The tragic events in Norway, and the sadistic and cold-blooded actions of Anders Breivik, have generated an increase in scrutiny of the far right in Europe. In Britain in particular, news of Breiviks links to the English Defence League, our own home-grown street army of racist thugs, lends a particularly ominous undertone to the debate on the resurgence of far right extremism. Elsewhere in Europe, we can also see an increased presence of far-right political parties, who in some countries have gained real influence electorally as well as through propagating racist, anti-immigrant and anti-islamic ideas. We should perhaps expect this resurgence, given the current economic and political context; after all, we are currently experiencing the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930’s, when Fascism and Nazism spread throughout Europe, and Fascist leaders such as Hitler, Franco and Mussolini came to power. Yet the Left has been taken completely by surprise by Breivik’s horrific, execution style killing spree, and the meticulous planning that went into it. Will this prove to be an isolated event, or has the far right in Europe become dangerous enough for another such attack to occur?
It’s incredibly important that we understand how and why sympathy and support for far right ideas has grown in recent years. The common theme is clear; across Europe racist and fascist organisations are targeting Muslims, arguing that Islamic culture is incompatible with liberal democracy. This is something Breivik himself argued, citing cultural issues rather than arguing that Muslims are racially inferior, as John Cooper notes over at The Platform:
“While multiculturalism remains his target, he argues – crucially – that it is important for the far right not to resort to old, perhaps too openly Nazi claims of a ‘biological’ or ‘ethnic’ supremacism. Rather, Islam should be opposed on the grounds that it is ‘culturally’ incompatible with Europe.”
This is a very familiar argument here in Britain; one which the BNP has stuck to rigidly, as well as the EDL to a lesser extent. ‘Cultural’ tension has been an integral part of Islamophobia since Samuel Huntington, who believed that cultural conflict was “particularly prevalent between Muslims and Non-Muslims”, published The Clash of Civilisations in 1993. Huntington borrowed the phrase “clash of civilisations’ from Bernard Lewis’s article The Roots of Muslim Rage and in fact Breivik quotes Lewis at length, as Seamus Milne points out. It was Huntington, however, who shaped Lewis’s ideas into theory and lent them credibility.
Huntington may well have been responsible for reformulating the politics of racism by redefining racial or religious conflict as cultural conflict. Edward Said certainly thought so, describing his work as “a sort of parody of Hitlerian science directed today against Arabs and Muslims”. But he is not solely responsible for spreading those ideas throughout Europe, to the foot soldiers of the EDL and their European equivalents (though as a special advisor to successive US governments he was certainly not without influence). So-called ‘populist’ politicians such as Geert Wilders have undoubtedly played a role as well, through their attempts to legitimise Islamophobia under the guise of ‘opposing Islamic extremism’, despite the inherent contradictions of calling for such repressive measures as banning the Koran in defense of free speech, and their influence is plain to see within the ranks of more open racist and fascist groups. The predictable opportunism of far-right anti-immigration political parties aside however, in order to understand fully how such hypocrisy has been able to gain support, however, we must look critically upon the mainstream media.
The rabid xenophobia and casual racism of the tabloid press is obvious to many. In a way we’ve become desensitised to the often ludicrous headlines of The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and others, but their influence is plain to see. The tabloid media is not alone in their legitimisation of Islamophobia and the ideas of the European Far Right, however; supposedly “respectable” media outlets are equally guilty of condoning and even agreeing with the villification of Muslims. Just take a look at Toby Young defending Geert Wilders’ and his calls for the banning of the Koran in a 2009 piece entitled ‘Geert Wilders’ victory in Holland’s regional elections is a victory for free speech’ , where he describes Wilders as “the most courageous politician in Europe”. Or what about this Ed West article, “Muslim immigration: the most radical change in European History”, in which West claims Islamic immigration “threatens the very freedom of Europe”? Owned as it is by the dominant economic class in our society, the mainstream press has sought to promote the interests of the dominant economic class, by presenting immigrants, and Muslim immigrants in particular, as the problem in order to divide the working class . No surprises here of course; this is standard behaviour, which the Left must expect. Responding with false shock and feigned indignation, when we know all too well what to expect, only serves to make us look naive.
