Letter from Tirana: Who is a guest in Europe’s house?

The political establishment has a decisive role in determining the place of hatreds in society; with adequate rules, laws and institutions it can marginalise and neutralise or, on the contrary, tolerate and encourage them. 

Yudit Kiss
14 June 2013

According to the Kanun, an ancient set of customary laws dating back to pre-Islamic times that regulated traditional Albanian society, “The house of an Albanian belongs to God and to the guest.” There are historical references to Albanians saving people of other cultures and religions in times of crisis, including persecuted Jews during the Second World War. If they managed to reach the country’s borders, local authorities let them enter and people sheltered them, risking their own lives, even during the Italian and German occupation. There were no documented cases of denunciation and at the end of the war Albania was the only European country that had more Jews than before.[1] This rare case of collective action driven by strong internal values and behaviour patterns is particularly worthwhile to recall today, when the “others”: ethnic or religious minorities, immigrants or refugees are less and less welcome in Europe’s house. 

Europe and otherness in times of crisis  

Since it entered Parliament in 2010, the Hungarian extreme right Party, Jobbik uses it as a platform to launch virulent attacks against Gypsies and Jews, in most cases without consequences. The party came out unscathed from the 2011 Gyöngyöspata crisis, (when “to fight against Gypsy criminality”, its activists and other nationalist uniformed groups occupied a village in North-East Hungary and terrorized its Roma population[2]) and continues to propose its “solutions”: stop the “unjustified increase of the Gypsy population”, set up boarding schools for Roma children and self-financing prisons for Roma criminals, bring back the gendarmerie, revise social welfare allowances, etc.[3] In April 2012 one Jobbik MP repeated the accusations of a 1882 blood libel against the Jews during one Parliamentary session and in November another one proposed drawing up a list of Jewish politicians of double citizenship in Parliament since they represented a "national security risk".

In Bulgaria, where about 10% of the population belongs to the Turkish minority and 5% to the Roma, the political programme of the extreme nationalist party, Ataka, states that “Bulgaria is a unitary, monolith state”, demands a ban on broadcasts and editions in other languages in the state-sponsored national media, and on “ethnic parties and secessionist organizations “. This programme ends with a call: “Let’s regain Bulgaria for the Bulgarians!” [4]

Greece’s violent far right party, Golden Dawn got into Parliament in 2012 with a slogan of "Greece belongs to Greeks" and has been implementing it with the silent complicity of the authorities. The party’s activists distribute food aid to the “100% Greek” groups of the crisis-stricken population and at the same time threaten and physically attack immigrants; some of its followers have been involved in racist murders.[5]

Extremist politics have gained space even in countries that are economically better-off and have strong democratic traditions. The far-right Sweden Democrat party was elected to Parliament thanks to an efficiently advertised campaign centered on anti- immigration demands and keeps solidifying its position; Geert Wilder, the President of the Dutch Party for Freedom aims to stop Muslim immigration and pay established Muslims to leave, because he “hates Islam (…) the ideology of a retarded culture.”[6] In Denmark, with a 10% German minority and 9% immigrants, the programme of the Danish People's Party declares that “Denmark is not an immigrant-country and never has been. Thus we will not accept transformation to a multiethnic society”. Ever since it gained entry to Parliament, the DPP has worked actively to introduce stricter immigration legislation and focus social and political attention to the “Islamization” of the society.[7]

These extreme right parties that a mere decade ago were at the margins of the political system, are in Parliament today, preparing to gain more power in the forthcoming 2014 European Parliamentary elections. The new generation of their leaders is keen to “de-dramatise” their ideology and create a distinguished, moderate image for it in order to attract voters disappointed with the traditional left and right-wing parties. Their rhetoric, ideology and demands are noticeably trickling into society and mainstream politics. 

The mechanism of hatred

Historic knowledge and present experience sadly provides rich material to discern the mechanisms of hatred. The first step is an exaggerated, artificial differentiation between the majority of the population and a minority group, the separation of Us and Them. This includes an over-emphasis of the features that distinguish the minority groups from society’s majority. Instead of a source of richness, difference becomes a stigma.

The next step is separation of the two groups, by cutting off the bridges between them. There are no common values, no common experiences, the two communities cannot recognise themselves in each other; there is no space for empathy, let alone joint activities. Genocides tend to start with the execution of the target population’s intelligentsia; book-burnings often prelude burning people - the intention is to silence the voices of the “other”, so that the representatives of the majority cannot enter their world.  (The separation of different social groups often leads to physical separation as well from the formation of homogenous neighbourhoods to slums, settlements or ghettos.)

The “others”, now seen as a distinct, homogenous group, become identified with the most negative, repulsive features. They represent aggression, danger and crime; they are associated with poverty, sickness, weakness, laziness. Generalizations become overarching; a crime committed by a member of the community becomes the characteristic of the whole group. The process starts with negative prejudice and ends with radical rejection: the humanity of the “other” is gradually denied. This is a crucial step towards racist killings, and, on a larger scale, colonization, concentration camps and extermination – the majority authorises itself to mistreat the dehumanised “other”.

