Current tumult over bans and restrictions on religious symbols are largely a smokescreen for the real issues which plague our society and the rest of Europe. As the economy shows little sign of recovery, the rise of the far-right in Europe poses a fundamental challenge to longstanding European values. Standing against a ban on religious symbols is the current frontline for combating a corrosive and exclusionary ideology which is chipping away at the ideals of a free and fair society. People of religion may be on the frontline, but it is the fundamental and guiding principles of our society which are truly at stake.
Undeniably, Europe has in recent years become a progressively worse place to be a person of faith. According to a recent Pew Poll (2010), Europe had the largest proportion of countries in which social hostilities related to religion were on the rise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. In an earlier poll, the Pew Survey of Global Attitudes found that hostile attitudes to Jews were rising all across continental Europe and that suspicion of Muslims in Europe was considerably higher than hostility to Jews, though the increase in anti-Semitism had taken place much more rapidly. Whilst Americans and Britons displayed the lowest levels of anti-Semitism, one in four in both countries were hostile to Muslims
This increased hostility aimed at religious communities is largely linked to the rise of divisive, xenophobic and racist ideas and groups across Europe, whose growth has been fuelled by the economic depression. It is an all too familiar and recent pattern in European history, that when the chips are down, the usual suspects – public services and migrants, become prime targets for hate and government policies (sometimes indistinguishable). After the economic devastation of WWI, German cartoons of the time depicted people with wheelbarrows full of money who could not buy a loaf of bread. It was in this climate, that Hitler’s vitriolic discourse found an eager audience as he blamed Jews for the country’s woes. And the pattern is not limited to Europe. In America, illegal immigrants from Mexico are often used as scapegoats during periods of economic hardships.
The real issue, namely addressing a dysfunctional economy, dominated by a financial sector driven by speculation rather than productive investment, is not so easily or willingly addressed. Nor is the growing gap between rich and poor, our spiralling living costs, or the deterioration of our public services.
Life has become increasingly hard for Britons and is set to get much harder as inflation is predicted to hit a three year high. FareShare, a food supply organisation for the vulnerable and needy, have seen a drastic increase in the number of people unable to feed themselves at a most basic level. After bailing out the banks, nine out of ten Brits are now poorer than this time last year, NHS waiting time is up drastically and the cost of living has gone through the roof. Meanwhile our politicians have proposed a bill which will end the NHS as a comprehensive service equally available to all, while spending £750million on nuclear weapons. People are understandably angry and in such times of desperation, populist discourse finds an avid audience.
The economic squeeze has led many to support nationalist parties who promise to favour the ‘native’ population and largely expel immigrants (or those who look like immigrants) to relieve the economic strain. In 2010 Sweden became the third EU member state to find itself without a governing majority after elections marked by the rise of far-right and anti-immigration parties. The Netherlands and Belgium are in the same position. Far-right parties are currently in government in Italy and also sit in the parliaments of Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, Latvia and Slovakia, as well as in the European Parliament.
In Hungary, the far-right Jobbik party – whose name means “movement for a better Hungary” – has its own uniformed street militia, the Hungarian Guard, who target the country’s Roma population. Critics say the militia bears a disturbing resemblance to the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s Second World War fascist militiamen, who collaborated with the Nazis in killing tens of thousands of Hungary’s other prominent minority, the Jews. In a speech which could be attributed to a number of mainstream European parties today, the Jobbik party spoke about stopping Roma, the country’s biggest ethnic minority, from ‘sponging off the state’ – forcing anyone claiming benefits to perform public service in return and promising to “give back Hungary’s national pride and identity”. The party achieved 17 per cent of the vote in general elections.
Even in traditionally liberal countries, the far-right have made significant gains. In Sweden, the stridently anti-immigration platform of the Sweden Democrats secured the party 5.7 per cent of the vote and 20 parliamentary seats in the 2010 general election, enough to deny the governing centre-right coalition a majority.
