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Fearing the alien

Shashi Tharoor

Xenophobia (Noun): Fear or hatred of anything or anyone alien or foreign.

Usage: It’s difficult to tell if exercises like the National Register of Citizens are motivated by xenophobia or mere politics.

The fear of foreigners is, of course, neither new nor particularly Indian, but the word for it is only a century and a quarter old. It seems to have been coined in the UK in the late 19th century, with an 1880 citation from a London newspaper the earliest one etymologists can find, from two Greek roots, xeno- (meaning “foreign, strange”) and -phobia (meaning “fear”). The adjective formed from it is xenophobic. The modern Greek tourist industry likes to tout that Greeks speak a language that does not differentiate between “foreigner” and “guest”, for “xenos” can be used for both those terms.

That first citation contrasts xenophobia with another late-19th century coinage, xenomania (“an inordinate attachment to foreign things”), but that word – and the taste it describes – has not had the same staying power as its antonym. The British writer first cited dismissed xenophobia as “always unintelligent”, but Americans and other Europeans have been somewhat more receptive. The fear of foreigners invading the States was not unreasonable, given that that was how the country was established in the first place. Today, it crops up more in relation to the dislike of immigrants, with the hostility expressed by Trump supporters in the 2016 elections being matched by the xenophobic rhetoric around Brexit in the UK (directed principally at East Europeans flocking in under EU rules) and the invective of Marine Le Pen and other xenophobes in West European politics. Even in India, it is the passions raised by the issue of alleged illegal immigration from Bangladesh that has led to talk of alleged xenophobia, and it is in that context that it is used most commonly these days in India.

Xenophobia is the fear or hatred of that which one perceives as foreign or strange or at minimum unfamiliar. Xenophobia usually involves people in a position of dominance in a society or country reacting with suspicion towards the activities of others, usually minorities, immigrants, outsiders or “aliens” in some sense, whose presence or growth, it is feared, could cause a dilution or loss of national, ethnic or racial identity. Xenophobia gets dangerous when it translates to a desire to eliminate the presence of these outsiders in order to secure the country’s (or dominant group’s) presumed purity.

Xenophobia is not merely prejudice towards foreigners: it can also involve the uncritical exaltation of one’s own culture, in which one exaggerates to an unreal, stereotyped and extreme extent the quality of the culture one is seeking to protect. According to UNESCO, which defines xenophobia as “an attitudinal orientation of hostility against non-natives in a given population”, xenophobia and racism often overlap, but this is not necessarily so: the Nazis were xenophobes and racists, as are many of the anti-immigrant politicians in Europe, but Indians who favour citizenship for Bengali Hindus but not Bengali Muslims can hardly be accused of racism, since both groups belong to the same “race” and ethnicity.

History is replete with examples of xenophobia, from the Ancient Greeks denigrating foreigners as “barbarians”, to the Chinese feeling the same way about foreigners a millennia and a half later, all the way to President Trump declaring that the US is the greatest country on earth and vowing to keep Muslims out of it. In the contemporary world, xenophobia arises in many societies, and particularly in democracies, when people feel that their rights to benefit from the government’s programmes, welfare benefits and job opportunities are being encroached upon by other people. By declaring these others to be less entitled to the benefits that are your right, the xenophobe provides a basis for discrimination against the outsider.

In the 1990s, xenophobic outbursts were followed by an increase in acts of racist violence in several societies in the world. This rise of xenophobia led UNESCO to theorise about a ‘new racism’ that developed in the post-war era, since racism no longer was based on biological but rather on cultural differences.

Two causes are put forward by theorists to explain the recent resurgence of xenophobic and racist movements. One is the new migration patterns that have developed as an effect of the gradual internationalisation of the labour market during the post-colonial era. In the receiving countries, social groups in unfavourable positions in their societies resented newcomers as competitors for jobs and public services. This cultivated a social and political climate that generated xenophobia and racism (defensive reactions against migrants), as well as nationalism (demands that the state provide better protection against foreigners for its own population).

The second cause believed to reinforce xenophobia and racism is the backlash against globalisation, which has led states to reduce their social welfare, education and healthcare services in many developed countries. This reduction influenced in particular the segments of the population living on the margins of society. These groups are often in direct competition with migrants for such services and are the main breeding ground for xenophobia and racism. Research has shown that those perceived to be outsiders or foreigners – usually migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, displaced persons, and those who cannot prove their nationality – are the main targets of those suffering from economic inequalities and marginalisation. Their social decline can be exploited by right-wing political organisations through xenophobic ideologies.

Unfortunately, countering xenophobia requires leadership from the government to resist it by exhortation and by example. But when a government itself is complicit in whipping up xenophobia, a society is forced to call on its own highest values to resist succumbing to it. This is where we in India find ourselves today.

(HT Media)

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