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Islam and the Evolution of Europe’s Far Right

What is to account for the success of Europe’s Far Right? The attention the news media have devoted to the story of Islam in Europe has never been greater. And displeasure over concessions granted to Europe’s Muslims, fear and loathing of Shari‘a (Islamic) law — and fears that Europe, in the rush to embrace the Other, may lose herself — appear to be driving the continent’s electoral agenda. These concerns have sprung from items as ridiculous as Fortis Bank’s decision to do away with pig mascot Knorbert (for fear of offending Muslims) to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s declaration that adoption of elements of Shari‘a law in the UK “seems unavoidable” — and would, in fact, be a great help to maintain social cohesion. In any case, it appears that a growing number are sufficiently discouraged by the imposition of the multicultural gag to take Europe’s latest war of religion to the voting booth. It is also the case, for many, that the persons who best speak to the continent’s concerns are not those moderate (or secular) Muslims who talk of assimilation, but the leading lights of Europe’s Far Right — and the growing host of Muslim-baiters who sit in public office.

But the electoral success of the Far Right has been far from evenly distributed. And this, of course, has a great deal to do with perceptions of the Old Guard of Europe’s Far Right, the most familiar branch of the movement. Geert Wilders, the Netherlands’ puckish libertarian, for example, does not easily compare to France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, either with respect to personal history or electoral sway. But as difficult as it is to stack Wilders among the “blood and soil” conservatives of the Old Guard, Wilders and other members of the “progressive” nationalist faction nevertheless constitute an important, second branch of the confederation one casually describes as “Far Right.” These are the Young Turks of the movement. And lastly, there is the success of right-wing populists, like those in Belgium and Switzerland, who clearly seek to transcend Old Guard allegiances and adapt their platforms to better respond to the continent’s “Islam problem.” These groups represent a third branch, and a slippery strength within the greater movement. All told, however, what describes the strength of Europe’s Far Right is the fact that votes have begun to derive, in meaningful numbers, from across the political spectrum: from the “Godless” Left to the fascist Right, and all points in between.

To describe the Old Guard, then, is to include the likes of two men: Nick Griffin, national chairman of the British National Party (BNP), and Jean-Marie Le Pen of France’s National Front (FN). Since their earliest days in politics, one has likened these men to public discourse as one likens hooligans to organized sports. What is now clear, however, is that these men have failed to unite the electorate behind their classic fear of European federalism, Turkish accession to the European Union, and more or less avowed anti-Semitism. Consider, in addition, that parties of the center-right have begun to appropriate the Old Guard’s once signature xenophobia, and one will understand that little remains of the old fight. What remains to be seen is whether Griffin and Le Pen will acknowledge that Islam is the new game in town.

The BNP’s Nick Griffin, for his part, has admitted to privileging anti-Islamism for electoral gain — and for the same reason, to discourage attacks against the Jews. In a branch meeting recorded in Burnley, Lancashire, in March 2006, for example, he said: “But we bang on about Islam. Why? Because to the ordinary public out there, it’s the thing they can understand. … If we were to attack some other ethnic group — some people say ‘We should attack the Jews’ … — it wouldn’t get us anywhere, other than stepping backwards. It would lock us in a little box, which the public would think ‘extremist-crank-lunatics, nothing-to-do-with-me,’ and we wouldn’t get power. Whereas by making Islam the issue, when every time someone turns on the television, every time they pick up a newspaper … they get a drip, drip, drip. Something else, which tells them, ‘Yeah, Islam is a real serious problem; I’m really worried about it; what kind of future are my children and grandchildren, my nephews and nieces, gonna have, in a Britain which is on the way to becoming the Islamic Republic? That’s what I want to stop. The British National Party are the only people talking about it. Yeah, I think they’re the ones for me.’ That’s the reason for the tactic.”

