Jun 01, 2011
K Biswas charts the rise of ‘nativist’ populism in Europe.
A hard-line look: an English Defence League supporter wears contact lenses sporting the St George cross – a symbol for some of white supremacy.
Paul Hackett / Reuters
‘If Sweden had a majority of Muslims who wanted Sharia Law, what do you think would happen?’
Posing the question is Kent Ekeroth, a newly elected member of parliament for the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD). In his neat little office inside the beautiful Riksdag (parliament) building, located on a tiny island in the centre of Stockholm, the party’s International Secretary becomes more animated when the issue of Muslim immigration is discussed. ‘I don’t want to see the chopping off of hands because somebody steals a loaf of bread,’ he says.
In last September’s general election SD managed to win representation for the first time in its history, controlling 20 seats and holding the balance of power – in a country renowned for its embrace of tolerance and cultural diversity. ‘We changed the debate,’ Ekeroth proudly claims. ‘They can’t ignore us like they used to before.’
SD seeks to divide the electorate between ‘natives’ and ‘immigrants’ and says that ‘immigrants’ benefit from liberal social policies while ‘natives’ suffer. The party focused its election campaign on the two southern-most counties – Skåne and Blekinge – where worries around welfare, long-term job prospects and integration loom largest.
Daniel Poohl, whose magazine Expo (founded by the author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the late Stieg Larsson) monitors the Swedish far right, observes: ‘SD was able to say to Swedes that the problems they see in society and the problems that they have personally are directly linked to immigration. And those who ended up voting for the Sweden Democrats believed in what the party was saying.’
The party released selective crime statistics showing that Africans and Arabs committed a high number of sexual assaults, and used every opportunity to rally against the ‘multicultural Swedish power-élite’ for not standing up for their own citizens. In the run-up to the election it broadcast a TV advert depicting a group of women in Islamic dress jostling past an elderly white woman to take money from the country’s budget. Sweden’s former Social Democrat chair, Mona Sahlin, called this ‘an incitement to hatred’.
SD’s success is by no means unique. Extreme nationalists and ultra-right populists have found parliamentary footholds across Western Europe. Their anti-immigrant/anti-élite rhetoric chimes with a significant number of voters. Geert Wilders – who, in his own words, ‘hates Islam’ – and his Party for Freedom (PVV) prop up the Dutch government. The Front National’s new leader, Marine Le Pen, is outpolling Nicholas Sarkozy in the run-up to next year’s French presidential election. In Austria, Italy and Denmark, parties of the far right have been in partnership governments during the last decade. An insurgent radical rightwing strand pollutes representative politics in most nations across the continent.
Public debates on ‘national identity’ are blurring the lines between acceptable political discussion and divisive rhetoric that marginalizes minorities. These ‘conversations’ redefine what it means to be a citizen, and Europe’s non-white citizenry are largely left out of them. Disorganized parties that once garnered disparate, fluctuating support have honed their language, policies and organizational capabilities and been voted into parliaments across the continent.
How can this have happened?
‘My party and I are a threat to the political élite,’ said Geert Wilders in November 2010. ‘Take a look at German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is now trying to create a copy.’
Political commentators often argue that the far right thrives because mainstream politicians have failed to discuss immigration, for fear of offending minority ethnic groups. But listen to the tough-talking statements made by Europe’s political leaders in recent years and you may question this logic. Angela Merkel has claimed that ‘multiculturalism has utterly failed’ in Germany. Nicholas Sarkozy has said that France does not want immigration ‘inflicted’ on itself. Silvio Berlusconi has stated that Italy is not, and should never be, a ‘multi-ethnic country’.
An insurgent radical rightwing strand pollutes representative politics in most nations across the continent
It is not just politicians on the conservative right who seek to make political capital from anti-immigrant sentiment. In Britain, Labour’s former Immigration Minister, Phil Woolas, looked to ‘make white folk angry’ by exploiting racial and religious divisions in his 2010 general election campaign. Dutch Labour chair Liliane Ploumen raised the ‘self-designated victimization’ and disproportionate levels of ‘criminality and trouble-making’ of immigrants in the Netherlands.
Kent Ekeroth has noticed the change. He joined SD five years ago, eschewing the opportunity to join the mainstream Liberal People’s Party for a party with roots in the ‘White Power’ neo-fascist movements of the 1980s and 1990s. During that time, the party was ignored by politicians and ridiculed by the media due to its toxic agenda, accompanied by racist bombast and party members’ penchant for Nazi uniforms.
Now the SD boasts that mainstream parties across Europe are adopting sanitized versions of their policies. Figures like Ekeroth are taking heart. ‘What happened recently in Germany is astounding,’ he says. ‘First, [Angela] Merkel talked about the failures of multiculturalism. Then the Interior Minister said that “Islam has no place here”. Then the Finance Minister said that third-generation immigrants are worse than the first generation.’ They were all referring to the history of Turkish Muslim integration in their country, which is seen as contributing to a loss of identity.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, has her eyes on the French presidency.
