The ‘Refugee Crisis’ in Germany. Part III – The Rise of Populism.

imageSpazieren in Wien (Walking in Vienna) by Michael Gubi


max-100x100by Max Schwind

In the previous issue of The Priori, I have continued my series on the refugee crisis in Germany and Europe with a detailed report on the complex integration process of former refugees into German society based on my own experiences as a refugee relief volunteer. It was a true pleasure to describe the everyday-work of social workers and volunteers and to conclude that despite countless challenges and still many bureaucratic set-backs, the integration of over one million newcomers is altogether going rather well. I absolutely agree that it could be done better, quicker and more efficiently – but one has to recall the momentous challenge behind this project. From what I have seen so far and more importantly, what interviewees (mostly social workers, ministry staff and volunteers with several years of experience in this field as well as former refugees) have told me, is that we are just at the beginning of this promising endeavour and that it will be a path of trial and tribulation. Most importantly however, the vast majority of them shared my hopeless idealism and also concluded that Germany and its more than one million new inhabitants are heading in the right direction.

In this month’s issue, I will not have the pleasure to talk about the great people behind the integration project. In the third part of my series on the refugee crisis I will talk about the people who secretly shared the euphoria of most Germans in late summer of last year, when refugees were welcomed at Germany’s train stations. However, these people did not cheer about the prospect of having one million new neighbours. These people secretly celebrated, because they finally saw their chance to unleash a renewed wave of xenophobic propaganda onto people who are frightened to lose their cultural identity and wealth, thereby to win their support which would ultimately benefit the political goals of these hatemongers. I am, of course, talking about populists – more specifically, about the new (re-)emergence of countless right-wing populist parties and movements across Europe in the wake of the refugee crisis. Some of these parties and movements have been active before and gained new support for their xenophobic agenda and others were founded as a direct response to the influx of refugees.

Germany as a case study, can unfortunately provide two perfect examples for this new trend: Pegida (German: Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, English: Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West), is a far-right movement that opposes what it considers the Islamisation of the Western world and demands much stricter immigration policies, especially for Muslim people. Pegida was founded in Dresden, roughly a year before the refugee crisis hit Germany, but did not receive much attention or support initially. However, when first voices of concern were raised about the accommodation of such a massive number of refugees, the leaders of Pegida saw their chance and significantly stepped-up their xenophobic propaganda, thereby quickly gaining popular support. On 19 October 2015, Pegida organized their biggest rally to date in Dresden, which 20,000 supporters attended. Across Europe, offshoots of Pegida have been founded, also demanding to stop the flow of refugees into their respective countries. The AfD (German: Alternative für Deutschland, English: Alternative for Germany) is a perfect example for a political party which has profited significantly from the refugee crisis. The AfD is a Eurosceptic, right-wing populist political party that failed to reach the five percent hurdle at the general election three years back, but has more than doubled its support to over ten percent by the beginning of 2016, and has since gained representation in half of Germany’s sixteen state parliaments. Just as Pegida, the AfD has done so primarily by making anti-immigration policies their main agenda. Even though Pegida has not been able to gain as much support in the same manner as last year, they are still present and remain in possession of a dangerous rallying potential by upholding their status as a ‘people’s movement’. Why Europe’s many right-wing populist parties are a real danger to democracy and universal values such as human rights can be seen when looking at some of their political statements: In January 2016, Frauke Petry, leader of the AfD has gained international attention and condemnation by arguing for shooting refugees at the borders of Germany as a last resort. Other European populists have argued in favour of banishing or deporting refugees ‘back to where they came from’. The danger of populism becomes apparent, when one imagines what some right-wing populists might do when given political power to suit the action to the word.

Unfortunately, Germany is not the only country experiencing a rise of reinvigorated or newly-founded right-wing populist movements and parties. New movements imitating Pegida have been founded in nearly all European countries and formerly rather unsuccessful populist parties have recently gained more public support. The French Front National is now one of the largest political forces in France, and in this year’s presidential election in Austria, a right-wing populist candidate only lost by a margin of 0.6% (!) to his green opponent in a second voting round. Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Greece and Italy are just a few of many European countries that have strong right-wing populist parties. Examples of the English-speaking world are the UK Independence Party, Australia’s One Nation and New Zealand First. In the US, the Tea Party movement has been notoriously famous for its right-wing over-the-top populism. The populist family in the US has recently gained a new member, now probably the world’s most famous right-wing, xenophobic populist, Donald Trump.

