December 2011, Pages 34-35
By John Gee
For half a century after the end of the Second World War, the far right in Europe was typically anti-Semitic and worshipful of the Third Reich. Realizing that their association with Nazism alienated the vast majority of the public, those who ran for office tried to distance themselves from it to some extent, but rarely succeeded for long. They seemed to find it impossible to avoid letting slip their real views, giving Nazi salutes and selling anti-Semitic writings by individuals whose pro-Nazi sympathies were well known.
Those groups still exist, but they have been partially displaced on the extreme edges of European politics by organizations that have made Islam the primary object of their hatred. In some cases, this may be tactical: the British National Party, for example, has concentrated on campaigning against the Muslim presence in Britain in the past decade, but among its core leaders are men with a track record of anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi sympathies. In others, the focus on Islam is genuine: they don't have a secret agenda—or at least, not a neo-Nazi one.
As a result, they have been able to capitalize on the fears of some sectors of the public concerning Islam and migrants from Muslim countries in ways that the old far-right organizations could not. Inflammatory language and the blanket labeling of an entire religious group comprising people of widely varied national origins, values, and degrees of religious practice was acceptable in a way that similar expressions of hostility toward Jewish, Asian or Black people would not be.
It has to be said that Muslim extremism is not merely a figment of their imagination, as it has brought death and suffering to many people. But to project the values of a small segment of the world's Muslims onto all has no justification in the beliefs and conduct of the vast majority of Islam's adherents. Political leaders and opinion-makers have played upon and amplified real anxieties felt in some non-Muslim communities as a way to build political support.
In Britain, the English Defense League (EDL) was launched in May 2009, shortly after eight Muslim extremists stood shouting abuse during a march past them by the Royal Anglian Regiment, returning from service in Afghanistan. Although it presented itself as a movement of "ordinary people," the EDL relied heavily on football hooligans for support, and, as its leadership became better known, it emerged that some of them had been activists with far-right organizations. It received favorable publicity from the tabloid Daily Star and financial support from Alan Lake, a North London businessman. Lake also helped the EDL to build up international contacts. These include the Sweden Democrats, Pastor Terry Jones, who attracted publicity with his threat to burn Qur'ans, and Pam Geller, director of Stop Islamization of America. (EDL members attended Geller's September 2010 protest against the establishment of an Islamic Center near the site of the World Trade Center.)
Lake arranged for Nachum Shifren, an Orthodox rabbi, to speak at an EDL rally in Luton on Feb. 5, 2011. Referring to Muslims as "dogs," the rabbi said: "History will be recorded that on this day, read by our children for eternity, one group lit the spark to liberate us from the oppressors of our two governments and the leftist, fifth column, quisling press, and that it was the EDL which started the liberation of England from evil." Shifren emigrated from the USA to Israel in 1977, served in the Israeli army, and, while studying, lived in the Kfar Tepuah settlement in the West Bank, later returning to California and standing as a Republican candidate for the state senate in 2010.
In the Netherlands, Islamophobia was made respectable by the 2002 electoral success of Pim Fortuyn. A former leftist and openly gay, Fortuyn always rejected any association with the established parties of the European far right—which meant that when he referred to Islam as "a backward culture" and sounded the alarm over the alleged danger posed by Muslim immigration, he was not hindered in putting his message over by Nazi baggage. With the Liveable Rotterdam party, he won 36 percent of the seats in the formerly staunchly socialist city. He formed a new party, the List Pim Fortuyn, which won 26 parliamentary seats in the 2002 general election, helped rather than hindered by Fortuyn's assassination during the campaign. It was very much a personal vehicle, however, and lost its last parliamentary seats in 2006.
Geert Wilders has stepped into Fortuyn's shoes. Unlike Fortuyn, Wilders' background was conservative and he was a member of the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy until 2004, when he fell out with it over Turkey's efforts to join the European Union. This was a rallying point for Islamophobes across Europe. Wilders wanted the Turkish application to be rejected, not negotiated. He established the Freedom Party, now the third largest in the Dutch parliament.