Simultaneous with the dehumanization process, the other side, “Us” becomes identified with the most positive features. Representatives of the dominant majority become heroes, embodiments of noble values that are threatened by the minority group. The “other” threatens, exploits and endangers “us”; the majority group becomes a “victim” that is obliged to defend itself.

As a result of these self-strengthening mechanisms, both the majority and the minority community feel increasingly threatened and tend to close ranks, reinforcing the centripetal forces that tear society apart.

The mechanisms of hatred can remain limited to extremist individuals and groups and remain an issue of policing and home security, if society is able to build a sanitary cordon around them. The political establishment has a decisive role in determining the place of such views and activities in the society; with adequate rules, laws and institutions it can marginalise and neutralise or, on the contrary, tolerate and encourage them.

A crucial landmark is crossed when the ideology of exclusion enters into mainstream politics and the mechanisms of hatred begin to function at the level of the whole society, from everyday life to state policy. The exclusion of the “other” becomes a principal element of cohesion for the majority; minority groups are first deprived of society’s benefits, then of society itself, becoming more and more marginalised, then, eventually, of life.

It all starts with impunity: sanctioning hate speech and extremist actions opens the door for their banalization and the gradual integration of the vocabulary, arguments and, after a while, targets and methods of extremists. In the early 30s the Austrian writer Karl Kraus tried to alert the world to the danger of the gradual entry of Nazi ideology and language into everyday language and mainstream media that became instrumental in preparing the terrain for the policy of extermination. Knowing how short the road is from racial prejudices and racist jokes to exclusion and murder, it is chilling to see the increasing banalization of racism and xenophobia in today’s Europe.

There are clear economic and political stakes that push people and political decision-makers to cross the threshhold, adapt (or tolerate) hate speech and enter into the mechanisms of hatred. Xenophobic and racist narrative usually moves in terms of competition: the “other” has to be distanced or excluded, because he/she takes away what is the majority’s due: immigrants take away jobs, refugees abuse the services of the welfare state, Gypsies benefit from the majority’s sacrifices, etc. By way of “re-establishing justice” minority groups are first deprived of their elemental human rights, followed by economic rights like the exercise of certain professions or the right to own property, and sooner or later are deprived of their economic assets and personal belongings as well.

Historical evidence shows that massive expulsions and exterminations of minority groups have all been accompanied by large-scale expropriation: the confiscation of Jewish property during the Holocaust is relatively well-documented, and recent research highlights the economic interests behind the Armenian genocide or the post-war expulsion of the Sudeten Germans from eastern Europe as well.[8] The redistribution of confiscated property among the members of the majority (in addition to the governing elite) has been used to make large segments of the population accomplices and silence eventual voices of protest.

(In the case of the Roma population the economic argument has a quid-pro-quo: they are described as an economic threat, stealing and cheating, taking away “our” inner cities, social and welfare benefits.)

Colonialist and Nazi ideology take to the extreme vilifying the “other” in order to deprive them from their life and their goods: in both cases the ideology of hatred becomes official state policy. The Third Reich accumulated the resources and assets of the occupied lands and combined the system of systematic destruction of people with their ultimate exploitation. Colonization, the fight for the control of resources has been presented as a “civilizing mission” and was accompanied by an ideological narrative to prove that the “others”  - the inhabitants of the conquered lands - are not genuine members of mankind. It took several years of bloody conquests, massive extermination, torture and mistreatment until some of the enlightened Spaniards proposed in the famous Valladolid debate that the Indians of the New World had a human soul.

Breaking the mechanisms of hatred

One can ponder how it is possible that after the devastating experiences of the 20th century, political forces with openly racist and xenophobic ideologies have become accepted political actors on the political scene again? It seems that the roots of the mechanisms of hatred are encoded in the nature of our system and their regular recurrence is not so much a deviation, but part of “normal” functioning. Europe’s hegemony in the world was built on massive exploitation and destruction of non-European countries and a system of limited freedoms, based on property, race and social status.[9] The capitalist mode of production that became dominant after the end of the Cold War is built on exclusion and expropriation by definition.

After WW2 the modern welfare system established in the western European countries was able to partially regulate this system and distribute some of the benefits of growth to a wider strata of the population, associating the increase in productivity and wage increases, establishing a more democratic representative political system.

The new international institutional system that was established after the war, expressed the desire to create a framework for integration and tolerance, to respect universal human rights and the protection of minority rights. In the last two decades, however, the whole construction has been crumbling; through accelerated and uncontrolled marketization and financialization, capitalism has entered into a destructively predatory stage, creating extreme, unproductive richness and extreme poverty, marginalizing whole countries and whole generations.

The political system has been unable to represent a counterbalance and gradually it has been absorbed into the machine. Growing inequalities, injustice and exclusion needed an ideological ‘justification’; hence the re-emergence of identity based politics. It is remarkable, however, that the large multinational corporations and financial institutions, the 1% super-rich denounced by the Occupy movements do not have an identity attachment; identity politics are used by the national level political forces that try to deal with the disastrous consequences of the unleashed mechanisms of the markets.

