Continent of Fear The Rise of Europe's Right-Wing Populists
Part 2: Parties Discover the Power of Islamophobia
Right-wing populism itself isn't anything new. It has been a fixed entity for about 30 years in many European countries, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. What is new, however, is that the right-wing populists have discovered an issue that is much more appealing to voters than the usual anger against foreigners and the political class. They have found a powerful new issue in resistance against the growing visibility of Islam in Europe. They portray themselves as the defenders of European values, and yet both they and their voters seem to care very little that some of those values, such as freedom of religion, are being trampled on in the struggle.
The fear that Muslim immigrants could change the character of European society penetrates deeply into the middle of society. In German opinion polls, about three-quarters of respondents say they are concerned about the influence of Islam. Similar sentiments are voiced in other countries, even though immigration to Europe has been in decline for years.
Barbaric practices in some Islamic countries -- when women are forced to wear burqas, gays and lesbians are persecuted and adulterers are stoned, all under the pretext of religion -- are undoubtedly deeply contrary to modern European values. And there is no question that many countries face severe problems with integrating immigrants into society. But these things alone do not explain the discomfort. Rather, it stems from the fact that the established parties have failed to give their voters the feeling that they are addressing these issues. The economic crisis of the past couple of years has also unnerved the middle class. Europe is aging, and other, younger regions of the world are catching up. Many people are worried about the future in a globalized world, one in which the balance of power is shifting.
Decline of Traditional Center-Left Parties
In the northern European countries, in particular, the rise of the populists goes hand-in-hand with a decline in support for the traditional center-left social democratic parties. This is partly because immigrants are as likely as anyone to abuse the system in the kind of social welfare states promoted by social democratic parties. But it is also because the traditional parties have become bogged down in the details of integration policy.
They have created integration specialists, immigration offices and integration conferences, but they have lost sight of citizens' concerns. And because they are also in favor of free speech, feminism and secularism, they are incapable of defending themselves against right-wing populists, who cite the same values of free speech, feminism and secularism in defending their battles against headscarves, minarets and mosques. The only difference is that the right-wing populists are more vocal and simplify the issues to the point that their position seems logical.
The Sweden Democrats, which have their origins within the extreme right, have learned from modern right-wing populists like Wilders as well as the Danish People's Party (DF) and its chairwoman, Pia Kjaersgaard. During the recent election campaign, the Sweden Democrats had a television ad showing an elderly woman who, as she is struggling along with her wheeled walker, is almost run over by women in burqas pushing their strollers. The women in burqas are hurrying toward a desk labeled "Government Budget." "On Sept. 19, you can pull the immigration brake -- and not the pension brake," says a voice.
Conservativism Meets Left-Wing Policies
Pitting immigrants against pensioners is one of Wilders' tactics. He brings together right-wing and left-wing policies, Islamophobia and the fear of exploitation of the social welfare state. "It is one of our biggest successes, this combination of being culturally conservative, on the one hand, and leftist on other issues," says Wilders, who characterizes himself as someone who is against immigration but has "a warm heart for the weak and the elderly."
Wilders was one of the first politicians to consistently use Islam as an issue, and many have followed his example. It is telling that the anti-Islam movement did not get underway directly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, even though they were the main trigger of the current uncertainty and fear of Islamist terror. Instead, it has only reached its climax today, years later.
On the surface, this new right wing has little in common with the old right wing, even though the first far-right European politician began inveighing against Muslims as long ago as the 1970s and 80s. That was Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of France's National Front, who targeted immigrants from the former French colonies in North Africa. Le Pen made a career for himself as an angry outsider. He was primitive and old-fashioned, often racist and anti-Semitic, and yet he managed to upend the political landscape. In the first round of the 2002 presidential elections, he even captured more votes than the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin. It was a shock for the French elite.
What happened in France has happened in many other countries since then, countries in which the traditional parties have sought to sideline the far right: The centrist politicians have moved to the right. This was the case in Denmark, where the Danish People's Party has given its parliamentary support to a right-liberal minority government since 2001. And even though the populists are not part of the government, Denmark has tightened its immigration laws considerably.