The West, xenophobia, and the legacy of colonialism: Problems of identity in politics

Menna Khaled, Saturday 5 Dec 2020

Identity politics and xenophobia have been on the rise in many Western countries, adding to the popularity of many extreme-right political movements

Identity politics
Political parties use markers of identity as tools to further their political interests and attract voters

“I feel that I’m discriminated against because of the family name on my CV, so I have decided to remove it.”

These were the words of one 22-year-old woman living in Nice in France, who said that she had been facing challenges finding a job due to her Muslim family name. “Once I had removed my name, I received multiple job offers,” Mariam (not her real name) said. “I have stopped using my real family name since.”

Mariam is not the only person to be suffering from an identity issue. Europe has been impacted by many problems over the last decade, including the sovereign debt crisis and issues relating to refugees and terrorism. These have led to growing citizen dissatisfaction with European governments, and the 2016 immigration crisis in Europe led to an increase in populist movements and identity politics among extreme-right nationalist parties.

Not only can they be a sign of social unrest among the population, identity politics can also be seen as marking the changes taking places in many Western democracies.

“To an extent, the Western type of liberal democracy is the root cause of identity politics,” said Nikaolas Nikolakakis, an expert on radical politics in Europe and a professor at the British University in Egypt.

Identity politics have resurfaced, he said, especially after the political shocks of the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016, outgoing US president Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the emergence and rise of far-right parties in many European countries, and a general rise in some European countries of hostility towards immigrants and the rise of nationalism.

Identity groups have an important role to play in the politics of many Western countries. Political parties use markers of identity as tools to further their political interests and attract voters. They may also actively sharpen people’s identities, encouraging distrust and hostility against those defined as others and thereby harming core principles of democracy with respect to diversity and pluralism.

Identity politics itself is also a problematic concept that can mean different things depending on the context. At the present moment, identity politics may refer to a political approach in which particular groups develop agendas based on perceived identities and interests.

Identity politics can act to destroy democracy as well as to make society more cohesive. French President Emmanuel Macron’s statements on Islam after the beheading of history teacher Samuel Paty in France in October led to outrage among many Muslims and resulted in the boycott of French products in some Muslim countries. The crisis also provoked further debate on Muslim integration into French society and Europe more generally.

“What’s happening now in France is the outcome of decades of failed integration,” Nikolakakis told Al-Ahram Weekly. “The only time you see diversity in France is in the football and basketball teams.

“Many immigrants in France are working class and live in ghettos. These people want to identify themselves and have a sense of belonging, but they don’t feel they have a share in French culture. The French state is absent for them, leading some of them to become radicalised as a way of claiming some sense of identity.

“The problem is that the French government has not really tried to integrate these communities. They only respond to attacks,” Nikolakakis said.

Islam is the second-largest religion in terms of followers in France after Christianity, though France is a secular country, with laicité, or secularism, being part of French national identity.

“Secularism is the cement of a united France,” Macron has commented, before adding after the murder of Paty by an Islamist terrorist that “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today; we are not just seeing this in our country.”

“We will try to build an organisation that will allow us — I hope, I believe — to build a form of Islam in our country that is compatible with Enlightenment values. An Islam that can peacefully coexist with the Republic, respecting all the rules of separation and calming all voices,” Macron said, terming this the “Islam des Lumières,” or the Islam of the Enlightenment.

For Nikolakakis, “Macron’s current actions and discourse on reorganising Islam to fit into French society, as well as on freedom of expression and Islamophobia, could be considered as part of the 2022 election campaign in France. He is attempting to build a discourse of being the protector of Western values.”


Sometimes negative ideas about Islam and immigration in Europe cannot be separated from identity fears among the public.

A survey by the Institute for Opinion and Marketing Studies (IFOP) in France last month revealed that 87 per cent of French people think that secularism is in danger in France, and 79 per cent agree that Islamism is waging a war against the republic and the nation.

Macron defended Paty’s action of showing offensive cartoons to his students on the grounds of freedom of expression, saying that “we will not give up caricatures and drawings, even if others back away.” French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said that “we are at war with an enemy that is both from inside and outside.”

However, identity discourse often does not put an end to xenophobia or feelings of exclusion but can instead exacerbate the issue. The French government’s discourse on French identity may have accentuated societal divisions and Islamophobia in France.

“From the perspective of French culture and secularism, the French have failed in transmitting these values to people who believe in France. The country’s multiculturalism policy has been failing,” Nikolakakis said.

