Rob Newman: 'The Age of Austerity is a sham'

What’s your earliest memory?

Throwing my teddy bear out of the cot and one of its glass eyes smashing on the floor. My daughter now sleeps with that one-eyed bear.

Who or what inspires you?

The work of our greatest living philosopher, Mary Midgley, inspired my new stand-up show, Robert Newman’s New Theory of Evolution. She is a brilliant writer, especially her book The Solitary Self – Darwin and the Selfish Gene.

You’ve been working on your latest novel – The Trade Secret – since 2006. How did the idea come about?

Serendipity, in the British Library’s Rare Books & Music room. By fluke, I stumbled upon the true story of a bunch of Elizabethans who discovered oil, coffee and messenger pigeons in Persia. It was astounding to read first-hand Elizabethan accounts of things like an oil well in Fallujah called The Valley of Pitch! The novel is set in Isfahan, Venice and London between the years 1599 and 1606.

You were in Seattle for the anti-globalization demonstrations in 1999. Do you think that this event can be seen as a direct forerunner to the protests we have witnessed in developed countries over the past few years, from the Indignados in Spain and Syntagma Square in Greece, to the Occupy movement?

I think the Indignados and Syntagma Square are more like the long-running Global South movements against the IMF/World Bank a decade or so ago. Those protests – from Malaysia to Costa Rica, the Philippines to Argentina – were against exactly the same aggressive structural adjustment programmes now being forced on southern Europe.

I’m hoping that the Greeks will discover a long-lost patent on the isosceles triangle. They could then threaten to bankrupt all northern economies by collecting unpaid royalties, and then forgive our debt providing we abolish corporations.

You’ve written that no country can afford to run two welfare states – one for humans and one for corporations.

Governments on the left and the right always justify welfare cuts by pitting, for example, mobility scooters against needle exchanges, or the soft-play area in children’s playgrounds against an old people’s home. Who deserves it most, they say, students or cleaners? Old or young? But when we’re running not one, but two, welfare states, that’s a totally fake scenario. The real choice is between playgrounds or gas rigs, between Meals on Wheels or The City of London Currency Speculators’ Maintenance Allowance.

There’s a connection – never mentioned in the news – between, let’s say, Britain’s eight new deep-water gas rigs and its 200 new food banks. The connection is that the $4.5 billion subsidy package being doled out to transnational gas corporations is a very big slice of the welfare pie. And to keep the gas transnationals on the benefits to which they are addicted, hungry humans have to queue for tinned food that is too close to its sell-by date to be kept on the shelves of supermarkets, many of which are themselves massive recipients of corporate welfare.

What hope is there for the welfare state in an age of austerity?

Well, firstly, it’s not an age of austerity. As [the BBC’s Business Editor] Robert Peston, of all people, let slip on a news programme a couple of months ago, the big problem for the markets at present is too much of what they call liquidity. Too many liquid assets – that is, too much cash and hard currency sloshing around with no place to go to get triple-digit returns. Calling it an age of austerity makes it seem like a law of nature or a geological epoch, when the fact of the matter is it’s much closer to what WH Auden describes in his poem ‘A Walk After Dark’:

And the truth can no longer be hid,
Somebody chose their pain,
What needn’t have happened, did.

Rob Newman spoke to freelance writer K Biswas.

The Trade Secret (ISBN 978-1190888517) was published in Britain in April.

Reflections on the Breivik trial

The trial of Anders Behring Breivik, nine months since the tragic events that resulted in the loss of 77 lives of Norwegian nationals, has renewed the traditional media’s interest in Europe’s far right.

The event is a global spectacle. Reporters are flown into Oslo to record the smallest details of the trial, from descriptions of the defendant’s appearance to the inferences of courtroom glances.

The morning papers carry maps of Breivik’s ‘death trail’ accompanied by full-colour photographs of the perpetrator giving a ‘defiant’ one-armed, clenched-fist salute. His victims are reduced to mug shots and dispassionate recollections of their deaths. Shot four times in neck, back and sides. Blasted three times in the head. Fell off cliff while escaping.

Eminent columnists from across the political spectrum indulge in armchair psychology, audaciously trying to categorise the motives to drive a man to commit such murderous acts. He was consumed by an ideological hatred of Muslims and socialists. He was a monster made by multiculturalism and cultural Marxism. It is impossible to understand his actions divorced from the wider political context within which he was embedded.

For these pundits, the trial offers an opportunity to dictate the boundaries of political acceptability. It is one of those rare events where left and right can come together, speaking as one voice to reaffirm the ‘antiracist’ consensus that is the bedrock of European post-war democracy.

But little over a decade ago, mass-murdering loners were not the only ones deemed beyond the pale by mainstream opinion. Far right political parties that spout the same nativist ideas that Breivik claims inspired his acts, once came in for similar condemnation.  Take Jorg Haider. When his anti-immigrant Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) entered Government in 2000, there were howls of consternation from Europe’s media, and sanctions were imposed against his country by the EU.

