THE ROVING EYE Letter from Islamophobistan
By Pepe Escobar
Last Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stunned the world by declaring,
in front of young members of her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU),
that multiculturalism - or multikulti, as it is known in Germany - was
The day before, I was in the Lufthansa lounge at Frankfurt airport having a
parallel discussion with a group of German businessmen; they had practically
handed me down a news alert on what Merkel would soon make public. Not
accidentally, the best seller at all airport kiosks was the Islamophobia
pamphlet published by a
former Bundesbank higher-up, Thilo Sarrazin, who paints Muslim immigrants at
best as lazy, welfare cheats and fornicating sub-intelligent beings. Sarrazin
sees Muslims as an existential threat to Germany on a par to hardcore Zionists
seeing Iran as an existential threat to Israel.
By that time, after three weeks roving from northern Italy to southern Sweden
via Copenhagen, I had no doubts; I was deep inside Islamophobistan - that
Europe-wide arc where Islamophobia is being gleefully practiced as an electoral
business of fear.
Arbeit macht frei
Among other things, Merkel also said that immigration was prejudicial to the
German economy - an assertion which in itself is ridiculous; to fight its
severe labor shortages over the past decades the country has successively
resorted to gastarbeiter (guestworkers) from Italy, Spain, Greece,
Turkey and the former Yugoslavia. But most of all it's those ominous,
resurrection shades of a dominatrix German culture which may have sent a chill
through many a European spine. What's more ominous, in fact, is that Merkel's
words mirror an European-wide response to immigration.
Multikulti was the concept found in the 1980s to accommodate a wave of
migrants Germany never wanted to really gobble up - not with all the trouble of
assimilating their culture, their languages and their religion. The heart of
the multikulti bargain was that an immigrant was allowed to be attached
to his native culture, but he had to pledge loyalty to the German state.
The problem is that the ploy basically led to permanent alienation of large
swathes of immigrants. And a further problem is that the European definition of
a nation is through nationality.
So why is this ballistic "return of the repressed", the ever-so-touchy question
of national identity in Germany, exploding now? First of all, because of those
masses of Muslim workers, mostly Turkish. In Germany it seems to have coalesced
an explosive amalgam of Turkey and Islam - which includes everything from
jihadi terror to Turkey's application to join the European Union (EU).
All major polls agree that a majority of Germans is not exactly fond of 4
million resident Muslims (5% of the overall population). 35% believe the nation
is "swamped by foreigners" and 10% want the return of a Fuhrer with an "iron
hand". In Germany there are scores of neo-Nazi groups with minimal public
impact; on the other hand the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NDP) has
already reached 5% of the votes in Thuringia.
Then there's the deep crisis of the EU itself. If the German government attacks multikulti,
it is at the same time affirming the primacy of German national identity. And
that identity is certainly not subordinated to the notion of an overarching
European identity. Mein Gott; in a nutshell the EU dream is in deep,
If Germany cannot import qualified workers - Merkel said the country needs at
least 400,000 high-tech specialists - it may certainly export everything from
its production lines to information technology support. But what if these
much-needed new high-tech workers came from Russia? And Russia started to
receive even more German investment? Now that is a completely different
approach to the EU. And as the whole of Europe is now immersed in a severe
cultural clash - real or imagined - within the EU borders, no wonder the
proclaimed death of multikulti, beyond Merkel's electoral aims, is bound
to have immense geopolitical and geoeconomic repercussions.
The new Inquisition
Austrian-American psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich, in his Mass Psychology of Fascism,
stressed that racial theory is not a creation of fascism. On the contrary;
fascism is a creation of racial hatred and its politically organized
The New (anti-Islam) Inquisition did not hit Europe immediately after 9/11; it
has reached critical mass only today. The popular political sport in Europe
today is not to watch Real Madrid and AC Milan playing in the Champions
Football League; it is to watch populists invoking Islam - depicted as an
"ideology that opposes everything that matters to us" - to crystallize all
manner of phobias and fears of European citizens.
Fear of Islamization, fear of the burqa - no distraction could be as
convenient for people to forget the dire, unending economic crisis that has
produced catastrophic unemployment rates all across Europe. This may be part of
a deep cultural and psychological crisis within Europe, with not a shred of a
real political alternative; but few progressive minds are alert to the fact
that this turbo-charging of racism and xenophobia is also a consequence of the
overall crisis of neo-liberalism.
Mad against foreigners? Mad against politicians? That's soooo last century. The
new groove is mad against Islam. It does not matter that immigration to Europe
has been in decline for years; still "they" have to become like "us". An aging,
fearful, reactionary Europe is terrified that The Other, issued from younger or
more dynamic regions of the world, is catching up.
Asia - not Europe - is the future. A melancholic weekend in a
tourist/trash-infested Venice turned into a replica of its Las Vegas mirror
provided me the graphic illustration; I did feel like Dirk Bogarde in Death in
Venice - and so must feel countless Europeans.
As much as Sweden invented modern social democracy and the best performing
welfare state of the latter part of the 20th century, it was hardly surprising
that the extreme right, the Sverigedemokraterna (SD, as in Swedish Democrats)
first entered parliament last September 19, with 5.7% of the votes.
