As Trump era dawns, Europe must reclaim refugees debate from populists

By Paul Currion, Refugees Deeply  |  Jan. 10, 2017 at 8:47 AM
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One consequence of the election of Donald Trump has been increased exposure for Trump's chief strategist and senior counselor and former Breitbart executive Steve Bannon.

Breitbart's recent article about a mob attack on a German church that never happened reveals an editorial philosophy of deliberate misinformation in favor of a specific political agenda. However, its comments section provides valuable insight into how a segment of the population thinks. It can also destroy your faith in humanity.

One of Breitbart's favorite topics, especially on its British site, is the "refugee crisis." An unsurprisingly large number of Breitbart commenters have very specific objections to the way in which the refugee crisis is being handled. Or more accurately, they have objections to the refugees themselves.

These commenters very strongly believe that the mainstream media is failing to tell the real story behind the refugee crisis. It is a view that many readers of Refugees Deeply probably share, although for very different reasons: Where audiences at platforms like Refugees Deeply see a human tragedy unfolding, Breitbart's constituency sees current migration as a "Muslim invasion" happening right beneath their noses.

Such a xenophobic worldview is generally resistant to honest debate, but it is important to take account of such coverage as it increasingly shapes public discussion. Just as these migration flows are not unprecedented, anti-migration sentiments are nothing new. In fact, they fit neatly into the European view of the Arab world described by Edward Said in his 1978 book Orientalism:

"... the Arab is always shown in large numbers. No individuality, no personal characteristics or experiences. Most of the pictures represent mass rage and misery, or irrational (hence hopelessly eccentric) gestures. Lurking behind all of these images is the menace of jihad. Consequence: a fear that the Muslims (or Arabs) will take over the world."

Such European views about Arabs (and Africans) are rooted in the imperial projects of the 18th and 19th centuries. They developed as post facto justification for the subjugation of others by emphasizing their inferiority – and often their lack of humanity. This feral perspective can still be found in its natural environment, the Breitbart comments section, where armchair xenophobes reproduce the same narratives that Said identified from two centuries earlier.

Many of these scare stories fixate on the sexual behavior of migrants, and scare stories circulate endlessly about the same handful of cases – such as the Cologne New Year 2015 sexual assaults – making it appear as if Europe is suffering from a (nonexistent) rape epidemic generated by an (imaginary) Muslim rape culture.

The real rape crisis is in Syria, where many women have suffered sexual assault during the war – but that's not a crisis being exported to Europe, and so it's largely ignored by the mainstream media. Similarly, Breitbart comments express tremendous concern for European women who have been sexually assaulted by migrants, but seem to have no interest in violence against women in any other context.

This selective concern for the welfare of women also extends to the LGBT community. In a strange twist in the rise of populist politics, the struggle for LGBT rights has been co-opted by right-wing populists, particularly in the Netherlands. Because the Islamic State has a long tradition of throwing homosexuals off high buildings, their reductive reasoning presumes that the LGBT community should share the populist logic: rejecting IS means rejecting Islam, which means rejecting Muslims, which means rejecting migrants, which means rejecting refugees.

This is precisely where this worldview starts to fall apart.

It proposes that newcomers should be rejected if they do not share European values – yet acceptance of homosexuality is a relatively recent European value. It wasn't long ago that Europeans were imprisoned for their sexual orientation, and in many European countries they still face the threat of physical violence, up to and including death.

Gay bashing in Europe and public executions in Syria are not morally equivalent, and European countries have made great progress in changing public attitudes. However, such changes themselves suggest that cultural values are more malleable than European populism believes, which in turn challenges the notion that such open-mindedness is specifically "European."

It has always been difficult to pin down "European values." One such attempt to describe a particular European culture, the 2007 Berlin Declaration, was criticized for not mentioning Christianity. The populist worldview holds that Christianity is the basis of European civilization, but unfortunately the evolving nature and complex history of Christianity do not really help us to define "European values."

What is beyond debate is that leaving people to drown in the Mediterranean, letting unaccompanied children fall into slavery, and forcing refugees to rot indefinitely in underfunded camps do not fit with any definition of Christianity that we might come up with.

Yet this is where opponents of Brexit, Trump and other populist movements have failed. The current debate about population movement in general, and the refugee crisis in particular, has always been about values rather than economics; and so our defense of a more equitable and effective refugee policy should likewise be based on values, not economics.

Of course, there are differences between Syrians and Swedes, Germans and the British. But we need to remind ourselves that culture is a public forum to be engaged with rather than a private mausoleum that must be preserved at all costs. If we don't open up this debate more widely, places like the Breitbart comments section will be the only places where that debate happens – and monopolization of the conversation about one of the defining issues of our times by populists won't lead to positive outcomes for anyone.

Paul Currion is a consultant with particular interest in migration, technology and urban resilience. This article originally appeared on Refugees Deeply, and you can find the original here. For important news about the global migration crisis, you can sign up to the Refugees Deeply email list.

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