HA Hellyer is a Cambridge University fellow, an undergraduate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
Last week, New Zealand commemorated the Christchurch massacre, in which politicians and civil society mourned the loss of their lives when a far-right terrorist killed dozens at a mosque on the island nation. But the rhetoric underlying terrorist atrocities is not far from mainstream politics as we think.
Recently, Switzerland chose to ban public face coverings, including the burka or niqab worn by Muslim women. The Swiss People’s Party has campaigned to support it with slogans such as “Stop Extremism” and “Stop Islamic Radicalism” – the latest moves on the continent of Europe that link visible Muslim religious practices to extremism. But it is more than that. As Walter Wobmann, chairman of the referendum committee and member of parliament for the Swiss People’s Party, said before the vote: “In Switzerland, our tradition is for you to show your face. It is a sign of our basic freedom … [facial coverings are] this symbol for extreme political Islam which has become increasingly prominent in Europe and has no place in Switzerland. “The move here is clear – Europe is under attack; the main perpetrators of the attack are Muslims; defense must be against them, by all means necessary.
Mr Wobmann is not the only European politician to say so. “I think Islamo-lefts are eating away at our society as a whole, and universities are not immune and are part of our society,” French Minister of Higher Education Frédérique Vidal declared on February 14th. For a Valentine’s Day message, this hardly shows much of the warmth or hospitality of the minister – on the contrary, it is the latest letter in a fake “culture war” that has been raging in France for a long time. But this dangerous message goes beyond that too – and the consequences go far beyond France, and even the West.
The clear target of the minister’s message is part of the political left in France on the one hand, and part of the Muslim community on the other. Moreover, it is this particular “Islamo-left” alliance that is specifically named. And it is not the first time, either in France, or elsewhere in the West, that this “alliance” has been called. A typical complaint is that most of the left is not taking seriously enough the problem of extremism that exists among radical Islamists – both violent and nonviolent, out of naivety, lack of sophistication, or just pure cultural relativism. Such debates and discussions will, no doubt, continue in the media, academia and policy.
But that was not the target in the minister’s message. That’s a little smokescreen. The mainstream of French politics has shifted further and further towards populism, and that populist fight has led the current president, Emmanuel Macron, and his most threatening political opponent, Marine Le Pen, to continue to do what they have done – out-populist one another. . Mr. calculus. Macron seems to be better at explaining that he is more serious about threats to national security than Ms. Le Pen. Which, at first glance, hardly matters, except in the current French context, which translates into a focus on certain minority religious communities. Muslims are that community, which, it seems, across the political spectrum see little punishment in making trouble. And, conversely, the problematization of the Muslim community will result in increased populist support.
And yes – there are historical parallels in Europe, and they are not great parallels. Israeli political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, Amikam Nachmani, note: “The Jew, the European ‘other’ prototype, has now been largely replaced by the Muslim ‘other’. … The prejudice and discrimination that used to be aimed at European Jews is now aimed at European Muslims. “This is not a comfortable comparison to make – but it would be foolish to ignore it, especially when the call to” never again “on the continent is ignored. Ask the Bosnian Muslims.
Cultural wars are real on the continent, and Muslim communities often do only additional damage. As I have discussed elsewhere, Muslims are not very important in this discussion. They are useful foil. Mr Macron is not too worried about Muslims and Islam; him and his reign worried about Ms. Le Pen. The culture wars are not about Muslims themselves, and more about our own concerns, as Europeans and Westerners, about who and what we are. In France, that has turned into insecurity around what secularism means or not in the 21st century, but it also leads to broader issues related to the legacy of colonialism, as well as the larger cultural wars. It’s not even a left-right problem, it’s a search for meaning. And instead of engaging French Muslims as integral partners like other communities in that quest, they are outside the discussion. It doesn’t matter what they do.
But it’s not just about France either. On the other hand; there are other examples across the continent and in the wider West. We see it in terrorist attacks, like the ones in Norway and New Zealand. We see it in the mainstreaming of the radical right, within the Republican Party in the United States, who seem unable to hold the tide; but also in various center-right parties, just across the West. There’s a spectrum, to be sure – but it’s a spectrum to a single phenomenon. That’s why the New Zealand assassin sees Donald Trump as a laudable symbol.
And it even goes beyond the West. A recent attempted attack on a mosque in Singapore was carried out by a supporter of the same right-wing discourse; indeed, he did explicitly claim inspiration from the likes of the mass killings in New Zealand. We have transcended this notion of a small right-wing fringe – much more common than that – but we have also transcended geographical boundaries to the West itself. It’s global in a completely different way.
There are many similarities between white supremacist groups and extremist Islamists. But two things are not the same in the slightest. First, we pay far greater attention to Islamist extremists, even though white supremacy poses a more pronounced and growing threat to the fabric of our society. And second, white supremacy is being mainstreamed in a way that extremist Islamism never did or could.
No, of course, the French Minister of Higher Education is a white supremacist. But one cannot easily separate this kind of talk from the discourse of “Eurarabia” – a conspiracy theory about Muslim plans to take over Europe – that has been developing on the continent for years. As we examine right-wing mainstreaming in the coming years, we need to do it with a sense of urgency, as the threat continues to increase.
Keep Your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Register today.