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Europe's thriving xenophobia

The radical right has already moved from the margins to the front stage of national politics. Europe's future depends on whether it will be allowed to remain and thrive in the mainstream. 

Jobbik flags, Hungary Jobbik flags, Hungary. Flickr/Leigh Phillips. Some rights reserved.

Populism is threatening to become the new normality in Europe. In response to growing economic and social crises, the radical, far right and populist social movements are experiencing a remarkable surge in support. Across different European contexts, citizens cast their votes for parties with xenophobic roots, rhetoric and policies. This is evident in countries like Greece, France, Hungary, the UK and Sweden, where the radical right form the spearhead of larger renationalization processes directed at forces seen as threatening their ‘national culture and values’.

The radical parties respond to contemporary conditions and challenges such as increased migration, a changing ethno-cultural landscape, economic crisis and international terrorism, through a politics of polarization and fear that seeds cultural racism and intolerance. Figures such as the migrant, the Muslim, the gypsy or the Jew are portrayed as the defining Other. Ideologies scapegoating minorities and immigrants can seem appealing to individuals who feel alienated and disempowered by European and global integration.

The stranger close at hand

In Hungary, national identity and its protection is a key driver of support for the right-wing extremist Jobbik party (a movement for a better Hungary), which is currently the third-largest party in Hungary's parliament. Distrust of mainstream political parties and disillusionment with post-socialist transition has brought the openly anti-Roma, anti-Semitic and homophobic party into power. The main defining “other” of Jobbik is one of Europe’s most persecuted minorities, the Roma, which makes up around 8% of the country’s ten million population. Instead of discussing structural poverty rooted in centuries of social exclusion, the Roma is portrayed as the enemy within. The term “gypsy crime” has become common parlance, highlighting how violent behaviour is considered endemic to Romani communities.

Another scapegoat for Jobbik is the Jews. In a discourse that would be unacceptable to most populist parties in western Europe, Jobbik’s anti-Semitic rhetoric is explicit, referring to “Jewish capital”, calling its opponents puppets of “Jewish conspiracy” and invoking conspiracy theories about “American-Jewish” plans to control the world. Marton Gyongyosi, a Jobbik MP, said in 2012 that all government officials of Jewish origin should be officially listed as they posed a potential “national security risk.” The Hungarian situation cannot be characterised as the “anti-semitism without Jews” found in several other countries, because Hungary has a sizeable Jewish community, the largest in east central Europe.

Research has shown that the “old type” of scapegoating Jews by linking them to modernity and internationalism is widespread and so is the “new anti-semitism” that hold Jews responsible for the political situation in the Middle East (Kovács 2011). In the last decade, the most violent attacks directed at Jews, first and foremost in France and Belgium, have been carried out by disenfranchised young radical Islamists who in their religiously founded identity politics conflate Jews with Israel.

The absence of any sizeable Muslim population in Hungary might explain why the anger channeled through Jobbik is mostly targeting the Roma minority and Jews. This is in contrast to most western European radical parties such as France’s Front National, who while having deep anti-semitic roots, tend to focus on the growing Muslim threat and at times even declare themselves as pro-Jewish. The absence of any sizeable Muslim population in Hungary might explain why the anger channeled through Jobbik is mostly targeting the Roma minority and Jews.

Muslims in today’s Europe are the victims of extraordinary discrimination. Informed by a transatlantic flow of ideas, anti-Muslim racism is heavily present in the campaigns, newsletters and internet debates of the radical right parties. Anti-Muslim sentiments are firmly grounded in the Eurabia conspiracy theory of alleging an ongoing Arabisation and Islamisation of Europe. Muslims are increasingly regarded as an imagined collective with certain inherent features held to be alien to ‘our national culture’.  In Norway, the existence of such ideas rose to public consciousness with the terror attacks of July 22, 2011, where the killer committed mass murder on Norwegian leftists for being soft on Islam.

Pegida march in Berlin, January 2015 Pegida march in Berlin January 2015. Flickr/Sozialfotografie. Some rights reserved.

The shadow of fascism

Xenophobic parties and movements appropriate symbols, myths and terminology of a fascist past in the iconic representation of self and others. Jobbik uses a flag whose symbols closely resemble those of Hungary’s arrow cross, Hitler’s most reliable partner in the Shoah. In Greece, supporters of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn have included the Nazi Horst Wessel song, albeit with Greek lyrics, in its rallying repertoire. In May 2014, 16.1 % of Athenian voters opted for the party’s candidate for mayoralty, Ilias Kasidiaris, who sports a swastika tattoo.

In Switzerland, the eco-nationalist of the ‘Ecopop’ invokes the Nazi term “Lebensraum” to promote ‘population control’ and limit immigration. Such symbols and terminology expose a particular vision of the nation and try to invent historical continuity between the past and the present.  

Not the ‘losers’ of modernity

The voters of extremist and radical parties do not consist solely of the white disenfranchised lower classes hard hit by neoliberal transformation. In Hungary, Jobbik supporters are overrepresented among younger generation and educated urban middle class male voters. In Greece, Golden Dawn has emerged as the country’s third biggest political force thanks to a softening of image that has attracted more voters from the middle class. Many of the radical populist parties like Front National and the Swedish democrats have proven able to attract voters from a diverse base. This challenges the common assumption that voters consist solely of those who are the losers of modernity.

Europe is experiencing increasing stress at the very moment when increasing calm and social cohesion is needed. Anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim and anti-Roma racism pose a serious menace. Illiberal ideologies concerned with national borders and ideas about purity take advantage of polarizing atrocities to blame the actions of a few on many. After the recent terror attacks in France, supporters of the anti-Muslim and anti-immigration movement Pegida seized the opportunity to push their own agenda.

Now, amid economic trauma and growing inequalities, is the time to fight against all forms of racism and intolerance. The radical right has already moved from the margins to the front stage of national politics. Europe´s future depends on whether the radical right is allowed to remain and thrive in the mainstream. 

About the author

Cathrine Thorleifsson holds a PhD in anthropology from the London School of Economics and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo, Norway. ​She is the author of  Nationalism and the Politics of Fear: race and identity on the border with Lebanon (I.B.Tauris 2015). Her second book Nationalist responses to the crisis in Europe: old and new hatreds is forthcoming in 2017.


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