Islamophobia in Europe: fuel for the far right

As the encroachment of far right parties grows throughout Europe, with the deployment of overtly racist rhetoric creating those who are deemed ‘real’ Europeans and those deemed a threat, Seb Cooke argues an authentic movement against fascism can only come from working class  resistance.

A 2015 rally of the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn | WikiCommons/DTRocks

The far right and fascists of Europe were celebrating on Sunday night. The strong performance of the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD) party in the German general elections was a moment of real political advancement for their movement. After the relative setbacks in both the Dutch and French elections, here was a welcome result for the continent’s racist far right.

‘Bravo to our AfD allies for this historic score,’ tweeted Marine Le Pen, adding that the party was a ’new symbol of (the) reawakening of European peoples.’

Geert Wilders, head of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), also used Twitter to pass on his congratulations: ‘The PVV is number two in the Netherlands, the FN is number two in France, the (far right) FPO is second in Austria, AfD is third in Germany. The message is clear. We are not Islamic nations.’

To invoke the ‘European peoples’ as Le Pen does, or talk of becoming ‘Islamic nations’ as Wilders puts it, is not accidental. Many European far-right and fascist outfits identify in particular with an idea of Europeanism. In this sense, Europeanism is portrayed as being the white Christian nations of the continent, coming under siege or under threat from an invasion of people from the Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

‘Dear young African men,’ the AfD’s Björn Höcke told a rally in East Germany last month. ‘We know you’re seeking your fortune, but you won’t find it here with us. No way, dear young African men: for you there is no future and no home in Germany and in Europe!’

Björn Höcke is a heavyweight of the AfD’s most extreme right wing, who has also said that Germany shouldn’t feel ashamed of the soldiers who served under the Third Reich. As was the case with that statement, his words above were carefully chosen.

In the quote above, we should note who Höcke means by ‘us’. He talks not simply of ‘us Germans’, but also of ‘us Europeans’. It is this wider sense of ‘us’ that is portrayed as coming under siege from ‘young African men’. This ‘us’ rests on the idea of the white Christian nation-state within a wider Europe of similar nation-states. It is this idea which is being successfully developed by fascists and racists such as Höcke.

Others on the far right also reference the idea of a ‘real’ Europe made up of the continent’s founding nation-states acting together, and use this to push the EU in a more overtly chauvinist direction.

‘We want to see less of Brussels and stronger nation states,’ said Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, last week during a visit to meet his hard-right counterpart in Poland, Beata Szydło.

Orbán’s comments were the latest salvo in a war of attrition being waged between the EU and the member states of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic over the refusal by the three countries to accept EU directives on taking asylum seekers. Despite attacking Brussels, Orbán was also raising the notion of European nationalism as he sees it. As part of his defence of the stances taken by Hungary and Poland, he referred to them as ‘guardian countries of the initially signed [EU] Treaty.’

‘We believe that the foundation of the European Union is the co-operation and mutual respect between the member countries . . . So we are respectful towards everyone, even if it is not reciprocated. I must say that what is going on in the European Union, the attitude towards Poland, is a lack of respect.’

Orbán wishes to contest the meaning of Europeanism and the EU, not to destroy these institutions altogether. His vision is of a Europe based on its ‘guardian nations’ working alongside one another, with the particular mission of protecting the continent from encroaching migration from Muslim nations. Not all on the right share the idea that the EU can be reformed in this way, but most increasingly articulate their racism through the prism of a Europe under siege. Nigel Farage wants to leave the EU, for example, but in the infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster, which portrayed a crowd of non-white refugees, he directly referenced the same threat posed to Europe by ‘young African men’ that was expressed by the AfD’s Björn Höcke.

Germany AfD fascism far right
The 6th party convention of the AfD, 2015 | © Robin Krahl, CC-by-sa 4.0. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the most clearly Hitlerite, fascistic party in Europe is Greece’s Golden Dawn. It is not really possible to ascribe the same European outlook to them as to the AfD or figures such as Viktor Orbán. Nevertheless, Golden Dawn is not entirely distinct. The party’s ideology and actions rely heavily on a racist hatred of migrants from the Arab world.

In 2012, four Egyptian immigrant fishermen living in Greece were brutally attacked by Golden Dawn members. The fascists aimed to kill at least one of the men, but luckily failed. As has become clear in the unfolding criminal trial of Golden Dawn’s leadership, the party’s attacks on migrants are not committed at random by groups of rogue members; they are highly coordinated by a fascist command structure.

In the trial where the Egyptian men who survived the attack bravely testified against Golden Dawn, the lawyers representing the party asked the men how they could justify having several children in they claimed to be poor. The answer was not relevant to the court’s proceedings, but was instead intended for a public audience as a way of questioning the victim’s very right to be in Europe and therefore justifying the assault. In other words, the racist idea that migrants from countries such as Egypt are an enemy to be attacked was deliberately deployed by Golden Dawn when the party was in the dock.

Even though there are different and even competing elements to the far right and fascist movements across Europe, the ideological glue holding the European far right together is that of Islamophobia. These movements present their politics as a battle of the so-called white Christian nations of Europe keeping out people from the majority-Muslim countries of North Africa and the Middle East, who pose a threat to the European way of life. This trope has become mainstream, and is being used by the most reactionary forces in European politics as the thin end of the wedge by which to open the way for much more virulent forms of racism.

‘[The “Soros plan”] is an action plan that describes exactly how disobedient, non-immigrant central European countries should be transformed into immigrant countries,’ Viktor Orbán told a gathering of religious leaders in the Hungarian parliament in September. He was referring to an article written by the American investor George Soros in which Soros had, apparently, called for European countries to take more asylum seekers.

