It has been a grim start for 2015 as far as European tolerance is concerned. Mosques have been attacked in Sweden. Demonstrations continue in Germany against the ‘Islamisation of the West’. We knew something nasty had been unleashed when the European elections last year produced a surge of xenophobic parties. Many explanations were given: The economic crisis, unemployment, the disenfranchisement of the middle classes and globalisation.
There are, it is true, signs of a democratic revival against racism. In solidarity with Muslims, some citizens have been demonstrating in cities. The trend is worrisome. Europeans seem to be grappling with this one question: How do I live alongside people of a different cultural background?
In times like this, literature and history can help us see things clearly. I turned to the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, who spent most of his life reflecting on how Europeans relate to non-European. In The Other, Kapuscinski points out how difficult it is for inhabitants of the old continent to accept that “the map of the world has changed” since decolonisation in the 1960s. Europeans still have trouble dealing with the fact that they have become less central. And yet it is a paradox, because Europe produced arguably the first world citizen open to appreciating foreign cultures: the Greek historian Herodotus, 2,500 years ago.
How delusional and idealistic it is to bring Herodotus into a 21st-century debate on immigration! But if roots matter, then Europeans must look at themselves more closely. Things were never stable, nor populations fixed in stone. Europe is after all the appendix of a great and contrasted landmass. In Postwar, Tony Judt recalls how “the European continent was once a complex tapestry of languages, religions, communities, and nations that overlapped.”
In the 1960s immigrants arrived in western Europe to provide a workforce, most from former colonies. Judt calls this a “new presence of ‘others’ living in Europe”, including the millions of Muslims in today’s EU. He says this presence “has outlined not only Europe’s discomfort as it is faced with a renewed and growing diversity, but also the ease with which the ‘other’ dead of Europe’s past had crept out of people’s minds”. So there it is: today’s intolerance has its roots not just in economic frustration, but in amnesia.