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Debating the Extreme Right
Debating the Extreme Right
For years, the extreme right-wing parties in Europe have played on fear, the need for security, and the rejection of the other. For our democracies, the slippage is a doubly dangerous one. We are no longer in the realm of ideas, of the freedom to think and to choose
Wednesday, March 25,2009 10:56
by Tariq Ramadan Middle East Online

I have been criticized in recent years for agreeing to debate representatives of extreme right-wing political parties : in France, when I confronted Jean-Marie Le Pen or his daughter Marine of the Front National ; in England, when I faced off against representatives of the British National Party ; and more recently in Holland, challenging the Leefnaar, in Rotterdam. I have encountered the same diabolizing argument in Denmark, Austria, Belgium and Italy: no discussion with the extreme right! Switzerland’s foremost political party, the Union Démocratique du Centre (UDC) has launched an aggressive, racist campaign against foreigners and immigrants, now extended to Swiss citizens of the Muslim faith through an initiative to forbid construction of minarets. Once again, voices ring out from the Left and the Center no debate with Christoph Blocher or Oskar Freysinger, the party’s two most popular and populist figures. I have, as a matter of course, agreed to debate, in public, the representative of these parties; this I will do next week in Switzerland, against Mr. Freysinger, in the midst of his anti-minaret campaign.


We must pay urgent heed to the three great threats that the extreme right-wing parties and their political programs represent for Europe. A rapid overview of the last ten years underlines the seriousness of the problem our democratic societies now face. When ideologies become diluted, when parties lose their historical frames of reference, when the differences between Right and Left are watered down, when the law of the marketplace carries all before it, and when social policies are abandoned, serious political debate is foreclosed. National politics and elections are dominated by emotions, by lack of self-confidence, by fear of the other, by insecurity, by infection of the body politic by the virus of victimhood. For years, the extreme right-wing parties have played on fear, the need for security, and the rejection of the other. These populist voices are the only ones heard. Citizens can no longer hear the courageous political voices that are prepared to reconcile them with genuine political action, with the task of governing, of prioritizing problems, and of taking decisions that may be unpopular in the short term but necessary to protect individuals and to promote social justice.


The silence of the “mainstream” parties is deafening. Where are the political figures, whether on the Left or the Right (moreover in the midst of the current global economic crisis), who are proposing bold new political approaches, who are responding to popular expectations on unemployment, security and cultural pluralism, without calling for the simplistic remedies that blame foreigners, stigmatize immigrants and fuel a new variant of “anti-Muslim” racism ? It is the extreme right-wing parties that, more often than not, pick the political issues of the day, while the other parties fall into line. They may criticize the positions of the extreme right wing “verbally” or “ideologically”, but are unable to present a viable political alternative. Worse yet, the positions of the extreme right wing rapidly become the norm in the mouths of the other parties, whether of the Left or the Right. Political discourse on such issues as “national identity”, “integration-assimilation”, immigration or security has become frightening. While the extreme right-wing parties may not have appreciably increased their support at the polls, their ideas are clearly shaping the political agenda. Berlusconi and Sarkozy, not to mention Blair and Brown, have sometimes adopted positions that were formerly the exclusive preserve of extremist parties. In politics, public opinion must be cajoled; if no tangible results in terms of social policy have been achieved between elections, it is hardly surprising that politicians attempt to attract voters with measures that are outright sensationalist and populist. Short of policies and short of ideas, they incite citizens to vote with the blind, frightened anger of their base emotions, and not with the confident, measured wisdom of their intelligence.


For our democracies, the slippage is a doubly dangerous one. We are no longer in the realm of ideas, of the freedom to think and to choose, of citizen involvement in a civil society that prizes open discussion and criticism. Instead, we find ourselves caught up in a populist drift; entire populations are led by their fears and, too often, by their darkest xenophobic instincts. Hate speech, cartoon figures of black sheep being kicked out of the country, arbitrary detentions, camps where immigrants are concentrated, ill-treatment up to and including torture have once again become acceptable. Europe’s memory of its darkest hour is fading; old horrors once again become possible, thinkable. In its haste to bolster nationalism, in its obsession with security, Europe is losing its soul.


The ideas of the extreme right-wing parties must be met head on; we must develop critical, reasoned arguments based on facts and figures to counter the populist manipulation of impressions and feelings. We must refuse, out of principle and conviction, to lend a “cultural” or “religious” or, worse still, an “Islamic” coloration to social questions. New realistic and effective social policies must be developed, policies that combine the principle of equality with respect for diversity. Every country in Europe needs immigrants for its economic survival. Instead of brandishing the peril of colonization, viable, long-term policies must be drawn up—in opposition to the narrow focus on upcoming elections. Parties must reconcile themselves with healthy political practices, and reject the logic imposed on them by the extreme right wing. Far from faith in one’s principles, refusal to debate such parties is little better than a cosmetic device. As we look on, the extreme right-wing parties have achieved their aims: they can play the victim, while looking on as their outlook gains ground in the absence of any real opposition. They have won twice over. And we, defenders of the principles of democracy, have lost almost everything.


* Tariq Ramadan is Professor of Islamic Studies at the Faculty of Theology, Oxford University. He is also president of the think tank European Muslim Network in Brussels. This article appeared in his website www.TariqRamadan.com.

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