Excerpt: Every leading candidate for the Republican nomination has embraced anti-immigrant/anti-refugee sentiments: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz have all engaged in virulent and demagogic attacks on refugees. Even the Democratic Party is not immune to such bigotry.
Krisztian Simon interviews Stephen Eric Bronner for the Hungarian and East European Blog Kettos Merce.
risztian Simon: In the US more than half of the state governors say refugees are not welcome. And the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim sentiments also play a great role in the presidential campaign. How can we explain this attitude?
Stephen Eric Bronner: Anti-immigrant/anti-refugee attitudes have mostly been generated by the Republican Party and its far right wing, crystallized around the Tea Party. This relatively small organization has had enormous electoral success at local and state levels, especially in the South and the Midwest. Organized in 2008 following the presidential victory of Barack Obama, it has ousted moderate conservatives and taken over this national political party. The Tea Party strategy was clear from the start: organize at the local level. Its members capitalized on the fact that – in general – the more local the elections, the fewer people vote, thereby giving an outsized importance to those that are ideologically committed and politically mobilized. Big money from radical reactionaries like the Koch brothers helped. Whether the great majority of the Democratic Party, or the more than 46% of Americans who didn’t vote in the national elections of 2012, identify with their crude right-wing anti-statism, their dogmatic interpretations of Christianity, and their anti-democratic and anti-refugee views is not as clear-cut as the media would have us believe. The rhetoric will surely change in the electoral campaign pitting Republicans against Democrats when candidates must appeal to a broader audience. But it is also true that every leading candidate for the Republican nomination has embraced anti-immigrant/anti-refugee sentiments: Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz have all engaged in virulent and demagogic attacks on refugees. Even the Democratic Party is not immune to such bigotry: members of its conservative “Blue Dog” faction, and its politicians who are indebted to Israeli lobbies, have (albeit more tentatively) employed a similar rhetoric of exclusion. There is little political incentive for them to act otherwise. Arabs don’t vote, and they are poorly organized. Lack of knowledge about Islam and the Middle East, coupled with media obsessions over terror, only add to the problem. Worse: ethics is always in short supply.
KS: When we spoke last year, you said that most bigots are hiding their bigotry, trying to legitimize their messages in one way or another, but when it comes to Muslims, I have the impression that they are not trying to make these messages more socially acceptable (or as the Germans would say, salonfähig, but I couldn’t find a suitable English word for that) at all – they just use the same old, very obvious tropes that the racists of the first half of the last century did (basically equating Islam with terrorism, or saying that the US has to find a way to monitor all foreign people entering the country). Why is that?
SEB: Radical anti-Arab sentiment was triggered by 9/11, the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the lingering distrust and competition with Iran, and – of course – Syria and ISIS. Actual conflict has hardened previously embedded prejudices. Right-wing Americans believe that the United States is (literally!) at war with a single people (“Arabs”) inspired by (a uniform) “Islam.” It is a struggle between “us” and “them.” Irish, Italians, and Jews were seen as foreign intruders but not as terrorist vanguards. They were not stereotyped in this way. This has created a somewhat unique situation with regard to Islamophobia and anti-Arab prejudice. Especially bigots of the right are genuinely scared – not merely of future terrorist acts like those that took place in Paris. When considering the Arabs, “They” have radically different customs; they worship differently; they speak a different language; and they are considered little more than barbarians at the gate of civilization. In Europe and the United States, right-wing demagogues stoke the fear that their countries are being overrun with immigrants and that their identities are threatened. In the United States, Sharia law seems the last straw, and the totally exaggerated fears of its implementation have led 16 states to ban it officially and Republican politicians in 32 states to propose legislation banning it. Most of those prejudiced against Muslims are quick to claim that they are not racists but that the United States is at war, and that they are simply being cautious. Bigots often (grudgingly) admit that not all Muslims are terrorists, but that most terrorists are Muslims – and that in order to keep out the tiny terrorist minority, it is necessary to keep out the great non-terrorist majority. Civil liberties have never been particularly important to the far right, and it is usually argued that such a strategy is unfortunate but necessary for the sake of “security.” Indeed, make no mistake, the attack on immigration (whether Hispanic or Islamic) is part of an overall agenda intent upon weakening welfare programs and strengthening the national security state.
KS: Some US newspapers and magazines draw parallels between the unwillingness to accept Jewish refugees from Germany and the rest of Europe in the 1930s (on the grounds that they might import communist ideologies to the US) and the current situation. Do you think that these are well-founded parallels?
SEB: Some parallels are completely legitimate. Exaggeration, hysteria, and paranoia – anchored in projection – are apparent in the bigot’s past and present attempts to exclude the foreigner. I suggested as much in my book The Bigot (Yale University Press, 2015). Exaggeration concerning the threat to American identity is obvious insofar as 70,000 is the cap per year, and President Obama is seeking asylum for 10,000 Syrian refugees – all told, a drop in the bucket. Similarly, for all its self-congratulation, the United States accepted only 75,000 of the 400,000 Jews that sought to emigrate from Germany between 1933 and 1939. Hysteria inflamed political debate then and now. The rhetoric was appalling in both cases – and the real situation was ignored: Muslims, like Jews, were facing the prospect of death – and with the Muslims today, ironically, that prospect is probably more palpable than it was for Jews, at least until 1938 and the “Night of the Broken Glass.” Admittedly, the ideologies justifying exclusion were a bit different. But paranoia was evident in both cases. There were rumors about a Jewish world conspiracy, and Henry Ford had the notorious Protocols of Zion translated into English. Jews were also seen as communists, and the idea of “Jewish Bolshevism” was not confined to Germany. Today, bigots claim that Muslims are taking over the United States and threatening its freedoms. Yet ironically, it was not domestic communists who actually threatened America’s freedoms but the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthyism. And, of course, whereas Muslims are accused of “invading” the United States, it was the United States that actually bombed and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, thereby virtually destroying those nations and creating cultural havoc, while leaving millions dead, wounded, and exiled. That is the projection I was speaking about. In any event, whether in Europe or the United States, the implications of anti-Jewish prejudices then and anti-Arab prejudices now basically amount to the same thing: condemning the majority of refugees to lives of misery – or worse.
