Amid the high tension in Europe, populist parties will use Islamophobia to increase their political influence. This troublesome trend will only bring about greater political risk for the continent.
Islamophobia stretches across the political spectrum in Europe. The German organization, PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West), based in Dresden, is building ties with other right-wing populist movements throughout Europe.
Greater collaboration is driving the number of protestors who are angered in part by the European political establishment and media. To the PEGIDA demonstrators, the counter-demonstrators hold a monopoly on the public discourse surrounding the future of immigration and Islam in Europe.
While retaining the ideals of the social-welfare state favored by the left, the right-wing populist parties advocate for great restrictions on the construction of mosques and number of immigrant arrivals along with a healthy dose of Euroscepticism.
With the continuing economic troubles in the continent, the anti-immigration and anti-Islamization trend is becoming a part of the mainstream public discourse. The success of the Sweden Democrats (SD) illustrates this pattern all too well.
France, Austria, and Denmark are three countries that show how Islamophobia poses greater political risk to Europe’s struggling economy:
In France, many first and second generation Algerians are confined to a low socio-economic status in the suburbs called banlieues. In these areas, unemployment is at 50 percent. France’s national unemployment rate hit a record high last November. Ideas on solving the problems of the high number disaffected youth range from civic-lessons to tapping into national pride but these solutions all have the same problem: the money is just not there. The number of arrests for religiously-motivated terrorism in Europe was close to 150 in 2013, part of an increasing trend since 2007.
In France, the National Front (FN) led by Marine Le Pen criticizes the ruling Socialist party as well as former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP. One of her suggestions was to impose tighter security at the border.
This would no doubt impact the European Schengen Area Agreement. Already MEPs are on the defensive against EU member states regarding the issue of internal flight passenger data. This won’t help France’s struggle to increase its business competitiveness against other Eurozone countries. Dissatisfaction with the UMP and Socialists will flock more voters to the FN, including Marseille’s Muslims in March 2014.
Anti-Islam sentiment runs deep in this country with a 6 percent Muslim population. A survey by a local paper found51 percent of Austrians perceive Islam as threatening.
Legislation drafted by the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) for a ban of face veils failed to pass in the Austrian parliament last summer. Even the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) member, Maria Fekter, an immigration hardliner, rejected the ban on the grounds it would be harmful to tourism.
Indeed, after Germany, Saudi Arabia sends more visitors to quaint Austrian ski towns like Zell am See and spend double the amount that European tourists do.
Dr. Farid Hafez with the University of Salzburg Department of Political Science spoke to Global Risk Insights about the sociopolitical current climate in Austria, “Austria does not need any [new] Islamophobic civic movement, because Islamophobia has already been part of the program of the Austrian far right party FPÖ, which is represented in the national parliament. So in contrast to Germany, where there is no far right party in national parliament, a movement such as PEGIDA could much more easily evolve.”
However, Dr. Hafez explained, “If you look at various numbers of local Austrian Islamophobic civic movements that protested against the buildings of mosques, etc., you can see that these protests were coopted by the FPÖ. My assumption [is that] PEGIDA Austria, which proclaimed [it will] go to the streets on February 2nd, will probably not lead to the creation a unique and independent body, as the links to the FPÖ will be there.”
Dr. Hafez has detailed how there is a clear shift from classical anti-Semitism to adopting a campaign of Islamophobia and a greater interested in the exchange of strategy on the European level.
In recent years, the center-right ÖVP is finding it harder to retain votes from those who feel left behind in Austria’s relatively stable economy. The risk will only widen as troubling signs for Austria’s economy are ahead.
Denmark has some of Europe’s most strict immigration regulations in Europe. This also includes the ability of immigrants to marry Danish citizens. A poll found that 13 percent of Danes felt the far right Danish People’s Party (DF) was not tough enough on immigration. Roughly 4 percent of Denmark is Muslim, with a high concentration in the Norrebro district of Copenhagen. It did not take long for the PEGIDA demonstrations (and counter-protests) to spread to Denmark.
Syrians and Eritreans seeking political asylum for their families struggle to obtain refugee status. This has been condemned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Grimhøj Mosque in Aarhus, widely known for its conservative interpretation of Islam, has been working to stem the flow of young people to overseas conflict zones.
Denmark is fostering stronger ties with Saudi Arabia with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal planning to visit soon. Kingdom Holding Company (KHC) is heavily linked into Denmark’s financial network through Citigroup. KHC reported a 15 percent rise in net profit in the closing quarter of 2014.
European leaders need to get serious about addressing Europe’s economic and social problems in a clear and consistent way. Whitewashing the problems to appeal to voters will only encourage further populist tendencies that attract disaffected voters on either end of the political spectrum. Alienating the Muslim population will increase radicalization among the vulnerable and drive out both skilled and unskilled workers that the European economy so sorely needs.
Chis Solomon has supported several US government-funded international development programs in the Middle East and Africa throughout his professional career. Christopher holds a master’s degree in Public and International Affairs from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) at the University of Pittsburgh.
First appeared in Global Risk Insights.