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Pandora's Box:Europe 2007

A reflective essay on the xenophobic baggage of our continent

 

by Charlotte Bank

published December 2007

 

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Europe has witnessed a disturbing increase in xenophobic tendencies with occasional situations of extreme right wing parties gaining political influence to such a degree that they dictate national policies. We have seen this in Italy under Silvio Berlusconi, in Austria with Jörg Haider, the near-victory of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France's presidential elections in 2002 and in the centre-right government in Denmark, whose majority in Parliament is dependent on the extremist Danish People's Party with their nationalistic and racist agenda. This constellation has even given rise to fierce criticism from international organizations several times, something that is conveniently dismissed in Denmark with the argument that "they do not understand the particular Danish situation"; meaning apparently that no foreigner has enough intellectual insight to grasp what is going on in Danish society.

Foreigners, whether living in the country or outside, are seemingly seen as a disturbing nuisance. The peculiar concept of "Danishness", involving love for the national flag (displayed on every possible and impossible occasion) and the idea of belonging to a "chosen" race, the happiest and most friendly people on Earth, as any frequent reader of newspaper statistics will know, is paramount in all debates on these questions. Immigrants seem to disturb this comfortable self-centredness. They dare come and insist on keeping their own cultural and personal identities. And they sometimes refuse to join in the choir of laudation on the Danish "system". Every immigrant is expected to show a will to "integrate". Meaning in the Danish case not only to learn the language and function in society, but actually give up one's own identity and personal history. That Danes living abroad rarely display any will to "integrate" is never mentioned.

The idea of national superiority is of course not exclusive to Denmark, although some of the most amusing examples of manifestations of the phenomenon come from this country. It is an idea deeply rooted in the European mind. "We had the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment and this makes us a superior race. For this reason we have the right to be everywhere and dictate, foreigners have to beg for our acceptance, and we can withdraw it at any time" - with this philosophy, the European mind has shown a formidable ability to jusitfy some of the most hideous atrocities in human history.

In an increasingly mobile world Europe needs to review its outdated concept of national identity and superiority and accept that just as we Europeans are moving around and seeing this as our right, this can no longer be the privilege of a supposedly superior white European race. Other people come to us, some to work, others because they marry one of us while others seek refuge amongst us. And these people have the right to expect that we respect them and their complexities.

For some people it is part of their work and lifestyle to be mobile and move between several countries. For these "contemporary nomads" (I myself am one of them) the aim is to be able to function in as many different societies as possible while staying true to one's own personality and identity. Identity can be defined along different lines, nationality is not the only one.

I was once asked by a Danish doctor where I grew up. My answer "I grew up moving around" - this being what describes my childhood best - apparently provoked the poor doctor to a frightening degree. Failing to grasp the meaning of my words or being unwilling or just too limited to try and understand it, he dismissed it and said "nobody can grow up moving around. People grow up in places and countries". What about itinerant people, nomads, diplomats, "gypsies", beduins etc. one might ask. How are they to justify their existence, when being mobile is regarded as a "non-state-of-being", not an advantage, possibly a wonderful and great freedom or even something to strive for, but rather as problematic and socially suspect?

When place is accorded such a paramount position in a society as I experienced in Denmark, how are we "itinerants" to justify our presence in such a society? When our perception of Self is not based on any national aspect or even on the notion of being rooted in any society, but on much more subtle and personal complexities, how can we find a place in a ground-obsessed world?

An international and multi-lingual childhood and youth spent between Luxembourg, France, Italy, Germany and Denmark made me become used to moving between societies and languages at an early age. I left the country I was born in at the age  of three when I was fluent in my first language and was immediately confronted with the startling experience of other people not understanding what I was saying. But as children are, I soon learned my next languages and the experience of having to adapt fast to new conditions is one of the most valuable I can think of, and I thank my parents for not sparing me this. It did not hinder my development as is often supposed (I even managed to graduate from university...). Having been "uprooted" at such an early age, before the idea of Self even starts to develop has given me great strength and taught me to rely on my own capacities, rather than rely on the approval of others.

It does not always open doors, though. Often it does quite the opposite. Wherever one comes at whatever time in life, it will always be inconvenient for some people becuse it is unexpected. We exiles and itinerants are unexpected. We just turn up with our complex personalities and abilities and we challenge other people to take notice of us. We disturb their concepts of stability and their perception of themselves. This often results in an attitude of hostility. Every exile experiences this. We will always remain aliens, outsiders, observers; this is the fate of every uprooted person. Some exiles turn to idealizing their country or region of origin to make their exile more bearable, others choose to accept uprootedness as strength.

For some reasons, governments seem to fear this freedom of space and spirit. And so a media based war on cultural tolerance has been declared. To investigate the mechanisms of its strategy, I embarked on an experiment in autumn 2006. From September 2006 to June 2007 I collected newspaper articles on topics relating to foreigners in Denmark published in free newspapers distributed in buses, metro and trains. Official institutions, be it health institutions, professional associations, trade unions or government offices undertake regular "information campaigns" with the aim of discrediting immigrant residents.

The public is constantly bombarded with new isues all relating to the incompatability of immigration with national economic growth, with high educational standard, with national culture, with "Danishness"  and so forth. The campaigns follow a rythm of three to four days devoted to one particular topic, e.g. the low hygienic standard of ethnic restaurants, the dangers to traffic due to fasting Muslims during Ramadan, the lower intelligence of children due to marriages between first grade cousins, immigrant women faking illness to stay out of job training programs, only to name a few popular topics. All this serve to dehumanize immigrants and thus make it easier for the government to "sell" its xenophobic policy to its citizens.

Voices attempting to counteract these tendencies are few and silenced to an increasing degree. For them, the flagship of Danish democracy, Freedom of Speech, seems to have no application. There is more and more a disturbing sense of the media being "gleichgeschaltet", making it even more important for everybody to question his or her own xenophobic baggage, carried along from the bloodstained history of our continent.

This essay was published in December 2007 as a contribution to the "Intercultural Dialogue" forum at europe.culturebase.net, europe now - europe next project.

zakharif projects | charlotte.bank.zakharif@gmail.com