European support for far right extremism reaches 1930s scale
by Nafeez Ahmed
More than half a century after the Second World War, the West is sliding toward a resurgence of far-right political movements that could make the 1930s pale in comparison.
A new report[i] funded by the German Federal Foreign Office reveals that public support for far-right political parties in Europe has risen exponentially since 1999, resulting in record wins in the European Parliament, as well as levels of influence on national governments unprecedented in the post-war era.
An analysis of the report’s data suggests that far-right parties are poised to take a third of all seats in the next round of European elections in 2019.
The German report coincides with a wide range of new scholarship exploring the similarities between anti-Muslim hatred today, and vitriolic anti-Semitism in the early 20th century. These new scientific studies by leading experts paint an alarming picture of the rise of xenophobia across the world’s most powerful liberal democracies, with stark parallels to the toxic climate of the 1930s.
Far-right tipping point in Europe?
As anti-Muslim sentiment has been mainstreamed in the United States through the xenophobic rhetoric of the leading Republican presidential candidates, far-right parties across the European Union are making dramatic electoral gains.
In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) sent shockwaves throughout the country with its extraordinary success in the presidential elections, a hair’s breadth away from total victory. In March, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party made startling gains in regional elections in three states. The AfD is now Germany’s third most popular[ii] political party according to an opinion poll[iii] conducted in November 2015 by INSA.
This is being mirrored elsewhere, with far-right parties building popular support in Slovakia (People’s Party), Hungary (Jobbik), Greece (Golden Dawn) and France (National Front).
But the new report sponsored by the German Foreign Office shows that these gains are part of an alarming pattern of increasing popular support that is likely to escalate. The report by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, released in February 2016, warned that “far-right parties and movements are on the offensive in many countries worldwide in the wake of the global financial crisis.”
The European elections two years ago, the report concludes, were “the most successful to date for the far-right parties in the EU.” Far right parties have “secured 172 seats in the European Parliament. That corresponds to just under 23 percent of the seats.”
The new report, is authored by Thilo Janssen, a research fellow in the European Parliament. His review of European election data since 1999 reveals that the rate of increase of seats for far-right parties has doubled in each election.
Looking closely at the rate of increase, it is clear that this is an exponential trend. In 1999, far-right seats took 11 per cent of the European Parliament. This rose by 1.5 per cent to 12.5 per cent of seats after the 2004 election. In the 2009 election, the number of far-right seats increased by 3 per cent — double the previous rate of increase — to 15 per cent.
Then in the 2014 election, the number of far-right seats rocketed up to 22.9 per cent — an increase of 6.9 per cent, which is more than double the preceding rate of increase.
If this exponential rate of increase continues, far-right parties could win 37 per cent of seats in the European Parliament in the next election. This happens to be the same percentage of German votes that Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party won in July 1932, precipitating the rise of the Nazi regime.
That parity should not be assumed to imply that today’s European far-right will at this point automatically acquire the access necessary to cement control of the levers of power in the European Parliament. Even at the point of his party’s entry into government, Hitler still required concessions from the left among other forms of collaboration to assure his rise to power. However, the parallel should be taken seriously as a signal that if current trends continue, the European far-right could be in a formidable position by 2019. If these far-right parties are able to organise coherently as a single voting bloc in the European Parliament from this position with dramatically greater access to EU funding, this could provide a foundation for further consolidation and expansion, both internationally and among their own domestic constituencies.
“Right-wing populist parties in the EU are persistently on the rise, which in some Member States has taken them to the brink of obtaining a majority in parliamentary elections,” observes Janssen in his report, who also points out that their numerical strength in the EU Parliament is “chiefly due to successes in the economically strong Member States in the north and west of the EU” — namely, the UK, France, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden, Finland and Belgium.
Despite major differences, these parties share a focus on populist resentments against immigrants, often grouped together as “Muslims”; and unwavering hostility toward the supranational EU, perceived as “the embodiment” of capitulation to the existential threat of Islam.
In November 2015, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn — who chairs the EU’s General Affairs Council in Brussels — warned that the nationalist policy agendas of anti-immigrant far-right parties could catalyse an EU break-up “within months.”
“This false nationalism can lead to a real war,” he told the Germany press agency, DPA.
Islamophobia as cover for far-right ideology
Although these groups portray Muslims as ‘the enemy’, and some advocate support for Israel, new research confirms that this is a tactical shift to provide cover for their far-right origins and sympathies.
A peer-reviewed study published in early April in the Routledge journal Israel Affairs finds that anti-Muslim hatred is increasingly being used by far-right extremists as a proxy for longstanding racist and anti-Semitic ideologies.[iv]
The paper, authored by Professor Amikam Nachmani — chair of the Department of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University — highlights semantic parallels in the way Jews and Muslims have been targeted by historic and contemporary fascists:
“Like today’s Muslim immigrants who are described as preferring ghettoization and parallel societies, Jews were said to emphasise their separate existence, exclusiveness and rejection of universalism since Biblical times… Nazi-style rhetoric employed against the Jews is now targeted against Muslims.”
