Europe's cycle of fear: Will radicalized minorities drag anxious majorities in the wrong direction?

The struggle to make a Europe of civic, inclusive nations must be fought every day

With a foiled Islamist terrorist plot in Belgium following hard on the heels of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, politicians on the xenophobic, anti-immigration far right are looking to pick up votes across Europe. There is a real danger of a downward spiral in which radicalized minorities, Muslim and anti-Muslim, will drag anxious majorities in the wrong direction. Only a conscious, everyday effort will prevent it.

In Germany, a Muslim Eritrean in Dresden was killed Jan. 12, three days after a swastika was painted on the door of his apartment. Fortunately, the case is thus far not typical of Germany as a whole. Dresden, unlike most big western German cities, has a low level of immigration and little experience with cultural difference.

On the evening of the stabbing, the xenophobic movement known as PEGIDA had held its largest demonstration there yet, drawing 25,000 people. PEGIDA stands for Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, usually translated as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. The word “Abendland” is strikingly old-fashioned, meaning literally “evening land.” “Patriotic Europeans” also has an odd mix of cultural coyness and assertiveness. God help us, you feel they almost want to say Christians. Oh yes, and white. White with brown edges.

The PEGIDA protesters have taken the 1989 velvet revolutionary chant of “Wir sind das Volk” and given it quite a different meaning: not “We are the people,” aspiring to democratic self-determination, but “We are the Volk,” ethnically defined, as in the mouth of Adolf Hitler.

Meanwhile, back in Paris, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of France's far-right National Front party, tweets, in English, “Keep Calm and vote Le Pen.” The fact that the polite Muslim guy delivering a pizza (as one of the Kouachi brothers did) turned out to be an Islamist assassin is bound to increase suspicion of Muslims among so-called ordinary people. British mosques and Islamic centers have reported a sharp increase in threatening messages. According to a study commissioned by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a shocking 57% of non-Muslim Germans now see Islam as a threat. And there are plenty of politicians, journalists and rabble-rousers around to stir that suspicion.

This in turn will produce more anxiety among European Muslims and, if we are not careful, more radicalization among a small minority of them. A PEGIDA demonstration planned for Jan. 19 was called off because of what appears to be a jihadist threat to one of its leaders. Further symptoms of radicalization include an increase in anti-Semitic attacks, which now seem to come more from extreme Muslims than from old-fashioned swastika-painting anti-Semites. It is horrifying to hear French Jews, members of one of the largest and oldest Jewish populations in Europe, saying that they no longer feel safe in France. Such anti-Semitic attacks feed into more suspicion and fear of Muslims, which in turn …

How do we stop the vicious downward spiral? Traditionally, European parties of the center-right, such as Germany's Christian Democratic Union, have tacked to the right to win back such voters and keep them from forming an independent political force. Up to a point, that is legitimate. But beyond that point, you have to do what Chancellor Angela Merkel has now done and say: Enough. Thus far and no further.

The messages delivered by politicians and religious leaders are important. So is the way these stories are covered by the media. But in the end, it's down to regular citizens. The great French historian Ernest Renan wrote that a nation is a “plebiscite on every day.” On the Sunday after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, more than 3 million people on the streets of France gave a magnificent example of how a great European nation responds to such a challenge. Muslim Frenchmen and Frenchwomen handed out white roses to their fellow Jewish, Christian and atheist fellow citoyens and citoyennes. Then they stood together to sing “La Marseillaise.”

Magnifique. But that was just one Sunday. It is on all the other days that the struggle to make a Europe of civic, inclusive nations will be won or lost. When he came back from the Paris unity demonstration, British Prime Minister David Cameron singled out a placard he had seen. It read, “Je suis Charlie, Je suis flic, Je suis Juif” — I am Charlie, I am a cop, I am a Jew. There is one line missing from that list: Je suis Ahmed. For one of the policemen killed by the Kouachi brothers was a Muslim Frenchman named Ahmed. #Je suis Ahmed emerged as a hashtag on Twitter to complement, not to rival, #Je suis Charlie.

While never compromising on the essentials of an open society, including free speech, non-Muslim Europeans must keep sending these small signals to our Muslim fellow Europeans. The best signal of all is the one that indicates no explicit signal is necessary. This is what happens most of the time in a city like London: You just take it as given that British Muslims are as much Brits as anyone else — that in truth there is no “they,” just a larger, gloriously mixed and muddled “us.” That is how we will win the plebiscite on every day. And that is how we will see off a vampire called PEGIDA.

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at Oxford University, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a contributing writer to Opinion.

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