Protesters and police at a rally in Luxembourg Square
The far-right has swept through Europe. Although the Syrian refugee crisis has fueled anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric throughout the continent, the shift towards the far-right should be seen in the context of a far more gradual shift in the cultural and ethnic demography of European countries that have historically been ethnically and culturally homogenous. Instead of moving towards increasing societal and cultural flexibility to accommodate and adapt to changing global conditions, the far-right has won the hearts of many Europeans. They have waged a culture war that places immigrants at the forefront as scapegoats for cultural demise.
To counter the far-right’s narrative, opposing parties must present a compelling cultural counter-narrative that can take hold of the national imagination to the same extent as the far-right’s version has done. German chancellor Merkel is one of the only examples of a powerful proponent of international solidarity and European cultural willingness to accommodate difference. Yet, her narrative has not taken hold in much of Europe, and the chancellor’s political opponents are seizing the opportunity to win over her supporters.
Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that multiculturalism is not a foreign concept to Europe; the founding of the EU was based on a premise of multiculturalism that allows countries with distinct cultures to nevertheless embrace a shared European identity. There is still support to be found for the notion of cultural pluralism and tolerance.
Yet, as Europe’s far-right parties grow so does euroscepticism, and the far-right’s nationalist and protectionist ideology continues to win support and fuel anti-EU sentiments. Maintaining popular support for the European project is an important factor in encouraging a narrative of cultural inclusiveness and global solidarity. EU membership works to counter the nationalism of the far-right and is one step in the right direction of expanding the notion of culture. Yet, this narrative is slowly becoming the exception to the rule in European politics, and is now mostly championed by humanitarian and activist non-governmental organizations.
In Denmark, the ultra-nationalistic Danish People’s Party, which won a monumental victory in the latest national election and is now serving as a supporting party to the centre-right government Ventre, has managed to play on tensions between the country’s existing immigrant population and its majority ‘ethnically Danish’ population. They have succeeded in projecting a stark incompatibility between Danish culture on the one hand and immigrants (mostly Muslim) on the other that resonates deeply with large parts of the Danish population.
Their cultural argument is primarily based on the premise that foreign non-western immigrants, especially Muslims and ethnically Arab or Middle Eastern immigrants will dilute and deteriorate Danish culture. Yet, the exclusion of these immigrants from Denmark’s culture, society, and politics will only result in further marginalization, division and social tension.
The divisive and xenophobic rhetoric of far-right politicians sends a message to the public that intolerance is not only acceptable but normal, and fuels the daily discrimination that Muslims experience in schools, workplaces, public spaces, and the mainstream media.
This is not just a Danish issue — Islamophobia is a growing problem throughout Europe, as the European Commission on Racism and Intolerance has expressed. The far-right, in driving the marginalization of Muslims, has added to the growing number of young Europeans leaving to join ISIS. Indeed, Denmark is home to the second largest number of Islamists fighting abroad per capita among western European nations — a phenomenon that has to be understood within the context of the divisive and xenophobic climate in Denmark and throughout Europe.
Moreover, besides fostering internal division and marginalization, the DPP’s anti-immigration narrative of immigrants and refugees leading to cultural and societal ruin has proved so convincing that the government has implemented internationally criticized laws such as the L87 that significantly reduce refugees’ rights.
The DPP’s cultural narrative is inherently ahistorical, contradictory and unsustainable. It is based on a notion that Denmark must be restored to its ‘Golden Days’, by which ‘authentic’ Danish culture will be saved in the face of the outside forces of globalization, Europeanization, immigration, and lastly, Islam. However, any notion of ‘ authentic’ culture is troublesome given its constantly evolving nature.
Likewise, the DPP’s policy proposals, only some of which have been implemented, undermine democratic principles of personal freedom – principles the party otherwise champions but is ready to compromise in the name of the culture war. They have proposed that it should be mandatory to speak Danish in private homes, that the niqab, the burqa, and Arabic-language television channels, such as Al Jazeera, be banned, that immigrant families be collectively punished, and that all public childcare institutions be mandated to to serve pork.
The anti-globalization and anti-EU stance that the DPP shares with other European far-right parties — one of state sovereignty at the cost of all else — is regressive and untenable. The alternative to letting Denmark be “absorbed by the world,” in the words of the DPP’s Martin Henriksen, cannot be to cut all ties of global responsibility, arrest all flows of immigration including refugees and withdraw from the EU — all the more so given the inevitable global changes Europe currently faces.
The force with which far-right parties have monopolized the cultural narrative and attendant attitudes towards immigrants and refugees in Denmark and other European countries such as Sweden, Finland, France, Poland, and Hungary is troubling. It has revealed a deeply rooted cultural crisis that, in the absence of any compelling alternative narrative to capture Europe’s attention, is leading citizens to support a flawed and contradictory notion of culture.
Yet, it is important that a compelling counter narrative be presented that does not foster the same extreme division and animosity: in the words of DPP European Parliament representative Mogens Camre, Europe’s Muslims “continue where Hitler finished” and “only the treatment Hitler got will change the situation,” suggesting shamelessly that Europe’s Muslims be gotten rid of. French Front National leader Marine Le Pen has made a similarly chilling statement, comparing public Muslim prayer to the Nazi occupation of France.
If Denmark, as well as in the rest of Europe, is interested in maintaining social cohesion as its demography gradually changes with the continual influx of immigrants and refugees, and as the already immigrated minority groups grow ever more visible, the cultural narrative must be shifted accordingly. The already significant immigrant populations living in Europe must not only be tolerated, but also accommodated and allowed to play a part in shaping a new cultural landscape that allows for genuine pluralism. Accepting the notion of culture as fluid and distinct requires the adoption of a less black-and-white narrative — a seemingly daunting task given the ever growing support for the European far-right.
The opposition will need to engage itself with the culture war and challenge the far-right’s monopoly, and point Europe in the direction of pluralism and multiculturalism. Nothing less will ensure the survival of the European project.
Leah Barrett Werner is a senior at McGill University, majoring in English Literature with a minor in Anthropology.