Go Back to Where You Came From by Sasha Polakow-Suransky • Nation Books • 2017 • 368 Pages • $28
Last winter, the forward march of public and political xenophobia seemed inexorable, marked by leaders who blasted immigrants as criminals or rapists or invaders, and whole countries choosing an ominous brand of nostalgia-tinged nationalism. But it all seemed to come to a hopeful halt with the French election. In May, French voters soundly defeated the far right, electing, instead, a fresh-faced centrist cast in the mold of Tony Blair.
I was in Paris reporting that week. The city held its breath as broadcasters watched the clock, waiting to reveal the results. When screens in living rooms and bars finally flashed the news of Emmanuel Macron’s decisive victory, a booming cheer rolled through the streets, like a thunderclap.
Then came the German and Austrian elections. The unapologetically xenophobic Alternative fur Germany (AfD) ran ads laced with blatant Islamophobia and made no secret of riding a wave of residual anger over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door immigration policies. The AfD entered the German Bundestag (legislature) for the first time—as the third largest party.
And in mid-October, Austrians made 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz chancellor. Kurz, the new face of the once-stodgy People’s Party, co-opted and reshaped the immigration skepticism of the far-right Freedom Party—the far right even complained he’d stolen their ideas—and evangelized about curtailing the welfare state.
Those elections were worrisome: Two countries had just tilted demonstrably away from their centrist, liberal political culture toward the right. Xenophobia had undeniably reshaped the terms of public debate. These electoral outcomes would be no surprise to Sasha Polakow-Suransky, who examines the growing backlash to immigration in his new book Go Back to Where You Came From. The “greatest threat to liberal democracies does not come from immigration and refugees,” he writes, “but from the backlash against them by those on the inside who exploit fear of outsiders to chip away at the values and institutions that make our societies liberal.”
Polakow-Suransky crisscrossed the globe for this impressively reported book written before the French went to the polls, pursuing purveyors of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment in an effort to chart the rise of the far right and far-right-inspired illiberal policies and philosophies in Denmark, France, South Africa, Australia, and Germany. What he provides with this work is a deeply researched picture of an era of historic, mass-human movement and displacement—and an equally historic political and social backlash to changing demographics.
Polakow-Suransky argues that it is not enough to simply reject populist views out of hand as racist, xenophobic, or Islamophobic. Those of us who want to preserve postwar liberalism and the modern social-welfare state, not to mention the very idea of democracy itself, need to first understand where these ideas come from, who is supporting them, and why. We also, he insists, need to gird ourselves for those parties who exploit our liberal democratic systems to advance illiberal ideas before we wake up and don’t recognize ourselves.
Go Back to Where You Came From begins in 2015 and was largely reported through 2016 (and quickly updated to reflect the 2017 election results in France; I’ll come back to that rapidity in a moment). The book opens with the horrific November 2015 terrorist attacks that killed more than 100 people at the Bataclan nightclub and nearby cafés in Paris; and it circles back to concerns over terror again and again as a way of examining reactions to outsiders in communities reeling from both an uptick in uncertainty due to safety concerns and increasing anxiety over a sense of fragile Western identity.
It’s on the latter question—the fragile identity of native-born Europeans, Americans, and other Westerners—that this book probes most deeply. What makes a European, after all? Or an Australian, or an American, for that matter? Is identity made possible by exclusion? In other words, are we defined by what we are not? Does birth in a country create loyalty? Or Is there some essential pull back to a mythical “home” country, even for second and third generation children who have never visited those shores? It’s a question both for those countries that have long been home to immigrants (the United States, Australia) and for the European countries that are just coming to terms with a new multicultural present.
Polakow-Suransky thinks the rules of the game were changed to suit white, Judeo-Christian society based on anxiety over immigration, generally, and Islam more specifically. He finds, for example, hypocrisy in the argument over the sacredness of French laïcité—that hard-to-translate militant secularity that is a century-old hallmark of French politics and identity but seems, he writes, to single out Islam as uniquely detrimental to French culture. He points to the debates over the “burkini,” the modest swim gear adopted by some Muslim women that, last summer, became spectacularly controversial in France.
