And so it goes. The Brexit effect becomes the Brexit/Trump effect, which then becomes the Brexit/Trump/Italy effect. It could almost have become the Brexit/Trump/Austrian Nazi/Italy effect. It may become the Brexit/Trump/Italy/One Nation effect. And it all leads to one simple conundrum: how do centre-right parties stop the seemingly inevitable rise of the “populist” far right?
The conventional wisdom is to take on a key aspect of the far right so as to take the wind out of their sails. That usually means pick the minority the far right loves to hate and throw them under the bus — preferably the minority that is weak and cannot fight back.
In the past 12 months or so, Germany has shown genuine leadership in relation to refugees escaping the horrors of war in Syria. Some 1.1 million refugees were resettled during 2015 alone. Asylum applications have been expedited so that people are not left in limbo.
This isn’t the first time Germany has had to take in large amounts of refugees. After the end of World War II, when Germany was decimated by the Allies, millions of expelled Hungarians, Slovaks, Czechs and other refugees of German ethnicity were expelled from homes and lands they had lived in for centuries.
It was extremely tough, but Germany managed. The new Germans eventually assimilated despite their differences with the German-born Germans, and despite the fact elderly people and children made up many of the refugees’ numbers.
The new Syrian refugees are largely of working age. Many are professionals who, even if not German-speaking, can at least speak English. They wear Western clothes, and many were well-travelled before the war. In this photo of students from the University of Aleppo sitting for their exams in 2013, I can’t find a single burqa.
Whatever the horrors of the Assad regime, it was a regime that allowed religious and ethnic minorities to flourish. Historically, Syria was the land of Byzantine churches, of saints who spent years sitting atop poles, of some of the oldest Christian music in the world. In his 1997 book, From The Holy Mountain, William Dalrymple writes about the strong Christian presence in Syria and the centuries of interaction between the various faith communities of the former Byzantine world.
The idea of lecturing and hectoring this largely modern, educated refugee diaspora about not wearing the burqa or some other face covering (as Chancellor Angela Merkel is now doing) makes little sense. It would be hard to find a Syrian woman who wears the burqa, just as you’d be hard-pressed to find a third-generation German-Turkish woman wearing one. Why even talk about it?
German Muslims who refuse to integrate will likely find pressure on them not just from the courts but also from their own communities. Seriously, how many German Muslims would agree with the claims of an 11-year-old girl before a German court that “even wearing a burkini, or full-body swimsuit, breached Islamic dress codes”? Imagine a Syrian refugee family who saw women drowning in the Mediterranean having objections to their daughters learning to swim.
If Merkel really wants to stamp out the wearing of face veils, she will find no greater ally than the mainstream German Muslim communities — Turks, south Asians and Syrians. A far better strategy would be consulting with them to see how community education and other grassroots strategies can assist.
Of course, the far right and their friends in the German and European and, indeed, our Breitbart-wannabe Australian media will find any excuse to turn a small incident into a mountain of “creeping sharia”. This places pressure on mainstream conservative parties to respond. Some will respond by focusing on who they are and what they stand far. Others will point to a small minority and declare “We are not like them!” hoping this will take attention away from the hate brigade.
It is a strategy that is rarely temporary, It turns the normal centre right into enablers of the far right. And the last thing a leader of Germany would want to be is an enabler of the political descendants of Nazism.