The Radical Right, Anti-Muslim Politics, and “Cumulative Extremism”

An important development in radical right activism this century – albeit one that shares many similarities with the past – is the turn toward anti-Muslim politics.

In the aftermath of mass-casualty terrorist attacks by Islamist militants in the United States on 11 September 2001, Madrid on 11 March 2004, and London on 7 July 2005, the emergence of an illiberal anti-Muslim politics has offered a crucial hook for a new generation of radical right politicians – one also palpable in some sections the mainstream media and wider public. In 2005, Nick Griffin, the current chairman of the British National Party (BNP), urged party activists to turn away from an unhelpful anti-Semitism and embrace anti-Muslim politics in a telling attempt at populist, electoral-friendly campaigning: “With millions of our people desperately and very reasonably worried by the spread of Islam and its adherents, and with the mass media … playing ‘Islamophobic’ messages like a scratched CD, the proper choice of enemy needn’t be left to rocket scientists.”

Griffin was trying to distance the BNP from much of its earlier rhetoric, echoing the biological anti-Semitism between the wars so closely identified with “classical” fascist movements like Nazism or Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. In the place of “traditional” Judeophobic prejudice, the radical right has increasingly turned toward a “culturalist racism” of alleged implacable difference and identitarian conflict with European and American Muslims – one in many ways playing upon the same types of sensationalist phobias, casual discrimination and demonization as anti-Semitism did a century ago. This religious/cultural prejudice assumes that all Muslims are responsible for the actions of an extremist minority, and that Islam – not just jihadi Islamist violence, which all citizens of goodwill, of course, naturally oppose – is an “other” that cannot be accommodated within liberal democratic Europe or the US.

Without doubt, over the last generation, the more successful radical right ideologues and movements have been acutely sensitive to shifts in the political and cultural landscape. Aided by the aforementioned jihadi Islamist attacks on one hand, and by longer-term demographic change on the other, Europe and the US have played witness to degrees of collective prejudice and scapegoating wholly at variance with democratic egalitarianism and individual responsibility. This new intolerance, as the far right has quickly grasped, would be considered unacceptable if leveled against other historical “out-groups”: Jews, black people and so on (not including Roma and Sinti peoples, who still face discrimination to a shameful degree). Fanning these flames are windier sections of the reactionary media, which provide an issue that can be shared by ideologues and talking heads of all right-wing shades – “paleo-”, “neo-”, “far-”, and “extreme” alike.

In a perfect storm of populist prejudice, radical Islamist propaganda and radical right rhetoric have together attempted to turn the notion of a “clash of civilizations” into something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It may even be that opposing extremes rely upon each other to validate their shared notion of a “clash of civilizations”. From this perspective, Roger Eatwell has reasonably detected a link between the rhetoric of radical right activists and jihadi Islamists contributing to a “cumulative extremism”, whereby “one form of extremism can feed off and magnify other forms”. In this way, the intertwined extremes from opposing illiberal camps seek to radicalize otherwise liberal-democratic populaces who reject both political violence and collective scapegoating – in all its forms – in favor of the clashing of supposedly hostile and monolithic civilizations.

To be sure, the most violent voice yet in this process of “cumulative extremism” has certainly been Anders Behring Breivik, whose attempt to start a “European Civil War” culminating with the end of Islam in Europe caused the deaths of 77 Norwegian innocents, mostly children, on 22 July 2011. Writing for the New York Review of Books in the wake of Breivik’s terrorist bombing and mass shootings, Malise Ruthven stressed that his anti-Muslim views are “shared by many on the right and some in Europe’s liberal mainstream.” Ruthven’s article, furthermore, highlights several of the wider similarities shared between both opposing, in some ways co-dependent, extremisms:

"Just as al-Qaeda represents an extreme, activist variant of political views held by a much wider constituency of Muslim radicals, most of whom would never consider crossing the boundary between thinking and action, so Breivik (judging from his manifesto) holds a broad range of positions common to what might be called the 'counter-jihadist' or 'paranoid right.' This is represented – among others – by Robert Spencer, Daniel Pipes, and Pamela Geller in the US, the controversial Dutch legislator Geert Wilders, and Bat Ye’or and Melanie Phillips in Britain."

Indeed, for the radical right this has become a signature issue. With the exception of a remaining hardcore of “traditional” biological racists tending toward varying shades of white supremacism, the different manifestations of the radical right – social movements, electoral parties, and, importantly, interconnected websites – have turned toward anti-Muslim prejudice as a core strategy for populist mobilization.