Moreover, the IFOP survey revealed that some French people are now turning against immigrants on secularist grounds. The poll revealed that “60 per cent of French people consider that welcoming foreigners is no longer possible because of differences in values and problems of cohabitation,” commentators have noted. Almost the same percentage agreed on the negative impacts of immigration on French identity and the cohesion of French society.

Economic and cultural factors as well as the political atmosphere created by far-right parties and conservative views by officials highlighting sensitive issues like identity have played a role in many French people’s views on others.

Despite most European countries implementing policies of multiculturalism to cope with diverse identities among their nationals, the weaknesses of these policies have allowed public dissatisfaction. Failing to deal with immigrants and Muslim minorities in European countries could lead to their exclusion from society, and for some the existence of Muslim and ethnic minorities on the European continent has been an element explaining the rise of far-right political parties that have claimed they cannot fit in with the larger society’s values and norms.

The refugee and migration crisis in Europe has also fuelled the rise of far-right political parties. These conceptualise immigration, European integration, and the refugee crisis as issues needing to be defended against to protect the identity of their countries. When the United Kingdom voted to withdraw from the EU, for example, in the so-called Brexit, Nigel Farage, then a member of the European Parliament and a British politician, said it was “a victory for real people”.

Nationalist and populist parties often push national identity and racial issues to the forefront, promoting the idea of protecting national identities from migration and multiculturalism. In the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom (PVV) has claimed the right to be in charge of immigration issues without EU interference, for example.

The recent increase in support for far-right parties in Europe has been visible in Italy, France, Germany, and Hungary. The 2019 European Parliament elections had the highest turnout in 20 years, but in many cases voters were voting for anti-immigrant parties.

Such developments have fed into the narratives of the far right, enabling these parties to develop the idea of an external enemy and construct the idea of us vs others, allowing them to create a discourse of allegedly incompatible values between Islam and European societies. Nine far-right parties have created the “Identity and Democracy” Group (IDG) in the European Parliament, for example, taking 73 seats as the fifth-largest party in the last elections and replacing the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group.

The group calls for preserving the identity of the peoples of Europe and controlling immigration.

With the internal economic, health, climate, and other challenges Europe is facing, politicians have in some cases shifted their discourse to focus on Islam and immigration as a threat to national identities and to advance their own agendas. In September 2020, the European Commission paved the way for an open-door policy on migration into Europe through the Migration and Asylum Pact, contributing to wider dissatisfaction.

According to the IDG, “based on the model of the Marrakech Pact / the UN’s Global Compact on Migration [which deal with migration issues], the European Commission seeks to facilitate mass migration that will flood Europe on an unprecedented scale. The result will be the submersion of Europe by colonisation and the subsequent destabilisation and eventual extinction of the European nations and cultures.”

“The Migration Pact will change forever both the direction of Europe and the lives of all citizens of the European nations. Should the Pact be adopted, it will be the end of Europe. To stop the Migration Pact, the mobilisation of us all is required in order to confront the technocrats in Brussels,” the group said.

According to the IDG, more migrants “will cause the collapse of our welfare systems, the end of Europe’s distinct cultures and civilisations with their own values and way of life, and mass unemployment and the worsening of the housing crisis.”

Populist parties exploit the surrounding environment and the anxiety shared by parts of the population in order to push their own ideas and nationalist values. European societies have been affected by Islamophobic discourse as a result, and far-right populist parties have gained support. According to data from the European Parliament, 34 per cent of Europe’s citizens consider immigration to be a main issue and 29 per cent emphasise the social protection of EU citizens.

“Political discourses in Europe are shifting to the right every year, and today some far-right discourse has become almost mainstream and presented by mainstream parties. Unfortunately, another wave of the far right will likely rise due to the impacts of the Covid-19 on employment and the poverty rate,” Nikolakakis said.


Identity politics is also practised by US politicians. “Race is key in American politics, and identity politics played a huge role in the 2020 US presidential election campaigns,” Nikolakakis said.

Identity politics played a huge part in Trump’s 2016 election campaign, which focused on immigration and border security. Trump was able to secure votes from those concerned about immigration as a threat, and his speeches included offensive rhetoric about minorities and immigrants.

 “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” Trump commented of Mexican immigrants to the US, appealing to some white American voters.

