On Sunday, October 8, Belgians went to the polls to renew their local governments. The event was understandably little noticed by a world preoccupied with North Korea’s test of a nuclear weapon.
Even in conditions less unfavorable, Belgium is a small country, and it mostly gains attention for the fact that the EU resides there. Even so, these elections have gotten modest coverage, insofar as they were seen as a possible manifestation of a worrying trend that is engulfing Europe: the rise of far right extremists.
As a multilingual federal state, Belgium has a complicated political system. Far right parties are correspondingly divided between the French and the Flemish speaking sectors and have their own distinct peculiarities. On the French side, the local namesake of the French Front National rarely gains more than 5 percent of the vote. But on the Flemish side, the Vlams Belang won 20 percent of the overall national vote, reaching almost 33 percent in the city of Antwerp and even more in smaller communes. Commentators here claim that the party’s failure to capture that city’s administration, and the fact that its electoral gains were less than expected, indicates that its strength has peaked and its threat is therefore contained.
Yet with all their Belgian peculiarities, these electoral returns reflect a larger European phenomenon: After decades at the margins of political life, extreme right-wing parties are making strong gains across the continent. Despite the fact that their historical roots are oftentimes buried deep in Europe’s dark historical legacy, they enjoy the support of an electorate, which, apart from a small hard-core of loyal voters, is moderate in its political views.
For Europe, it is extremely important to understand why this is happening. Instead, the knee-jerk reaction of many Europeans is to create the illusion that the exclusion of these parties from politics is not only principled, but also effective. Those who claim that isolation from power and regular politics will, in the long term, deprive the extremists of their appeal, should at least ask themselves where the extremists’ appeal comes from in the first place, especially given that, when such parties break the barrier of 5-10 percent of the national vote, one cannot dismiss their voters as only a bunch of thuggish, head-shaven neo-Nazi nostalgics. One cannot presume that 33 percent of Antwerp’s electorate is fascist, or that the 18 percent of the French electorate who voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen for French president five years ago are fascists.
A question instead must be asked. Why are increasing numbers of decent, moderate, law-abiding and overall tolerant citizens of Europe voting for parties that have an extreme past, a militant rhetoric, and a political agenda that is sometimes dubious, sometimes ambiguous, and never entirely committed to liberal democratic values?
The answer is a growing anxiety among the public for the future of Europe in light of the growth of Muslim communities on the continent. In the space of a few months, two European embassies were burned in Syria on account of Danish cartoons; priests, and nuns were murdered in Turkey and Somalia; and churches were burned in the West Bank — all as responses to perceived insults to Islam and its prophet. Incidents continue to multiply: the response to the Pope’s recent Regensburg speech seemed only to confirm what were deemed to be impolitic remarks; in the U.K., Jack Straw’s candid confession that he felt “uncomfortable” about the veil drew vituperation from prominent Muslim voices; a French philosopher is in hiding, fearful for his life, in the country of Voltaire and the universal declaration of human rights, because he dared criticize Islam; cases of honor killings and of female circumcision are multiplying; and the new minister of integration of Sweden who dared to launch a campaign to fight these phenomena is herself an the object of attack.
For many Europeans, the multiplying list of outrages where an intolerant, aggressive, violent, and retrograde Islam openly challenges liberal values such as freedom of speech and gender equality is a sign that a strong response is in high order. If they vote for the extremists, it is not necessarily because they have become extreme, but because the parties at the political center, which should best interpret this anxiety and give it concrete political expression, are paralyzed by political correctness, fear of antagonizing a growing Muslim electorate, or simply too naïve to understand what is at stake.
On the Left, things are no better. For many of its members, there is no problem with Islam in Europe; rather, the rise of right-wing extremism is a threat to the multicultural society they dream about, where there is no space for national identity, only for a borderless, cultured, and cosmopolitan European identity. When confronted with Islamic extremism, they make the claim that by talking to them and engaging them, the Muslim extremists will gain a stake in the political process and thus become more moderate — the exact opposite policy they advocate for right-wing extremism. In so doing, they empower Islamic extremists at the expense of the real moderates among Islamic communities, effectively silencing them and the hope they offer us for a path to coexistence and integration.
As for the hard Left, Islam has an alluring power: after the workers of Europe betrayed the revolution and embraced capitalism instead, many of its members see Muslim immigrants as the new underclass and Islamism, with its anti-Western, anti-global, and anti-American tinge, as if it were the new wave of anti-imperialism, with Osama bin Laden as a new Che Guevara.
But where elites and intellectuals see multiculturalism, electoral support, and revolutionary zeal, an increasing number of people see a threat to their national values, heritage, and culture, not to mention jobs and resources. After all, it is the lower-middle class and the working class that compete with immigrants for jobs, welfare benefits, and cheap housing. It is among those classes that the sense of national belonging and religious devotion are still at their strongest. Clashes between newcomers and old-timers are always bitter at the lower levels of society due to lack of financial security. Nevertheless, the cultural and religious dimension of this clash only compound the phenomenon. European leftists by and large don’t pay the price for this change — and invoke patience, in the mistaken belief that the brewing conflict is a result of socio-economic deprivation. They thus dismiss the electoral swing to the right as xenophobia — the Belgian leading French daily evoked the old Spanish civil war slogan of “No Pasaran” in one of its comment pieces on the recent results — as if they were in the 1930s again and Fascism was about to conquer Europe. They thus embrace the same rhetoric and the same spirit of the Popular Fronts, instead of seeing that only a principled stance vis-à-vis radical Islam in the name of Western liberal values can avert catastrophe.
They do so at their own peril — as much as the political center does in so far as it ignores the signs of discontent among the electorate.
Europe after all has a historical precedent it would be foolish to ignore: in the 1920s, the political center gradually lost power — and control of the situation — under the double assault of left-wing and right-wing extremisms. Back then that situation was largely dependent on a drastic economic downturn, which only intensified the ideological struggle. But in an era of mass terror this crucial difference may become irrelevant. Had the plot to blow airliners in mid-air succeeded last August, the world economy would have come to a standstill, if only for a few days, with disastrous consequences. The recently revealed plot to detonate a dirty bomb at the U.S. Stock Exchange and other critical institutions in both the U.S. and Europe would have had similar disastrous effects. And given the likely ideological paternity of such outrages, one can only imagine the reactions.
The recent Belgian elections are but a warning. More is to come.
Europe must stand firm in the face of Muslim extremism no less than in the wake of its own racist brand of right-wing, anti-immigrant zeal. Otherwise, 50 years of difficult work to unify and pacify Europe will have come to naught.
– Emanuele Ottolenghi is the incoming executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Institute.