In 2016, the idea and myth of the West that has been in place since the end of World War 2 seemed besieged. Britain’s exit from the European Union, the election of Donald Trump as US president and the rise of a belligerent, nativist right wing in France and Germany, called into question the liberal values that Europe and the US have long stood for, as well as the integrated and globalised world they have championed. This new politics of insularity is marked by a fear of the migrant, which became particularly sharp in the wake of the refugee crisis brought on by the civil war in Syria — at least a million have sought asylum in Europe alone — and the Islamophobia it has triggered. In the US, there is an added dimension: Migrants from Latin American countries, particularly Mexico.
Through much of the second half of the 20th century, Europe has been broadly welcoming of migrants and they, in turn, have enriched their adopted countries, economically and culturally. The US, of course, is a nation built by immigrants — from the first Pilgrims and Puritans to the waves of Irish, Jewish, Asian and Latin American settlers. The economic crisis which began in 2008, however, has led to a crisis of employment and real wages and both the insourcing and outsourcing of jobs is being made the villain by a certain kind of politics. The terrorist attacks in Europe in 2016, from the Brussels bombings to the Paris police station attacks and the Ansbach bombing in Germany have made matters worse. There has been a backlash against Muslims, marked and painted as the “other” to Western modernity. From controversies over the veil and the burkini, to electoral promises of banning Muslim migrants and building a wall to keep Mexicans out of the US, the West’s fears seem to go beyond security concerns — these are insecurities of demography and culture. The most dangerous manifestation of this fear has come with assertions of White supremacy and sentiment against migrants and minorities.
Terrorism is a global challenge, as is the slowdown in the world economy. The migrant, whether fleeing from a civil war or economic deprivation, is not the problem. Their labour can enrich the West, as it has done in the past. Their culture is not in opposition to the values of modernity, but a way to place it on a firm multicultural footing. Rather than meet crises with insularity and bigotry, as in the last year, the West must reclaim its liberal core in 2017.