But France’s National Front (FN), often cited as the vanguard of the continent’s Far Right, has drawn very different lessons from the past decade’s electoral chill. The FN has, since its inception, brandished a “blood and soil” anti-Semitism. This fact, and electoral debates within the party, prompted Michel Gurfinkiel, a French political scientist, to suggest that Le Pen was “poised to strike an alliance” with France’s Muslims. If this has not since come to pass, it remains that Gurfinkiel’s deduction stands to reason: “The National Front is surprisingly popular among Muslim immigrants or second-generation Muslim citizens,” he writes. “For all its campaigning about immigration, Mr. Le Pen’s party has always extended support to Arab and Islamic causes abroad, from Saddam’s Iraq to Arafat’s or Hamas Palestine, and from Al Qaeda to Iran. And it is as firmly anti-American and anti-Jewish as the Muslim community itself tends to be.” Members of Le Pen’s fold are now drawn to patently anti-Islamist groups, which has only encouraged the splintering of France’s Far Right — and empowered Nicolas Sarkozy.

Consider now the Young Turks of Europe’s Far Right. This group represents a new breed of politician, who, although tarred with the extremist brush for their attacks on Islam, speak most loudly to themes dear to libertarians and social democrats. And now is their magic moment. In the past decade, the “progressive” nationalism of these politicians has come to enjoy support the moribund Old Guard has only imagined; for these represent a new generation of politician: libertarian and socially democratic personalities who feel that to legislate Islamic space is to assault core “progressive” European values.

This is a portion of the movement that came to prominence under the openly gay and socially libertarian Pim Fortuyn, who abandoned mainstream politics to found his Pim Fortuyn List (LPF). Most remarkable is the fact that the Dutch were quick to adopt his message: Assassinated shortly before the 2002 vote, Fortuyn’s party still went on to claim 26 of 150 seats and become the second party in parliament. His most natural successors, both in matter of abrasive charisma and fire-breathing anti-Islamism, are Geert Wilders of the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom (PVV) and Pia Kjærsgaard of the Danish People’s Party (DF). Like Fortuyn, both abandoned establishment parties to form groups prompt to defend “national values” against the multiculturalisme mou (milquetoast multiculturalism) of the new Europe.

Wilders’ transformation to become Despiser of the Faith came as something of a shock to the Dutch public. He is now best known for his short file Fitna (strife), which seeks to expose the “fascist” program of the Koran. The Guardian profiled Wilders in February, making the point that he views himself as a “libertarian provocateur like the late Pim Fortuyn or Theo van Gogh. It mentions also that he “[rails] against ‘Islamisation’ as a threat to what used to be the easy-going Dutch model of tolerance.” “My allies are not Le Pen or [Jörg] Haider,” he wishes to make clear. “We’ll never join up with the fascists and Mussolinis of Italy. I’m very afraid of being linked with the wrong rightist fascist groups.” Instead, as reported by the daily, “Dutch iconoclasm, Scandinavian insistence on free expression, the right to provoke are what drive him.”

Danish politician Pia Kjærsgaard speaks a similar language, remarking last year to the Associated Press: “The most important thing for the Danish People’s Party (DF) is to maintain the Danish identity.” And like Wilders, she is quick to reject comparisons to Europe’s Old Guard, saying: “There is nothing racist about what I have said, I know that. … My driving force is the love for my home country. … I want Denmark to be a safe and good and cozy nation that has a good relationship to the rest of the world.” Her party today is the parliament’s third largest, having garnered 14% of the legislative vote in November 2007. This was also a moment for the party to affirm its anti-Islamist credentials: a campaign poster depicted a cartoon illustration of Mohammed, underscored by text that read: “Freedom of speech is Danish, censorship is not.”

Add to the Old Guard and the Young Turks of resurgent nationalism a third group, comprised of right-wing populists often associated with the likes of Britain’s Griffin and the Frenchman Le Pen. These are the nationalist (and regionalist) parties of Austria, Switzerland, and Belgium. Like the Old Guard, these groups are often socially conservative and subject to accusations of anti-Semitism (and, perhaps, too fond memories of Hitler’s Reich). These groups have packaged themselves under nationalist-populist wrap to play on perceptions that establishment parties are deaf to the cause of the people; and they are interesting for having reoriented their politics and policies in calculation of popular support. Like the Young Turks, however, this populist Right has learned to exploit fears of insurgent Islam to great electoral success.