The sheer number of these populist movements and parties is truly daunting. What is even more alarming is the continuous growth of support for the populist agenda across Germany and Europe especially, but it is also a global concern. How and why did so many right-wing populists gain significant support in recent years and especially since the refugee crisis? As with most political issues, there is no single all-explaining answer. However, it is fairly obvious what the most common denominator between all right-wing populists is: Xenophobia plays a major, if not the most important role in their agenda. Therefore, they can mobilize popular support by demanding stricter immigration policies in times of heightened public unrest. Increasing disappointment with the political elite during periods of crisis is another major way of acquiring new support by stepping-up the anti-establishment propaganda – protest voters are traditionally easy targets for populists. However, this is a success formula that populists have been using for decades and it is therefore difficult to pinpoint recent populist successes only to traditional populist ideologies such anti-establishment policies. The answer lies deep within the complex, broad and blurred array of xenophobic ideologies. Traditional populist parties of the last century focused mainly on a very general xenophobic ideology, where anyone and anything ‘alien’ (not originated from the populist’s home country) was seen as dangerous and harmful to their self-constructed national identity. However, the new right-wing populists of the 21st century concentrate on islamophobia, specifically.

Islamophobia, as the name says, describes the fear of Islamic people and Islamic religion as a whole, while xenophobia expresses the fear of everything alien in general. The term islamophobia was coined in 1997 in a report of a British think tank called ‘Islamophobia – A Challenge for Us All’ (Runnymede Trust). After the attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001 by Al-Qaeda and the subsequent ‘war on terror’ led by the US, a new era of confrontation between Christianity and Islam had begun – even though what actually happened was a conflict based far more on power politics than on religious fault lines or an actual clash between two world religions. Due to the ‘war on terror’ and radical Islamist terrorism, many people in the Western world obtained some anti-Islamic views and since then have right-wing populist parties started to channel their xenophobic ideology and to transform it towards an Islamophobic ideology. In a study I conducted in 2014 at the University of Trier, I found out that between 2001 and 2014, most right-wing populist parties across Europe have made islamophobia the most important or at least one of their major topics of their political manifesto. Populist parties with an anti-Islamic position all try to justify their agenda with mainly racist, religious and pseudo-democratic arguments. Racist arguments are obviously centred on the belief of European right-wing populist parties and movements that Islam as a culture is inferior to Western culture (or only their own country’s culture) for very different yet completely made-up reasons. The religious argument of populists basically states that Christianity and Islam do not belong together, are totally different and opposed to each other (the over 900 year old ‘Crusader’ argument – I am not even starting to point out that both religions are very similar to each other). However, the favourite argument of right-wing populists in order to justify their anti-Islamic position is the pseudo-democratic argument that Islam and democracy as a political system are antithetically opposed, thus European democracies would need to protect themselves from Islamic immigration which would threaten to destabilize their democratic political system. A ridiculous argument obviously, made up as if there were no democratic Islamic countries – there is even an entire political ideology based around the fruitful combination of Islamic values and democracy, unsurprisingly called ‘Islamic democracy’. Pakistan and Indonesia, the two biggest Islamic countries in the world, both have a democratic political system. Even though all arguments right-wing populists use to justify their islamophobic positions can be easily refuted, they have been very successful by adopting superficial anti-Islamic demeanours.

Since the new millennium, two periods of significant rises in support for European populist parties can be identified: the first in the few years following the 2001 terrorist attacks and the second since the refugee crisis has hit Europe mid-2015. Both periods were characterized by heightened anti-Islamic tendencies among citizens due to recent major historical events. When it comes to the refugee crisis in Europe, the new rise of populism can be partly explained by the fact that right-wing populist parties have increasingly channelled their xenophobic ideas into anti-Islamism specifically, thereby being able to obtain more public support for their anti-immigration policies from voters who are afraid to lose their cultural identity and wealth if too many refugees would come to their country. The word ‘afraid’ plays a vital part in this. Fear is the ultimate breeding ground of populism: only by abusing the fears of parts of the populace can right-wing populist parties and movements gain support. Since people are unfortunately naturally afraid or at least concerned about fundamental changes to their lives (in this case to welcome a large group of ‘different’ people into their society), populists will always be there to try to gain the support of anyone who is scared, insufficiently educated, unsatisfied with the way established parties are handling the crisis or simply just uncertain about their political position.

Therefore, there is only one way to combat populism: the democratic parties, governments and civil society have to make it one of their primary goals to remove fear, uncertainty and confusion from its people. Every citizen should be educated about the economic, cultural and political benefits of increased immigration – facts that have already been proven, but are lacking widespread awareness. If the burden of fear of many people to lose their identity, culture or wealth can be lifted from their shoulders, the support for populists will decrease dramatically. If fear vanishes, so does populism.

Author: Max Schwind


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