The connection between Europe’s reticence about taking-in refugees and the dramatic rise in Islamophobia since the early 2000s cannot be decoupled. Were these refugees not largely from Muslim backgrounds, it is hard to see that there would be such reluctance for Europe to stand up for its values and legal obligations. Indeed the key messaging of alt-right parties across the continent is the same; Europe’s supposedly Christian culture is under threat by the Muslim refugees washing up on its shores.
Railing against the alt-right may be correct, but it needs to be paired with more responsibility from the remaining bastions of sensible liberal democracy. Who are Britain or France to lecture Hungary or Poland if the numbers of refugees that they are themselves take in are so small?
Aside from Germany, no country run by parties other than those from the alt-right has come good on its responsibilities to accept refugees, even if some have at least met the slender commitments placed by the EU on nations to “share the burden”.
The deal reached at the European summit on migration this week has been vague and non-committal. The talks concluded at 4.35am on Friday. A political, not legal, agreement was made that refugees landing from Libya on Italy’s shores would now be considered as having landed “in Europe”. This suggested that other than the so-called frontier countries would be taking on the burden. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic all have alt-right leaders aligned with Donald Trump’s poisonous view of Muslims, and all three have remarkably low immigration. They are refusing to take their “fair share” quotas on a point of alt-right principle, saying implicitly and sometimes explicitly that they fear the Muslim background of the refugees.
Yet the amoral tone of these central European states should not allow Britain to get off the hook. Only 8,000 refugees have been welcomed here, compared with a hundred times that many in Germany. Britain has agreed to take just 20,000 refugees by 2020.
Meanwhile, five million Syrians are on the move. The world’s worst humanitarian crisis, in Yemen, in which Britain is playing an exacerbating role, is likely to generate yet more flows of desperate people. The overarching threat of climate change will cause yet more mass outflows of populations from the desiccated global south to Europe. The overwhelming shared characteristic of these populations will be that they come from Muslim backgrounds; they follow a faith upon the rejection of which Europe has built its entire cultural world view.
Tackling the far-right is indeed the correct thing to do, but it now needs to be coupled with calls for more moderate Northern European states to build refugee- and Muslim-friendly societies. The advantages of Muslim migration need to be emphasised.
Muslims in Britain, for example, give more to charity than any other religious group as well as atheists (who give the least). Only six per cent of Muslims are “struggling with English”, according to the 2011 consensus. When asked if they feel “proud to be British citizens”, more Muslims (83 per cent) than your average Briton (79 per cent) said that they did, according to a survey by the think tank Demos. Deloitte’s report “Talent Displaced” said that 38 per cent of refugees coming from Syria to the UK, Netherlands and Austria have completed higher education; 32 per cent owned their own businesses back home, indicating an entrepreneurial mindset that could create jobs, not take them.
Angela Merkel is keenly aware of the demographic potential offered by Syrians. It is not just that Germany feels guilty about its role in generating refugees in the middle of the twentieth century; she has an ageing population and shrinking workforce which Syrians, Afghans and North Africans can help to counter. Other countries who have not yet had the alt-right infect the government itself would do well to learn from this. It is for a specific reason that President Trump is attacking Merkel, a traditional ally of the United States, and his fellow alt-right leaders across Europe are urging her to be dethroned. They do not want her radical approach to accepting and welcoming refugees to work. They want her to fail.
The solution to the refugee crisis is not to make the refugees turn back. They are not going away. Afghanistan was the prologue; Syria is the beginning; Yemen is the next chapter, and climate change is the never-ending series of straight-to-DVD sequels. Embracing refugees, and rejecting Islamophobia, is the fastest way to neuter the alt-right in Europe. Blaming central European autocracies or the new and deeply troubling governments in Italy or Austria isn’t enough. Other countries need to set an example.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.