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July 27, 2016

The View from Munich

Last Friday I was wrapping up a research trip to Berlin and Munich, having met with government officials, NGOs, foundations, and grassroots organizers working to combat antisemitism, xenophobia, and extremism. I heard stories of hope—of persistent efforts to deny space and airtime for those spouting hatred, and of investments in programs and institutions to counter discrimination. But the people I spoke with also expressed serious concerns about social polarization and the populist appeal of far-right groups.

I walked through the central train station where, last fall, Germans bearing blankets and teddy bears welcomed refugees fleeing devastating conflicts. As I arrived at the airport, breaking news alerts announced the mass shooting at a nearby shopping center that claimed nine lives and wounded dozens.

When it feels like the social fabric is disintegrating, like heated rhetoric and ugly fear-mongering and violent outbursts are building to a crescendo, it is time to reflect on some central principles and be guided to action based on our shared values and commitments.

Some of the challenges that Germany faces are specific to the country’s history and current circumstances. But the deeper themes run through all of Europe, and the United States, as well—how to confront the rise of extremism while maintaining an open and rights-respecting society, how to integrate people from diverse backgrounds while welcoming individualized expressions of identity, and how to foster national cohesion and resilience at a time of social divisions.

Here are a few of the principles that the people I spoke to are grappling with, for their own work, for their institutional commitments, and for their roles in society at large:

  • Strategic action: How do we analyze the root causes of the rise in hate crimes, intolerance, and the mounting influence of far-right extremists? How do we scale up our interventions to promote integration and combat discrimination? How do we know if our strategies are actually working? How can we be attuned to the unintended consequences of our actions?
  • Working across differences: How can people from diverse backgrounds establish common goals and work together to achieve them? How do we promote a shared sense of belonging in society while creating space for people to live their own identities?
  • Resisting easy conflation: How should we address right-wing extremism, left-wing extremism, and Islamist extremism as distinct issues that demand tailored strategies? How does Germany’s historical context inform our responses to far-right groups today?
  • Innovating together: How can we develop models of engagement across many different fields of work, from preschool education to impact litigation? How can we identify and share best practices?
  • Mobilizing together: How can we move from expressions of solidarity and concern to joint action? How do we support the efforts of refugees and migrants to self-organize? How can we provide enhanced support for integration in rural areas?
  • Public discourse: How can we discourage mainstream policymakers from adopting the rhetoric of the far right? How can we foster more structured conversations across society about our national identity and our shared commitments?

These questions don’t have easy answers, or quick fixes. It’s important for policymakers to hear from a wide range of practitioners and advocates about what’s needed, what works, and what’s counter-productive. Human Rights First will be releasing a report in the fall on how the United States and Germany can come together to deepen their shared work on combating extremism and promoting inclusive policy solutions for those facing discrimination on the basis of religion, ethnicity, or nationality.