Whereas the Nazis cited the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Hitler’s Mein Kampf to ‘prove’ that all Jews are agents of an international conspiracy to control the world, today selective cherry-picking of Islamic texts is used to claim that Islam commands “every Muslim to fight an uncompromising holy war against non-Muslims.”
Muslims in the West are “perceived as the spearhead of the campaign to Islamise Europe,” explains Nachmani, while Muslim population growth is presented as a covert strategy to conquer Europe:
“Since the mass migration of the presently 30–40 million unemployed or refugee Arabs will be heading to Western Europe, Armageddon will be fought out on European soil.”
Professor Nachmani’s most alarming argument is that many of the most popular far-right groups are using the banner of Israel to conceal their neo-Nazi sympathies, and garner political legitimacy:
“Right-wing Europeans, among them Holocaust deniers and ardent anti-Semites, frequently decry Arab and Muslim migrants… But these very circles also consider it ‘natural’ to show sympathy for Israel, perceived by them as a staunch enemy of the Arab nation and Muslims…
European right-wingers, nationalists and fascists are presently engaging in a freakish turn: they aim to gain legitimacy by courting Israel. They hope to brush aside their hatred of Jews and the anti-Semitic past of their countries, thanks to the support they grant to the Israeli cause in the Arab-Israeli/Palestinian-Israeli conflict…”
Yet Nachmani writes that the same far-right groups have backed “proposals to limit Jewish religious freedoms.” He highlights their “proposed bans on circumcision, ritual slaughtering and distinctive religious attire” aimed primarily at Muslims:
“Jewish law, however, prescribes similar practices. The result is that anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment amounts to anti-Semitism or, more accurately, anti-Judaism.”
From anti-Semitism to anti-Muslim hatred
The tactical shift in xenophobic discourse is possible because there are important structural parallels between the targeting of Jews and the demonisation of Muslims.
A new peer-reviewed paper published in The Anthology of Migration and Social Transformation finds that “the structure and function of anti-Muslim racism and anti-Semitism are actually similar in terms of the ways in which they operate especially in times of social-economic and political turmoil.”[v]
The anthology, published by science publisher Springer, is part of IMISCOE (International Migration, Integration and Social Cohesion), the largest academic network on migration in the world. Study author Professor Ayhan Kaya of the European University Institute in Florence is currently funded by the European Commission to research identity, pluralism and tolerance in the EU.
Professor Kaya’s paper argues that although anti-Muslim racism and anti-Semitism cannot be lumped together due to fundamental historical differences, there are important commonalities: “Both anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism focus on belief in religious law to render Jews and Muslims as threats to the nation.”
While anti-Semitism encompasses views that racialise Jews “as an assimilated threat to national interests emerging at moments of crisis”, this is now happening to Muslims:
“Muslims are now being represented as a different kind of folk devil, a social group that is openly and aggressively trying to impose its religion on national culture… Muslims have become global ‘scapegoats’, blamed for all negative social phenomena such as illegality, crime, violence, drug abuse, radicalism, fundamentalism, conflict and financial burdens… There is a growing fear in the United States, Europe and even in Russia and the post-Soviet countries that Muslims will demographically take over sooner or later.”
According to Kaya, public opinion poll data demonstrates sharp increases in negative attitudes toward Muslim minorities across the West, in some cases reaching close to 50 per cent of each national population. This has manifested in “increasing numbers of attacks and instances of discrimination against Muslims, as well as rallies and gatherings touting anti-Muslim messages.”
Anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish hatred: two sides of the same racism
Kaya’s findings are corroborated[vi] by a 2015 Pew Global Attitudes poll of European public opinion, which found that negative opinions toward Muslims was more than twice the rate of negative opinions towards Jews.
The percentage of Europeans who viewed Jews unfavourably was just 13 per cent, compared to 33 per cent who viewed Muslims unfavourably — a third of the Europeans surveyed. The poll also showed that half or more of the public in six of the European countries surveyed believed that the emergence of far-right ‘Eurosceptic’ parties is a good thing.
These complexities are reflected in recent hate crime data. In London[vii], a total of 483 incidents against Jewish people and properties was recorded for the year 2014 to 2015, an increase of 61 per cent from the preceding year. In the same period, 818 Islamophobic hate crimes were recorded, nearly double the number of anti-Semitic attacks, and an increase of 63.9 per cent from the previous year.
In France[viii], anti-Semitic attacks continued to outnumber anti-Muslim hate crimes. Although anti-Semitic incidents dropped by 5 per cent in 2015, their total number was 806. While attacks against Muslim people and properties tripled in volume, their total number was 400 — half the number of attacks committed against Jews.
In testimony earlier this month before an OSCE session on hate crimes, Susan Corke — Director of Anti-Semitism and Extremism for Human Rights First — said that the prevalence of anti-Semitism in France was occurring “within the context of broader and interrelated phenomena including the ascendancy of the far-right National Front party, mounting anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment, the spread of Islamist extremism, and the increasing alienation of many Muslims in France.”
In other words, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred, despite varying degrees, remain closely interrelated and are both at record levels.
