Xenophobia and detrimental existentialist nationalism

Published : 15 Oct 2019 05:28 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 08:10 PM

Xenophobia is the fear or hatred of that which is perceived to be foreign or stra­nge. Analysts also feel that it can involve per­ceptions of an in-group toward an external group, not recognized as part of the community. It can then manifest itself in suspicion of the activities of others, and a desire to eliminate their presence to secure a presumed purity and may relate to a fear of losing national, ethnic or racial identity. Such an approach to finding solutions towards the resolution of suspected problems is becoming apparent in different parts of the world, particularly in Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and also in parts located in the Middle East, North Africa and parts of southern Africa.

Xenophobia is also exhibited at times in the form of an uncritical exaltation of a particular ethnic background or sub-culture. Within this format, a culture might be ascribed to as possessing "an unreal, stereotyped and exotic quality".

Nationalism is inherently divisive because it highlights perceived differences between people, emphasizing an individual's identification with their own nation. The idea is also potentially oppressive because it submerges individual identity within a national whole, and gives elites or political leader’s potential opportunities to manipulate or control the masses.

These factors have led UNESCO, to suggest that the terms xenophobia and pseudo-racism often overlap, but differ in how the latter encompasses prejudice based on physical characteristics while the former is generally centered on behavior based on the notion of a specified people being adverse to the culture or nation.

This evolving scenario has led Andreas Wimmer to mention that xenophobia has become part of the evolving paradigm of the socio-political struggle about who has the right to be cared for by the state and society. It has transcended the matrix of human rights and transformed itself into: a fight for the collective goods of the modern state. This can be interpreted as a format where xenophobia arises when people feel that their right to benefit from the government is being subverted by other people's rights.Such an approach subsequently acquires a taste of nationalism in the beginning and later follows the path of xenophobic fundamentalist racism.

It may be recalled that what is regarded today as xenophobic sentiment has existed for more than two thousand years. An early example of such feelings was present in western culture in the form of ancient Greek denigration of foreigners as “barbarians”. It arose from the belief that the Greek people and culture were superior to all others, and the subsequent conclusion that barbarians were naturally meant to be enslaved. Such a notion of superiority also existed among the ancient Romans who believed that all other peoples- Macedonians, Thracians, Illyrians, Syrians and Asiatic Greeks should be subservient to them. We are noticing at present such an illusion in the context of extreme right wing activists in Germany, France, Netherlands, Italy and some other regions of Europe.

Color of skins have also taken on a detrimental role and is contributing to racism in Canada, Australia and also in South and North America. It has been noted by electronic media analysts that in Brazil, in the case of “telenovelas” Brazilians of darker skin tone are typically depicted as housekeepers or in positions of lower socioeconomic standing.

In Canada and the USA there have been reports of attacks on persons who have beards or belong to the Muslim faith or are dark in color. This discriminatory approach is probably the residual of the effects of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. The unacceptable terrorist attacks carried out by the Islamic State have also not helped.

However, there is a difference in the context of the USA and Canada. Unlike many other parts of the world there is no refusal to accept that racism is contributing towards xenophobia and must be stopped. There is a growing feeling among the network of scores of US and Canadian civil rights and human rights organizations that discrimination exists and has had an osmotic effect that has permeated many aspects of life in these countries- extending to all communities of color. Discrimination against racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, especially when it comes to citizens of African- Latin origin, is widely acknowledged. There is also acknowledgement that at times, like in Latin America and Europe, ethnic and religious minority living here have perceived discrimination in their dealings with other minority racial and religious groups.

However, in the context of xenophobia and discrimination, one also has to refer to efforts aimed at creating anti-Semetic feelings- which is also unacceptable. We have noticed this happening most unfortunately in certain parts of Europe. Such a dynamics also contributes towards a reverse effect.

Strategic analysts have referred in this regard to a study that ran from 2002 to 2015. It was undertaken by the Harvard University to map out the social attitudes in several European countries with regard to incidents of racial bias, based on data from 288,076 white Europeans. The reaction-based psychological test was designed to measure implicit racial bias. The strongest racial bias was found in several Eastern European countries- the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Bulgaria, Slovakia and also in Malta, Italy and Portugal. A 2017 report by the University of Oslo Center for Research on Extremism has also tentatively suggested that "individuals of Muslim background stand out among perpetrators of antisemitic violence in Western Europe. There have also been reports of individuals and groups perpetrating acts of terror against the nomadic Romanis scattered in different parts of Europe.

In this regard, one needs to refer to what is happening in some of the western European countries. In Belgium, there has been recorded well over a hundred antisemitic attacks in 2009. This was a 100% increase from the year before. The perpetrators were usually young males of immigrant background from the Middle East. In 2009, the Belgian city of Antwerp experienced a surge in antisemitic violence

In 2004, France experienced rising levels of Islamic antisemitism and acts that were publicized around the world. In 2006, rising levels of antisemitism were recorded in French schools. Reports related to tensions between the children of North African Muslim immigrants and North African Jewish children. This dynamics apparently resulted in over 7,000 members of the Jewish community petitioning for asylum in the United States in 2007, citing existing anti-Semitism currents in France. This growing development has resulted in French authorities appointing a special coordinator for fighting racism and anti-Semitism.

There has been another perspective of racial discrimination in Hungary. It relates to the Romani nomadic facing disadvantages, including unequal treatment, discrimination, segregation and harassment. These negative stereotypes are often linked to existing unemployment and reliance on state benefits among the Romani population. In 2008 and 2009, there were carefully planned nine attacks against the Romani population in Hungary, resulting in six deaths and multiple injuries.

Anti-Roma sentiment also exists in Italy and has taken on the form of hostility, prejudice, discrimination or racism directed at Romani people. There's no reliable data for the total number of Roma people living in Italy, but estimates put it between 140,000 and 170,000. Many national and local political leaders unfortunately also engaged in rhetoric during 2007 and 2008 that suggested that the extraordinary rise in crime at the time was mainly a result of uncontrolled immigration of people of Roma origin from Romania. National and local leaders have also declared their plans to expel Roma from settlements in and around major cities and to deport illegal immigrants. According to a May 2008 poll, 68% of Italians, wanted to see all of the country's approximately 150,000 Gypsies, many of them Italian citizens, expelled. 

In Netherlands, in 2012, the Dutch right-wing Party for Freedom started using a website which deliberately featured an anti-Polish and anti-Romani paradigm. It was used by the Dutch people to air their frustration about losing their job because of cheaper workers from Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and other non- Germanic Central and Eastern European countries. This country has also been the victim of anti-Semetic incidents, from verbal abuse to violence, allegedly carried out by youth, mostly boys from Moroccan descent.

This aspect has led many to re-think about the detrimental effects of nationalism

Some nationalists exclude certain groups. Some nationalists, defining the national community in ethnic, linguistic, cultural, historic, or religious terms (or a combination of these), may then seek to deem certain minorities as not truly being a part of the 'national community' as they define it. Sometimes a mythic homeland is more important for the national identity than the actual territory occupied by the nation. A sacred quality is sought in the nation and in the popular memories it evokes. Citizenship is idealized by territorial nationalists. A criterion of a territorial nationalism is the establishment of a mass, public culture based on common values, codes and traditions of the population. This is sometimes taken forward by wrongly using religion as a factor.

In any case as it stands today, the world is receiving notice of usurpation of human rights and that needs to be addressed- sooner the better.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance