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How to Fight Islamophobia and the Far Right, in Europe and the United States

An alarming trend is sweeping Europe.  Far-right parties, using anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, have made electoral gains in several European countries.  In the June European parliament elections, these parties were able to garner votes in a way they haven’t before.  The British National Party (BNP), which has its roots in fascist parties of the past, got almost a million votes and its first two seats in the European parliament.  Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) made significant gains as well.

Overall, as Time magazine notes about the June elections:

Around Europe a ragbag of extremist parties, as varied as the countries that produced them yet united by a vehement nationalism that singles out minority groups as a growing threat, scored in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia.  Confronted with sliding economies and disappearing jobs, voters kicked the mainstream parties they held most responsible.

Even in countries considered liberal, such as Holland and Sweden, far-right parties have had breakthroughs.  In the recent elections in Sweden, the party of Jimmie Akesson, the Sweden Democrats, gained power in the parliament running on blatantly anti-Muslim campaigns.  Akesson called for restricting immigration, stating that Islam is the greatest threat facing the Swedish nation.

In Holland, Geert Wilders’ party, the Party for Freedom (PVV), won 24 seats in the Dutch elections and appears poised to be part of a new minority government.

Wilders is a notorious Islamophobe.  He has compared Islam to fascism, equating the Koran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  Wilders ran on the platform of banning immigration from Muslim-majority countries, contending that people who are a part of Islamic cultures are “retarded.”  He would further ban the Koran and veiling.

In striking a deal with Wilders, the center-right coalition that is attempting to form a minority government in Holland has adopted several of Wilders’ policy demands such as banning the burqa and imposing tighter immigration standards.

Wilders was one of the highlighted speakers at the September 11th rally against the proposed Islamic center in downtown Manhattan called by Tea Party bigots, where he called on his audience to “defend itself against the powers of darkness, the force of hatred and the blight of ignorance.”

This should come as no surprise.  The far right in the US not only collaborates with its counterparts in Europe, but it is also learning the lessons of their electoral victories.

Pamela Geller, whose group Stop Islamization of America was largely responsible for polarizing the discussion around the proposed Islamic center in downtown Manhattan, is not only a fan of Wilders (and the feeling is mutual given his glowing blurb for the book she co-authored on the Obama presidency) but an admirer of open fascists and street gangs such as the English Defense League that routinely attack Muslims and immigrants.

The Tea Party has clearly taken a few pages from the European right.  They have learned that in the context of a prolonged economic crisis, racism and the politics of scapegoating can enable them to reach a wider audience.  Thus, anti-immigrant groups such as the Minutemen have started to appear at Tea Party rallies and events.  Similarly, Geller, who identifies as a Tea Party person, spoke at the Tennessee Tea Party convention in May.

It is not a coincidence that Tennessee is also the site where an Islamic center in Murfreesboro has come under attack.  There were arson attempts and gunshots at the center creating a climate of fear and intimidation for the Muslim community.  Tennessee is also the location where Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, endorsed by more than 20 Tea Party groups, ran on the promise that he wanted to prevent sharia law from coming to Tennessee, and referred to Islam as a “cult” and a “violent political philosophy.”

What we are seeing is a right-wing populist movement beginning to manifest racism at its core.  This movement has both an electoral strategy as well as a grassroots strategy based on intimidating Muslim communities (and Latino immigrants).  While earlier, Islamophobia in the US primarily served as a means to justify the “war on terror,” it is now serving the domestic agenda of the far right in ways similar to what has gone on in Europe.

As Gary Younge put it in a recent article in The Nation, the current phase of Islamophobia,

marks the rise of xenophobic and racist forces within the Republican Party, for whom the election of a black Democratic president with an uncommon name and an African father has produced a perfect storm for divisive, deranged rhetoric.  As such, this most recent outburst of Islamophobia marks a plot development in the narrative of the Nixon strategy, which used the dog whistle of racially charged rhetoric to realign the South toward the GOP.  Now no dog whistle is needed.  The racism is not veiled but naked, the delivery not subtle but brutal.  With the Minutemen, the birthers, the Tea Partyers and Fox News on common ground, it was only a matter of time before they turned their pitchforks on Muslims.  For while they did not invent Islamophobia, they were well positioned to exploit it.

Europe is a mirror of what can happen at the level of mainstream politics in the United States if this right-wing movement is not pushed back.  Yet, Europe also offers lessons for the left in the US.

First, the rise of the right is taking place in the context of a prolonged economic crisis.  European governments have responded through imposing austerity measures and attacking the most vulnerable.  Unfortunately, traditional left parties have failed to offer an alternative.  In this gap, the right, by scapegoating Muslim immigrants, have been able to tap into voter anxiety.

In Sweden for instance, the social welfare state has been steadily dismantled over the last decade.  Left parties such as the Social Democrats have been party to such efforts, and have failed to put up any resistance to cuts in unemployment benefits, and the privatization of health care, schools etc.  In this context, and with the ongoing recession, it becomes easy to place blame for the public’s economic hardship on immigrants.

France’s upper house voted almost unanimously to ban the burqa.  When the vote passed in the lower house, the left parties (the socialists, Greens, and Communists) abstained.  Rather than put up a principled defense of Muslims and try to defeat the measure, they decided to sit out the vote instead.  The Socialist Party then came forward and stated that it too objected to the veil, but didn’t support constitutional measures banning it.

Such pathetic responses only strengthen the right.  Even in the US, as I have argued earlier, the far right was able to set the terms of discussion around the Cordoba House controversy because the liberal establishment failed to present a principled anti-racist defense.

The first lesson, therefore, is that you cannot fight the right from the center.  In the face of hyperbolic rhetoric that blatantly demonizes Muslims, a weak-kneed response that attempts to be “moderate” only strengthens the far right.

The second lesson is that the right is being resisted by ordinary people, sometimes organized by smaller left groups.  The non-mainstream left in various European nations have a historical memory of what it takes to fight the right.  For instance, the Anti Nazi League in Britain that successfully pushed back the fascist National Front, the precursor to the BNP, organized on two fronts.  First, they articulated a principled defense against racism.  But second, they also articulated a broader politics that explained how racism and scapegoating are the products of an economic system that needs to blame racial “others” for its flaws, thereby putting forward a progressive alternative.

Today, in the context of a global recession that seems to have no end in sight, this is a crucial lesson.  Islamophobia has to be exposed as the scapegoating tactic of a system in crisis, but this has to be part of a broader vision which puts on offer both a political and an economic alternative to neoliberalism and war.


Deepa Kumar is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at Rutgers University.  She is currently working on a book on US foreign policy, political Islam, and the news.  You can read her blog posts at empirebytes.com.




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