Go Back to Where You Came From | Sasha Polakow-Suransky

Summary of: Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy
By: Sasha Polakow-Suransky


Delve into the world of modern Western politics as the book ‘Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy’ by Sasha Polakow-Suransky explores the changing landscape brought on by immigration fears and the rise of right-wing populism. Learn how this phenomenon impacts the public perception of Muslims and their struggle for acceptance and integration into European societies. The book highlights the issue of Islamophobia and the tactics used by right-wing parties to poach disillusioned voters from the left, leading to a shift in the political center. Observe the crucial role that democratic institutions must play in maintaining balance and fairness in this era of uncertainty.

Perceptions of Muslims Post-9/11

The aftermath of the September 11 attacks still lingers today, notably in the negative perception of Muslims and Muslim migrants. Despite terrorism representing only a small fraction of the global Muslim population, these stereotypes persist. The influx of Muslim immigrants into Western Europe since 2015 has been met with apprehension, with the primary concern being the potential imposition of Sharia law, believed to conflict with Western values. Public figures like France’s Marine Le Pen and Denmark’s Soren Espersen fuel these fears by framing Muslim immigrants as threats to secularism and advocating for the prioritization of their host country’s constitution over religion.

The tragic events of September 11, 2001, left a lasting impact on how Muslims and Muslim migrants are perceived. While terrorist acts only represent a minute fraction of the 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, these generalizations continue to affect the entire Muslim community.

The past few years have seen a significant increase in Muslim immigration to Western Europe. Yet, due to lingering fears stemming from 9/11, Muslim migrants have faced challenges in being accepted and integrated into their new European societies. Migrants from non-Muslim regions, despite their contribution to demographic changes in Western Europe, are generally regarded as less threatening.

A predominant worry among Westerners is the belief that Muslim immigrants pose a threat to Western culture and democracy. They fear the implementation of Sharia law, with its strict adherence to religious scripture, will lead to the spread of values contradicting those held in the West, such as female subservience and homophobia.

Public figures like Marine Le Pen, of France’s Front National, assert that secularism – a hallmark of the French Republic – is endangered by Muslim immigration. However, Le Pen’s concern about secularism appears to be selective, as she does not view displays of other religions, e.g., Christmas nativity scenes, as equally threatening. Similarly, Soren Espersen of Denmark’s far-right People’s Party demands immigrants publicly declare their allegiance to the Danish constitution, placing it above their faith. Such individuals contribute to the heightening of fears surrounding Muslim immigrants and their integration into Western societies.

Liberalism’s Misguided Muslim Perception

The public perception of Muslims as a danger to society is not solely a product of right-wing attitudes, but also due to misinterpretations of liberal principles. The aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris had liberals reinforcing stereotypes about Muslims as fanatics. The Cologne sexual assault incident led right-wing media to adopt a liberal feminist stance as a means to criticize Islam. Laurent Sourisseau’s controversial cartoon underlines the misplaced perception that even young Muslim refugees are undeserving of sympathy.

Notably, the damaging public perception of Muslims as a threat is not just a result of conservative mindsets. Even liberal principles like gender equality and freedom of speech have unfortunately contributed to this belief. The infamous attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine offices in Paris, when terrorists targeted the publication for its controversial cartoons depicting prophet Mohammed, serves as an example. Many left-leaning individuals saw the violence as evidence that Muslims as a whole could not coexist with those who value free speech.

This negative outlook finds further reinforcement when some liberals label moderate Muslims “not proper Muslims,” thus perpetuating the stereotype that a “proper Muslim” must be fanatical. This harmful generalization only exacerbates the issue.

The far-right, too, has proven themselves ironic champions of these liberal principles, seizing them to further their anti-Islam narrative. A sexual assault on women in Cologne, Germany in 2015, attributed to Muslim refugees, was seen by right-wing media as justification for their stance against Islam. To push their Islamophobic message, they even adopted feminist perspectives which were fundamentally contrary to their usual rhetoric.