In the Netherlands, the far-right Freedom Party came third in June elections after its poster boy, Geert Wilders described Islam as a “fascist ideology”, comparing the Quran to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
Here in the UK, UKIP has sought to unite conservatives and fascists on areas of apparently overlapping concern by proposing a burka ban. Not to be outdone, Conservative MP Philip Hollobone proposed such a bill in parliament this summer. And in 2008, two British National Party MEPs were elected, followed in 2009 by the creation of the English Defence League, which according to Dr Matthew Feldman, who runs the UK’s only research unit on new media and domestic extremism, has links to the Aryan Strike Force (ASF).
But the most worrying developments have to be in former fascist states. In France, the National Front, performed strongly in March’s regional elections with 15% of the vote, with its talk of expulsing illegal Roma immigrants and comparing the presence of French Arabs to the Nazi invasion. Two polls published in March this year suggest that Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, would beat Nicolas Sarkozy in the first round of a presidential election.
In Vienna, the Mayor’s Freedom party almost doubled its vote in recent elections, running strongly on banning minarets (as in neighbouring Switzerland), despite there being only one minaret in the Austrian capital, and advocating the ban of Islamic headgear, as was pledged in the Netherlands, in its efforts to “to keep the city’s blood Viennese”.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, to note that the Austrian government recorded a 28% increase in xenophobic, far-right, racist, islamophobic and anti-semitic crimes since last year.
In Germany, referring to its Turkish population, which lest we remind ourselves was invited to Germany after WWII to help do the hard labour of reconstructing the country, Interior Minister Hans Peter-Friedrich, said Islam “does not belong in Germany”. Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin’s book, Germany is doing away with itself, is currently in its 14th edition and is Germany’s best-selling book since WWII. It claims that Turks, who make up around 5% of the population, are “dumbing down” the country with their inferior gene pool. A poll published in October showed 31% of respondents agreeing that Germany is “becoming dumber” because of immigrants and 62% said Sarrazin’s comments were “justified”.
Banking on the political capital to be gained from sourcing Sarrazin’s popularity, Merkel stated that the nation’s “multi-kulti” project had been a complete failure.
This slippage of far-right discourse into the mainstream is not singular to Germany. In fact, the debates during France’s recent regional elections were largely dictated by the National Front and the banning of the Burka united the political spectrum with virtually no dissent. In Italy, proposals to ban the burka even had the support of human-rights groups. And here in the UK, British TV personality and member of a conservative think tank, Douglas Murray argued in a speech to the Dutch Parliament that “conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board.”
It is precisely this growing acceptability of far-right themes and ideas in the mainstream, which is so deeply concerning. It is worth recalling that in 1928, the Nazis achieved less than 3% of the national vote in Germany. Today, many fascist parties have ten times that number. Their influence is therefore commensurate and cannot be ignored.
In different countries, the Far-right takes different forms and has differing focuses but common themes are evident: Anti-immigrant, anti-semitic, islampohobic and promoting long standing myths of national purity and exclusionism. These groups offer convenient scapegoat solutions to less tangible or accessible problems.
During the Burka debate in France, UMP politician Frederic Lefebvre summed up the current climate when he stated that women who wear the face veil should be “deprived of their rights”. It is precisely the type of climate in which an elected representative can speak of depriving a fellow citizen of her rights that must absolutely be challenged. As regressive policies become increasingly common, from Theresa May suggesting the UK’s Human Rights Act be scrapped, to being urged to spy on and denounce one’s neighbours, it is essential we stand against this nihilistic tide, for an affirmation of our core values as Europeans. These are values fought for by our forefathers and often enshrined in founding documents. The themes are universal and universalist. Human rights. Equality. Justice. Pluralism. Solidarity. Human rights. Freedom. Freedom of thought. Freedom of speech. Freedom from fear and persecution. Real and meaningful freedom, with no caveats or exceptions.
Photo Credits: AP Photo/Keystone, Urs Flueeler
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