Rafał Pankowski: Europe’s rightward turn

Prachatai English interviews Polish political scientist Rafał Pankowski, Associate Professor at the Collegium Civitas in Warsaw, head of the "Never Again" Association's East Europe Monitoring Centre, and Deputy Editor of Never Again's magazine.

Rafał Pankowski (Source: BALAC Programme, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University)

Pankowski has published several academic works on the rise of right-wing extremism and nationalism in Poland. In August, Pankowski visited the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University and delivered a lecturer “Right-wing extremism in Europe - a challenge for democracy.”

We sat down with him after the lecture to talk about the rise of right-wing extremism in Central and Eastern Europe, its effects on the human rights situation, the role of social media, and the common challenges of our time.

Europe turning right: The attraction of right-wing ideology

When asked why right-wing ideology has become so attractive in Europe despite the historical traumas experienced through the 20th Century, Pankowski said that the answer is to be found in the anxieties about identity.

“I think we have to look at the phenomenon of right-wing extremism in Europe today in the context of the crisis of values on different levels, that also includes the crisis of democratic values among young people, such as in some European countries,” said Pankowski, “Certainly in the context of Central and Eastern Europe, the crisis of democratic values is very real. Some people say it is directly influenced by the socio-economic issues, but I don't really agree with that. I think it is more complicated, because it is not just because socio-economic issues such as unemployment.

“Of course, those socio-economic issue are somewhere in the background of the phenomenon of right-wing extremism, but if you look at the case of Poland, for example, Poland was the only European country that did not have a recession during the times of the global economic crisis. This is not to say that Poland was not affected by the crisis in any way, but it was not affected as much as some other countries in Europe. But still, in the case of Poland, we see the growth of the popularity of some radical nationalist ideas, especially among younger people, so I think the answer has to be found in the field of culture, in values, identity and issues around national identity in particular, so a kind of anxiety involved in identity.”

Having noted in his lecture that a majority of far-right groups in parts of Europe is made up of young people, Pankowski explained that far-right groups now have a very successful strategy of influencing youth culture, making the ideology attractive to young people, a group which is often thought to be “naturally more progressive” than the older generation.

“I think this assumption about young people as naturally more progressive is very common, and historically, it was often very true,” he said, “but I think the situation in Central and Eastern Europe today shows us that that cannot be taken for granted and that you cannot take democratic values for granted if you don’t put an effort in it.

“I think in some ways the popularity of the right-wing nationalist ideas among the younger generation resulted from a certain deficiency of education, but by education I don't just mean the school system. Of course, the school system is important, the institutional framework of education is very important, but I am also thinking about other institutions which have an indirect role, for example the church or the family, or what I mentioned by the end of the lecture, the football club.

“There are different centres of influence on young people, and I believe those centres of influence did not do a good job in terms of democratic education, and those anti-democratic far-right nationalist groups enter into a kind of vacuum that is left -- the space that is open to them, but of course, they also influence the way young people think, the way young people experience reality.

“Those new far-right groups very rarely refer directly to the Nazi times or to Hitler, even if their ideology or their slogans are not so very different, but they use different symbols, so of course this rebranding of the far-right is a very important part of the phenomenon, but there is also something else.

“I mention the attractiveness of right-wing nationalism in the field of youth culture. I can give you an example of a very popular Polish rock singer, whose name is Paweł Kukiz. He was a popular performer, especially in the 90's in Polish rock music, and in 2015 he decided to become a politician, and he created a populist nationalist movement around them, and that was a very interesting the way he translated his name recognition and popularity as a musician, as a rock star, into political capital, as a political leader.

“What is interesting is that he, in contrast to the lyrics of his songs for many years, he also became influenced by the ideology of nationalism and many of his young followers who might come to know him because of his music, they were later influenced by his political ideology, which, in many ways, is very strongly influenced by right-wing nationalism. So I'd say this is just one of many examples how culture influences politics and of course how politics influences culture too.”

Constructing the enemy

As for the effects of the rise of right-wing extremism on the human rights situation in Europe, Pankowski said there are two examples of areas where the far-right has a big impact on the situation: the refugee crisis and migration policy, and discrimination against LGBTQ people.

“I think 2015 in particular was a very important point in time, when the so-called refugee crisis happened in the south of Europe in the Mediterranean, and I think in a way, again paradoxically, it was exploited by the far-right forces that demanded a more restricted migration policy.

