Endangered Human and Civil Rights in Europe

Chris Beckett via flickr || Creative Commons

Crime scene Paris: six simultaneous attacks, clearly planned in great detail and aimed at public meeting spaces where citizens gather, have once again highlighted the vulnerabilities of the European social model. Europe has chosen to define itself as an open society. This allows for individual freedom. But it also gives enemies the opportunity to destroy open spaces, guaranteed by the state, intentionally and with the aim of causing maximum harm.

However, it is not only terrorists who are putting the European model at risk. It is also the growing number of citizens who are disillusioned with democratic fundamentals, allied with growing populist and extremist right-wing movements which unite around xenophobia.

1. Withdrawal from the open society

The Enlightenment at risk?

Open societies are by their very nature vulnerable. They draw their productivity not from the regulating interventions of the state, but from their society’s value systems, based on information and tolerance. This means: the more open a society’s structure, the more important is citizens’ sense of responsibility, their understanding of civil liberties and duties, and their commitment to pluralism and social interactions based on mutual respect.

Open societies need mature citizens to function. Their progress depends on the acceptance and tolerance that result from information and education, as well as a solid understanding of political systems and structures. At the same time they require that individuals be aware of how they benefit from these structures and of the valuable contributions they make to society in turn – be it through education, work or other forms of involvement.

When these opportunities for participation, representation and the recognition of individual effort are diminished, citizens’ identification with the open society model risks fading away.

This can result in frustration, resignation and withdrawal to the private sphere. Apart from the direct detrimental impact of such developments on society, it can also lead to political mobilisation by movements and parties evoking antidemocratic and group identity sentiments. Such mobilisation funnels energy into fighting established political systems and structures representing an open society.

2. Populist and xenophobic movements in Europe

Which right-wing movements are there in Europe?

At the end of the previous century, Ralf Dahrendorf said: “Authoritarianism is by no means the least likely prognosis for the 21st century.” Developments pointing in this direction are already visible. Our model of state continues to be that of a liberal democracy. But populist and in some case extremist right-wing movements in Europe and the EU are a reality. They could conceivably form governments or participate in government formation, considering the unstoppable rise of such parties in France, Austria, the Netherlands; the (re-)invigorated extreme right parties in Hungary and Greece; and the growing approval enjoyed by the AfD in Germany, a party that was started comparatively recently.

All of these parties are represented in the European Parliament. With 39 MEPs, they form the ENF (Europe of Nations and Freedom) parliamentary group, which consists of both populist and extreme right-wing parties. The ENF counts among its members MEPs representing the Front National (France), the PVV (Netherlands), the FPÖ (Austria), the Lega Nord (Italy) and the AfD (Germany). The NPD (Germany) is represented in the European Parliament by Udo Voigt as part of the “Non-Inscrits” group of 14 independent MEPs.

Extreme right-wing parties are characterised by their nationalistic traditional values and the rejection of groups that do not match these values – be it for ethnic, religious or philosophical reasons. Right-wing populism is characterised by a posture of traditionalistic, anti-modern politics without necessarily having a clear programmatic profile. For instance, Germany’s Pegida and its derivatives serve as examples of a right-wing populist movement. But even parties that do not properly belong to the right-wing spectrum may exploit right-wing methods and themes for tactical reasons.

Xenophobia – from where?

One of this political spectrum’s most popular themes is fear of and hostility towards foreigners.

Extremist movements and parties often exploit these fears to trigger isolation mechanisms that help create clearly defined spiritual and emotional safe spaces. Xenophobic movements highlight social insecurities, global complexities, mistrust in “those at the top” (the perceived caste of political and economic decision-makers, including the media), personal disappointments and felt or real discrimination. This gives them the potential to turn into politically influential movements at short notice.

What is to be done?

Once verbal and real ranks have closed against outsiders, circular arguments, combined with internal confirmations, are used to create attitudes impervious to external influences such as reasoned debate and informed education. A closed system confronts an open system.

That is why early prevention in the form of political education is indispensable.

3. Religious extremism and freedom

How does religious extremism manifest itself as terrorism?

