ISLAM & THE EVOLUTION OF EUROPE'S FAR RIGHT
By R. John Matthies
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 Rightwing 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 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.
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:
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 Rightwing 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:
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 statewide and nationwide 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 "Rightwing") explained:
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 Rightwing elites:
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:
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 Rightwing Populism (or Leftwing 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.
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R. John Matthies is Assistant Director of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. He can be contacted at Matthies@meforum.org.
The foregoing article by R. John Matthies was originally published in Pajamas Media, April 10, 2008, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (Article URL: http://www.meforum.org/article/1883)
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