The Search For Meaning
The threat of “islamization” has helped right-wing parties to power throughout Europe. They try to forge nativist alliances by exploiting demands for identity. Europe needs to find a positive definition of its identity, not one based on a populist fear of Islam.
Right-wing populist parties have recently gained new political momentum in Europe by mobilizing against the perceived ‘Islamization of Europe’ and promoting themselves as defenders of ‘Western European cultural identity’ against a culture they consider inferior, inassimilable and therefore dangerous. As the Dutch right-wing populist politician Geert Wilders stated in 2008: if Europe fails to defend ‘the ideas of Rome, Athens and Jerusalem’ and stop the process of Islamization, we will lose everything – our cultural identity, our democracy, our rule of law, our liberties, our freedom.’
This view is no longer restricted to extremist groups. In October 2010, Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer called for the suspension of immigration to Germany of persons from Turkey and the Middle East, arguing that they are poorly integrated into German society. The same month the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, stated that ‘multiculturalism has failed, utterly failed’, while a FEF study found that 30 per cent of Germans believed their country was ‘overrun by foreigners’.
A nativist European identity
Since 2009, French and British officials are forcibly deporting tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan refugees. That same year Switzerland’s largest political party, the Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP) launched a successful referendum for a constitutional ban on the construction of minarets, maintaining that they represented a symbol of ‘victory and conquest’ and posed a threat to Swiss cultural identity.
Nativism, nationalism and fear of immigration have long been a staple of populism in Europe. What is new, however, is that the European populist radical right is no longer clinging to a nationalist identity, but is trying to forge alliances to promote a nativist European identity based on ethno-nationalist positions based on the notion that Europe was both white and Christian. Already in 2005, the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the EU allowed the populist radical right to acquire the critical mass to build the ‘Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty Groups (ITS)’ within the European Parliament.
More recently, in 2009, five populist radical right groups from Belgium, France, Hungary, Italy, and Sweden formed the Alliance of European National Movements. Their intention is to form a new nationalist political party within the European Parliament. In 2009, Filip Dewinter of the Flemish Vlaams Belang launched a transnational project to resist the ‘Islamization’ of Europe’s cities, building a European network against the construction of mosques.
The critical mass
The critical mass these organizations are able to achieve through such alliances gives them more political recognition, funding and media exposure – an important new development that should be dealt with seriously. Their programmes, a combination of immigration, Islamization and identity have influenced some of the legitimate political parties to have tighter immigration controls. Not only do they operate with greater cohesion, but they offer an answer to the question of European identity at the very moment when Europeans find themselves asking ‘What are our roots?’, ‘Who are we?’ ‘What will our future look like?’ in an increasingly globalized and migratory world.
It would be a shame if that identity was based on a negative reaction to Islam. Europe must find solutions to integrate its disaffected Muslim minority and to build greater understanding with Islamic culture. And it must find a positive definition of its identity lest a populist fear of Islam does more to define and shape Europe in the twenty-first century than its own culture and institutions.