OPINION: Questioning the “Xenophobic Turn” in Central Europe

Michal Buchowski     January 2018

The European Union enlargement into Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries resulted in the expansion of neoliberal capitalism and acceptance of democratic principles. Commitment to the protection of collective and individual rights is inscribed in the constitution of any democratic polity. This liberal package deal implies, among others, a set of liberties such as tolerance for sociocultural diversity and respect for minorities, migrants and refugees’ rights.

Racially motivated verbal or physical violence against Roma and foreigners had been happening before the so-called refugee crisis of 2015. But an examination of recent media reports , social media content, populist leaders’ speeches and slogans, as well as opinion poll results, shows that in recent years attitudes toward minorities have become much more hostile. The terrible 20th century experience of atrocious xenophobic ideologies such as Nazism teaches us that we should not only scrutinise such phenomena but also deconstruct them, and engage in working against their acceptance. It is imperative to explain both the historical background and the social, political and economic causes of this ‘xenophobic turn’ and its perpetuation in Europe. By studying its causes, traces and perpetuation, social scientists can help to understand people’s anxieties and fears, dispel stereotypes and prejudices, and disarm xenophobic holders of power.


Anti-immigrant attitudes, and anti-Muslim ones in particular, can be observed both in the “old” and the “new” EU countries. Virtually everywhere, refugees are portrayed as being dangerous for political stability, public order, economic progress, cultural integrity of the nation, or for the preservation of Europe’s Christian heritage. In accounts of this intolerance that are replete with prejudice about Eastern Europe, CEE societies are accused of being a cradle of modern xenophobia engendered by a supposedly inherent nationalism, a post-communist legacy and populist politicians’ manipulations. Such easy explanations and exoticism stem from age-old stereotypes, together with a focus on political leaders’ exploits and on instances of violent acts against immigrants. Meanwhile, myriad everyday social practices prove that actually the situation is rather different from that which is portrayed by the media and superficial scholarly reports.

With regard to Muslim immigrants, CEE countries stand out from several other EU countries in one important respect. In the Baltic states, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania, “Muslim Others” are de facto absent. Both historical and newly settled groups of Muslims are minuscule. For instance, in Poland they comprise less than one per thousand of the total population. Despite this scarcity in actual numbers, they are symbolically overwhelmingly present in media reports and political discourse, turning them— the so-called “distant aliens”— into significant actors in domestic political campaigns.

A core of research on contemporary xenophobia has to be an analysis of representations of ‘the Other’ – today epitomised by “refugees”, and often called “Muslim invaders”. Different political actors want to fill these categories with meaning—to instrumentalize them— as part of their struggle for power. They struggle for domination over the social imaginary in order to model the make up of society and its foundations. The differences in the capacity of various social actors to invent and reproduce images of “the Other” deserves special attention. In popular narratives, various criteria – ethnicity, race, religion and culture – are invoked and applied in the effort to construct “the Other”. Xenophobia and racism can be cloaked as security concerns and appeals to build “fortress Europe”. Social actors in a position to create stories about “us” and “them” tend to draw clear borders of the nation and, increasingly often, of “European civilisation”. In this process, Muslim refugees polarise societies. Those sympathetic to people escaping poverty and war are branded by their “patriotic” adversaries as “cosmopolitans and leftists”; the latter call those unsympathetic to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers “xenophobes and populists”. In these public debates adversaries have to share meanings and symbols, which means that they co-produce images of “the Other”. It is important to show how this interactive cooperation occurs and, at the same time, establishes a common ground for negotiations about policy and wider social reconciliation.

One has to remember that dominant xenophobic ideas are not only questioned by various individuals and collective actors. They are also deflected in everyday life by people who interact and coexist with “the Other”, at workplaces, restaurants, shopping malls and sports arenas. Daily encounters overcome ideologically created images. Anthropological study of these encounters can show how ideologues’ creations are far from the reality on the ground. By studying these practices with ethnographic methods, we can give an account of their widespread presence in society. Through the lens of the anthropologist, everyday life diverges from ideologically created reality.

Ambitious social scientists have to go beyond an explanation of the “xenophobic turn” by referring to populism. The latter is nourished by the predicaments of neoliberal capitalism with its job precariousness, mantra about flexibility, unequal distribution of wealth in society, as well as regional differences. In fact, the “refugee crisis” is a crisis of a dominant socio-economic formation in which insecure people are seeking scapegoats by blaming “the Other”; populism is a result of the system, not its cause. Historical contingencies have made racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia an integral part of a complex worldview of today’s economic neoliberalism that has to be scrutinised and criticised for the sake of preserving liberal Europe and liberal democracy in general.


Michal Buchowski is a Professor of Social Anthropology at the University in Poznań, Poland, and European University Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder. He authored 11 books and almost 200 articles on postoscialism, anthropology, multiculturalism and migration, most recently Purgatory: Anthropology of neoliberal postsocialism. Honorary Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.