Racism and xenophobia have been simmering since the beginning of this new development stage, but the explosion we experience today is clearly related to the current crisis and the crisis-tackling methods that have been used until now. There is a direct connection between the accelerated privatization of the remaining public assets and services, including natural resources, social services and politics; drastic social welfare cuts and rapidly growing inequalities, marginalization and pauperization, soaring unemployment, together with the “flexibilization” of the labour market, leading to massive precarious work; a whole generation of young people condemned to no future - and the return of excluding nationalism and racism.

The explosion of identity politics has been particularly brutal in the former post-Communist bloc countries. The communist system pretended to respect human rights, including minority rights; in principle all citizens, whatever their religious or ethnic background or gender was, were equal with equal rights and duties.

Since both citizen rights and freedoms were fake, the collapse of the system provoked an enraged negation of everything it pretended to represent, paving the way to often violent nationalist policies. The radical economic transformations and their negative social consequences aggravated by the unfolding general crisis led to increasing inequalities and impoverishment of large sections of the society that were used to a certain economic stability in the former system. The newly acquired political freedoms created possibilities to articulate new identity-based ideologies and organize people along those lines, channeling their frustration, disappointment and anger.

The first urgent step to break the current wave of hatred is to address the crisis with radically different methods that focus on economic recovery, just redistribution and social inclusion. In the long run only fundamental changes in our economic and political system would put a genuine end to the periodically surfacing violent identity politics.

In the process of creating feasible alternatives to our present system, which is a long-term, complex and extremely difficult undertaking, consistent, practical steps should be taken to break the mechanisms of hatred at each stage and at every level. Representatives of the majority should feel it their moral duty to stand up for the excluded, oppressed, discriminated against and persecuted minorities. Minority movements at the same time should be able to place their particular fight in the context of universal demands, like the representatives of the Bund who adhered to the slogan of Polish freedom fighters: “For our freedom and yours”.

Bridges between the minority groups and majority society should be built, public spaces of encounter from kindergartens to neighbourhood libraries and community centres created; public spaces: squares, markets, public parks should be rehabilitated to make different communities encounter and have common experiences. The voice of “others” should be heard; the majority should learn about the minorities’ history, culture, traditions and teach them about its own. The more policemen, teachers, nurses, doctors, bus-drivers, media personalities, come from a different background, the more people mix in their everyday life, the easier it becomes to understand how much we actually share and how interesting can be what we don’t share.

Education and mass media have a key role in this process. We know that facts do not disturb those who propagate hate speech, but they might have an impact on their potential audience. If European school-children learnt more about our continent’s history they would understand how much of Europe’s achievements are the result of mutual influence with “others”, different people, cultures, practices and traditions.  They would understand how much we owe to non-Europeans, to begin with the treasures of our own classical Greek and Latin culture that we “received back” after the Middle Ages thanks to Arab scholars and translators, who were eager to preserve it, not to mention the accumulation of the fabulous riches that made possible the flowering of our industries, arts and science, resulting from centuries of plunder and destruction of other peoples and other cultures on other continents. They would understand that assuming differences does not mean the negation of identity. Quite the contrary.

These measures, however, can only be efficient if they are backed by the political establishment and the institutional system, from education to legislation and economic regulation. Violent anti-minority ideologies threaten much more than the minorities themselves: they undermine the very bases of a modern democratic system. If Europe is to survive as a continent of human rights, democracy and justice, like its postulated values suggest, European citizens and institutions, as well as national governments should urgently step up to defend their threatened “others”, and, together with them, our common democratic values and institutions.

This article forms part of the dossier, “Albanian Reflections on Europe and Otherness”. It was first presented in an international debate in Tirana, Albania, on February 19, 2013, organized by the Albanian Media Institute and Soros Foundation, in partnership with the Erste Foundation, openDemocracy, and the Forum of Concerned Citizens of Europe.  

[1] Norman H. Gershman, ‘Besa: The promise’; Saimir Lolja, ‘The Albanian Besa – the Golden Rule, Shoah Resource Center, The International School for Holocaust Studies, Albania.

[2] Poor, abused and second-class: the Roma living in fear in Hungarian village

[3] A Jobbik ünnepe az 'indokolatlan cigány túlszaporodással' (Jobbik celebration and “unjustified multiplication of the Roma”);  Mit tenne a Jobbik a cigányokkal? (What would the Jobbik do with the Gypsies?)

[4] Ataka website

[5] Greek Far Right Hangs a Target on Immigrants, July 10, 2012; Greece, in 2012: fascists beating up people while the police look on, The Guardian, 12 October 2012; Immigrants Are Being Stabbed to Death on the Streets of Athens

[6] 'I don't hate Muslims. I hate Islam,' says Holland's rising political star’, The Guardian, 17 Feb 2008

[7] The Party Program of the Danish People's Party; Theis Dencker, Kevin Ramser, Deporting the Victim: The Danish People’s Party’s Radical Solution to a Perceived Threat

[8] Uğur Üngör, The making of modern Turkey & Confiscation and destruction,Videoconference; Paul Wilson, Kicking the Germans out of the East, The New York Review of Books, Vol LX, No.9

[9] See Iain Chambers’ contribution to our seminar, The limits of liberalism: otherness and the crisis of Europe


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