A Pyrrhic Victory of the Politics of Tolerance?

by Frederik Seidelin

On Tuesday, people in Denmark went to the polls to elect local councillors for the next four years. The campaigning period saw right-wing populists opposing building permits for mosques, opposing Muslim women wearing headscarves in the health sector, and similar religion-related value politics that we have, sadly, come to expect in Western elections.

One of the consistent arguments of such populists is that Islam is inherently repressive of women and violent. Such sweeping statements are invariably couched in an ‘us vs. them’ rhetoric, in which ‘we’ is either overtly or implicitly the Christian West. European populists’ characterisation of Islam conflates many distinct national and religious cultures, and they view that conflated Islamic culture as static.

In 2018, progressives will be celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Edward Said’s influential book Orientalism, which described how in the West, Eastern cultures are portrayed as unchanging and stagnant. As the global wave of conservatism shows, Said’s critique remains relevant to this day. Indeed, the European populist idea that one-and-a-half billion Muslims can be characterised as homogeneous and inherently violent, repressive, and irrational could be seen to be a modern-day variant of Orientalism.

The populist right would say that their portrayal of Islam is vindicated by the fact that extremist Islamism, which places itself in opposition to the Western way of life, is a threat. This claim, however, ignores the fact that all kinds of intolerant extremism—whether religious or political—over the past century have threatened democratic life. We need to recognise that the populists and their extremism are part of the problem, not the solution. Indeed, whereas extreme Islamists pose a nebulous threat, the fear stoked by right-wing populists poses an even greater threat to the very fabric of our tolerant culture, which has been the bedrock of democratic progress for centuries.

Over the past few years, we have seen a number of high-marks of populist upsets—such as the election of Trump and the Brexit vote in 2016. However, we have also seen the victory of the Austrian Greens’ Alexander Van der Bellen, not to mention British Labour’s successful electoral campaign based on a message of social justice, respect, and tolerance in 2017. Indeed, Labour is now ahead of the Conservatives in almost all opinion polls.

In line with these victories against intolerant populists, the Danish Social Democrats made an electoral come-back in the Danish local election this week. Meanwhile, the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party saw their hopes that this election would mark their breakthrough in local politics dashed when they lost an eighth of their local councillors. However, the Danish Social Democrats have adopted much of the populists’ political platform on immigration, and the self-labelled liberal party (‘Venstre, Denmark’s Liberal Party’) formed electoral pacts with the populists in almost all municipalities across the country. The apparent victory on Tuesday for a progressive and tolerant politics might therefore prove to be a pyrrhic one.


Kommunalvalg 2017” by Klaus Berdiin Jensen is licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0

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