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.
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.
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.
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