Xenophobia is discrimination against and hatred of foreigners, targeting outsiders and strangers or more often those who are in effect part of one’s own society but are perceived as incommensurably different from the majority population. The most pointed, long-term, and widely documented case of xenophobia is that of anti-Semitism, which culminated in the mass murder of six million European Jews and countless others during World War II (1939–1945). A new form of xenophobia that grew in western Europe and North America during the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century is Islamophobia, which targets migrant Muslim communities with or without citizenship.
Anti-Semitism and other forms of xenophobia often are said to be related to the innate characteristics of a given culture or a consequence of economic malaise and political turmoil in select societies. The typical example given for such an assertion is Germany. These explanations are not only insufficient, they also lead to normalization of the hatred and violence commonly associated with institutionalized practices of exclusion and discrimination. The problem of hatred of foreigners and intolerance for ethnic, religious, racial, and cultural difference must instead be put into the larger context of dominant political movements and ideologies with a transnational dimension.
There are observable links between migration, racism, discrimination, ethno-religious stereotyping, and xenophobia. Increased ethno-religious and racial diversity in societies makes the reality of the heterogeneity of human communities more obvious. In the absence of political, legal, social, and economic mechanisms to ensure mutual respect and to mediate relations across differences, xenophobia and various related forms of racism become manifest. Particularly among European societies that received substantial numbers of immigrants after World War II both as workers and as asylum seekers, migrants with a different skin color or religion became the targets in violent internal disputes about authentic national identity. This indicates that despite the en masse elimination of Jews from Europe, xenophobia did not loosen its grip across the Continent. Still, xenophobia was by no means an exclusively European phenomenon. In an era when first nation-state politics and then neoliberalist policies increased societal and economic inequalities, and societies grappled with the changing realities of their multiethnic, multireligious, or multiracial makeup and often arbitrarily carved national borders, a marked increase was seen in discrimination and violence directed toward migrants, refugees, and minorities on a global scale.
Although racism and xenophobia are distinct phenomena, they are closely interrelated. Racism generally implies value-laden distinctions based on presumed or aggrandized differences in physical characteristics, such as skin coloration, hair type, facial features, and body type. Xenophobia, by contrast, is the perception that people and communities identified as “other”’ are foreign to a given community or society, that they lack the capacity for integration, and that they can bring harm to the authentic identity of the majority. Racism is an ideological construct; it assigns a certain race or ethno-religious group a position of power and privilege on the basis of the group’s physical and cultural attributes. It involves the establishment and sustenance of hierarchical relations in which the self-appointed superior race exercises domination and control over others. Xenophobia too refers to attitudes, prejudices, and behavior that reject, exclude, and vilify its targets based on the belief that they are perpetual outsiders who cannot be included or trusted. Consequently it is sometimes difficult to make a clear distinction between racism and xenophobia because they exhibit similar motivations for exclusive behavior designed to demean others and the exercise of political violence. However, there is one element missing in racism that is often present in xenophobia: religious identity. Manifestations of xenophobia occur not only against people with different physical characteristics but also against those of similar background who are believed to hold different and presumably dangerous and hostile religious convictions.
Even in societies with a long history of legalized discrimination, it is possible to take measures to alleviate or at least curtail the culture of hatred aimed at those deemed essentially unassimilable. The Roll Back Xenophobia campaign established in South Africa in 1998 is a succinct example of how political will and determination can produce a widely visible and national effort to confront systematic incidences of xenophobic hostility and violence. The campaign began as a joint initiative between national and international institutions: the South African Human Rights Commission, the National Consortium on Refugee Affairs, and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It emphasized broad, multifaceted, and synchronized activities by the government, civil society organizations, and communications media, including information campaigns by national and local governments, retraining of the police force, strengthening of labor rights protections for migrant workers, sensitization of trade union officials, awareness raising by religious organizations, reinstitution of codes of conduct for civil servants, and the inclusion of migration- and refugee-related concerns in primary, secondary, and tertiary education. These measures, in the larger context of the antiapartheid movement in the country, were suggestive of a tidal wave of change in South Africa in terms of how its citizens began to deal with differences that had violently divided the society in the past.
Another example that points in a positive direction is reforms made in Canadian immigration policies beginning in the 1980s. Immigration and refugee policy discussions are rarely separable from general debates on racial, interethnic, and interreligious relations within host communities. Therefore strong border controls are often advocated as necessary for dealing with and controlling the status of racial, cultural, or ethno-religious minorities by the dominant culture. Still, while immigration controls have historically discriminated between nationalities, ethnicities, and religions, the Canadian example proved that it is possible to alleviate at least the overt marks of racism or xenophobia via institutional reforms and policy changes.
