Bigotry can’t be a principle

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Across the globe an alarming trend is raising its ugly head: the resentful and angry repudiation of liberal pluralism (Published the in The Hindu’s BLINK weekly section, 18 December, 2015)

This past autumn, as Europe was coming to grips with the Syrian refugee crisis, Polish football fans in several stadiums unfurled banners with an absurd message: “Stop the Islamisation of Poland.” The Islamisation of Poland? Never mind that few refugees want to go to Poland. Never mind that Polish authorities have said there isn’t a terrorist threat to the country in the wake of the Paris attacks. Never mind that of a population of nearly 40 million people, Poland’s 31,000 Muslims barely register as drops in the ocean, or that Poland is a country of emigrants, having sent waves of exiles and workers all over the world. No, sadly, these Polish football fans looked upon the desperation of the refugees and could muster only hate.

I am always struck by the false courage of a political stand like “Stop the Islamisation of Poland.” It is bigotry masquerading as principle, the bravado of the mob veiled as the bravery of conviction.

This empty, noxious politics is visible in many ostensibly liberal societies. In Europe, the rampage of IS-allied terrorists in Paris has further inflamed xenophobic and racist sentiments that were already stirred against the Syrian refugees. In the US, the celebrity-mogul-turned-presidential-hopeful Donald Trump has turned his blunt vitriol against Muslims, urging that they be banned from coming into the country. And in recent times in India, religious symbols like the cow have been used to provoke ugly passions and even uglier deeds.

These episodes are separate and have their own regional and national contexts. But they are united by an alarming trend: the resentful and angry repudiation of liberal pluralism.

Trump has been widely denounced for his comments on Latinos and Muslims, but it hasn’t hurt his standing among Republican voters. A recent Washington Post poll found that nearly 60 per cent of Republican voters favoured banning Muslims from entering the US. Trump argues that his proposal to block Muslims is a common sense response to radical Islamist terror (like that visited upon southern California earlier this month), and that those who think otherwise are bowing to milquetoast “political correctness.” But it is a nonsensical policy that would only play into the hands of extremists.

The truth is that Trump — like other majoritarian politicians in Europe and India — is less interested in actual policy than in dredging up the public’s reservoir of fear, bigotry, and bile for his own advantage. There are now daily reports of attacks against Muslims in the US, from incidents of verbal abuse to outright physical violence.

In Europe, mainstream politicians and far-right activists alike have described the Syrian refugees as a “swarm,” a “dirt-pack,” and as “animals.” Hooligans burnt down asylum shelters in Germany. The anti-Muslim PEGIDA movement has spread from Germany to England. A regional government in northwestern Italy banned the burqa and veil in response to the Paris terrorist attacks (as if cloth could kill). Once skulking in France’s lunatic fringe, the far-right National Front is likely to play a large role in the 2017 presidential election.

Admirably, the French government has kept its cool and insisted that it will still receive thousands of Syrian refugees; it recognises that blaming the collective of Muslims for the crimes of a minuscule few is playing right into the hands of the so-called Islamic State.

And yet the temptation to turn on migrants and minorities and summon the demon of nativism remains perilously strong. The recent events in India have been well documented in these pages and elsewhere. But I find instructive the remarks of BJP supporter and internet activist Devang Dave, speaking on NDTV’s ‘The Big Fight’.

He defended the BJP’s army of vituperative online warriors. “Social media has only given a way for the majority to speak up,” he said, “which the [mainstream] media has neglected for a long time.” The journalist Saba Naqvi asked Dave why that “speaking up” was so hateful, sexist and communal. He shrugged her concerns away. “You can say whatever you want, but the reality is the reality.”

The reality is that majoritarian forces are on the march. Fatigue and displeasure with the establishment is being expressed in cultural terms. Populist ‘outsiders’ deride multiculturalism and pluralism as the preserve of the elite, as petty political correctness, as the snooty inclinations of coastal intelligentsia in America, or the cynical concoction of technocrats in Brussels and aristocrats in Lutyens’ Delhi. In this way, Devang Dave could describe the bile of online trolls as the authentic voice of a nation, long suppressed, finding utterance.

It most certainly is not (does any nation have a single authentic voice?), but the cause of multiculturalism feels beleaguered everywhere. Why is it so hard to defend pluralism from those who cavalierly claim to represent the ‘majority’?

The trouble is that while pluralism is at once inescapable and abstract — a lived reality as much as it is an ethical principle — it is not an easy political platform. It fails to lend itself to populist politics, which always require a clear enemy — a foreign colonial power, for example, or an oppressive elite or a religious or ethnic ‘other’. A slogan like “Stop the Islamisation of Poland” makes no empirical sense, but it can draw a crowd.

People in India, the US, and Europe who are committed to pluralism need to find a political language to better communicate its virtues. Their societies pioneered the experiment of heterogeneous, liberal democracy in the 20th century. It is up to them to see it survive the growing collisions of the 21st century.

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