Consider the case of a February 2012 speech delivered by Paul Weston, chairman of the British Freedom Party (BFP). Launched eighteen months earlier, the BFP was seeking funding and visibility ahead of the UK’s May 2012 local elections. Weston correspondingly visited the US to glad-hand and deliver speeches – including one talk entitled “Turning Britain into Lebanon”. Fully signed up to the “clash of civilizations” thesis, Weston there warned of a “slide into civil war, tit for tat atrocities becoming progressively more vicious, before the entire country goes the way of Lebanon, or more recently Yugoslavia, which of course fractured along racial, tribal and religious lines.” Weston was referring, of course, to an assumed, monolithic Islamic faith he considered “worse than Nazism” – one that he believed was acting within, and against, Britain. He then concluded:

"I am going to fight for Britain, but there is no guarantee that Britain and Europe can be saved, and if we go, and America goes shortly thereafter, then so goes western Civilisation – the most humane, moral and decent civilisation in the history of mankind – to be replaced by Islam, the most barbaric, illiberal and totalitarian force of pathological cruelty that can only take the western world back to the dark ages."

Weston’s lecture was originally filmed and presented at the apartment of Laurence Auster, host of the “paleo-conservative” website and blog, View from the Right. The latter, a kind of twenty-first century John Birch Society for the online generation, essentially opposes multiculturalism in favor of return to “traditionalist” conservative values in the US – extending to, as per the epigraph of his September 2008 online collection of texts, “What to do about Islam”: “proposals for removing jihad and sharia supporters from America, restricting or prohibiting the practice of Islam in America, and containing and isolating Islam from the rest of the world, the policy I call Separationism.” More recent blog entries reiterate these views through, say, discussions on the usefulness or otherwise of nuclear attacks against Mecca and Medina, and the potential eventuality of killing Muslims in the west following the outbreak of a European “civil war”. Auster’s reactionary group, which aims to turn back the clock on non-white equality and multiculturalism, hosted Weston’s 23 February revealing speech on the “Islamic road that Europe finds itself on, particularly so Britain, which is almost on the point of no return  or perhaps no peaceful return.”          

A fortnight after Weston’s speech was delivered, it appeared on the single-issue Gates of Vienna website (their telling motto: “At the siege of Vienna in 1683 Islam seemed poised to overrun Christian Europe. We are in a new phase of a very old war.”); and two weeks thereafter, also appeared on Andrew Brons’ Nationalist Unity Forum. Brons, one of two Members of European Parliament for the aforementioned BNP until his recent resignation (the other MEP being current party chairman Nick Griffin), had previously been a member of the National Socialist Movement in the 1960s, and later, from 1980, headed the neo-Nazi National Front before joining the BNP in 2005 and successfully standing in the Yorkshire and Humber region in June 2009. Unlike the “traditionalist” conservative Auster and the single-issue, Islamophobic Gates of Vienna, however, Brons’s website packages anti-Muslim prejudice as one among many themes in his radical-right electoral stable. In this way, ideological positions held by the illiberal right on starkly contrasting issues – ranging from white nationalism, revolution and political violence, to the importance of engaging with the electoral system in the first place – have been recently trumped by a congealing around anti-Muslim prejudice, which seeks to assault liberal democracy not from without, but within.

Shortly after returning from his trip to the US, BFP leader Paul Weston quickly formed an electoral alliance in April 2012 with the first explicitly anti-Muslim street organization in post-war Europe, the English Defence League. Likewise claiming to stand for liberal values against Islamist “totalitarianism” – remarkably, the group calls itself a “human rights organisation” – EDL joint-leaders Tommy Robinson (the pseudonym of currently-remanded Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) and Kevin Carroll have been at the forefront of anti-Muslim politics since the launch of this “new far right” social movement in Spring 2009. While the EDL leadership seems to share neither the overt white supremacism of the BNP and other neo-fascist parties in Europe and the US, nor the backward-looking racism of Auster’s View from the Right, all three illiberal right factions advocate an anti-Muslim rhetoric only adding to an already troubling “cumulative extremism” in Britain, the US and across Europe. 

Following the alliance’s failure in the May 2012 local elections, the BFP-EDL’s other actions over 2012 bear this out the predominance of anti-Muslim politics for this radical right milieu; from a European “Counter-Jihad” demonstration in Aarhus (home of the newspaper publishing the inflammatory “Danish Cartoons” in 2006) on 31 March 2012, and still more ambitiously, the “First Worldwide Counter-Jihad Action” in Stockholm on 4 August 2012 (hosting Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller and others; both events were poorly attended by radical right activists). That scapegoating provocations like the so-called “counter-jihad movement” have an effect in terms of “cumulative extremism” is similarly easy to identify: recently Islamist extremists targeted an English Defence League demonstration in Dewsbury during Summer 2012, hoping to attack EDL-BFP supporters with guns and improvised explosive devices. In this way, an illiberal descent into organized intolerance, long familiar to radical right ideologues and movements, has been reformulated as a “clash of civilizations” discourse targeting the Islamic faith as a whole – potentially contributing to radical right violence like Brieivk’s atrocities in Norway, as well as a “cumulative extremism” serving only to increase already-strained community tensions in Europe and the US.

*[An extended and fully referenced version of this article is available at Faith Matters.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer's editorial policy.

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