian the wearing of full face covering is banned in public places. There has been no move to follow suit in Britain.

The British media have not printed cartoons of the founder of Islam such as appeared in Denmark, but the British media and public abhor the attempts of Islamic extremists to interfere with freedom of expression. Salman Rushdie, the British author, whose novel “The Satanic Verses,” led to an Iranian fatwa against him had to be given extensive and expensive police protection against possible attempts to assassinate him

Nationalist sentiment has sometimes been aggravated by measures taken by the European Commission, the European Court of Justice and the European Parliament which are seen by nationalists as an unjustified infringement of national sovereignty. In Britain the British Independence Party, which is anti-European, has some popular support but no representation in Parliament. Its anti-European sentiment can be misused but it is not a fascist organization.

There are neo-Fascist, neo-Nazi and other anti-democratic parties in almost all European countries. In Britain the focus has been on the British National Party which is extremist and racist. It has so far failed to gain any seats in Parliament and has only a handful of local council seats. The English Defence League is another extremist organization but this has so far gained little popular support.

Organizations that advocate violence and seek to impose their extremist views on society must not be allowed to threaten democratic processes. They have to be watched, but they are not, for the present at least, a threat to democratic society in Britain and hopefully not in other European countries.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.