First to Belgium, where Vlaams Belang (the former Vlaams Blok) occupies 12% of the Chamber of Representatives. Party chief Filip Dewinter appears more than eager to transcend the politics of the Old Guard and declaim Europe’s debt to Judeo-Christian tradition. Active support for Israel is a fine way to begin, he imagines. For example, in a 2006 interview with the American New Republic, Dewinter stated: “It’s disgusting, it’s infamous, it’s treacherous, but … many Socialist and Green politicians … hope they can win over the Islamic vote bank by bashing Israel and the United States, and by turning a blind eye on the virulent anti-Semitic rhetoric in Islamic publications and Islamic websites. These facts mirror a remarkable switch of alliances in many European countries: … The right-wingers defend Israel and warn against Islam. The left-wingers are bashing Israel and the United States, and kowtow for Islam.”

In Switzerland, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) defied electoral expectations to walk away with 29% of the legislative vote in October. This was accomplished with no small help from the party’s outspoken (and hotly controversial) position on the expulsion of law-breaking immigrants — as well with the announcement, in May 2007, of the party’s motion to ban minarets. Austria’s Far Right has clearly sought to capitalize on the group’s “Swiss Quality.” In August 2007, Jörg Haider’s Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) introduced an initiative to ban construction of “unusual” structures in the federal state of Carinthia. The reason? Minister of urban planning Uwe Scheuch explains: “With the help of this law, it will be de facto impossible to construct mosques or minarets.”

These state- and nation-wide initiatives to ban mosque and minaret have also borne continental fruit. A grand multi-party rally erupted in Antwerp in February, under the banner “Cities Against Islamisation.” The organization, which boasts an online platform in six languages, speaks to the rise of Far Right populism across the continent. Event coordinator Filip Dewinter (who insists his politics are merely “right-wing”) explained: “We already have more than 6,000 mosques in Europe, which are not only a place to worship but also a symbol of radicalization. … These kinds of symbols have to stop.”

The Young Turks have profited from this language, of course; and that is quite the point. Denmark’s Kjærsgaard sums up the mood among Europe’s right-wing elites: “I am convinced that the Islamists want to sneak Shari‘a (Islamic law) in through the back door, that they want to combat Western society and they want Islam to become the main religion.” And when asked by the Associated Press whether she believed Islam had anything to contribute to Danish society, she replied: “I don’t think so at all.” Ditto for Wilders, who told the Washington Post in an interview: “Islam and democracy are fully incompatible. They will never be compatible — not today, and not in a million years.”

One might prefer to dismiss Wilders and Kjærsgaard as hotheads, or merely out of touch. But a report just now released by the World Economic Forum (in partnership with Georgetown University) on the subject of West-Islamic world dialogue, suggests that the Far Right’s anti-Islam turn is far more representative of Europe’s fears than one has wished to believe. According to the results of surveys gathered by the Gallup Institute, 60% of Europeans surveyed see the growing interaction between the Muslim world and the West as a menace to freedom. What’s more, the study claims that the citizens of Wilders’ Netherlands and Kjærsgaard’s Denmark are most fearful, with 67% of Dutch and 80% of Danes surveyed in agreement with this statement. What’s more, like Kjærsgaard, fully half of Danes consider Islam incompatible with democracy. (Sadly, Gallup failed to collect opinions in France, Germany, or Great Britain.)

In the end, the phenomenon of right-wing populism (or left-wing reaction) is as good a marker as any to insist upon the new ground being broken among these figures and parties of the “Far Right.” And it is clear that perceptions of Islam as an intolerant faith are driving the agenda — for Left and for Right, and across the political spectrum. For this reason, one can no longer easily dismiss the hodgepodge of characters, all platforms considered, who “bang on about Islam.” And if Britain’s Nick Griffin is correct in his estimation that Islam is soon to dominate political discussion, we can expect to hear noises like his own from the continent’s mainstream political elite. It is unlikely that Old Guard formations like the British National Party will ever enjoy the support of the Swiss and Danish Far Right — both for reasons of their history and the promise of fresh libertarian faces like Wilders’. But in the meantime, Britain’s flagging passion for “diversity” presents sure opportunity for the party — as it does for anyone interested in the popular vote.

R. John Matthies is Assistant Director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. He can be contacted at [email protected]