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Is Northern Europe still the Last Bastion of Liberal Tolerance?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2016-04-27 09:25:23
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I grew up thinking of the Scandinavian and Northern European countries (Sweden, Denmark, the Netherland, etc.) as the most liberal societies in Europe, the very bastion of tolerance, enlightenment and democracy. Is that still the case today? Considering the latest reports from these countries on the steady increase of populist anti-Islamic forces one is left wondering.

The words “democracy” and “cultural tolerance,” and “multiculturalism” are still given lip service in those societies, but the sad reality is that those countries far from being the bastion of liberalism and tolerance, seem to be getting perilously accommodating to the claims of radical-right parties of the EU. Consider the entry of the Sweden Democrats, so called, into the Swedish parliament after the elections of September 2010, or the Danish People’s Party of Pia Kjaesgaard which supports right-wing minority governments since 2001, while the Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders is practically playing a similar role in the Netherlands. This kind of news is quite disconcerting for liberals in general who are known for their advocacy of cultural tolerance and harmony.


A closer look into European citizens’ political attitudes needs to be taken. Then one discovers a more complex but more reassuring picture. It shows that the Northern countries remain among the most culturally tolerant countries in worldwide. For example a relatively recent poll found that while some 14% of EU citizens can be classified as “intolerant,” only 11% in the Netherlands and 9% in Sweden could be so classified. Surprisingly, Denmark topped them all with 20%. Sweden scored as 76% tolerant against a EU average of merely 60%, while Denmark, once again, scored lower with 64%. This of course does not mean that things have been improving, if anything, they have been getting worse in the area of cultural tolerance.

For example, a 2005 May Pew survey rated the Dutch as among the most anti-Muslim among Europeans. They have been singled out the Dutch, and to a less extend the Danish, as tolerant of Islamophobia by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) and the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI).

How does one explain this conundrum? Could it be that it is precisely their former extreme tolerance that permits the present intolerance? To answer that question one needs to look at two other crucial elements besides tolerance itself: nationalism and conformism.

It is a fact that in the countries under discussion tolerance has always been associated with a negative attitude toward ethnic chauvinistic nationalism. They considered themselves “non-nationalist nations” which sounds like an oxymoron but it makes sense if one thinks what extreme nationalism has wrought to Europe. Nationalism was linked to Nazism and the extreme radical right-wing parties. Hence the option of relating anti-immigrant and Xenophobic policies to a nationalistic narrative (as was the case in Austria, Belgium or France) never existed in Denmark, the Netherlands or Sweden.

Moreover, there is conformity at play; a well known component of the Northern European ethos. It is used frequently by their politician as a weapon to enforce political correctness. There is in these countries a high trust in state actors and institutions. There was a certain image of the Nordic people to be kept in good standingr, that of a people in genuine love with multiculturalism, cultural tolerance, liberalism with a vengeance. Thus the immigration issue was kept off the agenda for a while.


Ansgar preaching to the Swedes

What is also intriguing in this analysis is that while those countries remain among the most tolerant on women’s rights, gay rights, they are also among the EU least religious societies and the most secular; religion seems to be treated as just another myth comparable to the ancient Nordic myth; which seems to bolster the misguided argument that religion should not be included in the public agora of any enlightened society, but also reveals a vulnerability: religion having been marginalized, it has also been politicized and reduced to the level of another political ideology and propaganda. In this context, it is quite easy to interpret  Islam as a threat to European culture and to liberal democracy. We have discussed this issue at length elsewhere, and will continue to do so.

For the moment let me briefly say here that, to the chagrin of the Islamophobes and Xenophobes and the religiously challenged of the EU, Islam remains a growing religion that understandably threatens the secularist consensus of the EU by bringing religious issues back onto the public agenda. Of course the threat is perceived to be not only to secularism but also to gender equality, gay rights, liberal democracy; all considered fundamental aspects of Western Civilization.


Hence, so the argument goes, it is incumbent for all tolerant Europeans, (who however are loath to acknowledge that inalienable human rights have a religious origin in Christianity; an acknowledgement  which could counter the intolerances of Islam in those areas), to oppose the “intolerant” Muslims. Now, that may or may not explain the paradox of intolerance in the most liberal countries of the EU but it remains a clever by half stratagem; that is to say,  the stratagem of opposing orthodox Islam with a liberal-democratic discourse rather than a more boorish ethnic-nationalistic conformist one. The stratagem works to a certain extent: it makes it politically acceptable to many misguided people in those countries under the delusion that religion is just another myth to be disposed of and that secularism will ultimately triumph. Those people have utterly failed to read and ponder Jorge’s Habermas’ essay on “A post-secular Europe.” They ought to do so at their earliest convenience or be utterly disappointed by future events in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherland, not to speak of the whole EU.


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Emanuel Paparella2016-04-27 23:25:18

The above link, just out today from Sweden, pretty much supports my point about liberality that paradoxically transforms itself in illiberality the moment it rejects the voice of religion in the public agora. Indeed, being insulting to other cultures is not the equivalent to being authentic...

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