‘Xenophobia doesn’t announce its arrival with the blast of a horn’

'Xenophobia doesn't announce its arrival with the blast of a horn'
Contributor Ruben Brunsveld reflects on what reactions to a recent article about a Muslim man being thrown from a train in Sweden may say about shifting definitions of xenophobic behaviour.

A recent article entitled Muslim man kicked of train for praying, published on The Local on November 3rd, has led to a lot of heated reactions in the reader comments below the article.

A number of comments condemn the actions of the train conductor who forced a Muslim man off a train after he ignored requests to show his ticket because he was praying at the time.

At the same time, however, there are plenty of comments defending the conductor’s behaviour.

Without commenting on the specifics of that case, it nevertheless provides a good opportunity to draw attention to the danger of the slippery slope we find ourselves on when we start to change the norms of what defines “xenophobic behavior”.

When it comes to the issues of immigration and integration, Sweden often reminds me of The Netherlands in the early 1990s.

Although the first wrinkles have appeared in the sea of political correctness, by and large it is still very difficult to have an honest dialogue about cultural and religious differences that put a strain on society.

The fear of being labeled a racist is so predominant that religious and cultural factors are still too often neglected for an open debate to take place.

But if you keep the lid on this discussion for too long, the emotions will start to boil beneath the surface.

In The Netherlands the lid was lifted with a bang.

The first politician to openly speak his mind on the topic was Pim Fortuyn (killed in May 2002 by an animal rights activist for his pro-fur agenda).

Fortuyn was later followed by Geert Wilders, who gradually radicalized Fortuyns inheritance and took demagogic and anti-Islam propaganda to a whole different level.

In recent years, Wilders has, among other things, proposed a ‘head-rag-tax’ for women wearing headscarves; stated that ‘race riots are not by definition negative’ and warned for a ‘tsunami of islamisation’.

As a trainer in public speaking, I can appreciate and even admire the way in which Wilders always manages to dominate the headlines and set the political and media agenda.

But as a person and citizen of the Netherlands, I am deeply concerned because I have seen the effects his words have had in the past decade.

It is not a surge of anti-immigrant violence of which I speak.

It is not about white and black sections in a bus or about obvious yellow stars.

It is about a bus driver refusing to stop for women with headscarves. It is about the organizer of a marathon offering €10,000 to the first Dutchman to cross the line while the first African would receive €100.

And it’s about the fact that – although widely condemned – these actions do not even evoke public outrage anymore but are often regarded as a normal part of the debate.

An honest and open debate is important. But xenophobia and racism don’t announce their arrival with a big blast from a horn.

A soft-spoken veil of socially acceptable words often disguises them. Stealthily, the meaning of the words begins to change, and bit by bit, actions and statements that were once deemed to be unacceptable start to be the norm.

Unfortunately it is often not until we look into the rear view mirror of history that we recognize the signs.

I truly hope that when Sweden looks back in a couple of years it will not have to come to the conclusion that the train incident was part of similar ‘Dutch’ development when it comes to people’s understanding of what defines xenophobic behavior.

Ruben Brunsveld is the Director of the Stockholm Institute for Public Speaking (StIPS), which offers training in Intercultural Communication, Public Speaking & Negotiation Techniques

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