Liberal élites, multiculturalism and the language of resentment
Ian Buruma 31 May 2012

It is probably a mistake, or certainly an illusion, to think that xenophobia and dislike of foreigners and people who are different can somehow be stamped out. It slumbers in all of us and it depends on social and political circumstances in how it manifests itself. It is a bit like anti-Semitism – I think it was Isaiah Berlin who once said that “in Europe people more or less dislike Jews, but an anti-Semite is someone who dislikes Jews more than necessary”, meaning when it becomes murderous, and that’s when it becomes serious. I believe that this is true of all forms of xenophobia: it’s always there, but when does it become dangerous? As far as the issue of “Muslims in Europe” is concerned, for a long time people were indifferent to their presence: they just didn’t care. Indifference often is an underrated virtue; for a minority it is not the worst thing if a majority is indifferent, it is better than if they want to cut your throat. Guest workers from Morocco, parts of Turkey etc. were invited to come to Europe in the 1960s because it was good for business, because we needed people to do the dirty work. It was preferred that they were uneducated – they were actually selected in Turkey and other places for their lack of education, as we didn’t want educated workers – the idea was that they would go back home once they had done their jobs. This is very similar to certain immigration patterns in the United States: it’s not for nothing that George W. Bush was in favor of Mexican guest workers. Because it is good for business, we need these people, and that is generally known by people who represent the interest of business.

The indifference to Muslims in Europe began to change in the 1990s, when it became clear that these people belonging to the first wave of guest workers were not going to go back and they were often joined by their families. This began to change the atmosphere in old working class areas, and the largely Muslim foreigners became a real presence in European cities. Because Europe does not have an immigration policy, but only a policy for refugees and asylum seekers, the status of guest workers who were allowed to stay was always highly unsure and they were certainly never accepted as citizens. A problem the United States is also facing in the south.

Now, when people began to complain about the tensions that rose from the presence of large numbers of foreigners in their midst, the liberal elites in Europe – the people we like to think we belong to and we support – very quickly dismissed such complaints as “racism”, “xenophobia” etc. And this largely is a consequence of World War II. Much like “nationalism”, racism became a bad word, the source of all evil. Anything that smacked of racism had to be very quickly suppressed, for perfectly noble reasons, but it did mean that people began to feel they couldn’t openly discuss problems that they felt were quite real and sometimes were quite real. I think this is one source of discontent.

And on the left, the Old Left began to turn against the Muslims. In my opinion the watershed moment was the Salman Rushdie affair. He himself liked to present himself at the time as somebody who was always on the side of the Third World, of the downtrodden, he was a multiculturalist etc. But when his books began to be burned, he and certainly his supporters – mostly people on the liberal left – suddenly began to see the Muslim presence, and certainly the presence of Islam, as a danger to Western liberal values, things that they, and presumably we all, support. The mood turned against Muslims, but – I think politically more significantly – it also turned against the liberal elites, because the liberal elites, whether they be intellectuals or politicians, were largely blamed for immigration policies that were not really immigration policies, for foisting immigrants and particularly Muslims on Western societies without allowing it to be discussed, and they were blamed also for “Europe.” And it’s very interesting, if you look at right-wing populism in Europe today, how quickly the anti-Muslim propaganda can switch to anti-European propaganda. How quickly in recent months anti-Muslim sentiment switched to the Greeks, Europe, the elites “who are robbing us of our national identity because they want us all to be Europeans. We want our our countries back. “ This is very much an echo, or at least a parallel to the Tea Party rhetoric of “we want our country back, we want America back, we want the real America back.” The enemy is no longer – because it can be switched so easily from Muslims to Greeks or Europeans or lazy southerners – the same: the real target is actually not those people. The real target are the local elites, the liberal elites, who are blamed for people’s anxieties. “Europe” stands for a remote aristocracy ruling us from Brussels, without us really having any input; “the elites” are blamed for pushing this down our throats; and “globalization” poses the same threat. People realized not entirely unreasonably that globalization has created new class divisions between those who benefit from globalization and those who don’t; those who don’t are the ones who, as it were, “want their country back”, whilst those who benefit from globalization continue to talk about the benefits of cross-cultural dialogue, borderless economies and indeed Europe.

Now the language of these resentments against elites is partly the language of betrayal – “the elites have betrayed us, they have taken our country away from us” – and partly, Europe being Europe and recent history being recent history, the resentments are still fought out in the terminology of World War II, which is why so often these discussions degenerate into finger pointing about appeasers, “islamo-fascists”, cowards versus resistants. This is certainly true in my native country, the Netherlands, were those traumas are particularly deep for various historical reasons, but I think it is true in many European countries. Which is unfortunate because it stands in the way of a rational discussion of things which need to be rationally discussed: the impact of large numbers of refugees, asylum seekers and de facto immigrants does cause problems and tensions and needs to be rationally discussed. It can’t be rationally discussed where people immediately accuse each other of being like Chamberlain in 1938, or “appeasers” of islamo-fascism. Because of this, we can also understand why the Old Left – or at least members of it –, the ones who were turned against Islam by the Rushdie affair, have joined the right-wing populists in their so-called defense of Western civilization against its enemies, in this case Islam.

There are various reasons why members of the Old Left have taken this view. One is that they themselves, often from conservative religious families, fought in the student struggles of the 1960s for gay rights, for feminism and so on – all these good things that are now taken for granted even by and large by conservative parties – and they see Muslim immigration, Islam, as a threat against everything they fought for in the 1960s. And they see the liberal elites, the muliticulturalists, the appeasers and so on as traitors, because they are not standing up – in their view – for these things that are now under threat from Islam. Anti-religion, anti-clericalism is of course another reason for it; and the phrase “islamo-fascism” makes people who take this view feel more than comfortable, because they feel that they have been fighting fascism all their lives, and are continuing to do so. So even by joining right-wing populists, they are not really changing their views fundamentally.

Now my native country, not normally a country that gets into the news very much – unless it’s for having gay policeman who smoke joints or, quite the opposite, producing bigots and racists who preach against Islam – but it has come up with a form of xenophobia which I think is actually new. The political situation in the Netherlands is not very pleasant at the moment, but it has made it a quite interesting country. The populists – first Pim Fortuyn and now Geert Wilders – have come up with a new formula. The Dutch have always prided themselves on being in the vanguard of socio-cultural developments, and in a negative sense now, I think they really are. Because it is not the old right-wing form of xenophobia which still bedeviled much of the populist right in countries like Austria, France and Germany, which still had unsavory echoes of the 1930s. The new populism, espoused by people like Pim Fortyun and Wilders, is a very different one, which fits much more closely with the “Salman-Rushdian-left”, that turned against Islam in the 1990s. The idea is that we have to fight against Islam, Islamism, Muslim immigration, to protect the liberal values that we now take for granted as being the defining factors of the West. In other words, we need to defend feminism, gay rights etc. against the main threat to these things, which comes from Islam, This is a new form of populism. Now, it is in many ways ingenuous, but it is something that needs to be taken seriously. I think it is not adequate to dismiss that argument simply as calling it “xenophobia” or “racism” or whatever. I think there are counterarguments to this view, but it needs to be taken more seriously than simply another sermon against xenophobia.


Ian Buruma, is the Luce Professor of democracy, human rights & journalism at Bard College, NY and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine, New Republic, New Yorker, The Guardian.