Wilders claims that Islam is a fascist ideology and compares the Qur'an to Hitler's Mein Kampf; in this he is more strident and extreme than Fortuyn. He was reportedly influenced as a young man by his travels in Israel and the neighboring Arab states.
Indeed, Wilders is strongly supportive of Zionism of a far-right variety. In December 2008, he participated in the "Facing Jihad" conference in Jerusalem, organized by National Union Knesset member Aryeh Eldad. Eldad, whose party favors the expulsion of all Palestinians from Israeli-controlled territory, said that the conference was "to plan practical steps in the struggle against the spread of Islam in Europe." Eldad told theJerusalem Post that the Arab-Israeli conflict was between Islam and Western civilization, not a dispute over territory.
So rabid was Wilders' contribution that fellow participant Daniel Pipes was moved to challenge him on his assertion that there was no such thing as "moderate Islam" and on his rejection of the Qur'an in its entirety. (Other conference participants included Itamar Marcus, of the highly selective Palestinian Media Watch, and Robert Spencer, director of the U.S.-based Jihad Watch.) Wilders' anti-Islam film, "Fitna," was shown.
Prior to the conference, Wilders told an audience at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, "We are organizing this event in Israel to emphasize the fact that we are all in the same boat together." In December 2010, Wilders met in Jerusalem with Avigdor Lieber, the Israeli interior minister and leader of the Russian immigrant-based far-right party, Yisrael Beitenu. Wilders was a member of the Swiss-based European Freedom Alliance delegation to Israel that also included two members of the European Parliament from the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), two members of Flemish Interest (VB), based in the Flemish part of Belgium, and an MP from the Sweden Democrats.
The mindset of these organizations and individuals was reflected in the manifesto issued by Anders Breivik, who murdered 76 people in Norway on July 22. They all rushed to dissociate themselves from Breivik's actions, but he had drawn inspiration and justification for what he did from their writings—just as Yigal Amir, the assassin of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, drew encouragement from the violent incitement of the Israeli right and the settler leadership, which also tried to distance itself from the consequences of their words. Without themselves laying hands on guns or explosives, they created an atmosphere in which individuals such as Breivik and Amir could muster a sense of self-righteous legitimacy that left them feeling entitled and impelled to kill.
Nowhere in Europe do Islamophobic parties and movements have majority support, but they have managed to achieve electoral gains in some countries and have broken to some extent with the obsessions of the post-World War II extreme right that contributed greatly to its relative political isolation. Typically, they cherry pick the liberal and leftist values that they reject for elements that can serve them: claiming to oppose "Islamization" because it would mean the oppression of women, the persecution of gay people and the suppression of democratic liberties, and comparing Islam to Nazism and fascism. They should be seen instead as playing a complementary role to the Muslim extremists they denounce: each feeds upon the rage and inflammatory words and deeds of the other. Especially in these times of economic woe, people who want a decent society must take a stand and reject demonization of any community on the basis of its religion, as well as nationality or color.
Marriage of Convenience?
Trips to Israel by right-wing politicians have been used by them to shrug off the taint of anti-Semitism and fascism. Alessandra Mussolini visited shortly before launching her own political career. The Italian Social Movement (MSI) was founded by Giorgio Almirante, a former member of Benito Mussolini's Nazi puppet regime, the Social Republic, after the Second World War, but his successor, Gianfranco Fini, re-established it in 1995 as the National Alliance. He visited Israel in November 2003 as Italy's deputy prime minister. Israeli radio commented that Fini believed that the road to the Italian premiership passes through Jerusalem. In 2008, Fini came in for a torrent of criticism after he said on a talk show that the burning of Israeli flags by left-wing protesters on May 1st was "much more serious" than the brutal beating in Verona the same day of 29-year-old Nicola Tommasoli by neo-Nazis. Tommasoli later died of his injuries.
John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Singapore, and the author of Unequal Conflict: The Palestinians and Israel.