The term ‘immigrant countries’, as used by Orbán does not refer to immigration in general, but to the prospect of overwhelming Muslim immigration in particular. And Orbán does not raise the nationalist flag simply for Hungary, but for ‘central European countries’ as a whole.

Orbán, who this year passed legislation which allowed him to detain all asylum seekers in shipping containers, is drumming up Islamophobic racism as a key part of his attack on the EU, and is using Soros as a bogeyman to reinforce the message.

‘What we call the “Soros plan” is an alien, completely different vision to what we believe should be the path for the EU, especially in migration,’ Zoltán Kovács, Hungarian government spokesman, told the Financial Times.

It was never meant to be this way. Part of the promise of the European Union was to ensure that the fascism associated with the first half of the twentieth century would not return. Even after the shocks of 2016, the failure of Le Pen and Wilders to make decisive breakthroughs was heralded as part of a wider liberal fightback. But the victories of Emmanuel Macron and Mark Rutte were false and very short respites from the rise of the right.

Clearly, the economic crisis has played a pivotal role in the disintegration of the EU project, but it alone cannot explain the rise in Islamophobia which is providing the ideological bedrock for the most reactionary forms of politics to grow. Islamophobia is hardwired into modern Europe.

The vision of an open EU promised by Merkel, Macron and co. stands in stark contrast with the reality of the bloc under their watch. And while the aspirations of many of those who voted for Macron against Le Pen, for example, are for a Europe open to all peoples, it is impossible to deny that the functioning of the EU has been far removed from those aspirations.

If there are two competing visions in play – the humane Europe of the EU on one side and a chauvinist Europe on the other – then the latter is undoubtedly winning. And it is this reality of an exclusionary, Islamophobic Europe that is allowing racism to develop.

Karl Marx once wrote: ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.’

We can take Marx’s maxim and apply it to our understanding of how racism is growing in Europe. In other words, it is not the stated consciousness of Europe that determines its being, but, on the contrary, its being that determines its consciousness.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, so far 2,420 refugees have died this year trying to get into Europe. Last year, the total dead are estimated at 5,096. Some 90% of this figure is thought to be made up of those crossing the sea from North Africa to Italy, and the agency calculates that 1 in every 40 people who tried to make that crossing in 2016 ended up drowning. Those who do make it are criminalised. This is the uncomfortable truth of modern Europe: a continent where the sea has become a deadly moat, guarding the castle from the Muslim and Arab worlds. And this is even before we even consider the treatment of Muslims within Europe: the growing number of countries banning burkas or veils, the assaults onf Muslim women on beaches in France by police, the harassment of young Muslim men suspected of being terrorists and so on.

This reality – of racialized persecution and death – is the single greatest reason for the growth of Islamophobia in Europe and the political movements which flow from it. The effect of thousands of people from Muslim countries dying trying to get into the continent is, of course, to create the impression that such people do not belong here.

And this development within political consciousness across Europe is providing fertile ground for fascist and racist forces to grow. The fascistic idea to create a racially pure Europe is not an entirely abstract concept; in the slaughter of those trying to get in, it is being played out before our very eyes.

Meanwhile, the integrationist statements of Emmanuel Macron calling for an EU defence force and common budget only reinforce the European chauvinism expressed by Viktor Orbán and others.

‘[I want] a European border police force to be set up gradually, which guarantees rigorous control of borders everywhere in Europe and assures the return of those who can’t stay,’ Macron said this week, also calling for a centralised EU asylum agency that could be more effective at weeding out rejected claims.

You do not have to leap very far to get from Macron’s stated desire to boot out asylum seekers to the comments of the AfD’s Björn Höcke, quoted above, telling ‘young African men’ that Europe was not a place they were supposed to be.

This is not to say that the political forces responsible for managing the EU, such as Macron, are equivalent to the fascists exploiting the situation at all, but as socialists, if we are to tackle this problem, we must understand the direct links between the two.

Despite all of this, however, we do not live in a racist Europe. Even in a country such as Greece, where the material conditions for racist forces to grow are perhaps at their sharpest, there has not been a rise in racist attacks in last few years. In fact, there have been many cases of tremendous solidarity with migrants and refugees. This is true not only in Greece, but across the continent as a whole.

We live in a Europe that is being contested by various forces. To reference Marx’s phrase again, the active anti-racist struggle of the working class is determining a different consciousness to that being determined by the barbaric treatment of Muslims.

On a small level, this exists in multiracial workplaces and communities all over, where people’s daily experience challenges racist ideology. The struggle exists in a more active way as well; it was evident on the streets of Athens this month when thousands marched to commemorate the fascist murder of the anti-racist rapper, Pavlos Fyssas. It will be present over the coming weeks when a multiracial working class in France fights the attack on their rights coming from President Macron. We see it now in Catalonia as hundreds of thousands are brought into a political battle against the Spanish state. In Britain, the left is at its strongest point in decades.

In response to the growing threat from the far right, this struggle must continue and grow. There is no agent other than the working class that can achieve this. The EU only perpetuates Islamophobic racism so it cannot be relied upon to halt those benefitting most from it. It is only through this active struggle that the threat from the far right can be fought back. This is not an optional extra but an absolute necessity. As the material basis for racism continues to grow, the requirement to collectively challenge this reality and the forces which thrive off it gets ever greater. In building that anti-racist movement, we can go beyond the idea of Europeanism, and realise a world based on the solidarity between working-class people everywhere.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here