THE wave of populism currently engulfing Europe has seen an exponential rise in the fortunes of the continent’s far-right.
In recent years the neo-fascist Marine le Pen has reached the final round of the French presidential elections; Holland’s rabidly Islamophobic Party of Freedom has become the second largest party in the Dutch parliament; the autocratic and anti-Muslim Viktor Orban continues to govern Hungary; and, the British people have voted to turn their backs on European integration in favour of an isolationist nationalism hostile to outsiders.
Even in Sweden, the traditional bastion of stable democratic rule, the far-right Sweden Democrats have become the third largest party in the Riksdag, denying either of the country’s two major parties a majority for the first time.
Such developments have invited comparisons to the rise of fascism in the 1930s. During that earlier period, populist politicians exploited economic unrest in order to promote their own xenophobic agendas, using valid concerns about falling incomes, rising inflation and declining living standards to rail against supposed “intruders” whom they claim are destroying European society from within.
But while 1930s populism directed its ire against Europe’s Jews, today Muslims have come under attack. This shift largely reflects changing demographics; Muslims now constitute Europe’s principle “stranger” and, therefore, the most obvious target of xenophobia. The accusations directed against them, however, differ little in substance from those encountered by the Jews more than 80 years ago.
In the 1930s, Jews were habitually depicted as parasitic, unscrupulous businessmen who hoarded vast amounts of wealth plundered from their Christian neighbours. In the wake of Germany’s defeat in World War I, German Jews were also accused of actively conspiring against their countrymen so they might profit from the resulting chaos. Most shockingly, rumours abounded of so-called “blood libel”, of Jews kidnapping and murdering Christian children (the most vulnerable members of society) so their blood could be used in Jewish rituals.
Although the specifics of these accusations differ from those now hurled at Muslims, the substance remains the same. Muslims are, therefore, also parasitic because their extreme poverty means they sap the resources of an already overburdened state, pillaging the jobs that rightfully belong to the poorest members of the “indigenous” population. Muslims also represent a danger to European security; any one of them might be a terrorist seeking to attack his adopted country for his own gain. And although not accused of murdering children, the traditional European stereotype of Muslim men as violent and lustful has resurfaced in a new form; across northern England in particular, it is commonly believed that the Quran encourages paedophilia, with gangs of Muslim paedophiles now roaming the streets in search of vulnerable Christian girls.
But if little variation exists between the underlying justifications employed by contemporary far-right politicians seeking the expulsion of Muslims from Europe and Nazis demanding Europe be purged of its “Jewish threat”, in one respect there is a significant difference. Since the horrors of World War II, Europe has enacted strict laws preventing the persecution of religious minorities.
Implemented with the intent of preventing another holocaust, these laws have made it socially and politically unacceptable to target specific religious groups for persecution. This has necessitated an evolution in far-right discourse; to render their message more palatable, the far right have begun to employ a common mantra: Islam is not a religion but an ideology. Islamophobia is therefore presented as a legitimate form of political critique, as the condemnation of a dangerous ideology, rather than as a form of ethnic or religious prejudice. And while religions cannot be banned, ideologies can.
Such intellectual acrobatics have become regrettably commonplace in Europe, even entering the political mainstream. With European media outlets demonstrating themselves all too ready to propagate a negative image of Islam, a dangerous environment of public hostility has emerged in which Muslims could, should history repeat itself, find themselves in a very precarious situation.
The Muslims of Europe must therefore unite to meet this threat. They must demonstrate to their fellow Europeans that, far from a danger, they constitute an enrichment of European culture and identity, a strength that will only benefit the continent in years to come. If Muslims convey this message both quickly and successfully, they may yet reverse the tide of prejudice currently encroaching upon their new homelands.
Alexander Wain, is a specialist in the history of Islam in Southeast Asia and China, is a research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia. He can be reached via email@example.com