By Ray Taras
A year ago I suggested to Jan Gross that he title the Polish edition of his book Fear, which described post-holocaust anti-Semitism in that country, not as Strach (a literal translation) but Paranoia, a more evocative and robust term. I remember than Jan thought out loud about whether what he was narrating in his book really was better captured by a word referring to a state of mind involving excessive, delusional, even irrational fear. In the end he opted for Strach, and the book has proved to be wildly popular, and controversial, in Poland.
Anti-Semitism has, arguably, represented the most dramatic form of paranoia—with the most tragic of consequences—found in twentieth-century European history. Poland was only one of many countries on the continent to exhibit such a virulent antipathy towards a minority group. But even today, even after a half-century’s worth of determined efforts to enlarge and integrate Europe—to make it more tolerant and inclusive—antipathies toward “others” abound.
One of these is Islamophobia, which, in western Europe, seems to have been increasing in direct proportion to the influx of Muslim immigrants. The treatment of Turks in Germany, north Africans in France, or Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Britain has sometimes been harsh. For decades governments in these countries—as well as pan-European institutions—have tried to legislate tolerance of minorities. But often their efforts have been so inept that they have provided the fuel for furious backlashes.
Another antipathy that is widespread in eastern parts of Europe is Russophobia. Paranoia about Russia is particularly palpable among ultra-nationalist, right-wing politicians in Warsaw, Prague, and Tallinn. As with Islamophobia, however, over time it has become mainstreamed as “respectable” parties, political leaders, and intellectuals have increasingly echoed the paranoiac discourse of the radical right. Is it surprising that the Russian response in the face of often-irrational Russophobia has been a dangerous revanchism?
The European Union has embraced institutions, processes, and personalities that promote internal cohesion. But millions of people—entire nations, significant national minorities, historic religious communities—feel they have been marginalized by the EU’s peculiar understanding of cohesion. Europe’s phobias are a powder keg that can be set off by a spark—whether ignited by an ethnic entrepreneur (like Milosevic), an anti-immigrant party coming to power (Europe already has had several of these), or a police officer shooting an angry demonstrator (an all-too-familiar scenario).
To be sure, there is the specter of countless fraudulent asylum seekers arriving in Europe, the ruthless ethnic mafias, the far-flung networks of body traffickers (especially from post-communist states), the hard-core group of immigrant militants praising the virtue of terrorism against their receiving societies, the banlieues of so many of Europe’s cities sinking into squalor and already past the tipping point of serving as civilized habitats. European citizens harbor rational fears, therefore, about their societies and their futures. France’s President Sarkozy has captured the mood: Europe must decide itself how many immigrants to let in. And, non, Turkey is not a European country geographically and cannot assume it will be admitted into the EU.
Paranoia, phobia, and fear lie just beneath the sheen of an enlarged Europe, of old Europe and new. The danger is that one of these fears will set off a chain of events leading to unimaginable consequences.
Ray Taras is professor of international relations and director of the world literature program at Tulane University in New Orleans, and the author of Europe Old and New: Transnationalism, Belonging, Xenophobia.