An online poll on Malta Today shows that some 67% of respondents agree with Joseph Muscat’s proposed push-back policy. It’s just a poll, not a scientific study, however it’s indicative of public sentiment. For the sake of this article, let’s assume that 67% of the Maltese agree with such policy.

One might argue that if the majority is behind Muscat, implementing push back (on which he himself is now backing off indicating he was only using it to threaten the EU) would be democratic.

Thankfully it doesn’t work that way. A majority, even confirmed by elections does not in itself make a democracy. For instance both Putin in Russia and Erdogan in Turkey, were elected with a majority yet both cannot claim to be democratic. The rampant breaches of human rights, especially the persecution of political opponents and journalists make any of these leaders’ claims to be democratic nothing more than a joke, even though they got a majority in the polls.

I remember reading a quote (unfortunately I forgot its author’s name) that depicts all this in a single sentence:

“Would it still be a democracy if 51% of the population voted for the right to kill the other 49% with impunity?”

I think the answer is pretty obvious.

This may sound extreme and hopefully no country will ever arrive in such a dire situation. However it makes a point very clear: Having the support of the majority is still undemocratic if the basic rights of minorities are not respected.

This argument holds true for push-back. For a simple reason. What Muscat proposed was not the deportation of failed asylum seekers (which is completely legitimate) but a deportation that would have been carried out before they even had a right to file for asylum. And asking for asylum is a fundamental human right.

And while I do find the majority on the issue as worrying, I also find them irrelevant. They could have been 90% and still, implementing push back before one even had the chance to ask for asylum would be not only illegal but undemocratic.

It would, among other things, have turned the Maltese government into a very serious human rights abuser that wouldn’t mind breaking my own rights if it’s politically convenient.

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Here, I won’t be discussing whether phobias of people (homophobia – fear of gays; xenophobia – fear of foreigners etc) are phobias in the strict sense of the word, whether they are the equivalent of fear of high places, or snakes. However, beyond the semantics, the crucial element here is what all these phobias have in common – irrational fear.

 

Many argue that fear of Muslims isn’t irrational, thus it’s not a phobia at all. I disagree.

Arachnophobia is the irrational fear of spiders. If someone goes berserk because he sees a spider walking on the floor few will doubt whether this is normal behaviour or not. Probably the person next to him will pick up the spider and tell him “Look, it’s harmless”.

 

Yet, poisonous spiders do exist, some are even lethal. So do Muslim terrorists. Does this make the fear of my next door neighbour whose name is Mahmoud and doesn’t eat pork, justified?

 

Fear of “the other”, in this case the other being a member of a particular religion, has always existed. I don’t think that any religion in the world that hasn’t been feared one time or another exists. However, the spike in the fear of Muslims towards unprecedented proportions has a date: 11th September, 2001. What happened on that day is only partially the cause of the rising Islamophobia. The other part is what came after – the war on terror.

 

In order to justify the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan politicians in the West – especially George W Bush and Tony Blair – leashed a media campaign against Islam and Muslims. How could they convince the public to finance these two expensive wars if they couldn’t prove there wasn’t a real threat?

 

Blair and Bush were proved wrong, especially on Iraq. They have probably become two of the most hated politicians in the West, yet the damage on the reputation of Muslims was done. Needless to say, the Madrid and Londom bombings by Muslim terrorists continued to “justify” the fear of Muslims.

 

Why do I then continue to insist that fear of Muslims is completely irrational? Aside from reading scientific research (rather than sensationalist media reports) that shows that the absolute majority of Muslims oppose terrorism, I arrive to my conclusions by meeting and knowing Muslims personally, both in Malta and abroad.

 

The most significant was attending a conference on Islamophobia organised by the Federation of Young European Greens  in Turkey in 2007. Even more than the lectures and presentations, what really left most impact were the people on our group and the discussions we had. The following are three examples of questions asked and discussed in the group:

 

1) “If you disapprove of Bin Laden why don’t you, as a Muslim publicly distance yourself and denounce him?

 

Because if I do, I will be saying he’s a Muslim. He’s not. What he does is directly opposite to  the teachings of the Koran.”

 

2) “I’m gay, do you have a problem with that?

 

Do you think I hadn’t noticed? (laughter). We were joking on the roof yesterday, would I have done that if I had a problem? Come, here’s a hug”.

 

The next is a little conversation I had with a Muslim woman from Slovenia, wearing a veil. My answers betray a little fear and misconception I had:

 

3)  “If I am passing around and you see me dressed like this (points at the veil) and you are in difficulty, you had say, an accident, would you ask for my help?

