Leben & Arbeiten Debattenbeitrag

Democratic Political Identity and Anti-Muslim Populism



Populist discourse usually highlights two kinds of differences. The first style of populist differ-ence-making makes a vertical distinction. Populists accuse the existing political class of not serving the people. Politicians are portrayed by populists as corrupt, incapable and myopic, as violators of the common good. Correspondingly, populists portray themselves as honest and serious, striving to bring back sincerity to politics and serve the common good. This claim to represent the true will of ordinary people is a frequent feature of the populist narrative.


This element of populist discourse, however, is not necessarily confined to the populist players on the brink of the political system. Occasionally, mainstream politicians (such as the former German federal president Horst Köhler or currently Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg) also like to play this populist melody; rallying against Washington is part of the standard repertoire of electoral campaigns in the US. Therefore it is usually the second style of difference-making that makes populist movements more problematic.

Populists make a horizontal distinction that emphasizes the extent to which people “belong”. They draw a line of demarcation that indicates who is an accepted member of the political community, and who needs to be considered an alien. All kinds of groups of immigrants have served as culprits for political malaise. Today, however, all foreigners are not indiscriminately stigmatised. Islam is now the major target for populists in Europe.

Some populists are outright racists, but still it would be false to lump populists together with extremists. In Europe we encounter several populist groups claiming to defend democracy vigorously. Geert Wilders portrays himself as a heroic defender of Dutch democratic political identity. Wilders undoubtedly considers himself an ardent liberal democrat. More generally, populists do not usually want to abolish the ruling constitutional order of democracy. In Europe, we have several populist movements and parties that are intramural contenders. They identify specific groups – those at the top and those who have come from outside as villains, but they conceive themselves as true democrats. Anti-Muslim populism, for example, is an odd combination of exclusionary particularism and – claimed – democratic universalism.

The populist challenge for social democracy

The above analysis does not in anyway diminish the populist challenge to social democracy. When confronted with anti-Islamic populism, social democrats are challenged on two fronts. Firstly, in reaction to populists’ vertical difference-making, the denunciation of the ruling elite does not correspond with social democracy’s move from class struggle to reformism, and their transformation into catch-all-parties. Social democracy has had its struggles against a ruling class, but has now become a part of the establishment. Secondly, concerning the horizontal difference, blaming foreigners or outsiders for a political community’s ills is at odds with social democratic ideals of equality, international solidarity, and the renunciation of national, ethnic or religious dividing lines. Socio-economic factors are considered to be much more important than these categories of cultural distinction. Social democracy therefore rejects a discourse of difference, at least most of the time, and propagates a difference-blind discourse. Difference-blindness has also been a hallmark of social-democratic immigrant integration policies that usually avoid singling out specific target groups.

So populism violates social-democratic ideals and thinking. The impetus to fight populism has always been strong for social democrats. Centre-right parties battle populists because of the danger of political proximity and competition; social democrats do so because of substantial ideological dislike. But this already implies striking a difficult balance. It has always been quite clear that extremism needs to be fought politically in a decisive and vigorous fashion. Concep-tually, finding the right response with respect to populism is much more difficult. Populism has its appeal for rank-and-file social democrats. The non-extremist strand of populism makes it a challenge for social democracy. It may be very difficult to justify repression against groups that do not reject a democratic political order, but that articulate unfulfilled democratic hopes.

If it has always been difficult to find appropriate answers for confronting populism in general – and the situation is much more delicate with anti-Muslim populism. There are those who employ the islamophobic repertoire in a blunt nationalist or ethnocentric fashion. In Austria (and in Germany too), it is frequently argued that Vienna had been defended heroically against the Turks in 1529. Integrating Islam in Europe today would mean that men had given their lives in 1529 in vain. This kind of idea is easily rejected. Yet it is much more difficult to argue against anti-Muslim populism when it appeals to the defense of the achievements of liberalism and democracy in Europe.

Cherishing a democratic political identity has been part of the social democratic project; in Germany, this kind of democratic political identity, characterized by an emphatic affiliation to the norms and values enshrined in a democratic constitution, has been termed “constitutional patriotism” (Müller 2007). The fundamental norms of a constitution have a universalistic core. But they are also enacted in a political community as a result of historical struggles, that way receiving a particular meaning and understanding for that political community. As it has historically evolved and unfolded, a constitution and its norms and values may become more than a result of abstract reasoning, but a matter of affection.

Rejecting the practices and claims of a religious community in defense of a democratic political identity is different from ethno-cultural exclusionary politics. Though embodied in a specific political context, there are universalistic conceptions that can serve as a basis for justifying this defense. This may explain why we reoccurringly find not just an odd discursive coalition between feminists, gay groups, Jewish organizations and old-school nationalists, when it comes to Islam, but also a diffuse political mainstream which in some sense articulates a threat to political identity by a religion deemed to reject democracy as we know it.

Social democracy is caught in the midst of this discursive constellation. So what is the standard for delimiting a political discourse that is populist and to be rejected, and expressions of unease justifiable on the basis of democratic political identity?

The standard of respect

The assumption of substantial equality for all, as far as their moral capabilities are concerned, is fundamental for the enlightenment tradition from which social democracy emerged. This assumption leads to a requirement of equal respect among citizens, and also non-citizens. This is not quite recognition, in the sense of a requirement to embrace and admire all kinds of ways of living. Yet we need to argue with each other assuming that the other is in a substantial way equal.

This standard is clearly violated when populists propose essentialist definitions of Islam, de-humanize pious Muslims, portray Islam as inherently terrorist or make an effort to demonstrate the inferior moral or intellectual capabilities of the Muslim part of the population. The abandonment of the assumption of a substantial moral equality and the equal respect that needs to be paid in the public use of reason – a persistent feature of Anti-Muslim populism and Islamophobic rhetorical action – is a clear delimiter.

The defense of democratic political identity can be justified, and it can serve as a basis for questioning claims of Islamic religious communities. But when stressing this point, we should not ignore that Islamic groups have started, not only recently, to adopt a democratic political identity. At times, the reasons explaining this political conception may be developed further. But the populists’ generalizing statement that Islam and democracy cannot be reconciled is quite obviously wrong.

It will always be difficult to deal with populism. Populists are not extremists. They err in im-portant respects, but they need to be tolerated as a part of democratic politics, making it more difficult and more important to confront them where they are wrong.