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By Sabrina Brasey
On the 9th November 2017, the Henry Jackson Society hosted Sasha Polakow-Suransky in an event titled: “Go back to where you came from: The backlash against immigration and the fate of Western Democracy” – which is also the title of his new book. Sasha Polakow-Suransky was previously an op-ed editor at the New York Times and a senior editor at Foreign Policy. His writing have appeared in the Guardian, the New Republic, the Boston Globe and he is currently an Open Society Foundations fellow.
To start off the event, Sasha began talking about his book and how his research first began in the summer of 2015, just as the refugee crisis throughout Europe was beginning to peak. He stated that prior to 2015, many anti-immigration ideas were already present in political discourse, expressed by politicians such as Marine Le Pen. However, he argued that the refugee crisis of late 2015 gave politicians – like Le Pen – a great political gift. The message she had been pushing for a long time – the idea that a mass Muslim influx was colonising and transforming Europe for the worse – suddenly gained new currency. Sasha believes that the reason behind why this message caught on so effectively comes down to politicians like LePen conflating desperate refugees that are fleeing ISIS with terrorists who are committing crimes in the name of ISIS. Once these two groups are conflated in the public mind, it is easier to push a political agenda which paints these individuals as the cause of most of the continents problems.
Sasha pointed out that many of the people that vote for Le Pen or the Danish People’s Party, have reasonable and legitimate concerns about the pace of change in their neighbourhoods and the numbers and speed at which these people are arriving. However he argued that those legitimate fears have been hijacked by politicians who do not have a liberal democratic agenda, whose end game is not something that reflects liberal democratic values. Sasha disputes that in political campaigns over the last two years, an entire religious group has been scapegoated for the crimes of a few of its members. He believes that this “collective blame” is extremely dangerous in this day and age.
Sasha spoke at length regarding another theme which emerged during the 2016 campaigns across Europe, the idea of a civilisational war. In other words, the notion that Muslims are threatening European societies and are fundamentally incompatible with the European way of life. He noted that several known authors in France and Germany have exploited the fact that there is a fear of Muslims and that this has turned into an excuse to blame all Muslims as a group. Renault Camus’ book – ‘The Great Replacement’ – – warns of the danger of Muslim immigrants colonising France and threatening French culture. Sasha pointed out that this book is often cited by anti-migrant activists. Furthermore, he strongly believes that parties such as Le Front National should not be described as mainstream or moderate – because by describing them as such – they become legitimised, despite promoting a very illiberal agenda.
To conclude, Sasha points out that there are genuine liberal democrats who have concerns about immigration however there are also majoritarian populists who are not interested in liberal democratic values. He believes that by upholding the principles of defending individual and civil liberties and religious freedom – when we are under attack in democratic states – that we can preserve the liberal democratic constitutionalism that makes Western societies strong.
The Henry Jackson Society would like to thank Sasha Polakow-Suransky for his presentation on the backlash against immigration and the fate of Western Democracy.