The signs are ominous. Across Europe extremist, far-right movements are gaining increasing levels of influence based on vicious anti-immigrant and often racist platforms. In the last two Swiss federal elections, the Swiss People’s Party has gained the most votes and entered the Swiss coalition government, using campaign posters which depict white sheep kicking black sheep out of Switzerland. These election successes have been used to pursue a vicious Islamophobic agenda, which culminated in the Swiss voting to ban building of minarets on mosques in November 2009. It didn’t matter that only four minarets existed in the whole of Switzerland, to the Swiss People’s Party they were “unacceptable symbols of Islamic power”.
A similar situation has arisen in the Netherlands. Following the 2010 general election, the Dutch government now relies on the support of the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders to survive. Wilders is outspoken in his Islamophobia, campaigning for all Muslim immigration to the Netherlands to be banned and for Dutch Muslims to be paid to leave or face higher taxes. He proudly states that he “hates Islam”, considers the Koran “a fascist book” and believes Muslims should “tear out half of the Koran if they wish to stay in the Netherlands”. Worryingly many of Wilders’ hateful views go unchallenged, in part due to the government needing his support but also because many in the Netherlands fear defending Muslims would lead to electoral unpopularity.
These worrying trends are being repeated across Europe. From the Swedish far-right entering parliament for the first time on a platform stating Islam has no place in Sweden, to the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi warning that Milan would become “an Islamic city and a Gypsy town” if the left were to govern the city. In this regard the tactics of fascists and the far-right are the same as they have been throughout history. Identify a scapegoat (in this case Muslims), blame the scapegoat for all of society’s ills and whip up fear and hatred of the scapegoat amongst the general population, in the hope that this will carry you to electoral success.
As predictable and loathsome as this tactic is, it has had depressing levels of success in Europe in recent years, with the extremist threat now looming large over next year’s French presidential election. Marine Le Pen has recently succeeded her Holocaust denying father as the leader of the Front National. Whilst she has shied away from making statements as extreme as her father, in attempt to moderate the Front National’s image, occasionally the mask has slipped. She recently compared French Muslims who have lived in France for generations to the Nazi occupation of France and has called for all French citizens of Algerian heritage to be stripped of their French citizenship if they also hold Algerian passports. Rather than challenging this Islamophobia, the French government of Nicolas Sarkozy has pandered to it with gestures such as the recent ban on Islamic face veils, even though only 2,000 women in the whole of France wear such veils. However, this pandering has backfired on Sarkozy, with Marine Le Pen’s popularity continuing to grow, culminating with her recently topping opinion polls for the French presidential election.
This is lesson that David Cameron should heed. However, his recent speech on multi-culturalism shows signs that he risks making the same mistakes as Sarkozy. As well as the timing of his speech being ill-judged, coming on the same day as an English Defence League rally against Islam, his comments are also open to dangerous misinterpretation by those with a darker agenda. By seeming to admit that multi-culturalism has failed, Cameron allows others to build on his argument and claim that all immigration to Britain has been a failure and that Islam in particular has no place in modern British society. By attacking Islamist extremist and avoiding criticism of far -right, extremist and racist extremism, Cameron risks whipping up a hysteria that will be used by others to unfairly target and stigmatise Muslims.
I do not for one second believe that David Cameron is racist or Islamophobic. However, by raising the issue of Islamism and branding multi-culturalism a failure without measuring his comments, he risks fueling a fire of hate that he will be unable to control.
Of course Islamist extremism should be exposed, challenged and defeated wherever it is found, but with a constant recognition that Islamism is a minority view opposed by the vast majority of Muslims. The real threat to our society is an extremism based on hateful, racist bigotry that seeks to tear the heart out of our society, split our communities and create false divisions between people in towns and cities across our country.
Islamophobia is the current tool of evil being used by fascists and extremists to gain support across Europe, in the same way that they have used anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the past. In 1946, Winston Churchill warned of the Iron Curtain of totalitarian Stalinism descending across Europe. If we are not awake to the dangers posed by the advance of far right extremism across Europe, the dark cloud of a re-emergent fascism could become the modern threat to Europe’s liberty.