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Europe’s xenophobia

March 16, 2012

AS French President Nicolas Sarkozy slugs it out with far-right presidential candidate and rival Marine Le Pen for title of Europe’s most halal-phobic politician, the European Commission has waded into an unexpected controversy over its jaundiced view of the ‘outside world’.

Facing a tough re-election fight this year, the French president has declared that there are “too many foreigners” in France and that he would move to limit their numbers. Like Le Pen he claims to be especially outraged at the fact that halal meat is now widely distributed across the country.

While many have expressed outrage at his comments, Mr Sarkozy’s public ratings have gone up slightly in the last few days.

Also, the French leader has visited the main mosque in Paris to make sure that the country’s four-million strong Muslim community — the largest in Europe — did not “feel hurt” by the controversy.

I suppose the true answer is: yes, they are hurt — but they’re used to it. Anti-foreigner, xenophobic rhetoric has unfortunately become the norm during elections in Europe. And as we know, far-right parties are becoming more vocal — and more popular.

Significantly at the same time, however, so-called foreigners — mainly European Muslims — are becoming more and more integrated and successful as politicians, business leaders and artists.

The disconnect between political discourse on Islam and Muslims and ground realities of relatively successful integration goes unnoticed, however. As they say in New York ‘go figure’.

But while Sarkozy and other European politicians use racism to win votes, many people are wondering just why the unelected European Commission decided to turn to racial stereotypes and historical fears to try and convince increasingly sceptical Europeans of the benefits of enlargement.A short video film produced by the Commission — the executive arm of the European Union — shows three exotic-looking men using a varied array of martial arts skills to apparently fight a woman. The film shows a woman walking through a disused warehouse, where first a man from East Asia jumps down in front of her performing kung fu.

Then a master of the art of kalaripayattu, from the southern Indian state of Kerala, materialises and aims his sword at her.

Finally a practitioner of the Brazilian art of capoeira breaks through a door and cartwheels towards her. After gazing calmly at the trio, she fends them off with a zen gesture, multiplies into 11 copies of herself and surrounds the three men who quietly lay down their weapons.

The last scene shows the group sitting down cross-legged — and the 12 women are transformed into the yellow stars of the EU.

Called “growing together”, the video’s message at the end is simple: “The more we are, the stronger we are....”The Commission argues that it wanted to demonstrate the three foreigners’ skills and that all characters show “mutual respect” and conclude in a position of peace and harmony. “The genre was chosen to attract young people and to raise their curiosity on an important EU policy,” said an official, adding that European youth understands the plots and themes of martial arts films and video games.

But others aren’t quite so indulgent. The video has been criticised for its openly racist stereotyping and suggestion that Europe is threatened by fierce and cruel foreigners. The depiction of the white woman as frail and vulnerable has been criticised by feminists. The offending film that cost over 120,000 euros to make has been withdrawn. But of course the controversy it has generated lives on.

Although used to the EU’s often ham-handed handling of sensitive issues — especially when out-of-touch bureaucrats decide they need to be ‘cool’ — I admit that the offending video in question has left me totally flummoxed. What on earth is the message? Since it appears to show a white Europe struggling to fight off fierce Asian, African and Latin American predators, is the message that Europe feels threatened by the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and other emerging economic powerhouses of what used to be known as the developing world?

Or is the video saying that while Europe is white, peaceful and nice — pretty even — the world is full of nasty foreigners with horrible weapons? And if that’s the case, what does this mean for Europe’s aspirations of playing a strong global role and the future of Europe’s ethnic minorities? Could it be that Anya Topolski who has written on the subject for openDemocracy is right and the video has made transparent the “all-too-often implicit xenophobia that is constitutive of ‘the idea of Europe’?”

Topolski says that the video not only taps into Europe’s foundational myth, it seems to justify the current existence of the European Union on the same grounds that once justified Europe’s imperialist adventures which led to its colonisation of 85 per cent of the globe.

“For those that know their Greek mythology, this cannot simply be a coincidence. Europa, the virgin daughter of an Asian king, was frolicking in the ocean when whisked away by the Greek God Zeus, disguised as a white bull, who then raped and abandoned her. The night before she was assaulted, Europa dreamt of being attacked by the continents of Asia and Libya (the Greek name for what is now Africa) and finally being rescued by ‘civilisation’,” Topolski says.

Perhaps. But I wonder if the PR agency that produced the video had Topolski’s grasp on history and European mythology.

Especially since the filmmakers certainly don’t seem to know that Turkey, with its exotic people and Muslim heritage, is also negotiating to join the EU.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.