 

Of course I would. What I would find difficult is if it was you who had an accident. I would be afraid to touch you because of your religious beliefs.

 

So, you would leave me dying, just not to touch me? What’s wrong with touching a person to save his life? I don’t know of any religion that prohibits that.”

 

Needless to say, I’m sure that Muslims who partially or completely disagree with these three people exist. However, I can honestly say I haven’t met one yet, and due to my interest in the topic, I’ve met a lot of Muslims since that seminar, with whom I’ve discussed these issues. I did meet a couple of Muslims who have a negative attitude towards homosexuals, however, I must also sadly admit that it wasn’t any worse than the attitude of some Catholics living in Malta.

 

Should an Imam calling for Jihad and retribution be feared? Definitely, and those countries (such as the UK) who dismiss such a call for violence as “freedom of speech” should start re-thinking their laws.

 

Should I fear Mahmoud next door? Of course not.

 

I have no idea how to get over the fear of spiders, but I think I do know how to overcome the fear of Muslims – by meeting them and knowing them personally

The threat of right wing extremism in Europe has been lurking for a couple of decades by now. Yet, most mainstream politicians started regarding this as a problem only when extremist parties managed to get a significant number of votes. It seems the hate crimes such organizations and sympathizers have been committing weren’t of real concern. The fact that except for gays and some European Muslims, the victims of these crimes don’t have the right to vote, probably contributes to this indifference.

 

What is now concerning most politicians (except for losing votes to the extreme right) is that most of these movements and parties have a total aversion towards democracy. Some of them have made it clear, while others were more subtle, that they want authoritarian rule, in some cases even military.

 

Probably even a large number of their voters oppose this, however their trump card of hatred against minorities and the present elite is enough to lure people who would otherwise preferred more democratic parties.

 

Possibly, leaders and members of these parties are not violent people themselves. However, they way they conduct their campaigns can (and do) incite people to harass minorities. This advert is a case in point:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYavOiI-8uY

 

 

What happened in Oslo however, has changed the whole scenario, or at least, should change it. This time it’s not ethnic, religious or sexual minorities who happen to be the victims but the Norwegian man in the street. Common people who just happen not to discriminate against minorities and embrace a politics that doesn’t. The traitors. (In fact the word “traitor” features in any extreme-right literature I’ve encountered).

 

What can stop this madness? The extreme right themselves (who have distanced themselves from Breivic for obvious PR reasons) still blame multiculturalism. Something which as I argued in other blogs, can’t be reversed.

 

Freaks come in all colours. As with other kinds of terror, there is no fool-proof way to prevent right wing terrorism. But I may have some suggestions:

 

Close monitoring but not censorship. Apart from disagreeing with censorship in principle, it doesn’t work anyway. In many cases it has been used by these extreme right to play the victims and is a good excuse not to appear on mainstream media. The place where other mainstream politicians are asked the hardest questions, and are expected to answer them (Avoiding the media using this excuse was one of the main tactics elected far-right politician Geerth Wilders used in the Netherlands).

 

In the Maltese scenario, this monitoring must include amongst others our home grown extremists whose website www.vivamalta.org also talks clearly about taking revenge on the traitors.

 

Secondly, mainstream parties must stop using some of the extremists language with the hope of attracting the vote of some of their followers. Appeasement doesn’t work. It may weaken them temporarily by making their politicians lose votes but in the slightly longer term it only makes them stronger by legitimizing their claims. Appeasement has already been tried with their main icon Adolf Hitler – and everyone knows what happened next.

 

Thirdly, and probably most important, leftist parties all over Europe, definitely including Malta’s shall become once again true workers parties. Research shows clearly that extreme right politicians attract mainly the working class. It’s crucial to not that these extremists don’t consider themselves only as anti-minority groups. They are also anti-establishment. And if the present establishment is failing them (especially in terms of employment, housing and finance related issues), the lure of the extreme right just becomes more tempting.

 

Finally, all mainstream parties should completely distance themselves from these extremist movements. While this has been the case in Malta (Joseph Muscat categorically distanced himself when misinterpreted by Norman Lowell), not all politicians in other counties behave as such. Probably most notorious is Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi who didn’t shy away from forming a coalition with Lega Nord. A party that has lately become a serious embarrassment after outspoken MEP Mario Borghezio came out justifying the terror in Norway:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pw76a4eVp5M