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Responding to the Rise of the Far Right

By Stephen Shashoua

The following essay was originally published in the Three Faiths Forum (3FF) newsletter as an official response to the resurgence of extreme right wing politics in Europe. 3FF is one of Europe’s largest grassroots interfaith programs and is profiled this month in these pages.

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3FF tends not to make statements whenever issues arise which move us farther away from our vision of a better-connected and more cohesive society.  We tend to focus on building understanding and better relations on the ground instead. However, with the xenophobic rhetoric around the recent European Parliament elections, we felt it was important to speak up.

The success of certain far-right parties, particularly on the continent of Europe, in the recent election should deeply worry anyone who wants the future of Europe to be one of increased understanding, respect, and cooperation between people of all faiths and cultures – not one of increased fear, suspicion, and isolation.

The Jewish Museum in Brussels prior to the May 24, 2014 bombing which took three lives. – Photo: Wikipedia

The Jewish Museum in Brussels prior to the May 24, 2014 bombing which took three lives. – Photo: Wikipedia

This weekend’s attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels is another tragic reminder that hatred and violence based on people’s faith, culture, or ethnicity is still very much a reality in Europe.  And in another worrying development, a British Social Attitudes survey found that 30 percent of people in the UK admit they are prejudiced against those of other races. It’s a painful reminder of how it seems we have not learned the lessons from our recent past.

This is not a political statement, but a social one. The extreme right will always exist in some form, and while it is important to counter them directly, it is more essential to make the mainstream more resilient. An informed and engaged public, with positive experiences of cultural diversity, is less likely to listen to the hate-filled rhetoric of xenophobes. While the extremists might never disappear completely, over time they can be effectively marginalized.

We look to political, religious, organizational, and community leaders to redouble their efforts to organize and embed this resilience through genuine actions, beyond statements and photo opportunities. An Anti-Defamation League (ADL) survey found that more than a quarter of the world is anti-Semitic, and around 70 percent of those anti-Semites have never met someone Jewish. This confirms what we know from our own work: Lack of contact enables prejudice to flourish, while positive, ongoing encounters between people from different backgrounds go the farthest in shifting attitudes and behaviors.

This must go beyond leadership, as everyone needs to be involved in the struggle for the soul of a Europe that seems to be going backwards in terms of its attitude towards minorities. Those of us who want to see an inclusive Europe, based on appreciation of people’s differences and cooperation across cultures, need to keep working to make sure this becomes a reality.