KS: When we look at the percentage of foreign-born people as part of their populations, we can see that many countries in the EU (e.g. Germany, Austria, Belgium) have a greater percentage of the foreign-born in their population than the US, even though it’s the US that sees itself as a nation of immigrants, while most European countries refuse to define themselves as countries of immigration. So what can we infer from this? Has the US ceased to be an open and welcoming place to immigrants, or are European countries more open to newcomers than it would seem just based on the rhetoric of their politicians?
SEB: The Statue of Liberty has inscribed on it the words “Give me your tired and your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” Immigrants from all over the world have come to the United States, settled, and made a life. To be sure, each wave of immigration was greeted with prejudices and stereotypes that were often interchangeable. What is often called “the American creed” is clearly associated with Anglo-Protestant values. Racism has indeed proven the “cancer” of American life, and it is true that the easiest road to assimilation has been reserved for white European peoples. Not to mention African-Americans (who obviously did not come of their own volition) or Hispanics, or even Asians, who had to endure virtual slave-like conditions working on railroads in the West during the 19th century and then, later, internment during World War II. Old-fashioned racism targeting African-Americans today bleeds over into the prejudices directed against Hispanics and Arabs seeking refuge in the United States. Interestingly, Samuel Huntington directed one book, The Clash of Civilizations, against the Arab world and the sequel, Who Are We?, against Hispanics. Few thinkers are taken as seriously by the mainstream political establishment. But still, there is no reason for Europeans to feel smug: America has no Arab ghettos (banlieus) as in Paris, and (though we have many organized hate and interest groups) there are no explicitly neo-fascist parties as in France, Hungary, Italy, and elsewhere: it is not as if Europe has exactly welcomed either Arabs or Jews or any number of other groups in their times of need.
KS: Do you think Europe and the US expect too much from immigrants?
SEB: I’m not quite sure what that means. Most immigrant groups have produced solid hard-working citizens who live in ethnic neighborhoods, as in the case of Arabs living in Jersey City and Paterson, New Jersey, or Dearborn, Michigan. They are patriotic, law-abiding, and mostly grateful for the opportunities provided them in their new homeland. They have assimilated – and that is to be expected. But it is also true that old habits die hard, and it would be foolish to expect that immigrants will simply discard their heritage. There is also no reason why they should. Whether ethnic/religious or national loyalty gains the upper hand, however, is not always a foregone conclusion. The existential importance of identity, and the feeling of belonging to a particular group, are strengthened or weakened depending on the degree to which immigrants feel accepted by the broader culture. It is common knowledge, for example, that American counter-terrorist agencies rely a great deal on information from the Muslim community when it comes to the activities of Muslim terrorists. Intolerant rhetoric directed against immigrants, in this regard, can only prove counter-productive. Growing Islamophobia and outrageous expressions of anti-Arab sentiments give immigrants incentives to circle the wagons around their communities, and it helps turn the bigot’s prejudices into self-fulfilling prophecies. Tolerance and generosity are not identical with the formalities associated with the liberal rule of law. It is worth remembering that loyalty, acceptance, and tolerance are all two-way streets.
KS: What kind of integration should we expect from people who want to come to our countries and settle down? How much of their heritage should they leave behind? As an American born to refugees from Germany, you speak perfect German, and when you’re in Germany there are probably lots of people who believe you are local, or from some other part of Germany. We see this as normal (at least now, in 2015 we do – hopefully). In the case of a US or European Muslim, however, lots of people would find this suspicious. Is this a double standard? Or does it only indicate that people are always suspicious, and they need time, lots of time, to get used to people who have different habits from theirs?
SEB: America was not so much a melting pot as a salad with different ingredients, although as I just said, that too is changing. Neighborhoods were distinct and separate from one another and, whatever the misplaced nostalgia, they were quite provincial. Yes, it is true what you say about my background: I was born in a neighborhood composed almost exclusively of German-Jewish exiles, and I learned German as a child. Unlike children of other immigrant groups, however, I am white, my parents were working class people, and of course my primary language is English – and that makes things much easier. Yet the real issue you raise is, I think, more pointed for other kinds of immigrants; namely, what can they do to erase the prejudices of bigots who consider themselves “real” Americans or Europeans? Immigrants can organize themselves into voting blocs and create lobbies or interest groups to strengthen their political influence. In this way they can change the perception of the mainstream, improve their economic prospects, and enter the public sphere. When it comes to changing the bigot’s views, however, it is another matter entirely. That is because his stereotypes have nothing to do with the lives of real Jews, African-Americans, Latinos, or Arabs. The bigot mentally constructs the “other” to justify his preconceived opinions, and usually his stereotypes are easily transferable from one group to another. The bigot also usually hates in clusters. Although bigotry can intensify or diminish in different circumstances, one thing is constant: prejudice is about the opinions of the bigot, not the lived life of his target. That, indeed, is worth remembering.
Stephen Eric Bronner is Board of Governors Professor of Political Science and Director of Global Relations at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University. His most recent book is The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists (Yale University Press).
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