Current religious extremism in the name of Islam is based on religion, but motivated mainly by strategic ideas of conquest. Religious belief founded on an interpretation of the Koran that glorifies violence and war is an attractive way to address young people dissatisfied with liberal Western values. It makes them susceptible to recruitment for often fatal deployments in terrorist attacks.

The worldview being sold here is simple and uncomplicated: despised “Western” openness and relativity are confronted with a rigid system of values that claims to represent absolute truth in matters both political and religious.

The dividing line no longer runs between the two big sects of traditional Islam – Sunna and Shia – but between “moderate” Muslim schools of thought on the one hand and fundamentalist Wahhabism on the other, whose protagonists are the fighters of IS and other terror groups affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Excursus: Wahhabism is named after its founder, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (about 1703-1791). He advocated a radically simplified religious life in the spirit of the Prophet Mohammed. An itinerant preacher born in Riad, he converted Saudi Bedouin tribes to his interpretation. This triggered a missionary campaign of conquest against “secularised” Islam; the term “infidels” in this interpretation includes not only adherents of religions other than Islam, but also moderate Muslim faiths, see the studies by Mahmoud Abu Taam, BIM/HUB and others.

The collapse of the regional order has been described by Volker Perthes (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP) as a “megatrend in today’s Near and Middle East”. There appears to be no power that can reassemble a regional order. The regional players do not create the impression of being willing or able to “convene a kind of Near East Congress of Vienna in order to agree on their own concepts for a new order”. Not least, this assessment is a result of regional conflict structures that even experts find difficult to analyse. Centuries-old, unresolved political, economic and social conflicts are now being discharged in a series of civil wars. A large number of state and non-state (violent) actors, together with their terror organisations and militias, operating in a steadily increasing power vacuum between Baghdad and Damascus, Sana’a and Tripoli, find an ideal medium for the reckless pursuit of their own interests in these conditions.

In this conflict situation, the “Islamic State” (IS) is a “jihadist state-forming project” that aims to construct a totalitarian, almost apocalyptic, expansive system. Since its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed a “Caliphate” in June 2014, IS has gone on to occupy and hold a territory larger than Great Britain. In so doing, IS has proved to be not a “temporary phenomenon”, but a “state-forming project” with increasingly stable structures. It does not recognise any borders or civilising limits. The Paris terror attacks once more revealed its abhorrent nature. (See also: Klaff, Wacker, Roick, “Analyse: Ordnungszerfall im Nahen Osten”, No. 1, FNF, October 2015).

Security instead of freedom?

Citizens have an existential need to feel safe. But security is not the main focus of terrorist attacks; instead, it is the concept of freedom inherent to any democratic society and the Western lifestyle which, in all its forms, from guaranteed constitutional rights to cultural and inter-cultural values, is diametrically opposed to the anti-individualistic, obscurantist ideology of the Islamists.

Their goal is to wipe out civil liberties and civilised values, using any means necessary. Attacks on citizens in public areas, which represent a stage for an open lifestyle, are perfectly suited. And this leads to the perfidious outcome that precisely this freedom becomes constrained.

The state is not only obliged to grant civil rights, but also has the duty to protect its citizens. And individuals’ need for security grows to the same degree that existing personal freedoms are threatened, or perceived to be threatened, by external violence.

Summary: freedom in Europe must not be sacrificed!

Terror attacks demand a security response. However, all security measures have to be tested against the yardstick of fundamental rights. When responding to terrorism and the resulting threats to citizens’ civil rights, political decision-makers have to take into account the trade-off between freedom and security – and their decisions should not violate the underpinnings of fundamental rights.

It is essential that restrictions on freedom in the name of security be continuously assessed and updated in order to preserve the core of an open society.

Linking calls for borders to be closed to the necessary fight against IS is misguided and serves only one interest group: the growing populist and extreme right-wing movements in Europe.

Many people are fleeing from totalitarianism to Europe. Totalitarianism is what we should be fighting, as a democratic state fully capable of defending itself with all legal means of prevention and prosecution at its disposal. At the same time we must preserve our social model. Openness, dynamic innovation, equality of opportunity, individual free self-determination – all these things have to be preserved and expanded. This is true particularly in times of terror that seeks to destroy this openness and dynamism for all time.

LI/Berlin, December 2015