The SD, considered by many as "racist and neo-Nazi", is led by Jimmie Akesson,
31, the new young darling of the European extreme right alongside his elder
Dutch counterpart Geert Wilders. Akesson stresses that Islam/Muslim immigration
is the biggest foreign threat to Sweden since Adolf Hitler. (Wilders for his
part was recently invited to Berlin by former CDU member Rene Stadtkewitz, who
founded a new party, Die Freiheit ("Freedom"), named after Wilders' own Freedom
Party; and he was also recently invited to New York to speak against the
proposed Islamic Center in Manhattan near Ground Zero).
This video shows how
the SD went no holds barred to get their votes (as it was explained to me, the
video was banned, and later one private TV station would air it, but only with
the video completely blurred out). No one needs to speak Swedish to understand
an elderly lady being overrun to get state benefits by a horde of burqa-clad
There's hardly a way to evade a direct link between the historically very low
score of the Swedish social democrats and the also historic rise of the extreme
right. For American, Asian, Middle Eastern observers this may sound utterly
suicidal; how could the Swedes possibly reject an old-school welfare state that
assures to everyone the Holy Trinity of health, education and a good pension?
So if the ultra-civil Swedes were not rejecting their model, what was it? Maybe
the answer is in a book first published in Italy in 2008 by Italian linguist
and essayist Raffaele Simone, whose subtitle literally translates as "Why the
West is not leaning to the Left".
In the extremely well-argued book, Simone proves that the European Left is
intellectually dead; it simply has not understood the drive of hardcore
capitalism (which he defines as "arch-capitalism", or "the political and
economic manifestation of the New Right"); it has not understood the correlated
primacy of individualism and consumerism; and it has refused to discuss the
phenomenon of mass immigration.
From France to Denmark, from Italy to Sweden, it's easy to see how savvy
populists skillfully deploy those European values of free speech, feminism and
secularism - oversimplifying issues to the point that their take seems logical
- as ammunition against mosques, minarets, headscarves and, of course,
And then there are local realities. The majority of those voting SD were
protesting against overwhelmingly Muslim immigrants, a great deal of them
jobless, who come to Sweden, get fat government benefits and remain idle.
Sweden is nowhere as tough on immigration as Denmark, Norway or Holland.
In Malmo, a mere 20-minute train ride via the stunning Oresund bridge from
Copenhagen, about 80,000 (60,000 of them Muslims) of the overall population of
300,000 are immigrants. There are certified losers in Malmo's carefully
calibrated transition from old industrial city to a post-mod consumer haven;
the old, the poor, and most of all, immigrants. So Sweden seems to have posed
the European-wide question of the necessity for the European welfare state to
concentrate less on health care and pensions and more on "including"
immigrants. But is this really the real question?
Shoot the minaret
Talk about an European summer of hate - from minarets banned in Switzerland to burqas
banned in Belgium.
The populist extreme right has been part of coalition governments in Italy and
Switzerland for many years now. And they are represented in the parliaments of
Austria, Denmark, Norway and Finland. The National Front in France had 9% of
the vote in last spring's French regional elections.
But now everywhere it feels like a Lamborghini let loose. Geert Wilders'
Freedom party in Holland has turbo-charged Islamophobia to the point of almost
paralyzing Dutch governance. The elegant, eloquent, peroxide-blonde populist
Wilders wants to ban the Koran - which he has compared to Hitler's Mein Kampf
- and impose a "headscarf tax" (how come no government thought about this in
the Middle East or in Pakistan?)
French President Nicolas Sarkozy - now facing his own, self-provoked May '68
remix in the streets over his pension reform - tried to seduce (once again) the
National Front by expelling planeloads of Romanian gypsies.
Austrian extreme right stalwart Heinz-Christian Strache, running for mayor of
Vienna less than two weeks ago, took no less than 27% of the vote. And Barbara
Rosenkranz, who insists anti-Nazi laws should be abolished, came second in
Austria's presidential race.
The Islamophobic, anti-immigrant Northern League of Umberto Bossi in Italy is
part of the government in Rome and not accidentally the country's
fastest-growing party, now controlling the ultra-wealthy provinces of Veneto
and Piemonte. During the latest election campaign, La Lega supporters handed
out bars of soap to be used "after touching an immigrant".
In Spain, the movement Preventive Reconquista is gaining ground - a perhaps
George W Bush-inspired preventive war against the 1 million Muslim immigrants
and their allegedly "evil" plans to re-attach Spain to Islam. A "headscarf
controversy" already erupted in Madrid last April. Local town councils have
been prohibiting the burqa and niqab - French-style (although a
national ban was only narrowly defeated in the Spanish Congress last July).
It comes as no surprise that the extreme right is more turbocharged than ever
in scores of European post-industrial cities which used to be center-left;
that's certainly the case of Wilders in Rotterdam, Le Pen in Marseille, Strache
in Vienna and Akesson in Malmo. Simone's assessment is being proven right.
And what makes these populists even more dangerous is their cross-pollination.