“A supposedly neutral brand of secularism,” he notes, “is being aggressively deployed against one group and celebrated by public officials who denounce religious women wearing modest swimwear in one breath and celebrate Catholic holidays in another.” He speaks to those who worry that the rejection experienced by young Muslims in particular—born and raised in Europe —has made radicalization more appealing. He includes a quick sentence, early on, about the famous veil affair in 1989 that sparked a debate about girls in hijabs in public schools. I found myself wishing he’d taken a pause there and spent a bit more time on how public manifestations of religious identity, seen as directly in conflict with laïcité, have reappeared over and over throughout the last three decades. It would have been interesting to see him find, for example, one of the girls who marched in the streets in 2004, when the veil was banned in public schools, and see how that affected her life going forward. The burkini is a good media story, but it is the hijab ban that has been a far heavier burden upon women who both want to adhere to religious principles and also to their French identity. Doing so would also have allowed the author to reach further back than just these last few years, and give us a stronger latticework upon which to base his findings regarding the moment we find ourselves in.
Xenophobia long predates the refugee crisis of 2015, of course, but Polakow-Suransky notes that such rapid immigration exacerbates fear of newcomers and outsiders, furthering a rise in undemocratic policy proposals. The global problem, he explains, has been compounded as terror attacks have had their intended effect: increased anxiety about terror. That fear has become muddled with trepidation over mass arrivals of people (even though refugees and migrants aren’t the real security threat). The combination has pulled once-marginalized, far-right thinking into the mainstream, changing the political debate, and allowing once-shunned parties a real chance of taking the reins.
Liberal democracies, particularly those in Europe, are facing enormous questions about how to remain a humane society, how to address the needs of the millions fleeing war and persecution, while also successfully integrating cultures and peoples from very different economic and cultural backgrounds.
There is also the question of numbers: How many refugees, asylum seekers, or migrants can a country realistically absorb? Is it a number determined by resources? Or by a cloudy sense of collective discomfort? What makes for a humane immigration policy? And what overwhelms the system and thus spurs the rise of not only far-right political parties, but also far-right vigilante groups, like the young alt-right Europeans who call themselves “Identitarians”? It was just this summer that this group chartered their own ship set for the Mediterranean to try to stop NGO rescue ships from picking up migrants from the sea and bringing them to European shores.
The sheer numbers of clamoring asylum seekers in the last two years alone have sharply challenged Europe’s post-war identity. Germany took in 890,000 asylum seekers in 2015, Austria some 90,000. This June, Italy was swamped by would-be refugees, when more than 20,000 arrived that month alone; at one point Rome even tried to shut down southern border ports.
In the decades following the Holocaust, Europe has struggled to understand its identity, and its relationship to outsiders. In theory, it has become more welcoming. But Polakow-Suransky—a descendant of Jewish refugees who escaped the Nazi menace, as I am—argues that that welcome mat has never been laid out for Muslim immigrants, the first of whom came to Europe in waves midway through the twentieth century as either guest workers (in Germany, France, and Denmark, among other countries) or to flee the post-colonial implosion of their societies (like Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians moving to France). And in neither case were they successfully integrated, or ever fully seen as German or Danish or French. But he argues it was the mass influx of 2015 that truly, and forcibly, challenged Europe to consider what the future looked like. For Germany, he notes, that started with a single government-sourced tweet in August 2015 acknowledging that Germany would no longer be enforcing the “Dublin” rule for Syrian refugees. That obscure reference actually changed everything, he writes. The Dublin rule is a single line in a 1993 German Constitutional amendment that carefully created a loophole to protect Germany from mass migration: If a would-be asylum seeker went through a third (safe) country first, he or she would have to request asylum there. That meant asylum applications were automatically denied to anyone who did not first arrive in Germany. Which meant that to claim asylum you could only arrive by plane.