Xenophobia is clearly observable when immigration procedures target particular ethno-religious groups for exclusion or lack transparency or when the immigration process itself is made so grueling for select groups that it can act as a deterrent. With regard to refugee applications, for instance, the systematic use of detention often singles out specific nationalities or ethno-religious groups more than others. Meanwhile many refugees have no choice other than to use irregular entry, increasingly at the hands of smugglers. Thus they run the risk that their irregular migration will be held against them in their asylum claim, and if they gain entry, they will be set apart from other minorities and mainstream society. This tension has been clearly observable in European Union (EU) policies regarding refugees and asylum seekers. In this regard the establishment of the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in Vienna by the European Union in 1997 and the successive creation of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights on March 1, 2007, were important initiatives to develop regional institutional mechanisms for monitoring and countering xenophobia. They kept records of the racial and xenophobic discrimination and violence directed toward migrants and other ethno-religious minorities in Europe. They also identified and highlighted examples of good practices in challenging and remedying xenophobic policies.
The global nature of violence and discrimination against migrants, refugees, and settled ethno-religious minorities has also been increasingly acknowledged by the post–World War II international human rights community. By 2007 there had not yet been wide acceptance by signatory states of the basic rights and entitlements for unauthorized migrants recognized in the United Nations 1990 International Convention for the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. However, under the International Labor Organization Conventions related to migrant workers, undocumented migrants are entitled to equal treatment with respect to rights related to their present or past employment, including issues of remuneration, social security, and other benefits as well as trade union membership and exercise of trade union rights. The undocumented migrants and refugees remain especially vulnerable because they were either unwilling, out of fear of being deported, or unable to seek protection from authorities when confronted with xenophobic violence.
Increasingly after the 1980s Europe witnessed growth in racism and xenophobia that began to swamp its politics. In June 2004 elections for the European Parliament, twenty-five representatives of ten neo-Nazi and extreme right-wing parties from seven member states won seats. Although xenophobia and the growth of neo-fascist and far-right parties in Europe had long been held in check by the memory of the atrocities of Adolf Hitler’s Germany, subsequent developments suggested that the situation had started to change and new forms of counteraction needed to be developed. In Austria the radical right-wing Freedom Party, led by Jörg Haider, won an unprecedented 27 percent of the vote in national elections in 2001 and ascended to power. The EU, of which democratic Austria is a member, immediately imposed diplomatic sanctions, citing the Freedom Party’s long history of xenophobia and Nazi sympathies. Meanwhile although the EU categorically denounced Haider’s anti-immigration agenda, its own member nations also instituted policies that excluded nonwhite immigrants from entering the Continent. While Austria markedly tightened its immigration and asylum rules in the aftermath of the Yugoslav crisis, several European countries also introduced new legislation restricting immigration and asylum, citing the need to respond to growing xenophobia in European societies and thus inadvertently blaming the immigrants and refugees for the societal reaction against them. In addition although the rise of the right in British politics during the late 1990s and the early 2000s was not a revival of the classic fascism of the 1930s, the xenophobic and racist tendencies embodied by the new movement had similar characteristics. Furthermore skinheads, neo-Nazis, and other xenophobic movements that emerged in the aftermath of German unification exhibited a shift in antiSemitic and antiforeigner violence and demonstrated an increasing connection to local and ideological networks with aggressive elements. These European movements found support in national politics to an extent that would have been unimaginable in the 1970s. Following Haider’s success in Austria, in Italy’s May 13, 2001, general election Umberto Bossi and his religious and xenophobic Northern League party became a full governing partner in the center-right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi. The league was the party most loyal to Berlusconi’s government until 2006, and it held the three ministries of Labor and Social Affairs, Justice, and Institutional Reforms and Devolution.
The increase in xenophobic sentiments toward migrant and refugee populations in European societies was examined by data compiled from four waves of Eurobarometer surveys in twelve countries between 1988 and 2000. The resultant analysis showed a substantial rise in antiforeigner, xenophobic sentiments and fears between 1988 and 2000 in all twelve core European countries. The analysis also proved that antiforeigner sentiment is much more pronounced in places with greater support for rightwing extremist parties and fascist movements. According to these findings, the impact of individual-level socioeconomic characteristics such as education remained stable over the years, but the effect of political ideology increased. In this context, formation of civil society organizations such as the European Coalition of Cities against Racism constituted an important step toward combating xenophobia in Europe. Linked with the International Coalition of Cities against Racism, an initiative launched by UNESCO in 2004 to establish a network of cities interested in sharing experiences in order to improve policies to curtail racism, discrimination, and xenophobia, a ten-point plan of action was formulated by the European coalition. These comprised areas such as increased competence of city authorities in education, housing, and employment as well as cultural and sport activities for combating racism and xenophobia and suggested practical policies that city authorities might develop. To the same end of combating xenophobia, the United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (WCAR), held in September 2001 in Durban, South Africa, was a gathering that provided nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) representing minority populations and historically oppressed groups an opportunity to speak against their governments over human rights violations.