Pascal Rossignol / Reuters
‘The mainstream has shifted to a point where “national identity” has a big role,’ says Professor Cas Mudde, a Dutch academic who has studied the relationship between the radical right and established parties. He sees populist far-right parties as radicalized interpretations of the mainstream – a product of society’s fears. ‘Every country has a constituency that shares the values of the radical right. And its key values of nativism, authoritarianism and populism all link to mainstream understanding within Western democracies. For example, nativism is a radical interpretation of the “strong nation-state”. As a consequence, there is a rather large breeding ground for radical right parties that mainstream parties can also tap into.’
The argument that mainstream figures are in some way frightened of discussing immigration obscures the key reasons why the far right thrives: it opportunistically takes advantage of economic and social fears, a lack of trust in the political class, and the growing ‘legitimization’ of Islamophobia in public discourse.
Across the continent, far-right populist parties have sought success around places of intense economic deprivation and social breakdown. Europe’s immigrants disproportionately live in urban areas where poverty and unemployment are highest, and it is here that xenophobic political parties have been successful. The global economic meltdown has given these parties a chance to attack ‘open door’ immigration policies as a drain on essential resources, arguing that their native countrymen and -women are being overlooked.
Last year alone, regional elections in France saw Front National leader Marine Le Pen and her predecessor father, Jean-Marie, take substantial votes in areas severely hit by recession. In northern Italy, with its high levels of poverty and significant non-white population, support for Lega Nord strengthened. The Party’s posters depicted a Native American next to the words: ‘They also underwent immigration – now they live in reservations.’ There was a strong showing for far-right parties in Vienna and Malmö, cities with a firm socialist heritage where industrial and demographic changes brought bitterness to decaying communities desperate for someone to blame.
The implications of accepting refugees from Africa and the Middle East are regularly cited by the far right, even though in Europe the right to seek asylum and freedom from persecution are guaranteed by international law.
‘Europe can’t welcome you,’ Marine Le Pen recently told two undocumented migrants who had fled to the small Italian island of Lampedusa from Tunisia following January’s uprising. ‘We don’t have the financial means.’
Frida Metso, chair of voluntary organization FARR, works to support asylum seekers and refugees in Sweden, which like much of Europe has tightened its migration laws over recent years. She is passionate and articulate when explaining the anguish that many refugees go through – torn from their families, hiding or living on the streets, denied social security or the right to work. She is angry at parties like the Sweden Democrats for portraying most refugees as undeserving or bogus.
‘A lot of these people are totally desperate – fleeing from dictatorships or leaving a state that is trying to imprison them,’ she says. ‘Some die on the way here. Parties like SD try to convince people that those coming here are not threatened in their home countries, and that they could go back if they wanted to. Those who say that these are not really refugees, that these are all “illegal” immigrants coming here and taking our jobs. Well, it is not true. If they were to meet refugees face to face and speak with them, I have no doubt they would say: “Absolutely, these are people we cannot deport.”’
Far-right populist parties try to pitch themselves as the authentic voice of the people; representatives of ‘the silent majority’ addressing issues they claim have long been ignored by politicians. They align themselves with public concerns as a way of extending their reach – championing popular initiatives such as defending social housing or tackling violent crime, or starting their own initiatives, for example, against the building of local mosques or asylum centres.
They mobilize the public by speaking not just about them but directly to them. Much of their success in recent years is down to hard work – their vote is won through vigorous campaigning on the doorstep and by independent net activism, rather than by relying on exposure in the mainstream media. It is in non-regulated public arenas that they hear the range of people’s material concerns – around jobs, pensions, housing, healthcare, welfare – and direct authentic anxieties into action against the political élite.
Politicians like Geert Wilders and the Danish People’s Party’s (DF) self-styled ‘housewife leader’ Pia Kjaersgaard play on their anti-establishment credentials, arguing that the public has been abandoned by privileged parliamentarians who care little for ordinary people’s concerns. Kjaersgaard – or ‘Mamma Pia’ as young party admirers refer to her – has been a support partner of Denmark’s government for the past 10 years, yet presents herself as in touch with people’s ‘ordinary, commonplace attitudes’, unlike other élitist politicians.
This anti-establishment, anti-politics thrust is mirrored across the continent, at a time when trust in the political class is at an all-time low. Existing groups of representatives are painted as feeble and corrupt – political pygmies compared to their predecessors. Far-right populists believe that, in the words of Kent Ekeroth, ‘the Western world has become weak as we are not willing to defend our own culture or society’. Only their parties, it is argued, can return European nations back to the glory days.