“Paradoxically, that also applies to the countries in Central Europe that were not really directly affected by the refugee crisis, because very few of those refugees went to the countries in Central and Eastern Europe, but the refugee crisis was portrayed in the media and in political rhetoric in a very negative way: as a threat to national identity, and it was exploited politically by far right groups with success, so the creation, the construction of the enemy figure has been politically very successful in many countries in Europe, but also the far right has often been successful in changing or influencing the discourse on migration and human rights. That is one example.

“The second example, especially in countries of Central and Eastern Europe, is the ongoing campaign against the LGBT communities, especially in Poland in the last weeks, and again, I think the mechanism is a little similar here, so the far right tries to exploit a feeling of hostility against the minority group. They try to construct an enemy figure and they use it as a tool of political mobilisation, and again, it seems to be successful with a large part of Polish society that seems to easy manipulated by this kind of hateful propaganda against minorities.”

Nevertheless, Pankowski insists that not everyone in Poland is homophobic, noting that it was one of the first countries in Europe to decriminalize homosexuality, which it did in the early 1930’s, and that anti-LGBTQ campaigns as a political tool did not exist until the 21st Century. Such campaigns have been used as a political mobilisation tool by far-right groups within the last two decades, starting from the early 2000’s, but at the same time, he said that the LGBTQ rights movement has become more popular.

“I think what we can see in Poland at the moment is a degree of polarisation between people who are more open to the idea of LGBT equality on the one hand, and of course on the other hand, we have people who are violently opposed to any expression or recognition of LGBT equality,” he explained.

“It's also interesting to note one of the first openly gay politicians in Central and Eastern Europe, Robert Biedroń, is a very popular figure in Poland too. I think that is also an interesting fact to note. He is now the leader of a new political party under the name "Spring" and he is one of the most popular politicians in Poland. In 2011, Robert Biedroń was elected to the Polish parliament for the first time. There was also another MP who was elected, Anna Grodzka, who was the first transexual member of parliament in Poland, and she was also elected by the people in Krakow to the Polish parliament, so I am saying this to stress that not everybody in Poland is homophobic, but homophobia is, unfortunately, a very strong tendency in Polish society today, and I think it is especially in the Polish Catholic Church, which has a big influence on Polish public opinion. But maybe it's also important to stress that this strength of homophobia in the Polish Catholic Church is very much in contrast with the teaching of the Pope. Pope Francis has been quite outspoken in expressing tolerance and respect for LGBT people, but this is not the kind of message that is popular inside of the Church in Poland.

“This issue is one that is polarising Polish society very strongly, and we saw this recently in the case of several LGBT rights demonstrations in Polish cities, and many of those demonstrations were physically opposed and attacked by far-right groups. In Białystok, for example, there was one publicized case in July. The LGBT equality demonstration had about 1000 participants, and the opposition to this event was estimated at around 4000 participants, so in fact, the opposition was much stronger than the gay rights march itself, which may or may not be typical for the balance of forces in Polish society, but it certainly shows that this opposition to gay rights is also a very strong movement.”

The explanation for this phenomenon, Pankowski said, comes down to the anxiety around national identity and gender identity, especially male identity.

“If you look at the opponents of the gay rights march in Białystok, for example, you see mostly young men who are often aggressively opposed to LGBT emancipation,” he said. “Interestingly, many of those young men are recruited and mobilized through the network of the football hooligan culture, which is perhaps not obvious, but it was very clear that many of them came from the stadium of the local football club, so this relationship between youth culture and sports culture and politics and also physical violence against minorities, it was very well illustrated in that case.

“Football hooliganism is not a new phenomenon in Europe. Especially in the 1980's and especially in England, it was a big problem, which spread to other countries. I think, now, in England, that's much less of a problem, but football-related violence is a big issue in countries such as Poland or Russia, in Eastern Europe, or countries in the former Yugoslavia, but it often comes with a certain ideological background, which is often racist and homophobic, so some of the far right groups that we are talking about here, they are also actively recruiting members and supporters in the football stadiums in eastern Europe, and they are also promoting their ideology in the context of football culture and the football stadium.

“I can give you an example from Sarajevo, from Bosnia. In September, they were going to organize the first gay pride march in the history of the country. I was in Sarajevo in May, and I had a very interesting conversation with the organizers of this event. They told me about how the opposition was already mobilizing in the months before the gay pride march, and the centre of the opposition was the local football stadium. Interestingly and strangely, the football hooligans who express their homophobia in the football stadium in Sarajevo express it through waving the national flag of Brunei, because of the homophobic legislation in Brunei. I thought that was a really interesting case of a certain kind of globalization in a negative way. You can call it a negative globalization, or a globalization of homophobia, or a globalization of intolerance, that I thought was a really interesting example. 