After the World Trade Center bombings in the United States in 2001, there emerged an alarming surge in racism and xenophobic actions against people of Arab background and Muslim faith across Europe and North America. This phenomenon, called Islamophobia, denoting fear of Islam and Muslims, made life particularly difficult for Arab and Muslim Americans after the September 11 attacks. Many were harassed at work, had their property vandalized, and were subjected to regular security checks. Although public leaders, including President George W. Bush, called for tolerance, the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington, D.C., counted some 1,700 incidents of abuse against Muslims in just the 5 months following September 11. In response to these developments in 2004 the United Nations held a conference called Confronting Islamophobia: Education for Tolerance and Understanding at its New York headquarters. Attended by more than 600 delegates, the event was part of the progressive initiative organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information seeking to improve awareness of xenophobia.
Criticisms of Islam and anti-Muslim political rhetoric have been intertwined with cultural and ethnic hostility that extends even to secularized immigrants from traditionally Muslim societies. As early as 1997 the Runnymede Trust in the United Kingdom issued a report on Islamophobia, revealing widespread hatred of Islam and Muslims across all sections of British society. Similarly the November 2005 riots in which minority ethnic youths in France took part exposed a deeply entrenched racism in the country. Both the riots and the response to them, which involved the invocation of emergency law, the imposition of curfews, and the deployment of thousands of police, brought into the open the xenophobic aspects of France’s secular republicanism. These events were followed by the debate over the publication of Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, based on the assumption that Muslims do not have any experience of freedom of speech or do not believe in the concept. In the United States and Canada the growing threat to civil liberties and the resultant alienation experienced by many Muslims or citizens of immigrant background from traditionally Muslim societies also constituted direct examples of xenophobia. In Britain the 2005 London bombings led to new antiterrorist legislation advanced by the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, ultimately scapegoating past policies of multiculturalism and targeting Muslim communities as a whole.
Immigration has historically been associated with xenophobia. In periods of high unemployment and global dislocation, immigrants easily become the targets of political leaders who accuse them of criminality, lack of morals, making excessive demands on public services, and creating undue competition for scarce employment. Meanwhile the danger represented by the rebirth in eastern Europe of highly aggressive forms of nationalism; the growth of xenophobia in western Europe both as increased antiSemitism and as Islamophobia and racism against people of Asian, African, and Caribbean background; and the increase in the strength of the extreme right and xenophobic politics in the United States suggest that xenophobia cannot be eradicated purely by procedural democracy or welfare state policies. Lack of respect for difference and of the political will for negotiating national identities in the face of change constitute challenges that feed reformulations of xenophobia even at the very bastions of pluralism and tolerance.
SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Borders; Discrimination; Hate Crimes; Immigration; Islam, Shia and Sunni; Nativism; Phenotype; Prejudice; Racism; Religion; Third World; United Nations
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- Boxer Rebellion Chinese rising aimed at ousting foreign interlopers (1900). [Chinese Hist.: Van Doren, 334–335]
- Hermit Kingdom , the Korea; so called for 300-year closed-door policy. [Am. Hist.: Van Doren, 286]
- House Un-American Activities Committee conducted investigations to purge government of foreign influences. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 1641]
- Know-Nothing Party aimed at WASP control of government by depriving naturalized Americans and Roman Catholics of political rights. [Am. Hist.: Payton, 371]
- McCarthyism from U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy who acted out morbid fear of aliens, especially Communists. [Am. Hist.: Payton, 409]
- New Orleans riots anti-Italian mobs lynched 11 immigrants after Sicilian murder trial (1891). [Am. Hist.: Van Doren, 309]
- Sacco and Vanzetti (Nicola, 1891–1927) (Bartolomeo, 1888–1927) Italian anarchists convicted in controversial murder trial (1921). [Am. Hist.: Van Doren, 411]
xen·o·pho·bi·a / ˌzēnəˈfōbēə; ˌzenə-/ • n. intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries: racism and xenophobia are steadily growing in Europe. DERIVATIVES: xen·o·phobe n.xen·o·pho·bic adj.