As one might imagine, that meant that hardly anyone ever qualified. Suspending that restriction pulled out a cork. One million refugees ultimately came to Germany under the new rules; meanwhile, the German political environment shifted in reaction to that influx. While images of Germans welcoming the newcomers dominated the media, behind the scenes, there was a backlash—especially after a series of sexual assaults over New Year’s Eve 2015-16, and a Christmas market terror attack the following December.
Polakow-Suransky, a former op-ed editor at The New York Times, has put in an impressive amount of ground research. Go Back to Where You Came From is at its best when we’re hearing from actual migrants, like those who found themselves at the mercy of Australia’s draconian anti-migrant policies. These refugees experienced horrific detention camps on Nauru Island, a tiny, malarial Pacific island that lacked almost all basic services.
“Health workers and inmates there have documented and reported dozens of cases of rape of female inmates, guards demanding sexual favors, denial of medical care, and countless incidents of self-harm, including inmates attempting to hang themselves and slit their wrists,” he writes of Nauru. “One asylum seeker poured gasoline on himself and burned himself to death, and others have sewn their lips together in protest.” He also travels to Calais, the Northern French town facing the sea between France and Britain that became known for the “jungle,” a squatter’s world of trapped humanity over a sprawling set of trash-strewn sand dunes, filled with those desperate to find a place on the European continent yet wanted by nearly no one. I’ve read a lot on Calais in the last few years, but this description made my chest clench: “On a visit on a gray and blustery April afternoon in 2016,” he writes, “a group of eight-year-olds lead me deeper into the camp. When offered candy, they refuse and point to their decaying teeth. They don’t want chocolate they say; they want clothes.” In February 2016, half of the Calais camp was bulldozed by police, leaving standing only two structures, including one “make-shift church built by a group of Ethiopian refugees made from plywood, plastic bags and tarpaulins” and an equally flimsy school of sorts. Food is cooked over open flames.
He also allows some of the world’s most fervent anti-immigrant leaders to speak for themselves. Even more interestingly, he finds the philosophers who undergird immigration opponents’ beliefs that Europe is not only completely filled to capacity, it is in danger of losing its very essence. Those who speak of a continent under siege often use a phrase coined by the septuagenarian French philosopher Renaud Camus: “the Great Replacement.” This refers to a concern that immigrants—particularly Muslim immigrants—will literally supplant European society with a different one altogether. The younger, alt-right Europeans in France and Germany and Italy and Austria who call themselves “Identitarians” cite Camus, on the other hand, as their moral hero. We Americans heard an echo of Camus this past summer in Charlottesville, when white supremacist marchers there took to the streets with torches, chanting “you will not replace us.” But Camus is almost entirely taboo in French mainstream political culture. It’s not always completely clear from Polakow-Suransky’s text that Camus is considered so far to the right that he’s essentially a pariah in mainstream thinking.
Polakow-Suransky also reaches even further back, speaking directly this time to one of the French fathers of these ideas, a nonagenarian named Jean Raspail who wrote a book called The Camp of the Saints in the 1970s. (Steve Bannon has cited it, with admiration.) In it, Raspail worries about dilution, and the end of civilization. The moments with Raspail are chilling both for their clarity of focus and for the obvious link to those determining policy today. “We will become a minority, we white Europeans,” Raspail worries to the author. This echos musings from Raspail’s 40-year-old book: “We are a country, a civilization, a language, a way of life. . . . If we blend it with something that does not correspond at all to who we are, it won’t work, and we’ll be lost.”
However, as much as these foundational right wingers help us understand how we got to where we are today, I began to feel we were getting a somewhat skewed picture of their actual impact. Speaking to the most extreme idea-makers can be clarifying, of course—their Islamophobia offers a clear foil to a more liberal progressive path. But the average Frenchman or woman knows very little, if anything, of men like Camus.
