LONDON — The fear here is that the whole of Europe has succumbed to the virus of racism and that new political parties based on some variant of racism will swell in popular support, win elections, run institutions of state — including the European Union — and destroy the civilization that has been precariously constructed since 1945.
Either that, or the threat of this power will condemn the prevailing liberal institutions of Europe to so placate the parties that social democracy will be scuppered.
This fear is strongest in northwest Europe containing the countries with the strongest history of colonial rule — Britain, Holland, France, Belgium — as well as of capitalist growth and of a liberal state. They have the highest number of black and Asian immigrants, attracted both by the prospect of work and safety as well as by the historical connection.
Because of the prevailing social democracy, it is difficult to openly discuss how realistic the fears of white citizens of northwest Europe are. In the maelstrom of fears, one is that the unspoken contract of a free media discussion — that anyone can offer an opinion as long as it is not violent or offensive — will be destroyed. Almost any discussion about immigration and race provokes the expression of violent and offensive views about people from foreign cultures who do not accept the rules of their new home.
In December, a theater in Birmingham that was about to open a new play, written by a Sikh woman, that featured sexual abuse and a murder in a Sikh temple, was attacked by a crowd of Sikh men. The theater director decided to take the play off. The play, “Behzti,” ironically meaning dishonor, showed, among other things, how dishonorable acts of violence may be carried out by a Sikh man under the shelter of a code of “family honor.”
To show the play, said the protesters, would bring dishonor on the whole Sikh community. And this meant not just the few thousand Sikhs in the neighborhood but, in the words of Mohan Singh, “600,000 Sikhs in Britain and maybe 20 million Sikhs outside the U.K.” Thus his reference point was not Britain’s traditions but transnational religious communities.
This incident sent a shudder down the spine of all liberal Britain. With a long history of having fought king and church and state for the right to show plays or publish books that could question any aspect of power, white liberal Britons felt, for the first time since Bradford Muslims burned Salman Rushdie’s book “Satanic Verses,” that they, not the racist state, were the enemy of an “alien” culture — in this case, orthodox and patriarchal Sikhism.
This single event has had enormous resonance and forced everyone to take seriously the question of cultural differences and the assimilation of immigrants. Previously, the white left had assumed that they were in a mutual alliance with all immigrants and nonwhite minorities against exploitation and discrimination. Now it was their values that a nonwhite minority was directly attacking.
Two cities mentioned so far — Bradford in Yorkshire and Birmingham in the West Midlands — have large immigrant communities. Racism in Europe is not at all evenly spread. Most of eastern Europe, for instance, is wholly white. Much of the countryside in France, Britain and Germany is uniformly white. Nonwhite immigration is concentrated in cities and border towns. Even in these towns, the pattern of immigration varies.
White racism is worst where there is a large block of immigrants from the same country whose presence therefore in schools, shops, buses, doctors’ surgeries is very visible. The white residents in the same area feel beleaguered and resentful and move away if they can, hastening the process of unofficial racial segregation.
Meanwhile, the large immigrant community feels less need to assimilate to British patterns and is more likely to sustain its own language, religion and traditions. This has been the case in Bradford and parts of East London, where racial tension is high, but much less so in London as a whole and Manchester.
The same pattern is true in France. Where immigration from North Africa is highest, as in the southern port of Marseille, the vote for the racist National Front is strongest.
Political attitudes do not follow naturally and inevitably from numbers of immigrants. For most of Europe’s postwar history, the leadership of both immigrants and the host countries has been for assimilation and against racism and racial separation. But now political groups have come to prominence that speak against assimilation.
In Britain, support for the racist British National Party has increased in those towns where segregation is high. Votes have also gone up for the United Kingdom Independence Party in which hostility to immigrants combines with hostility to the EU to produce a forlorn and angry yearning to “return England to the English.”
All of this is cut through by the propaganda about terrorism. Since 9/11, the symbol of the angry young Muslim man who will kill and die for Islam has become imprinted in the public mind. Last month four Muslim men were returned to Britain after spending three years in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Public opinion is split between outrage that the Americans will simply seize people from around the world and imprison them for years without lawyers or any pretense of a trial, and the belief that these young men must somehow be connected with carnage in the name of Islam.
A few years ago, there would have been serious attempts to incorporate Muslims within the Labour Party with the same sort of far-reaching effects as the push to embody more black people in the 1980s. Now that is less likely.
Political Islam, like revolutionary socialism a century ago, offers an alternative leadership to the Labour Party, but also challenges all the premises of the social democratic state.
More seriously for Britain, the Labour Party’s support for the war on Iraq has alienated almost the entire Muslim community, making its religion a central point of political identity — which it was not at the last general election.
None of this offers much hope for the old social democratic project of creating a body of citizens holding in common ideas of justice, freedom and equality.
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