When French Front National leader Jean Marie Le Pen got through to the Presidential run-off in 2002, newspaper editorials lamented a national tragedy not seen since the Vichy era. Sister far right parties in neighbouring countries were derided and dismissed. They exerted little influence over the politics or discourse of a European continent that was proud of its motto: ‘Unity in Diversity’.

But these parties’ political progeny may not have to deal with such hostility. Some, such as Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders have been brought into the fold of respectable opinion. Wilders, now a support partner in his country’s Government, is ‘the most popular elected politician in Holland’. He writes Wall Street Journal columns and is championed by British parliamentarians.

Jean Marie Le Pen’s daughter and successor Marine is lauded as ‘elegant and increasingly incisive’, garnering admiration in the Daily Mail which describes her role in public life as ‘not merely legitimate but increasingly necessary.’

Far right populist parties, born outside mainstream Christian and Social democracy, now increase their influence at almost every national election, picking up new voters and taking advantage of a growing anti-elite sentiment encouraging citizens to desert the established parties.

Their ‘legitimisation’ takes place within an apologetic Europe, which is increasingly unsure of itself. In the past two years, we have seen conservative Government figures all over the continent proclaiming that multiculturalism has failed. Leading social democrats, kicked out of power election after election throughout the continent during the 2000s, are starting to question the benefits of historic migration into their countries. They  are calling for closed borders and stating regret at their ‘naivety’ in accepting ‘uncontrolled’ immigration for so long. The public, at a time of economic strife, is told to take part in debates on ‘national identity’ or Islam’s place in Europe – the voices of Europe’s minorities are rarely, if ever, heard.

The situation means that Europe’s far right populist parties are no longer the ‘outsiders’ to whom the mainstream defines itself against. Now they are part of the consensus. During events like the Breivik trial, when the activities of the far right are briefly placed under the spotlight, party leaders cling to ‘respectable’ opinion with their public statements.  Wilders has condemned the attacker as ‘violent and sick’. Mme Le Pen called him a ‘crazy man’. When news of a play to be based around Breivik’s ‘manifesto’ came to light, Danish People’s Party leader Pia Kjaersgaard said it was in ‘poor taste’.

Breivik’s trial is due to end in July when the media spotlight will move onto another story. But has it damaged the dangerous ideology that he claims motivated his actions?

Sadly, it seems that while seeing Europe’s far right in the context of violent extremism has undoubtedly warned people about certain risks, it has done little to diminish the far right’s political influence. In fact, as I have argued previously, it may even have bolstered it.

With journalists, activists and academics increasingly focusing on far right street movements and Facebook networks, its political parties know that the path to respectability is clearer than ever.
Cordon sanitaires have been dismantled, freeing parties to play an active role in governing coalitions – legitimised by their mainstream counterparts.

The trial of one mass-murdering loner in Oslo will do nothing to change that.

K Biswas is a writer based in London.  
He is the author of a special report ‘Eyes to the far right’ published in the June 2011 edition of the New Internationalist. 

Podcast: K Biswas on the far right

In our June issue, K Biswas examined the way in which anti-immigrant parties and ultra-right populists have moved into the mainstream, legitimized in countries once proud of tolerance and diversity. He argues that if we are to tackle the growth of the far right, there must be an entire culture shift in the way the West views its minority communities and a ‘retoxification’ of extremist parties. Here he discusses these issues with Nyan Storey in our latest Radio NI interview.

Far right may gain from Norway killings

What do the tragic events in Utøya and Oslo tell us about the status of far right, anti-immigrant or Islamophobic politics in Norway, Scandinavia and the rest of Europe? Commentators and ‘security experts’ (many of whom were initially convinced of the ‘Islamic’ nature of the attacks) have spent the past few days doing what they do best – speculating.

What were the perpetrator’s motives? Was he radicalized by his time in the anti-immigrant Progress Party or through his links with the English Defence League? Did his extreme views on the nature of Islam and mainstream politics lead directly to scores of people losing their lives? Should Europe brace itself for future attacks inspired by the far right?

Image by Surian Soosay under a CC licence.

It is comforting to look for meaning behind individual acts of murderous violence – it’s only natural to want to unearth the underlying reasons to prevent similar tragedies from taking place. It is far more difficult to accept that there is no proven ‘path to radicalization’ that inevitably leads to violent extremism. ‘Security experts’, take note: there is not necessarily a direct link between a person holding ‘radical’ political views and a willingness to commit violent acts.

Variations of the anti-establishment, virulently Islamophobic views attributed to Anders Behring Breivik are held by significant sections of European publics. They frequently emerge from the mouths of elected representatives from anti-immigrant populist parties in national and European parliaments.

They are often celebrated in the comment pages of distinguished publications across the world. Popular figureheads occasionally inform me of the impending Islamic ‘takeover’ of Europe, backed up by dubious statistics regarding birthrates and migration patterns.