A shocking cartoon published by Laurent Sourisseau, a survivor of the Charlie Hebdo attack, highlights the tragic mischaracterization of Muslims. The cartoon depicted Alan Kurdi, a deceased toddler Syrian refugee, as a potential attacker. Despite the emotional trauma of his past experience, the author suggests that the cartoon still illustrated that some people think even child refugees aren’t worthy of compassion if they happen to be Muslim.

Recognizing History’s Repetition

Learning from history helps us avoid making the same mistakes, and it’s vital to recognize the similarities between today’s Islamophobia and the anti-Semitism of the Nazi era. Despite claims that terrorism justifies the fear and expulsion of Muslims, we must remember how the Nazis exploited a single act of violence to demonize Jews, leading to Kristallnacht and horrendous consequences. Today’s right-wing populists use the same tactics, targeting Muslims, and falsely claiming to protect Jews to gain credibility. We must be vigilant and not allow history to repeat itself.

History is our greatest teacher, enabling us to learn from past mistakes to create a better future. Although some right-wing public figures insist there’s no resemblance between current Islamophobia and the anti-Semitism that defined the Nazi era, it’s crucial to see the parallel.

The argument that terrorism justifies the fear and expulsion of Muslims is a dangerous one, leading many to believe that modern Islamophobia is different from and less harmful than the anti-Semitism that fueled World War II. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

In 1938, a 17-year-old Jewish boy named Herschel Grynszpan assassinated a German diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, in Paris. Grynszpan’s violent act, which was driven by his family’s deportation to Poland and his inability to find work, was seized upon by the Nazis. They used the incident to intensify anti-Semitic propaganda, eventually resulting in Kristallnacht, when German civilians and authorities demolished Jewish homes and businesses. This tragic event marked a major turning point for European Jews.

In much the same way, today’s populist right-wing movements demonize Muslims, citing terrorism as a reason to stoke fear and sow division. Some even claim they aim to protect Jews as an attempt to gain credibility and garner liberal support. This insidious rebranding, exemplified by Marine Le Pen’s efforts to distance her party from accusations of anti-Semitism, undermines the true lesson of history.

That lesson is clear: blaming an entire ethnic group for the actions of a few puts countless innocent lives at risk. We must recognize these patterns and refuse to allow history to repeat itself.

The Counter-Citizen Dilemma

Muslim immigrants often find themselves caught in a troubling situation – labeled as job-stealers when they work, yet also burdens when they need welfare support. This position, known as the counter-citizen dilemma, is a result of ineffective integration policies in various countries. By not providing proper language and vocational training, and instead focusing on immediate government support, native populations may view these newcomers as opportunistic, leading to a rise in Islamophobia. In countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, populist movements and “welfare chauvinism” have become especially prevalent. These discriminatory attitudes also contribute to radicalization, as marginalized individuals may seek belonging among fundamentalist groups.

Muslim immigrants are often caught in the counter-citizen dilemma, where they are made to feel separate and inferior to native citizens with strong ancestral ties. Whether they work or require assistance from the state, these newcomers are framed as parasitic threats. Ineffective integration policies fuel this dilemma by emphasizing government support rather than language and vocational training. Consequently, Islamophobic attitudes gain traction and foster resentment within the native populations.

Countries like Denmark and the Netherlands exemplify this pattern of “welfare chauvinism,” which promotes the belief that the welfare system should only benefit native citizens. Discrimination also surfaces in more subtle forms, as seen in France’s 2016 burkini ban. Muslim women wearing full-body swimsuits were fined or forced to leave public beaches, while French nuns with similar attire faced no repercussions.

This unjust treatment and exclusionary atmosphere make Muslim immigrants vulnerable to radicalization. Fundamentalist recruiters prey on the sense of isolation experienced by these individuals, promising a place where they can belong and make a difference. As long as the counter-citizen dilemma persists, the potential for extremism remains a troubling reality for societies grappling with Muslim integration.

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