Elif Shafak is a celebrated novelist who lives in London and Istanbul. Her books include The Forty Rules of Love, Three Daughters of Eve and The Architect’s Apprentice, among many others. She spoke with The WorldPost in Zurich earlier this week in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration and a conference of European nationalist leaders.
Last weekend the far-right populist parties in Europe met together for the first time in Koblenz, Germany to coordinate their efforts. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the anti-immigrant National Front in France, said it was Europe’s time to “wake up” and follow President Donald Trump’s example in the United States. Do you see populists gaining power in continental Europe over the coming years, as they have in the U.S. and Britain? Is that a greater danger than in the U.S.?
After decades of accelerating globalization, whether we like it or not, we are all deeply, irretrievably interconnected. Amongst other things, this implies that populists in one part of the world will embolden populists in another part of the world. Tribalist demagogues ― who passionately preach that we all belong in our own tribes and that we will be safer if we are surrounded by sameness ― in one country will lift the morale of tribalist demagogues elsewhere.
'Populists in one part of the world will embolden populists in another part of the world.'
Even so, I am far more concerned about the rise of populism across Europe than the rise of populism in the U.S. Here in the old continent, there is almost a visceral fear of diversity and “the other.” This is all the more noticeable as you travel from major cities into the countryside. The cognitive and cultural gap between Europe’s cities and rural Europe is a subject that oddly escaped the attention of the European bureaucratic elite for a long, long time. This was a big mistake.
We must never lose sight of the fact that ultra-nationalism and xenophobia have a longer, darker history on this side of the Atlantic. And we need to bear in mind that this history is still alive in a fractured, fragmented and uneven continent where we do not always encounter the checks and balances that exist in the U.S. Constitution. So, yes, it is a “wake up” call. But not for the tribalists. It is a wake-up call for democrats and liberals and cosmopolitans, for anyone and everyone who holds democracy and pluralism dear. It is a wake-up call for us.
Might the considerable benefits of the welfare state on the European continent be a break in the kind of populism we’ve seen in U.S. and Britain? In the U.S. and Britain, there is a big dose of anti-government sentiment. While European populists despise the EU bureaucrats in Brussels, they are not anti-government in their own nations.
The welfare state used to be one of the pillars of the post-World War II liberal order and liberal discourse. But today, that, too, is changing. In Scandinavian countries, for instance, the far-right has been presenting itself as the champion of the working classes. Remember how the Sweden Democrats used a striking message in their election campaign: choose between mass migration and welfare! Health care, school system, pensions ― issues that hitherto social democrats were best known for ― are now being voiced by the far-right in Europe. This shift is dangerous and it will have repercussions. It will expand the populists’ electoral base.
But Europe is a patchwork, and there are lots of conflicting voices across the continent with regards to the welfare state, even among the populists. This is not surprising given that populism is not and has never been a coherent ideology. It is an eclectic, shifty rhetoric that can appear under different forms depending on the country and the audience it wishes to address. There is also a considerable number of “welfare chauvinists” who want to strictly restrict welfare benefits to a privileged native class or social group and make a point of excluding everyone else. This, too, is a winning argument these days.
When we speak of cultural pluralism and diversity today we tend to mean it in a cosmopolitan sense, of multiple identities in a globalized world. Yet, the cultural nationalism we see today in Europe is cast as a defense of diversity of distinct historical cultures against the tide of integration and immigrants from elsewhere. How do you balance belonging with the interdependence of plural identities?
In so many ways, the political history of the world can be read as a nonstop swinging pendulum. As humanity we seem to love to swing from one extreme to the other. An absolute universalism was problematic in the way in which it erased cultural, ethnic, linguistic diversity. The opposite, cultural relativism, was also problematic.
Many misogynistic practices, such as FGM [female genital mutilation] or child brides, were defended in the name of “cultural relativism.” So I am critical of both extremes.
'If you want to challenge a populist demagogue, you have to boost your emotional intelligence ― it is not enough to rely on only facts and statistics and reason.'
Progressive humanism is something else altogether. It is a system of thought that gives prime importance not to ethnicity or race or sex or class or religion, but to human beings per se. It is a way of connecting with fellow human beings across boundaries by both recognizing diversity, plurality and differences, and at the same time insisting on shared universal values and the need for coexistence. Of course, people need to belong in communities and it is not only understandable, but also beautiful to have a sense of cultural belonging, a love for one’s motherland.
The British philosopher Isaiah Berlin was very critical of some liberals who never understood the value of this. We cannot leave patriotism to the nationalists. Just like we cannot leave faith to the religious. And we cannot leave emotions to populist demagogues. If you want to challenge a populist demagogue, you have to boost your emotional intelligence ― it is not enough to rely on only facts and statistics and reason. It is time for us democrats to reform and revise our approach to a variety of subjects that populists today are keen to appropriate.
This interview has been briefly edited for clarity.