This concern didn’t resolve itself in the vast amount of space devoted to another philosopher, this time closer to the mainstream, though not in ideology (or at least, not anymore) but in fame: Alain Finkielkraut. A prominent celebrity philosopher of the sort France sometimes gives the world (think Bernard Henri-Levy), Finkielkraut has remained in the public eye while shifting dramatically over the last 30 years, from the left to the center to the right, and even the far right, where he now takes seeming pleasure in his role as a discomforting gadfly who loudly questions the place of Muslims in France. In 2016, The New York Times’s Adam Nossiter called him the “the intellectual much of the French left loves to hate” and noted his “mere presence in a television studio raises temperatures and sends accusations of racism flying.”
It’s remarkable how deeply Polakow-Suransky was able to dig into the specific experiences of half a dozen countries—and how many politicians, culture-makers, and others connected to the immigration conversation in each location he was able to speak to, in order to shape a picture of our moment of global change and challenge.
The book does suffer a bit from (inevitably) being unable to keep up with the fast pace of events. For example, he devotes only a single page to the last-minute surge in the recent French election for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former Trotskyite who began whipping up ecstatic rallies of supporters during the end of the first round of voting in the French election. Mélenchon wasn’t much of a contender when Polakow-Suransky began this book. He gives far more space to Marine Le Pen, representing the Front National (FN), who was ascendant in 2015 and 2016, and appeared, for a time, to be a true contender for the Élysée Palace. The author actually met Le Pen in spring 2016. At that time, she was determined to create a new image for her party, in part by appealing to gays and Jews (and women, though Polakow-Suransky focuses less on this), and through her promise to be a bulwark for these communities against (you guessed it) Muslims and Muslim immigrants. But curiously, Polakow-Suransky spends far more time explaining how Le Pen believed herself to be a friend to the Jews, and far less time noting that there is very little evidence that the Jewish community was ever swayed toward the FN; in fact, the Jewish community actively worked to defeat her.
Macron made a big point of referring back to history in his final leg of the presidential campaigning, visiting the Mémorial de la Shoah, for example, and making it very clear that there would be no re-writing of history in Paris under his presidency. He also called out Le Pen on her xenophobia, calling her the “high priestess” of fear. It worked, and she faded out by the end. But many fear that, despite Macron’s decisive win, if the public begins to feel that he has fallen down on his promises, the Front National or a similar party could take the presidency—though surely under different leadership—in 2020. If Macron doesn’t pick up his poll numbers, that concern will only grow.
After all, refugees have not stopped attempting the Mediterranean passage. Already, increasingly harsh choices by European leaders were made throughout the summer of 2017, which has resulted in the cutting off of part of the refugee pipeline to Europe. It was Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, as foreign minister, who helped shut down the so-called Balkan route, which had been an over-land one. And the EU countries banded together this summer to prop up the Libyans and encourage them to keep refugees from getting on to the boats in the first place. Through the fall, refugees remained bottled up on the African continent, many trapped in Libyan camps that human rights observers have called inhumane at best, in a faint echo of the policies of Australia’s Nauru island.
This is exactly the sort of undemocratic outcome Polakow-Suransky fears. “The populists can’t simply be ignored,” he writes. “With or without actual control of the government, they have proved they can exert influence and shape debates without ever wielding formal power. Those who oppose populism need first to understand it. To dismiss the populist impulse as something completely alien is to miss the point and to preemptively lose the political debate.”
The terms of the debate are already shifting. Trump, with his blanket bans and talk of walls, has already diminished America’s image as a country receptive to refugees and asylum seekers. Angela Merkel is still in power in Germany, but her influence has been tempered by the incoming xenophobes in parliament. And, meanwhile, enormous populations of newcomers to Western nations are struggling to find their footing in increasingly hostile political environments. It’s thus incumbent upon those of us who believe our worlds are bettered when broadened, to actively work to expand the definition of Western identity as a nimble and flexible one, one that won’t break by adding other cultures to it, but will only grow stronger.