One of the most famous and influential British philosophers of the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill, advanced the principle of freedom of thought, speech and association, underpinned by individual freedom and self-expression. Unfortunately, across the channel, that hard-won freedom of the individual is being threatened as populism and the “tyranny of the majority” play havoc with some of the oldest democracies in the world.
While Trump ignores the American constitution through his repeated efforts to ban people from several Muslim-majority countries, Europe has gone further by introducing a new law that deals a blow to the basic tenets of a liberal democracy. The ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) this month, widely criticised by human rights groups, has feebly stated that “an internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination”.
John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International warned that the decision gave “greater leeway to employers to discriminate” against women and men on the grounds of religious belief. “The court did say that employers are not at liberty to pander to the prejudices of their clients. But by ruling that company policies can prohibit religious symbols on the grounds of neutrality, they have opened a backdoor to precisely such prejudice,” he said.
The ECJ ruling now adds a veneer of acceptability to the sentiments of the far-right that have been festering in Europe for well over a decade. And now those sentiments are bleeding into the centre of European politics. Germany’s centrist government and Europe’s linchpin has worryingly succumbed to the rhetoric of the far-right as Chancellor Angela Merkel calls for a partial niqab ban. “The full veil must be banned, wherever legally possible”, she told her Christian Democratic Union Party conference in December, saying German laws must “take precedence over honour codes, tribal customs and sharia.”
After the Berlin terror attack last December, Horst Seehofer, leader of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union said: “We owe it to the victims, those directly affected and the whole population to rethink our whole immigration and security policy.” Merkel is expected to face a close race with the far-right Alternative for Germany in this year’s elections, which puts pressure on Merkel to shift more towards the right.
In France, former President and Republican candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, said that he would ban the headscarf during his presidential bid last November, calling for an end to the “tyranny of minorities”. He advocated a nationwide Burkini ban last summer during the controversial Burkini ban debacle, despite the State Council overruling the mayoral bans.
The new presidential hopeful François Fillon uses the term “radical Islam” in reference to Daesh as the group continues to terrorise its mainly Muslim victims. Catholics, Protestants and Jews “don’t denounce the values of the Republic,” he claimed unlike the faithful of a certain other religion. He has vowed to exert “strict administrative control” over Muslims practising their religion.
Over the border in Austria, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Integration, Sebastian Kurz, has proposed a ban on the hijab for civil servants. As reported by The Muslim News last month, the Christian Conservative People’s Party is drafting a law on the prohibition of headscarves with Social Democratic Party member Muna Duzdar. Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party has also called for a ban on what he has described as “Islamisation”. Otherwise, Austrians and Europeans will come to “an abrupt end,” he warned thousands of supporters at a New Year’s meeting in Salzburg.
In Scandinavia, concerns are growing over the far-right Sweden Democrats led by Jimmie Akesson. The party has been leading some of the polls in the run-up to the country’s general election taking place next year. Akesson is reported to have lamented the presence of Arabic signs and Arab people being “everywhere.” The big problem is that “we are getting used to it,” he said. In the past, he has argued that Islam is not compatible with Sweden because the country is “built on Christian principles.”
Long-standing issues have resurfaced in the Netherlands as Geert Wilders, renowned Islamophobe and leader of the far-right Party for Freedom, sought to become prime minister in the first of this year’s elections in Europe. Wilders, who is allegedly being bankrolled by American conservatives, pledged to “de-Islamise” his country.
He was beaten by Mark Rutte of the centre-right VVD party, who also appropriated Wilders’ rhetoric to win votes. He spoke of there being “something wrong with our country” and claimed “the silent majority” would no longer tolerate immigrants who come and “abuse our freedom”.
Like France’s Marine Le Pen, Wilders has faced trial for hate speech in the past. During his campaign, he vowed to ban the sale of the Qur’an, shutdown mosques and Islamic schools and ban Muslim immigrants. He called Moroccans “scum who make the streets unsafe” and also said he would make “the whole cabinet of Turkey persona non-grata.” But according to pollsters, Rutte was able to save the day with his own dispute with Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The setback for Wilders, who also wanted to take the Netherlands out of the EU, was welcomed by other European leaders and politicians. French President, Francois Hollande, said Rutte had won a “clear victory against extremism”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Chief of Staff, Peter Altmaier, tweeted: “The Netherlands, oh the Netherlands you are a champion!” Martin Schulz, who was President of the European Parliament until recently, said he was relieved the Freedom Party had lost and also tweeted the fight must continue for “an open and free Europe”.
The defeat of the far-right by a centre-right party is considered a victory for Europe in these fragmented times. While much attention has been focused on the frightening rise of fascism in the US, the alarming events taking place in Europe have been overlooked. The scourge of Islamophobia has become institutionalised by the ECJ and has become an electoral tactic for politicians seeking to outdo each other by cynically scapegoating Muslims for all the problems of society. The whole of Europe seems to be undergoing an identity crisis at the moment. Not sure how to react to global events and the refugee crisis, it seems to be burying its head and forgetting the hard-won principles and freedoms it fought for less than a century ago.