Emma Barnett

Scapegoating Muslims and Muslims alone, solves nothing in the new populist world order.

In a year of political surprises and upsets for the establishment, the electoral failure of Norbert Hofer, Austrias far-right presidential candidate last weekend, ended up being surprising for the wrong reason. He lost.

December 09, 2016 17:04

In a year of the unexpected result or candidate winning, Mr Hofer bucked the trend. This was despite the vote being rerun after envelope issues plagued the first election earlier this year in what became known as gluegate. (The glue used on envelopes for postal votes was “faulty”, leading to concerns about potential interference.)

The original vote was a close run thing but his opponent, the former leader of the Green Party, Alexander Van der Bellen, triumphed with a slim margin in May and triumphed again on Sunday.

In short, the European Union avoided the election of its first far-right leader.

And we all know Austria has form with those.

As a BBC presenter, my job is to present the facts and both sides of political debates. It is not to pass judgment but to hold truth to power, bias and bigotry.

Ahead of the vote, we covered the Austrian election on my BBC 5Live show. A correspondent set the scene and then I spoke to a professor supporting Mr Hofer in the election.

The man in question, Lothar Hobelt, a professor of modern history at the University of Vienna, put forward his arguments. Essentially, he always voted for the right-wing candidate as a conservative and in this instance Mr Hofer was that, he explained in a very measured tone.

So far, so straightforward.

Things got less straightforward however, when Professor Hobelt went on to justify why Mr Hofer’s stance on Muslims living in Austria was fully defensible.

In short, Mr Hofer’s rhetoric is anti-Muslim; he has been quoted as saying “Islam is not part of our values” and a vote for him is a vote against immigration.

Put the issue of immigration to one side for a moment and allow yourself to play a dark game I partake in regularly. Substitute the word Muslim for Jew or Islam for Judaism when listening to certain people speak.

And this is what I did with the professor live on my programme when he said, to summarise, that Muslims and Islamic culture didn’t fit into Austrian life.

I fired back that he wouldn’t dare say the same about Jews and Jewish culture. To which he replied that Jews were different because they had always lived in Austrian culture and ingratiated themselves.

Just take that in for a moment.

Because the last time I checked, any form of successful assimilation Jews made into Austrian life counted for diddly squat in the 1940s when millions of well-integrated Austrian Jews found themselves in cattle cars to extermination camps.

I also found it hard to stomach the professor’s rather glib dismissal of an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor’s fears about Austria electing a far-right president, as a politicisation of her views. The video of Gertrude, as she is known, went viral for good reason. Her fears are real and based on the most awful experiences this life can produce.

While it is my job to ensure balanced political debate, I do not need to, nor will I ever, allow bigotry to go out on the airwaves unchecked and unchallenged.

Jews, as we all do, have a duty to keep religious hatred in the history books. And while antisemitism is rearing its head again in all sorts of places, including in the British Labour party, Islamophobia is on the rise the world over.

Jewish people unwillingly have the experience, emotional scars and tattoos to prove what happens when such hatred and bigotry becomes normalised without dissenting voices.

When my grandmother was forced to flee Vienna in 1939 and come to Britain penniless, save for the one pound she claimed from World Jewish Relief, I bet she could not imagine the rise of a far-right Austrian politician only 77 years later.

Multiculturalism is not perfect in this country or in many other European states.

A report out this week by a senior UK civil servant, shows that the segregation of Muslim communities in certain towns such as Blackburn is problematic.

But the same is true, albeit on a much smaller scale, in Orthodox Jewish communities, locked away from the rest of British society.

People shouldn’t live in self-imposed ghettos for all sorts of reasons. But scapegoating Muslims and Muslims alone, solves nothing in the new populist world order.

Emma Barnett presents BBC 5Live’s morning programme, 5Live Daily, Wed-Fri 10am-1pm @emmabarnett

December 09, 2016 17:04

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