Trump has also called for women of colour in the US Congress “to go back to their own countries”. By highlighting racial difference, Trump has reinforced negative ideas on identity and race. New York based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) data shows that “3,566 White Supremacist propaganda incidents took place in the US in 2020 compared to 2,713 in 2019. Almost 80 per cent of the 2020 cases involved white nationalist ideology.”

Such reports show the effect that such white identity politics can have on the US public. And unlike the 2016 election campaign, the 2020 campaign was cloaked in racial unrest and white nationalism.

In the first presidential debate with Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden in 2020, Trump was asked to condemn white supremacists and militia groups.

“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by! But I’ll tell you what; somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left,” Trump said in reply, refusing to condemn the Proud Boys, a far-right organisation that promotes and engages in political violence, and attempting to deflect the problem onto the left.

A Pew Research Centre poll in the US in July found that 78 per cent of Americans believe that aggressive language by politicians makes violence more likely. Another report by the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) said that “white nationalist hate groups in the US have increased by 55 per cent throughout the Trump era,” and a “surging” racist movement continues to be driven by “a deep fear of demographic change”.

“American racists have fretted over what they fear will be the loss of their place of dominance in society,” the SPLC said.

Voters in the US often develop their political preferences based on identity issues or issues of racial or other forms of belonging. 2020 US voting data estimate that Trump won 57 per cent of white votes, similar to in the 2016 elections. Estimates based on expected turnout and exit polling on gender and race suggested that Trump gained the majority of white men’s votes, estimated at 28.7 million, and also gained 28 million white women’s votes in comparison to 21.7 million for Biden.

However, Biden was able to secure the popular and the electoral college vote, making him the 46th president of the US, even if some have suggested that many people who voted for Biden did so only because he was not Trump.

Before winning the campaign, Biden said that “I commit that if I’m elected president and have an opportunity to appoint someone to the Supreme Court, I’ll appoint the first black woman.” This was not the first time he mentioned people of colour in his campaign, since he also chose a woman of colour to be his vice-president. “Well, I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black,” he once commented.

Biden was thus using symbols and referring to racial identities as part of his campaign to gain more votes.


Identity politics is not a new phenomenon in the US, and many scholars attribute it to the political divisions that took place in the 1960s. Yet, some elements of the concept can be traced to the colonial era.

According to Moritz Mihatsch, a professor at the British University in Egypt and an expert on African history, “the way ‘identity politics’ as a term is used to describe politics in the US or Europe is not the same as what ‘identity politics’ refers to in Africa. In Africa, rather than being about a rights discourse, it revolves around conflictual identities rather than national identities. Colonialism structured specific forms of identity in an African context and made them more rigid, and the colonial powers fixed the fluid identities that were present in the precolonial era.”

The colonial powers’ strategy to carve up Africa and their imposition of artificial borders on the continent planted the seeds of conflicts that still plague it today.

“In only a very few cases did the borders reflect any kind of political organisation that existed prior to the European presence. During the period of colonisation, the colonisers had no interest in building a shared and coherent national identity within the territories they controlled, and therefore in the post-colonial period the question of a coherent national identity became the challenge post-colonial states were facing, and in many cases this led to conflict,” Mihatsch said.

The colonisers took advantage of cleavages present in their then colonies, exploiting them to support their rule. Using a policy of divide and rule, and indirect rule exacerbated the problem.

Some of Africa’s nation-building problems can be attributed to colonialism in exacerbating the identity crisis. Some of the conflict in South Sudan is still based on ethnic identities, for example. According to data presented by the UN Mission in South Sudan, “intercommunal violence was the main form of violence, as documented by the Human Rights Division, accounting for more than 86 per cent of all victims in the second quarter of 2020.”

“Dinka [ethnic] sections in Greater Bahr Al-Ghazal [region] accounted for 34 per cent of the victims of intercommunal violence, while clashes opposing allied Dinka, Gawar, and Lou Nuer sections against the Murle were responsible for 20 per cent of victims of this form of violence,” it said, mentioning various Sudanese ethnic groups.

 “There are people who are alive at this moment who were born when their states were still colonies, so it’s not surprising that the question of national identity is still in play in Africa,” Mihatsch said.

The growing significance of identity politics can be attributed to politicians taking advantage of political opportunities. People in the West supporting the agendas of particular groups identified by race or culture will lead to more divided societies and probably further radicalism and violence. The promotion of racist or extremist narratives by populist parties fosters further social unrest.

The problem with identity politics is that the more debates about identity occur, the more damaging they can become.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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