By continuing to denounce “Islamophobia” even after the bloody attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Europe’s mainstream right is allowing nationalists who also sympathize with Russian president Vladimir Putin to monopolize popular resistance against radical Islam.
In France, Socialist Party president François Hollande failed to invite representatives of the far-right Front national to a national remembrance ceremony for those killed by Muslim extremists in attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper and a Jewish supermarket in Paris last week.
Yet it is the Front that sees its anti-Islamism vindicated by the attacks. Party leader Marine Le Pen, who is more popular than Hollande according to polls, urged the French not to mince words. “This is a terrorist act committed in the name of radical Islamism,” she said. “Denial and hypocrisy are no longer an option.”
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat, has censured anti-Islam demonstrations and accused their participants of racism. Numbering in the tens of thousands, the protesters, who call themselves Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, say they fear an “Islamization” of Germany as a result of high immigration from Muslim countries.
The movement’s demands look far from extreme. It calls for immigration and integration policies to mirror those of neighboring Switzerland and the Netherlands.
The German political and media establishment’s reaction to the protests has been way out of proportion to what they call for. Rather than taking seriously the concerns of voters and admitting the real impact immigration has on housing and welfare policy as well as policing, Germany’s leaders compare citizens who are peacefully demonstrating in the streets of Dresden with Nazis. In doing so, they are only confirming the protesters in their anti-establishment views and convincing others, who might share their worries, that there is no hope of achieving change through the established parties.
If Lutz Bachmann, the anti-Islam movement’s founder, is to be believed, the German “patriots” not only seek tighter immigration controls and better integration of newcomers into German society; they also want an “end to warmongering, among other things against Russia.”
It is unclear to what extent anti-Islam and pro-Russian sentiments overlap in Germany. It is clearer they do in other countries.
Le Pen openly admires Putin and her party got an €9 million loan from a Russian bank last year. Pierre Lellouche, a mainstream conservative French politician, told NPR in December “there is a mix of exalting nationalism, exalting the church and Christian values” in Russia that appeals to European nationalists. Moreover, he said, Russia was presenting itself “as the ultimate barrier against the Islamization of the continent.”
Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, has also expressed admiration for Putin while the Austrian Freedom Party defended his occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.
Notably absent from Putin’s European fanbase is the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders. Although the anti-Islam politician blamed the European Union more than Russia for instigating last year’s unrest in Ukraine, his party also sharply criticized Putin after the downing of a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine in July in which almost two hundred Dutch passengers died. The rebels who shot down the aircraft were likely armed by Russia.
Wilders, who allied with Le Pen in last year’s European Parliament elections, has been critical of Islam since before he became a Euroskeptic and the Netherlands coped with rising anti-immigration sentiment more than a decade ago when populist leader Pim Fortuyn first suggested multiculturalism had failed as a policy.
Like Germany’s anti-Islamists today, Fortuyn was denounced as a racist and a xenophobe by much of his country’s establishment. After he was killed in 2002, however, right-wing parties began to co-opt his policies. Multiculturalism was recognized for what it was: an excuse for doing nothing at best; an excuse for relegating foreigners to big-city ghettos at worst. Learning Dutch became a requirement for citizenship. History and values courses were introduced. Immigration was curtailed and police began to specifically target repeat offenders from ethnic backgrounds, something that would previously have been considered racist.
Mainstream right-wing parties in France, Germany and elsewhere should take a lesson from their Dutch counterparts. The Netherlands’ Christian Democrat and liberal parties cannot outbid Wilders’ anti-Islamism but they can give voters who worry about Muslim radicalization and the existence of a permanent migrant underclass that strains the country’s welfare system a better choice. Between Wilders’ proposal to shut the borders and the left’s refusal to see the problem — although even the Labor Party has come around to Fortuyn’s views — the Christian Democrats and liberals offer a workable policy of tackling radicalization and improving the integration of mainly Muslim immigrants and their descents into Dutch society.
Chancellor Merkel recognized in 2010 that multiculturalism has “utterly failed” yet she has since given the Germans no alternative. All she says now is that fears of Islamization are tantamount to racism.
President Hollande, while offering valiant defenses of French democracy and freedom, insists fanaticism and terrorism “have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.” The fanatics and terrorists, of course, disagree and so do shockingly many other Muslims in Europe who would never turn to violence but do believe blasphemy should be punishable by death and that Western Islamophobia is as much to blame for last week’s horrors in Paris as is the perversion of their faith.
As long as European leaders — like Merkel — won’t come up with answers to radical Islam and the failing integration of many Muslims into Western society, or — like Hollande — deny there is even a problem, far-right parties will turn to the uncompromising Russian president for protection and more and more voters will turn to far-right parties as the only ones offering any kind of response.
The obvious solution is for conservatives and liberals — and preferably leftists, too — to stand up for European values and demand that those who want to make a life here share those values. To those who won’t, they should say, as the Labor Party mayor or Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, did last week: “Pack your bags and leave.”