x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Europe's far right in retreat after massacre

Far-right political parties across Europe face accusations of breeding violence by stoking fears with their anti-Islamic rhetoric.

People in front of the Domkirke church in central Oslo, remembering those killed by Anders Behring Breivik.
People in front of the Domkirke church in central Oslo, remembering those killed by Anders Behring Breivik.

BERLIN // As far-right political figures across Europe scramble to condemn Anders Behring Breivik as a crazed loner, they face accusations of breeding violence by stoking fears with their anti-Islamic rhetoric.

In Breivik's 1,500-page manifesto, which he published online on Friday, just hours before his shooting spree and bombing that killed at least 76 people, he warns of "national/cultural suicide as the Islamic colonisation is increasing annually". That line could have been taken from stump speeches of many of the far-right parties that are now part of the political mainstream in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Hungary.

The response by leading far-right politicians has smacked of hypocrisy. Geert Wilders, the head of the Dutch Party for Freedom, the third-largest party in the Netherlands, who has likened the Quran to Hitler's Mein Kampf, called Breivik a "sick psychopath" and said: "I despise everything he stands for and everything he did."

The head of the far-right Sweden Democrats, Jimmie Akesson, who has described Islam as the biggest threat to Sweden since the Second World War, said the killings were "an attack on the entire democratic society".

Far-right parties have ridden a wave of anti-Islamic sentiment over the past decade, fuelled by fears of Jihadist terrorism and by economic problems that have turned Muslims into easy prey for populists. Politicians have gained votes with their mantra that immigrants pose a threat to Western society and are driving up unemployment and welfare costs.

Mr Wilders said in a statement in June: "My view on Islam is that it is not so much a religion as a totalitarian political ideology with religious elements," In May, in a speech in Rome, he said: "This failure to defend our own culture has turned immigration into the most dangerous threat that can be used against the West. Multiculturalism has made us so tolerant that we tolerate the intolerant."

Professor Hajo Funke, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, said Muslims have replaced Jews as hate figures for the far right.

"For the far right, Muslims today are what Jews were to the German Nazi party in the 1920s," he said. "Since the 9/11 attacks, the breeding ground for Islamophobia has broadened significantly and it has become part of mainstream opinion. This must be countered, because it is based on prejudice."

"The step from this kind of thinking to such a manic act of violence by a disturbed person is of course a huge one," Professor Funke said, referring to Breivik. "But he would have had much greater difficulty preparing himself if this political environment had not existed."

Far-right parties have made themselves more palatable to middle-class voters by toning down their rhetoric, distancing themselves from neo-Nazis and insisting they are only trying to defend Western liberal values. The Sweden Democrats, for example, dissociated themselves from their fascist roots and managed to score 5.7 per cent in the 2010 general election, crossing the four per cent threshold to win seats in parliament for the first time.

In Germany, the killings sparked renewed calls to ban the National Democratic Party, which glorifies the Third Reich. But the NPD is weak and Germany has no serious far-right movement.

Nevertheless, the tone of the public debate about Muslims in Germany has become increasingly strident, and Angela Merkel, the chancellor, played up to immigration concerns during a speech to her party's youth organisation last October, saying "the multicultural approach has utterly failed".

Political positions that would have been taboo just a few years ago are now part of everyday public debate in Germany. Last year, Thilo Sarrazin, a former board member of the German central bank, had his book Germany is Abolishing Itself published. In it he warns that the country is in decline because of the rapid growth of an underclass of poorly educated Muslim immigrants who are unwilling to integrate into society.

"Among Arabs in Germany in particular there is a widespread tendency to have children in order to receive more social benefits, and the women who are often imprisoned in the family basically have hardly anything else to do," wrote Mr Sarrazin, who is also a member of the opposition Social Democratic Party.

Political leaders condemned his comments but a raft of surveys indicated that a large majority of Germans - up to 90 per cent according to some polls - agreed with many of the points he made in the book, and that around 20 per cent of people would vote for a right-wing populist party representing his views. Mr Sarrazin went on to appear on a succession of television talk shows to espouse views that would not be out of place in Breivik's manifesto.

The immediate political fallout of Friday's massacre, in Norway at least, was widely expected to cause a slump in support for the Progress Party, of which Breivik was a member between 2004 and 2006. The party was recently scoring around 30 per cent in opinion polls but now faces a rout in September elections.

The party's chairwoman, Siv Jensen, said: "I am very sad that he used to be a member. We are an innocent victim."

There can be no doubt that the killings have put Europe's populists on the defensive. Die Tageszeitung, a German newspaper, wrote in an editorial on Tuesday: "Hostility towards Muslims should be harder to sell now because we will all immediately think of the attack in Norway.

"It may sound cynical, but this disaster raises the possibility that Europe will finally distance itself from this dangerously mainstream Islamophobia. We owe nothing less to the victims and their relatives."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae