People outside the fence round the Eurotunnel terminal in Calais. Photo: Francois Lo Presti/AFP/Getty
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Europe shouldn’t worry about migrants. It should worry about creeping fascism

The greatest threat to our “way of life” is not migration. It is that we will swallow the lie that some human lives matter less than others.

There is an urban legend about boiling frogs, and it goes like this. If you put a frog in a pan of cold water and slowly, slowly turn up the heat, the frog will sit there quite calmly until it boils to death. Creeping cultural change is like that. It’s hard to spot when you’re living inside it. You can stay very still while the mood of a society becomes harder and meaner and uglier by stages, telling yourself that everything is going to be fine as all around you, the water begins to bubble.

This week I had coffee with a friend who has also just come back from a year away – teaching in Spain for her, studying in America for me. For both of us, coming home has been hard. There are some things I missed that simply aren’t there anymore. A particular shade of lipstick at Boots. My favourite zombie show on the BBC. And most of all, a sense of basic tolerance, however pretended-at, a feeling that there are some ways of talking in public about people who are not white, or not British, or in any way “other2, which are the province of far-right hate groups, the Duke of Edinburgh and no one else.

“Is it me,” said my friend, “Or is it just...okay to say things that are violently racist now? Has that always been okay, and I just didn’t notice till now?”

No, it hasn’t always been okay, and in fact it’s still not okay – but it is a normal part of the public conversation, in a way it wasn’t, even a year ago. Coming back feels like being plunged into that pan of boiling water, struggling and wondering why on earth everyone else is so calm. It’s not that Britain wasn’t a racist, parochial place before. But the xenophobic, Islamophobic and, most obviously, the anti-immigrant rhetoric has ramped up everywhere.

I noticed it from the moment I picked up the free newspapers they hand out on the plane home – and not just the Daily Mail, which is finally free to be as fascist today as it was in 1935 when it rooted all-out for Hitler and the blackshirts. The other free paper, the Independent, was just as concerned that day with the seemingly unstoppable “tide” of migrants arriving from Calais, many of them from- shock, horror, surely not – Africa (in fact, over half of migrants to Europe come from just two Middle Eastern countries).

By the time we touched down I realised how badly all of us were fooled in May. We made the mistake, all of us, of thinking that UKIP, with 12.6 per cent of the vote share and just one MP, did not win the general election. But the rhetoric of the racist, xenophobic fringe has been adopted by the political mainstream in a way that is no less upsetting for being entirely predictable.

The ultimate victory of fringe groups is not to enter the administration, but to change its direction, and Ukip has done this with aplomb, playing into a broader, well-orchestrated European meltdown over migration. Every paper has led with headlines about the supposed “immigrant crisis”. The prime minister describes migrants to Europe as a “swarm”, and the foreign secretary goes further, warning the people of Britain that the thousands of desperate people drowning in the Mediterranean are “marauding” foreigners who must be prevented from coming here because they will threaten our “standard of living” and our “way of life”.

As the bodies stack up in Calais and the death toll mounts in the Mediterranean, with two thousand migrants drowning this summer alone, ministers are not softening their language. On the contrary: they are doubling down. Fortress Europe must protect its borders from the “influx”, the “tide”, the “flood”. Although new arrivals from nations suffering war, tyranny and climate change made up just 0.027 per cent of Europe’s population last year, it simply cannot be allowed to continue, because… because…

Because what Europe needs now, more than anything else, is a common threat.

The behaviour of the British and wider European elite towards migrants is not simple inhumanity. It is strategic inhumanity. It is weaponised inhumanity designed to convince populations fracturing under hammer-blows of austerity and economic chaos that the enemy is out there, that there is an “us” that must be protected from “them”. There is a reason why David Cameron’s precise suggestion as to how to deal with the desperate human beings coming across the channel is “more dogs and fences”. There is a reason that Angela Merkel’s response, in June, to a demonstration where the bodies of drowned migrants were buried on the front lawn of the Bundestag was stony silence. All of this has happened before. All of this, in fact, is precisely what the European Union was established to prevent.

Fascism happens when a culture fracturing along social lines is encouraged to unite against a perceived external threat. It’s the terrifying “not us” that gives the false impression that there is an “us” to defend.

Living standards have certainly gone down across the eurozone, but that has very little to do with immigration. The chosen minority must summon the fears of every social class at once. That’s why migrants, the bogeyman of choice, are presented as a paradox, just as the Jews were in the 1930s.

Nobody can quite decide whether migrants are a problem because they work so hard that they’re taking all the jobs (the biggest fear of a working class pummelled by unemployment and falling wages) or because they’re too lazy to work so they’re taking all the benefit money (the biggest fear of a middle class suffering with rising rents and cuts to social services);

It cannot be both at once, and in fact it isn’t – but it’s important that the paradox is maintained nonetheless. That’s why the Migration Advisory Council is imposing new, stricter controls on “skilled migrants” entering the country even as it cracks down on an already miserly state support system for asylum seekers.

I don’t know at what point in the past decade the word “asylum seeker” became synonymous with “criminal” in popular conversation, but on that day, the continent of Europe became a meaner, cheaper place.

Human decency, however, has been factored out of the equation – on purpose. Britain and the rest of Europe have deliberately been whipped up into a state of panic over migration, and when people are panicking, they don’t really listen to reason. No amount of reassuring statistics – for instance, that the number of refugees in Britain is not only low, but falling – is going to help when you have the Daily Mail drawing cartoons peopled with racist caricatures where drowned “illegals” are trying to jump the fence into heaven ahead of recently-deceased national treasures and a culture where this is considered publishable in the daily news. This is a debate that tore loose from the facts a long time ago.

So perhaps we should take a different approach. Perhaps those of us lucky enough to be European citizens should take a deep breath and realise that maybe, just maybe, our feelings might not be the most important thing here. That maybe if thousands of people are desperate enough to risk death to come to our shores, whether or not we’re entirely comfortable having them move to our area should not be the deciding factor in policymaking.

The liberal press is as guilty of this as anyone. Notionally more compassionate news outlets take care to remind us that immigrants actually “enrich” our culture and bring economic benefits. The fact that this is entirely true does not make it any less of an offensive argument. Migrants do not come to the west from war-torn Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan or any other nation that has been colonised and occupied and then bombed and plundered for resources over centuries of imperial and post-imperial exploitation chiefly to enrich the lives of westerners and liven up our god-awful cuisine with some actual flavour. They come out of fear for their lives. They come for asylum and security and opportunity, and they are perfectly entitled to do so, if not by the law of the land then by the principles of justice and human decency.

The greatest threat to our “way of life” is not migration. Migration does change society, although far less so than, for example, technology, economic austerity, escalating inequality, globalisation or climate change. But the greatest threat to our “way of life”, if there has ever been such a thing on this vast and varied continent, is not that someday you or I might be sitting on a bus and hear someone speaking Pashto or Tigrinya. The threat is that we will swallow the public narrative that immigrants, people from non-European countries are less human than the rest of us, that they think and feel less, that they matter less. Europeans are quite capable of sitting calmly in the bubbling water of cultural bigotry until it boils away every shred of compassion we have left. That’s the real threat to our “way of life”.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.