Austria's Freedom Party copied a game from the Swiss People's Party in which
players shoot at minarets popping up in their The Sound of Music-like landscape
(with the added Austrian bonus of shooting at the muezzins as well).
The SD learned a lot from Wilders as well as the Danish People's Party and its
chairwoman, Pia Kjaersgaard. They are all copying Wilders' trademark tactic of
pitting immigrants against old pensioners - Islamophobia mixed with the
widespread fear of the welfare state being plundered by foreigners.
In France, the revamped National Front - targeting Islamophobia - may be even
more dangerous, now led by non-dogmatic, "intellectual", business suit-wearing
Marine Le Pen, the daughter of Jean Marie, the party's founder; Marine wants to
conquer the political center, to the point where Sarkozy simply won't be able
to win anything without her.
This cross-pollination might even lead to an European-wide alliance, also
including the US and Canada; an Atlanticist Islamophobistan. In fact that's
Wilders' dream; the outfit is actually called International Freedom Alliance
and was launched last July - to "defend freedom" and "stop Islam".
Marine Le Pen is not so hot about it - her preferential agenda is to conquer
power in France. The US is also a dodgy proposition - after all Muslims make up
only 1% of the US population, leading to the surrealist American phenomenon of
Islamophobia without Muslims. Anyway it's troubling that virtually 50% of
Americans say they have a negative impression of Islam. Allah needs a good PR
So what to do? We are smack in the middle of the second globalization. The
first globalization took place between 1890 and 1914. It's a back to the future
scenario mixed with a return of the living dead; then as now the acceleration
of capital transfer, migrations and transportation is generating regression -
misguided nationalism, xenophobia, racism, and a New Inquisition.
At a recent meeting of writers and journalists organized by the magazine
Internazionale in Ferrara, in Emilia - one of Italy's and Europe's wealthiest
provinces - arguably the most crucial debate was titled "Islam; a specter
hovers around Europe". The key speakers were Tariq Ramadan, professor of
Islamic Studies at Oxford and a real academic rock star in Europe, and Olivier
Roy, professor at the European University Institute in Florence and one of
Europe's top authorities on Islam and jihad. It's fair to say both have
provided a road map for sensible citizens to follow through.
Asked about the reasons for the widespread fear of the Muslim immigrant,
Ramadan noted that this "perception harks back to the construction of the
European project". These immigrants were supposed to have come to Europe just
to work. "But now we have immigrants of second, third and fourth generation,
they leave their ghetto, they are more visible, they feel at ease to express
themselves, and their voices are heard." That causes a tremendous conflict with
their overall perception.
Ramadan insists "European Muslims have it very clear in their minds the
European concept of freedom of expression." And he is adamant; "Integration is
a thing of the past; we are already integrated" (but try convincing Angela
Merkel about it, or the citizens of Malmo for that matter).
Ramadan's key point is that Europeans - and Americans as well - should "make a
clear distinction about the instrumentalization of these fears by movements and
parties, derived from ignorance and fear itself. We should go beyond the theme
of integration and stress common values. There is a consensus now in Europe
that immigrants from second and third generation are more visible, in the
cultural, political and sporting spheres. It's passivity facing
instrumentalization that could become a tremendous risk for all European
Roy attacks the impasse from a different perspective. For him, "now there's a
sort of fake consensus. Our consensus on Islam is related to the fact that we
Europeans don't agree on what we are. Now in most European parliaments the left
and right vote together to forbid the burqa, the construction of mosques
... Left and right seem to be in agreement against Islam, but for different
motives. There's a disconnect between a religious marker and everyday life.
What is religion? And what is culture? We should say religion is religion, and
citizenship is citizenship. That's how it works in Europe. City of Man and City
of God. Muslims in Europe have adopted and are adopting the European model of
separation between Church and State."
Roy defines "two aspects about the fear of Islamization; immigration and
Islamization. For most of public opinion, they are synonyms, but that's not
true. In France, for the second and third generations, there is everything,
Muslims who pray all the time, some that pray sometimes, those who have no
practice but say they're Muslims, Europeans converting to Islam, Muslims
converting to Catholicism ... Everything depends on the political culture of
the country. Freedom of religion in Europe is not a consequence of human
rights. It was defined as a compromise after centuries of religious wars. But
this compromise - in each European country - is now in crisis. For two reasons.
One, the nation-State is in crisis. Because of globalization, European
integration, national compromises overrun by supra-national laws. And now the
freedom of religious practice is an individual right. That's something entirely
new in European political culture."
Not sure that would be enough to convince Wilders and Akesson. They are not for
inclusion; they're for exclusion - and more than ever they know the electoral
business of fear sells. The New Inquisition will go on no matter what (and it
will go out of control if one of those ghostly al-Qaedas, from Iraq, from the
Maghreb, from the Horn of Africa, from wherever, crashes a jet on the Eiffel
Tower). With that bleak prospect in mind, I left Islamophobistan the best way I
could - boarding a flight to a non-hate, non-fearful, certainly hopeful,
boundless dynamic and religious war-free part of the world: South America.