Europeans may feel comfortable living on a -post-racial' continent, but ethnic tensions still lie close to the surface, and, as Ben Snook's historical analysis confirms, always have done.

22/1/2011- As sophisticated Europeans, in whose intellectual landscapes the holy trinity of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment loom large, we are quick to react with a fit of sanctimonious tutting when presented with the simple minded, would-be Qur'an-burning swamp-folk of Florida; or with the crazed, flag-burning zealots of Beirut; or with the hideous, inter-tribal ethnic cleansing which has become so depressingly typical of some parts of Africa. We are Europeans, and we know much better, we tell ourselves. To some extent that is true. There is something to be said for European civilisation. For the optimists among us, ours is a continent that has weathered the worst storms, and which has been the crucible of some of the most horrific traits of the human condition, but has emerged the stronger for it and now sits contently on a plateau of enlightened political moderation. Yet extremism, bigotry and racism lie very close to the surface in Europe. Deep-rooted ethnic hatred, of the kind that might make even the most trenchant Tutsi and Hutu look like a honeymooning couple, runs deep here. The fault lines are all too apparent.

Wherever it exists, bigotry is fuelled by the twin engines of fear and control. In each case, it can be a powerful tool. And extremism is still very much with us. The recent resurgence of the French far right, all the more conspicuous in a country whose official behaviour during the Second World War was somewhat less than exemplary, serves as a warning to the rest of Europe. The increasing prevalence of anti-immigrant, anti-gay and ultra-Christian groups in the European Parliament might give cause for concern as well. Nevertheless, we tell ourselves that, all things considered, we are really not so bad. Of course, there are a few nutters on the fringes of the moderate, European consensus, who want to ban everything from the hijab to the right to eat cheese on Sundays. But that doesn't equate to a whole continent of foaming, discriminatory maniacs, does it? Before we become too comfortable with that conclusion, it might be wise to scrutinise our recent past. Some discrimination is easy to understand: a lack of education naturally leads to a fear of difference, be that racial, religious, cultural or ethnic. Other forms of bigotry present more of a challenge, however.

In the south west of France, it is quite usual to come upon tiny, cat-flap like doors cut into the larger, wooden gates of churches. Many are now welded shut; they have hardly been opened in the last century and now serve only to let in a draft. For at least three hundred years, though probably more, these small flaps were used to admit the Cagots into the church. Forced to bend and squeeze themselves through a space hardly large enough for a child, let alone a grown adult, this was just one way in which this outcast community would be humiliated, denigrated and debased. Once inside the church, the Cagots would be forced to sit apart from the rest of the congregation, often out of sight. Separate fonts would be used, and separate communion bowls. In some regions, drinking from the same cup as a Cagot was considered so utterly disgusting an act that it was illegal to do so. The Cagots themselves lived apart in wholly separate communities known as cagoteries. These places would be set well apart from the main town. Banned from most trades, the Cagots of southern France were limited to working as wood-workers, butchers or rope-makers. Like the Jews in Hitler's Germany, they were forced to wear a distinguishing mark to set them apart from the rest of society: usually, the foot of a goose or duck would be hung from their clothes as a sign of their pestilential character.

What is most remarkable about these people, save the fact that they endured such institutionalised humiliation for so long, is that they had no distinguishing features whatever. Stories abounded that they might have been descended from Muslim invaders, Goths or, in some more outlandish cases, demonic wizards. Yet, they were racially identical to the rest of the population. They were Catholics, who worshipped in the same churches, following the same liturgy as everyone else. They spoke exactly the same dialect as their neighbours. The only qualification necessary to become a Cagot, it seems, was that one's parents were Cagots. The Cagots were largely -emancipated' during the French Revolution. The final traces of separation disappeared at the end of the nineteenth century. Yet, their story is profoundly instructive to the modern European. Discrimination takes many forms; sometimes, it is simply there for the sake of it, an unavoidable by-product of the human tendency to create exclusive rather than inclusive communities. We would do well to take note.

© The Vibe

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