These are strange times. A House candidate airs a campaign ad demonizing a hyper-local zoning decision about an Islamic center in downtown Manhattan, in order to win votes in…North Carolina. Days later, the fallout over NPR commentator Juan Williams’ inflammatory remarks about Muslims provokes a counterattack against a “shariah-mandated stealth jihad” brought to you by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Do not adjust your screens; this is the new normal in American politics.
Is this alchemy of right-wing politics, sensationalism and paranoia unique? How exceptional is America’s combustible conservative fringe? Actually our neighbors on the other side of the Atlantic may be a few steps ahead in spinning anti-Muslim anxiety into a right-wing rallying cry. And troublingly, the far right on both sides of the pond are building ties that make the recent rash of xenophobia feel much larger—and more frightening—than any given election.
Consider this statement by German Chancellor Angela Merkel about immigrants who supposedly resist assimilation into the country’s largely homogeneous society:
We kidded ourselves a while. We said: They won’t stay. Some time, they’ll be gone. But this isn’t reality, and of course, the approach to build a multicultural society, to happily live side by side with each other, this approach has failed, utterly failed.
The “failure” Merkel cites is a breakdown of the postwar project of building a Europe that transcends the nationalism that gave rise to fascism. The Obama administration may have officially retired the phrase “war on terror,” but the violence of that sentiment lives on in the political battles rippling across Europe, and America, too.
In an interview with NPR, Boston Globe columnist James Carroll drew a transatlantic connection between religiously tinted bigotry in the American and European contexts:
Late 20th- and 21st-century experience across the globe has changed all of our situations, and the crisis in Europe especially tied to high rates of immigration from Islamic countries and centers has put to the fore that question of Europe’s identity as a so-called Christian nation…. Oddly enough, this political argument that should seem foreign to us in this country, where we have a tradition of separation of church and state, is resonating very powerfully as Christian themes emerge quite explicitly in our political discourse.
While not all foot soldiers in the U.S. rightwing resurgence identify as Christian fundamentalists, John C. Greene of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life observed that, with varying degrees of religiosity, politicians on both sides of the aisle have played fears of “Islam” to stir populist passions:
We have some examples in Republican primaries where candidates have sort of fallen all over each other to indicate how opposed they were to the mosque in New York City. But we also had a case on the Democratic side down in Florida, where an incumbent Democratic member of Congress labeled his Republican opponent as Taliban Dan—again, picking up not directly on Islam, but on an Islamic group that’s unpopular.
For both parties, anti-Muslim politics are a convenient political stressball—offering dejected voters temporary relief from chronic anxiety over real issues like unemployment and health care. And the European attack on “multiculturalism” serves a similarly cathartic purpose.
While Newt Gingrich and Bill O’Reilly crusaded against public radio last week, a hard-right Dutch politician faced charges of “inciting hatred against Muslims.” According to the AP, Geert Wilders (who traces some of his disdain for Islam back to a case of traveler’s diarrhea) was accused of making statements “equating Islam with fascism and violence and others calling for a ban on the Quran and a tax on Muslim headscarves.” In Vienna and Sweden, extreme-right parties recently scored notable gains in recent provincial and parliamentary elections, respectively, with similar tactics. Vienna’s Freedom Party campaigned on the bold credo, “Too much foreignness does no one any good.”
Even liberal and libertine France has veered right on immigration. Facing dismal popularity ratings, conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy has targeted ethnic Muslims and Roma migrants with laws like a ban on wearing the full-face veil. (In recent months, other EU nations have jumped on the anti-burqa bandwagon, too).
Pepe Escobar writes in Asia Times that the crumbling global economy pushed Europe’s spasm of post-9/11 bigotry to today’s crest:
The New (anti-Islam) Inquisition did not hit Europe immediately after 9/11; it has reached critical mass only today. The popular political sport in Europe today is not to watch Real Madrid and AC Milan playing in the Champions Football League; it is to watch populists invoking Islam—depicted as an “ideology that opposes everything that matters to us”—to crystallize all manner of phobias and fears of European citizens. Fear of Islamization, fear of the burqa—no distraction could be as convenient for people to forget the dire, unending economic crisis that has produced catastrophic unemployment rates all across Europe.
Fittingly, the right-wing backlash that militates against cultural mingling and transnational migration is becoming globalized, too. (“Don’t catch our European disease,” warns one commentator.) Austria’s far-right party is now building ties with Germany’s right. Wilders recently joined Gingrich in protesting the Park 51 Islamic center in Manhattan.
According to Ferry Biedermann in Foreign Policy magazine, the Dutch firebrand plans to forge “ideological and financial ties [with] and American archconservatives such as David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, and Jim DeMint”:
In July, Wilders announced that he was setting up a Geert Wilders International Freedom Alliance aimed at stopping Muslim immigration to the West. He designated the United States as one of five countries that were ‘ripe’ for his alliance.”
The news coverage of the midterm elections certainly suggests that the rightwing resurgence is “ripe” for some kind of revolt—whether it’s a congressional takeover or packing guns at a political rally. Whatever delusion ultra-conservatives may harbor about representing “the grassroots” or embodying “American values,” the fact is that their war is erupting into something bigger than the election and more abstract than local grievances.
The American far-right loves to invoke the history of the Founding Fathers. But they really ought to look at the more recent legacy their European counterparts threaten to rekindle: an explosion of right-wing reaction mixed with ultra-nationalism, which just a few generations ago wrought horrors too easily forgotten.