So determined are the bourgeois commentariat to continue this line of argument that even in the wake of the worst European atrocity in years, we can still see attempts to present Islam as the biggest threat to society, and not the Far Right. A recent article by Andrew Gilligan of The Daily Telegraph, entitled “The British far-Right is Nothing but a Rabble“, claimed that unlike white nationalists, Muslim fundamentalists operate openly within the liberal capitalist establishment, and that the threat of Islamic terrorism is still far greater than that of white nationalist groups.
Where Gilligan’s article is actually semi-instructive, however, is that it raises the question of how significant the Far Right actually is in Britain. He makes the point that the BNP is in terminal decline, and he may well be right. Not many have really noticed, but the BNP are pretty split right now, having just had a leadership election in which their two MEP’s stood against each other in a very close race. Splinter groups are already emerging from the BNP however, who may yet prove stronger in the long run, and it would be extremely unwise to discount the potency of the BNP as an electoral vehicle for the Far Right. As for his claim that the EDL are a “rabble”, they certainly are – for the most part. But Gilligan does not dig deep enough to see the potential threat that they represent.
Anyone who has seen an EDL “demonstration” up close will know it consists mainly of unimaginative chanting and minor vandalism/street fighting. And it certainly seems as if EDL demonstrations are in one sense in decline, because in terms of numbers, they have had some rather insignificant turn outs this year. Numbers alone cannot accurately the represent the threat the EDL pose however; while numerically the EDL maybe dwindling, the rank and file is radicalising and becoming more extreme. This can be seen in their increasing refusal to cooperate with police, as well as the emergence of more openly fascist splinter groups from the EDL such as the North West Infidels and the UAF Hunting Club.
Another important point raised in Andrew Gilligan’s article was that Breivik did not in fact attack Muslims, but the ‘Cultural Marxists’ he sees as responsible for encouraging Multiculturalism. To Gilligan this is evidence that the attacks were motivated more by political goals than simply “hatred of Muslims”, and he is perhaps right. Breivik went beyond the supposed ‘soft target’ of an ethnic and religious minority against whom offensive rhetoric has become acceptable and attacked the broader Left, something more compatible with full blown Fascism than simply a hatred of one minority group in particular. This mirrors a trend within the EDL, who have in recent months begun to attack Labour councillors, trade unionists and anti-fascist activists as well as attacking Socialist campaign stalls and threatening to “smash Socialists”.
The most significant dangers of the EDL, and similiar far right groupings throughout Europe, can be seen in two ways:
1. The capacity of the EDL to bring together those who hold or are symapthetic to racist, nationalist and Fascist ideas and prejudices and further radicalise them, which is demonstrated in the increasingly extremist stance of the EDL and of the even more openly extremist splinter groups it has produced.
2. The potential of the EDL to be used as a street army against communities and the organised working class, including ethnic groups trade unionists, left wing and antifascist activists, and working class representatives. This should be of particular concern at a time when workers and students are involved in mass action against cuts and austerity.
At this stage it appears that Breivik was working alone, and that others were not aware of his plans. We hope that this is the case, but it cannot be assumed. Breiviks’ links with the EDL, whether significant or not, demonstrate that the European Far Right is in touch with one another, communicating across borders. We can see it growing and spreading as a direct result of the attempts of opportunist politicians and sensationalist media, who have used fear of Muslim extremism to justify illegal imperialist wars and repressive anti-terror legislation. The space for the Far Right to grow has been created by the propaganda of the dominant economic class. If the Far Right is to be defeated, it will require the vast majority of the working class to reject the ridiculous propaganda of the mainstream media, to reject racism and religious division, and propogate a working class alternative to the austerity, scapegoating and imperialism of capitalism, to which the Far Right can never put forward an alternative. It is too early to say yet whether we are genuinely seeing a revival of mass Fascist organisations; certainly none in Europe could yet be classified as such. But if the shadow of Fascism truly is now falling over Europe again, it is the task of the working class to defeat it, and not of the ruling class, which has opened the door to ethnic and religious division once again through its’ inherently crisis ridden system and its’ inevitable attempts to divide us.