Who are we? A referendum in Hungary raises fundamental questions in the West about how the fear of otherness turns culture into a weapon in the hands of populists.
Hungary will hold a referendum on Sunday to decide whether to take in refugees. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's views on the resettling migrants is already well known — "We are talking about the essence of Hungarian identity. That is, simply put, threatened by the migration policies of Brussels."
Orbán's colleagues in the Visegrád group — an alliance of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia — share his fears about migrants. But in addition to this central European group, Western European nations are also seeing populist movements. "The ghettos, the ethnic conflicts, political and religious provocation are a direct consequence of a massive immigration movement, which threatens our national identity," France's National Front warns on its official website.
Germany's AfD party manifesto says: "The AfD views the ideology of multiculturalism as a serious threat to social peace and the continued existence of our nation as a single cultural unit. This is due to multiculturalism giving the same rights to imported cultural norms as it does to local culture, due to historically induced blindness, which relativizes local cultural values to the extreme."
All of Europe fears for its national identity. Now, anything that is valued by what we might call the "collective mind" may be deemed part of this identity. But currently this usually wide spectrum has been refocused drastically. It is one thing to be sure of your national identity, and another all together to see this identity being threatened.
The collective mind, typically, does not make a big deal of its identity because it feels secure, as it lies unchallenged. The collective can afford to be ambiguous, open-minded and interactive, and for its borders to remain open. Indeed, in times that are perceived as resistant to crises, national identity is of no importance —and if it does become important, then it is perceived as being an integral part of a broader global community. Even critical thinkers spoke of entering a "post-national" era in the later decades of the 20th century.
Only when national identity is threatened in the larger collective mind does it then become an integral part of the political agenda. But not in its former shape, as a meandering, multicolored aura, but as an immovable core. A defensive, intolerant and rigid core. When unchallenged, national identity is an epic, looking towards the future. When threatened, it becomes a drama focused on the past. In the whirlpools of the refugee maelstrom it is becoming an identity that is above all about self-defense.
If viewed from the vantage point of neo-national politicians and parties, we are currently experiencing the aforementioned drama. Especially in continental Europe many people feel adversely affected by refugees entering the country, as well as by the alien "cultural norms that are imported," as AfD has declared. Orban warns that these norms will "destroy Christianity," a clear reference to the Muslims arriving. In France, the FN and other like-minded people speak about their threatened "Laïcité" (secularity), which is considered part of the French national identity, but also a way to target Islamic influence.
It also does not matter if the threat is actually present for national identity to become a "threatened national identity." Just as it is not possible to decide if a nation is an imaginary concept or a real nation, as it is a projection, an "invention" by its citizens, it is impossible to determine if national identity is just perceived as threatened or is truly threatened. What we can determine, however, are the consequences that result through the perceived threat.
Patriotism turns sour
While an identity that does not feel threatened proudly sees itself as a result of a patriotic history, of the achievements of the American and French Revolution, for example the threatened identity instead focuses on "the predominant local culture."
It follows that Germany, Hungary, Western culture in general as well as the Judeo-Christian roots raise their shields against Islam and the "different" and often "backwards" culture of the Turkish, Arab or African refugees. It is not the political nation-state that is threatened but the "continuation of the German nation as a single cultural unit," according to the AfD.
But if cultural characteristics are declared as being the basis for national identity, culture mutates into an offensive as well as defensive weapon. Culture that is exploited as defending identity, is not only degraded to being a weapon but also serves to delegitimize the immigrating culture.
When Orbán says "we do not want to change," he means that Islam and Oriental culture have no business in Hungary. National identity demands the disempowerment of the alien. The commandment of submission, of which we accuse the Koran of promoting (and which Islamism certainly is guilty of), is reversed and we demand submission to the dominant Christian Occidental culture.
This addiction to hermetically sealed cultural thinking that exponentially increases the risk that conflict will escalate: as so-called alien elements move from worries to fear, to perceived threat, to hysteria, to panic, to paranoia, to aggression.
In order to terminate this escalation it is paramount to reflect a much more direct question: Is our political, legal and democratic reality truly so weak, so small, so fragile that we feel we need to lose all sense of moderation and open-mindedness to defend it?