These ‘radical’ views are not the sole preserve of a disparate violent fringe – they are becoming ‘legitimized’ as part of the political discourse. The ‘one long scream of resentment’, in the words of the late historian Tony Judt, ‘at immigrants, at unemployment, at crime and insecurity, at “Europe” and in general at “them” who have brought it all about’ is being heard by more people than ever before.

Yet there is a danger of reading too much into these opinions as the catalyst for an individual atrocity. Like a mirror image of the obscene scholar poring over the Qur’an in an attempt to explain 9/11, it may seem logical to a narrow mind, but ultimately it gets us no closer to the truth.

Those who feel that these events offer up the opportunity to diminish the power of far right, anti-immigrant or Islamophobic populist parties may also be disappointed – many of their supporters are horrified by these events too. An acquaintance of mine spoke to Norway’s anti-immigrant FrP party leader Siv Jensen soon after the attacks; she categorically stated that ‘an extremist’ conducted these ‘repulsive’ attacks and that ‘we stand together in this tragedy’.

Events like this can actually play a role in ‘mainstreaming’ these parties – it allows them to say ‘We’ are not the extremists – ‘They’ are the extremists. We abhor violence. We are a legitimate part of the democratic mainstream.

Anti-immigrant populism is gaining momentum across Europe, taking advantage of sizable economic and social fears, a growing anti-élite sentiment and the creeping ‘legitimization’ of Islamophobia.

We should oppose its parties not because they may have tangentially ‘inspired’ individual acts of symbolic violence, but because their programme is dehumanizing, sectarian and threatens the basis of a stable, cohesive society.

For more, check out our extensive analysis on the rise of the far right: EYES TO THE FAR RIGHT (New Internationalist, June 2011).

Tea and paranoia

Brian Snyder / Reuters

‘It’s time to take our country back!’ is the rallying cry of the Tea Party, the rightwing ‘grassroots’ movement in the US aligned with an influential section of the Republican Party.

‘In our country, we don’t have fringe anti-immigrant parties,’ says John L Esposito, an expert on international and Islamic affairs at Georgetown University, Washington DC. ‘There’s now a significant sector [of anti-immigrant figures] in our mainstream political parties.’

He believes that politicians and media commentators are taking advantage of fears around race held by a surprising number of people – for example, by directly linking ethnicity with crime, or immigration with unemployment. ‘When you look at who votes for [anti-immigrant candidates], they’re not all ignorant “redneck” people.’

Just as in Europe, politicians in the US are taking advantage of worries around the country’s Muslim population. The backlash against plans to build a ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ (in reality, an interfaith cultural centre blocks away from the World Trade Center site), or the furore generated by Terry Jones (an obscure Florida pastor with a miniscule congregation who burnt a copy of the Qur’an) has helped to encourage hostility. Leading Republicans, including Newt Gingritch, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Donald Trump and Mitt Romney, have questioned the loyalty of US Muslims while on the campaign trail.

Esposito recalls: ‘When Mitt Romney ran for office in 2005, he aligned himself with the possibility that, maybe, one should wiretap mosques in America. Not wiretap a mosque where there’s some evidence of a problem, but to proactively do this.’

Talat Hamdani is a lawyer and human rights activist of Pakistani heritage. Her son, Salman, a New York police cadet, lost his life in the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. She has been present at the ongoing congressional hearings of the Homeland Security Committee on the threat of homegrown Islamic terrorism.

‘Anti-immigrant sentiment has grown,’ she says. It is an uphill battle, but awareness is being generated. It’s not only within the Muslim community – it is the Latinos, the immigrant communities, interfaith communities who have all collaborated and are all taking action. We are learning through our experiences, but our community is mobilized.’

‘Worrying’ about your country’s security has become the prevailing mode of expressing devotion to the nation. ‘There is not much difference between the way Labor and the Liberal Party have aimed to shape public discussion about immigration and national identity,’ says Professor Ghassan Hage, who has written extensively about Australian politics. ‘Both work within the parameters of “paranoid nationalism”, which sees the nation primarily in terms of a boundary that needs to be protected from others.’

Arguably this sustained the Liberal Party’s John Howard for four terms as Prime Minister, during which tough immigration tests and indigenous-specific social policies were introduced, and the country stopped receiving African refugees. In this context, the immigrant is treated as ‘invading’ the country, resulting in behaviour that needs to be policed. Immigrants are continuously requested to assimilate and adhere to the nation’s ‘core values’.

‘But here’s the trick,’ says the professor. ‘There are no national core values. The discourse of “assimilation” is trying to produce a belief that there is something to assimilate to, when there isn’t. I am yet to find a nation which has core values that are beyond platitudes such as “a belief in freedom of speech and democracy and tolerance”, which are really the core values of every decent human being, regardless of where they come from.’

Eyes to the far right

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.’

Inconvenient truth

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.”’

Hard work

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.

Glory days

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.’

Subscribe   Ethical Shop