Party leaders invoke Eisenhower or Churchill in an attempt to shed the ‘Nazi’ label often thrown at them – a tactic shared with the British National Party, which portrays Churchill beaming down at viewers of their election broadcasts. Front National’s election posters show General De Gaulle arguing that ‘France will no longer be France’ unless other races remain a minority. Steps have even been taken by ultra-right parties in Italy to rehabilitate the legacy of Mussolini. The implication is that the mantle of patriotic heroism has been passed on to their parties, as the current crop of politicians is powerless to save their countries from external threats.
‘The mix of anti-immigration policy and an anti-Europe/anti-establishment discourse is determining the public agenda,’ says Alfred Gusenbauer. He is the former Austrian Chancellor who was leader of the Social Democratic Party between 2000 and 2008 – a challenging period.
When Jorg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) entered into a coalition government in 2000, it was greeted with alarm – Haider was considered a pariah by the international community, tainted as a xenophobic ultra-nationalist with a history of anti-semitism. The EU advocated sanctions against Austria, and leading statesmen including Gerhard Schroeder, Bill Clinton and Jacques Chirac publicly registered their consternation.
Haider’s successor and protégé, Heinz Christian Strache, is leading the FPÖ into the next election, when it may emerge as the largest parliamentary party. Gusenbauer, who stood against both Haider and Strache, is dismayed but not surprised. ‘Firstly, the FPÖ portrays Austrians as foreigners in their own country, due to immigration. Secondly, more and more sovereignty has been transferred to Europe, meaning that decisions taken by the national parliament are limited in scope. And thirdly, decisions at an economic level are taken far away from Austria in the globalized financial markets. The narrative is that the nation and the self-determination of the people is lost.’
Islam = threat
Parties like the FPÖ have been fortunate to break through at a time of heightened awareness of a new, globalized threat: Islam. The success of many far-right parties is predicated on a significant public distrust of Muslims. Over half of Danes believe that Islam hinders social harmony; three-quarters of citizens from the former East Germany want to ‘seriously limit’ the practice of Islam; half of Britons associate Islam with terrorism; four in ten French people see Muslims living in their country as a ‘threat’ to their national identity; more than half of Austrians believe that ‘Islam poses a threat to the West and our familiar lifestyle’.
Even though Muslims in Europe originate from different parts of the globe – Turks in Germany, North Africans in France, Pakistanis in Britain – they are portrayed as a single monolithic block, unable to integrate into European society. The populist press has played its role in generating public fears of Muslims. In Britain, which has elected no far-right representatives into its national parliament, the Daily Express and Daily Star blare out hate-filled statements from their front pages on an almost daily basis, characterizing Muslims as a homogenous group hell-bent on undermining the British way of life. ‘Muslim Schools ban our culture,’ ‘Muslims get their own laws in Britain,’ ‘Sniffer dogs offend Muslims,’ ‘Muslims tell British – Go to Hell’.
‘The media have uncritically incorporated the idea that “Islam equals threat”, therefore Muslims are a threat,’ according to Liz Fekete, the Chair of Britain’s Institute of Race Relations. The media are ‘constantly looking for the extreme voice within the Muslim community, because it’s an easy peg to hang a story on. So if a small extremist sect that doesn’t have any legitimacy within the Muslim community is organizing a protest, it becomes the major framework for any public discussion on Muslims.’
A ‘poppy-burning’ demonstration on Remembrance Day by the little-known group Muslims Against Crusades attracted a handful of extremists to Kensington in West London, yet made the front page of many national newspapers.
It is no surprise that arguments about the incompatibility of Islam with ‘Western values’ have shifted from the fringes into mainstream discourse. In recent years, we have seen a growing ‘intellectualization’ of Islamophobia. Some prominent Western commentators (most of whom have historically displayed little or no interest in Islamic culture) have gone out of their way to add credibility to anti-Muslim hysteria.
Reputable publications regularly print scare stories around a supposed Islamic takeover of Europe, filled with overblown talk of demographic time-bombs caused by Muslim immigration and high fertility rates. The continent is forever depicted as being on the frontline of the West’s struggle with Islam, facing the real prospect of a ‘Eurabian’ state.
The US columnist Christopher Caldwell argues that Muslims are ‘patiently conquering Europe’s cities street by street’; the late Italian author Oriana Fallaci claimed that Muslims have been told to come here and ‘breed like rats’. Canadian writer Mark Steyn paints a dystopian future with everyone under ‘40 – make it 60, if not 75’ destined to live in an ‘Islamified Europe’.
Last summer, the Social Democrat Thilo Sarrazin caused a publishing sensation with his book Germany Does Away with Itself, in which he declares: ‘I don’t want the country of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be largely Muslim, or that Turkish or Arabic will be spoken in large areas, that women will wear headscarves and the daily rhythm is set by the call of the muezzin.’