“To cut a long story short, the football culture in the football stadium, I think it is an important site of socialization. It is where young people, in many cases especially young men, it is where they form their values, and unfortunately, in many cases, these are negative values, values of xenophobia, nationalism, and homophobia, but it does not have to be like that.”

“Our organization in Poland, the Never Again Association, has spent a lot of time and energy on researching the issue of intolerance in the football culture, but also promoting a positive version of football culture. Sports, football in particular, can also be a positive tool to promote a positive of respect for diversity and this is something that we did on a big scale around the European football championship in 2012 in Poland and Ukraine.

“With the support of the European Football Federation, we had a very big educational campaign in football and around football under the title "respect diversity" and that was a very interesting experience, and of course, millions of people watched the European football championship, both in the stadium and especially on the television, and it was a fantastic opportunity for us as a civil society organization to promote respect for diversity through football, and I think it is really interesting now to hear about the plan for ASEAN to organize the World Cup in Southeast Asia.”

“I think it could be a very interesting opportunity for civil society in Southeast Asia to organize positive campaigns and if we can be useful, we would be very happy to exchange experiences. We actually exchange experiences quite a lot with Russian civil societies, because they had the football World Cup in Russia last year, and we were also very much involved in this process of sharing good practice on dealing with intolerance in football and through football.”

Pankowski's lecture at Chulalongkorn University (Source: BALAC Programme, Facutly of Arts, Chulalongkorn University)

Social media and the rise of extremism

“The internet is a wonderful invention, but I think when the internet started, many people had a naive view of this technology as a great way to connect people, a great way to communicate, but the differences of culture, nationality, religion, et cetera. Of course it can be a wonderful way to communicate, but what is very clear over the years is that the hate groups are very effective in using this new tool to promote exclusion and hatred, and to construct communities through the internet, social media in particular, based on exclusion and hatred, which is of course one of the big paradoxes about our times.

“Once again, I want to stress we don't just talk here about speech, because hate speech leads to hate crime and physical violence, and the terrorist attack such as Christchurch in New Zealand can be mention here, but of course there are many other cases where hate speech leads to violence, for example in Sri Lanka and in Myanmar, and of course we know that social media has been an important tool of inciting hatred, so I think this is one of the biggest challenges of our times. How can we stop the social media from becoming a tool of hatred, hate speech and incitement?

“Nobody has the perfect solution to it, but I can mention also our organization Never Again is a part of an international group called International Network Against Cyber Hate, and I think there is still a long way to go, but there are many activities, both educational and other activities, trying to stop the social media being used as a tool for the extreme racist and nationalist groups. But also I think some of the big social media companies are just beginning to understand their responsibilities. Companies such as Facebook and Twitter, they still have a long way to go, but I think after the pressure from the civil society, they are beginning to realise the challenge and their own responsibility in this field.”

The challenges of our time

While he said that it was not easy for him to comment on the situation in Southeast Asia, Pankowski said that there are common challenges experienced by people both in Central and Eastern Europe, such as in Poland and Hungary, and in other places, including extremism, authoritarianism, and populism. But for him, an important lesson and an important challenge of our time is that we can no longer take democracy for granted.

“I guess one important lesson that we have and one important challenge that is a common challenge is the fact that democracy cannot be taken for granted, or the democratic transformation, its result cannot be taken for granted. It is always an open question. It really depends on the people. It really depends on the citizens, but the outcome cannot be taken for granted. We cannot be certain about the outcome.

“I think in the 90's, it was a common assumption about democratic transformation as a kind of one-way street, as a kind of course that is irreversible. Today, unfortunately, we can see that this process is reversible, but the result is still open. It will always depend on the people and on the citizens what happens next.

“I think there is a role for everybody on every level,” Pankowski said when asked if there is a way of countering the turn towards extremism and politics of hatred. “I think it is very important for people to have civil courage. I think civil courage is important, and critical thinking is also very important, especially with the propaganda of hatred and the propaganda of nationalism.

“I believe what is very important nowadays, I think you can call it international solidarity. Solidarity on the level of civil societies is very important, but also on the level of individual people, and I think awareness is also very important. It is sometimes missing. I think all of us have a tendency just to look at our own problems in our own countries. In fact, many of those problems are common problems and the solutions can become common solutions. I think in this context, solidarity is the key issue. I know it is easier said than done, but I think it is a really important aspect of the challenge, but it's also an opportunity, and also technology provides us with the opportunities for expressing solidarity that maybe we don't have before but maybe we don't use it enough.”