Far right parties are enjoying unprecedented success in the recent European elections in results that can be seen as a slap in the face for centrist parties since World War II.
Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Austrian Freedom party, VB in Belgium, and the Swedish Democrats have all gained popular votes.
This success is the result of crucial ideological and strategic shifts within the European far right. Far right parties have metamorphisized: they are now anti-Islamic rather than anti-Semitic; as populist parties they rely on mass mobilization around a narrow range of issues, but they remain democratic with no hint of militias. The far right have reinvented themselves as “fighting for freedom” and “fighting anti-Semitism” through a series of maneuvers that mask the essential continuity between their past and present. Jean Marie Le Pen’s Front National provided the master plan for moving away from anti-Semitism or color racism, which are prohibited in the European Union, toward a far right politics that defends European “civilization,” which is presented as the Enlightenment, Christian or Judeo-Christian. Yet this shift from Jean Marie Le Pen to the more “acceptable” Marine Le Pen masks an essential continuity. As Hans-Georg Betz has demonstrated, racism plays a key role in the mobilization of French political support for the Front National.
Surface changes in the political rhetoric and the targets of the far right mask the structural similarity between the new far right and their historical predecessors. Now as then, far right parties are led by charismatic leaders. Pia Kjaersgaard, a former leader of the Danish People’s Party, was known as “Mama Pia” by her devoted followers. Recent coverage focuses on the far right’s critique of the European Union and it fails to give sufficient attention to their anti-Islam ideology. Now as then, the far right deploys racial, religious, and cultural language to explain social and economic phenomena. This, in turn, generates ethno-nationalist politics, which includes trenchant criticism of the European Union and centrist parties for failing to solve financial and political crisis or, as they put it, rescue a sick European civilization. Crucially, the far right’s political “reasoning” allows them to connect European decline to the presence of Islam in Europe. Now as then, charismatic leaders mobilize popular support through slogans, cartoons, and caricatures of a demonized social group. Now, they tell us that “the Muslim problem” is one cause for Europe’s humiliation.
The post 9/11 securitization of Islam and Muslims has accelerated popular support for the far right. The transformation of far right parties into defenders of European civilizational values is not mere opportunism but is rather structural adaptations to contemporary European politics and law.
Two changes have been crucial for electoral success. First, the far right now argue they are “fighting for freedom,” especially free speech, against the Islamic threat. This position is a response to material changes in the nature of Western European states, which since World War II entrench liberal constitutionalism as their nonnegotiable political framework. The far right parties now enter democratic politics by enthusiastically embracing the European defense of freedom, unlike nationalist parties in the past that rejected liberal individualism as incompatible with national solidarity. Second, far right parties insist they are “fighting anti-Semitism” against the Islamic threat.
The far right have embraced anti-Islam ideology: that is, fighting against the Islamization of Europe, thereby preventing the nightmare of Eurabia (a political neologism that is also the title of a book). All the far right parties have adopted some form of anti-Islam ideology, with a central configuration that includes the following. It proposes that Muslims (an economically deprived, politically disorganized, territorially dispersed minority) will seize power from white Europeans (who control all the political institutions and own most of the wealth). How? Immigration or revolution, some suggest. Or through demographic change—another common obsession. Muslims will “outbreed” whites, culminating in the Islamization of Europe because, we are told, every Muslim baby is potentially a “genetic carrier” of radical Islam. Multiculturalism is blamed. It has emboldened Muslims to make aggressive claims for equality; at the same time, it has weakened white liberals who refuse to defend the Enlightenment. Muslims will, the far right fear, take over Europe. They will establish Islamic law (sharia) and impose it on all Europeans who will be forced to live as oppressed minorities (dhimmis) in an authoritarian Islamic state (Caliphate).
Optimists argue Europe’s far right are no longer ominous nativists or anti-Semites—they are benign nationalists defending freedom against Islam. Experts strongly disagree. “History mutates. It comes back in different forms, with a different appearance and different consequences for different people,” warned Dr. Stephen Smith, a British Holocaust studies expert. After studying the politics of the new far right, Smith concludes that, “As it stands, the nationalism now rife in Europe is a more timid mutant of fascism. It comes with a suit and a smile. But beware. Its parentage is the same, and who knows what monster it might grow into.” Europe’s new far right, on this analysis, are not the heirs of Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, or Friedrich Hayek. Nor are they the extremist wing of the liberal party defending freedom against an illiberal Islam. They are, rather, on Smith’s analysis, freedom’s fascists.
How have the far right occupied the same political ground as liberals who are the heirs of free speech? In part, the process has been aided and abetted by liberals who have failed to make essential distinctions between the legitimate defense of freedom of speech and the misuse of “freedom of speech,” the latter of which deploys freedom as a stick with which to beat nonliberal minorities. Liberals have found themselves on the opposite side of debates with European Muslim migrants on a range of issues: from the Salman Rushdie controversy through to the Danish cartoons protests and Charlie Hebdo. A genre of “liberal” literature has emerged in the early part of the twenty-first century that laments the “surrender” of European liberals in the face of Muslim migration into Europe. A paradigm example of this liberal lament is the work of Bruce Bawer that received extensive column inches in the US liberal public sphere. Bawer argues that European liberals, weakened by a doctrine of multiculturalism, have “surrendered” to European Muslim demands for accommodation of Islam that compromise liberal values such as free speech or gender equality.
Yet this reductionist analysis by Bawer and his fellow “muscular liberals’” betrays the core vision of liberalism that can provide Europeans a way to include European Muslims as equal citizens whilst remaining true to freedom of speech and gender equality. This liberal vision requires liberals to understand one crucial point: the freedom or gender equality that liberals cherish is not the same freedom that anti-Islam ideologues such as Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders defend. Freedom occupies a very different conceptual location within anti-Islam ideology (where its function is to identify as a target for legitimate persecution a non-Christian religious minority deemed to be illiberal) than it does within liberalism (where freedom and equality remain proximate to the values of tolerance or pluralism to secure human dignity). Anti-Islam ideology uses freedom of speech as a stick with which to beat all Muslims. To create a liberal political order, liberals must align their commitment to freedom of speech to a deeper liberal politics that embraces tolerance, solidarity, and autonomy, and is inclusive of European Muslims.
So, what can be done? Rejecting anti-Islam ideology does not mean “no criticism of Islam.” Any, especially liberal, critique is essential, especially for European Muslims themselves who should be included in robust critical debate. A robust critical discourse that includes Muslims requires redrawing the current dividing lines that assume that the defense of freedom of speech necessarily requires liberals to be opposed to European Muslims. Liberals could start by rescuing liberalism from the far right before it becomes a pseudo-idealistic “moral ideal,” which betrays rather than fulfils the true liberal value of freedom of speech. Liberals should speak out and say “not in my name” to all those who persecute Muslims wearing the mask of freedom of speech.