A candlelit vigil in opposition to Barbara Rosenkranz, presidential candidate in 2010 for Austria’s far-right Freedom Party.
Leonhard Foeger / Reuters
The implication is that the Islamic threat is real and urgent; being Muslim and being European is incompatible; Muslims can never be moderate. These writers and their disciples have their viewpoints endlessly repeated in public and reposted on internet message boards, gifting the far right a ‘legitimate’ scapegoat, as well as the arguments and language to spread its message successfully.
Extreme rightwing politicians exploit ‘respectable’ Islamophobia, knowing that a hard line against Europe’s Muslim communities is a surefire vote winner. Across the continent – in Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, France, Austria, Switzerland – far-right political parties have won large numbers of votes by focusing on the ‘Islamization’ of their countries.
‘I’ve had enough of Islam in the Netherlands; let not one more Muslim immigrate,’ Geert Wilders proclaims, and his fellow populists agree. The Danish People’s Party publishes posters depicting the Prophet Muhammad, with the Jyllands-Posten cartoons controversy fresh in the public mind. A branch of Austria’s FPÖ released the online computer game ‘Bye Bye Mosque’, in which players were encouraged to target a crude Muslim caricature erecting religious buildings.
Aligned with popular campaigns, such as banning the construction of mosques and minarets or legislating on which garments Muslim women can wear in public – in Wilders’ words, a tax on ‘head-rags’ – far-right voices have been successful in creating a cultural climate that is aggressively hostile to Europe’s Muslim communities.
This atmosphere inevitably leads to physical clashes. Across Europe, Muslim populations have become regular targets of violent attacks. Centres of worship are routinely vandalized – Berlin’s largest mosque, Sehitlik, was attacked four times in five months last year – and women wearing religious clothing are frequently abused and assaulted in public.
Often entire communities are intimidated by anti-Muslim protests that take to the streets. The English Defence League has held 40 marches across Britain in two years, all of which have ended in violence. In the city of Peterborough, supporters circumvented police cordons and attacked Muslim youths after a series of inflammatory speeches. Their actions, which have included daubing mosques with hate-speech and placing bacon and pigs’ heads on Muslim premises, are designed to promote community division and provoke a violent reaction, lending credence to a confused ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative.
Anti-immigrant politicians are channelling the energy of extra-parliamentary movements into their campaigns, organizing meetings with those able to mobilize people previously thought to be beyond the reach of representative politics.
Wilders, with his contacts both within parliaments and outside conventional political structures, is forming an International Freedom Alliance, which aims to ‘stop Islam’ and ‘defend freedom’. Attempts are being made by an opposing alliance to hold Wilders to account. Jeroen Bosch of Dutch anti-racist group Alert! says: ‘Everybody who is attacked by Wilders and his policies resists in their own way – artists make art, judges author opinion articles, others write free pamphlets. People make humorous posters and flyers on the internet, political parties give out research on the voting behaviour of his party and groups like ours monitor their publications and speeches.’
‘I want to replace the mainstream.’ Kent Ekeroth is clear about what he and other anti-immigrant populists believe they can achieve. ‘I hope we can replace the Social Democrats and all those other naïve parties. Look at Norway and Austria – we have the biggest party. The Front National is the second biggest party in France. In Finland, the second or first biggest.’
A decade after Austria was ostracized, Haider’s successors are being accepted, their agenda adopted by established parties they sit alongside. In the Netherlands and Denmark limits on immigration from Africa and the Middle East can be directly attributed to these parties acting as government ‘support partners’. They drive popular, often successful campaigns to restrict visible signs of Islam in Europe – against the mosque, the Qur’an, the face-veil – often supported by people who would never dream of actively endorsing the far right.
The mainstream, after years of denying these parties the ‘oxygen of publicity’, frequently goes out of its way to accommodate far-right views in order to reflect the diversity of political opinion. Geert Wilders writes for the Wall Street Journal; SD leader Jimmie Åkesson authors a pre-election op-ed for the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet; Marine Le Pen is winning support on her ‘detoxification’ tour of the globe, granting interviews to Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Israel’s Ha’aretz and the Associated Press – something completely denied to her father.
As their influence grows across the continent, so must their ambitions. Their parties have successfully put ‘natives first’ policies, and even the voluntary repatriation of immigrants, back on to the political agenda, decades after they were last considered seriously by lawmakers.
The social reforms developed by the conservative and social democratic consensus over six decades were in part introduced to ensure that Europe never again saw extremists holding the levers of power. In 21st century Europe, a populist far right sees an opportunity to dismantle institutional, ethical and legislative structures that the continent has built upon since the Second World War. Agreed principles around non-discrimination, tolerance and diversity are under threat by opportunistic figures who care little for the livelihoods of Europe’s minority communities.
As Ekeroth declares: ‘We are not bound by someone else’s principles.’