Europe’s perpetual Jewish-Muslim problem
The waxing and waning of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred is no coincidence, but part of their complex interrelationship in the context of the tortured evolution of European nationalism.
A paper released late last year by Professor Ethan B. Katz, a historian at the University of Cincinnati, in the Wiley journal Cross Currents, illustrates how both forms of xenophobia emerged directly from Europe’s colonial-era civilising missions.[ix]
Colonialism, writes Professor Katz, “shaped, utilised, and manifested itself in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.”
During the mid-to-late nineteenth century, Katz says, “Islamophobia became much more pronounced in the colonial venture than anti-Semitism. Although Jews’ position was never entirely secure, in certain instances they even benefited from colonial rule.”
After the First World War, however, at the height of the colonial venture, anti-Muslim hatred was rapidly overtaken by anti-Semitism across Europe:
“Both Jews and Muslims were frequently depicted with highly racialised imagery and in many instances faced significant legal and social discrimination. At the same time, Muslims in particular were often the target of propaganda campaigns meant to win their loyalty for one European power or another, as well as provocations meant to turn them against Jews.”
During the Second World War, Europe’s increasingly violent anti-Semitism “crystallised in the horrors of the Holocaust.” Europe’s colonial powers and other political forces “saw in Muslims a possible constituency for their wartime aims,” elevating their position considerably.
In ensuing decades, Katz argues, far-right parties have made “Islamophobic anti-immigrant sentiment far more central to their politics than anti-Semitism.”
For Katz, this grim history provides evidence that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are “inseparable hatreds” that have fluctuated in the context of geopolitical and nationalistic trends within Europe.
“At no time were anti-Semitism or Islamophobia entirely separate from one another,” he points out. “Rather, they were often mutually reinforcing, either through policies of divide-and-rule or through the heightened fears they produced about both Jews and Muslims.”
He closes with the following words of caution: “… when the rhetoric of either anti-Semitism or Islamophobia is invoked, whichever remains unmentioned is often present in the uncomfortable silence.”
Minorities at risk
This growing body of research raises urgent issues. Firstly, it demonstrates that the new far-right are perfectly capable of switching racialised loyalties for tactical reasons, demonstrating that Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe are very much in the same boat, regardless of public far-right overtures to Israel.
Assumptions that these overtures imply a real reduction in anti-Semitic ideology are misleading. As this investigation will show in due course, this concern applies equally to far-right overtures to other minorities traditionally discriminated against by fascist parties, including black and ethnic minorities, religious groups like Sikhs and Hindus, LGBTQI+ people, and even those with disabilities.
Secondly, political trends over the last 15 years suggest that a coalition of far-right parties — many with documented neo-Nazi sympathies — are poised to win shocking political victories across Europe over the next few years in national, regional and EU elections: and possibly as much as a third of seats in the European Parliament in 2019.
Thirdly, this prospect calls into question the stability of the entire security architecture of the postwar international system. Whatever the flaws of this system — and they are real — it has permitted peace within Europe for 66 years.
The potential fragility of intra-European cooperation and peace under a far-right resurgence should not be underestimated.
[i] Thilo Janssen, A love-hate relationship: Far-right parties and the European Union (Brussels, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 2016) https://www.rosalux.de/publication/42151/a-love-hate-relationship.html. Report funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.
[ii] Jorg Luyken, ‘Hard-right AfD now 3rd biggest German party’, The Local.de (17 November 2015) http://www.thelocal.de/20151117/hard-right-afd-now-3rd-biggest-party-says-polling
[iv] Amikam Nachmani, ‘The past as a yardstick: Europeans, Muslim migrants and the onus of European-Jewish histories’, Israel Affairs (Vol. 22, No. 2, April 2016)
[v] Ayhan Kaya, ‘“Islamophobism” as an Ideology in the West: Scapegoating Migrants of Muslim Origin’, in Anna Amelina, Kenneth Horvath, Bruno Meeus (eds.), An Anthology of Migration and Social Transformation, IMISCOE Research Series (Geneva: Springer, 2016) pp. 281–294
[vi] Bruce Stokes, Faith in European Project Reviving: Bust Most Say Rise of Eurosceptic Parties is a Good Thing (Pew Research Center, June 2015) http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2015/06/Pew-Research-Center-European-Union-Report-FINAL-June-2-20151.pdf
[vii] Anil Dawar, ‘Jewish and Muslim communities both see race hate crimes rocket’, Daily Express (30 December 2015) http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/630446/Jewish-Muslim-hate-crimes-London
[viii] ‘Anti-Semitic incidents in France down by 5 percent in 2015’, Jewish Telegraph Agency (20 January 2016) http://www.jta.org/2016/01/20/news-opinion/world/anti-semitic-incidents-for-2015-decrease-in-france-by-5-percent-over-previous-year
[ix] Ethan Katz, ‘Shifting hierarchies of exclusion: colonialism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia in European history’, Cross Currents (Vol. 65, No. 3, September 2015) pp. 357–370
Tell MAMA independently and separately commissioned INSURGEintelligence to explore the network dynamics of far right extremism in Europe. The views and opinions in this investigative project do not necessarily represent those of Tell MAMA.