Narendra Modi was the first foreign leader to congratulate Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday on his reelection as Israeli prime minister. India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister has been one of the closest allies of the Israel’s right-wing racially inspired one.
Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, has offered a piece of good news to Donald Trump, the racially motivated American president. Trump, too, is going to win re-election next year, “absent some decisive factor to upend the logic of it,” Cohen predicted. What’s the logic behind Netanyahu’s re-election and Trump’s anticipated one? They both have succeeded in putting together a “structural majority of the right,” composed of religious and racial groups.
Cohen’s piece reminded me of John Mearsheimer’s latest book, The Great Delusion, which I finished reading last week. The international relations scholar says America’s “liberal hegemony” in the world is about to end partly because liberalism is failing. Liberalism, the ideology of the Enlightenment, wanted rational individuals to build peaceable, humanist societies around the world. Protagonists of the ideology believed that people’s religious and ethnic prejudices had kept them from building such societies and hence these thinkers wanted men’s and women’s affiliations with religious and ethnic systems replaced by their allegiance to institutions of liberal states, which would uphold the liberty and promote good life.
Mearsheimer says individuals “using their critical faculties, reach different conclusions about what constitutes the good life.” This has happened because Enlightenment philosophers ignored the fact that cultural systems, created through living in communities, “shaped how individuals think and behave.” If we follow the political scientist’s logic, liberalism is failing because it failed to recognize people’s affinity with religion, race and ethnicity, which have produced Netanyahu, Trump and Modi. Well, Mearsheimer is kind of echoing the thinking of a host of powerful minds from Isiah Berlin to Reinhold Niebuhr to our own Martha Nussbaum.
Mearsheimer says, correctly, that Americans’ commitment to liberalism has always been “flexible.” Religion never really left the American public square. Neither has race, as shown by the malignant episodes of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and now Trump’s and Stephen Miller’s crusade against Hispanic immigration. Would Trump have been so obsessed with building a wall along the Mexican border if the immigrants from the south were whites from Britain, France or Germany?
The case is not fundamentally different in Europe. Western and Northern Europe have, of course, succeeded in banishing religion from public and private spheres. But racism? It lay dormant for several decades after the Holocaust and has now revived with a vengeance. My direct encounter with European racism occurred during 1998-1999, when I was researching the outlook for Turkey’s accession to the European Union as a fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. My inquiries about the issue drew negative responses throughout the five EU countries in which I conducted the fieldwork. In France, Germany and Austria – part of the white cultural monochrome (with largely suppressed Muslim subcultures) – discrepancies in “cultural” and “democratic” institutions were cited as the main reasons Turkey wouldn’t fit into the EU. In Britain and the Netherlands, avowedly “pluralist” democracies, I was told that Turkey’s relatively poor economic performance and also “slow progress” toward a full-fledged democracy would “create problems” if Ankara were to join the bloc. These were the general lines of feedback from my unscientific samples, with exceptions, of course.
In reality, Turkey has outpaced the economic performance some of the countries that have joined the Union since, e.g. Slovenia, Croatia and Lithuania. Its democratic evolution, with the inevitable blips of an emerging democracy, is more striking than that of some of the bloc’s latest members, especially the post-Communist ones. Poland and Hungary are virtual autocracies. Yet Turkey’s chances of accession to the EU is more remote today than was two decades ago when I investigated the question.
Turkophobia of the “white-Christian club,” as the former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu once described the EU to me, dates back to Ottoman Turks’ conquest southeastern Europe and march to the gates of Vienna in 1529 and 1683. Race and culture, informed by the values of Western Christianity, remain a stumbling block to the bloc’s acceptance of brown-skinned Muslim Turks’ membership application. Racism in Europe has reached the highest levels since the Holocaust mainly because of an influx of Muslim immigrants with different shades of brown skin tones. Muslims make up 6 percent of the European population. Islamophobia is but a new incarnation of anti-Semitism, which raged in Europe for many centuries.
Britain, viewed as a model of racial and religious tolerance, is a case in point. In no other Western country would you see so many brown Muslims and black Caribbeans serving proudly in public offices from the government ministry to Parliament to city councils. Much of it, however, reflects the traditionally pragmatic Britons’ acceptance of the demographic reality. Non-whites make up 13 percent of the British population of 64 million. Actually, race consciousness remains endemic to British psyche and has been heightened by the growth of non-white communities. Polls have shown that fear of Muslim immigration has been a key driver of the Brexit campaign. One poll put out last November by The Independent newspaper found that 31 percent of white Britons feared that “Muslim immigration is part of a bigger plan to make Muslims a majority of this country’s population.”
If race is eating away at liberalism in Europe, religion and ethnicity have kept it from taking root in most of the rest of the world. The concepts of church-state separation and rights of the rugged individual are among the basic principles of liberalism. But these ideas have been alien to Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Pashtun, Palestinian, Kurdish, Balinese, Hutu, Tuareg, Mulatto, and Zambo communities. Many people in these religious and ethnic groups would sacrifice their individual well-being, and sometimes lives, for communal solidarity and interests.
We need a new world order that safeguards the cultural, economic and political interests of autonomous religious and ethnic communities. Netanyahu must be barred from continuing to dispossess and subjugate the Palestinians, Modi from suppressing the freedoms of Kashmiri and other Indian Muslims, and Trump from trampling the rights of Hispanic immigrants and would-be immigrants at the Mexican border. An American citizen, I am voting for Bernie Sanders who, as president, would promote these cherished aspirations of mine, along with others.
- Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts this blog.