The violence of Europe’s far-right

Photo: Rødt nytt
Oslo mourning the victims of the massacre

By Andrew Williams


July’s terrorist atrocity directed against the Norwegian Labour Party has been a lethal reminder of the role violence plays in Europe’s far-right. The twin attacks in Oslo and at the Utoya island youth camp resulted in 77 deaths, primarily of young people.

Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing fanatic who carried out the bombing and shootings, published a manifesto which he sent to his friends and others before carrying out the attacks. This manifesto links the left with forced ‘multiculturalism’ and the opening up of Europe to a ‘Muslim threat’ through immigration and policies supporting diversity. He calls for a new ‘crusade’, a violent war in which ‘multicultural cities’ are ‘overthrown’ and Muslims are eliminated from society. The manifesto uses countless images of the Western crusades and conquest of the Middle East and also expresses support for Zionism.

These obsessions are in line with the political concerns of all of today’s European far-right, including the use of violent language and imagery, although they hurried to condemn Breivik’s actual act of terror. But Breivik has indicated he is well connected with the extreme right in European politics, including attending EDL events in the UK.

While these violently expressed Islamophobic politics are the property of the extreme right, they have been encouraged by mainstream politicians and commentators that have whipped up fear and prejudice through more ‘mainstream’ expressions of opposition to what they term multiculturalism, and hostility to Muslim communities in the UK.

The most recent example of this was Cameron’s February speech in Munich in which he both claimed multiculturalism had failed and that Britain’s Muslim communities had to be forced to conform to his version of ‘muscular liberalism’, tarring all Muslims with the brush of ‘Islamic extremism’.

As was commented at the time, it was no surprise that Cameron made this speech as the Tories fell behind Labour in the polls for the first time since the 2010 General Election. The economic offensive of the Cameron government, and the ruling class across Europe, is to use the opportunity of the economic crisis to make a radical shift from labour to capital, to increase the profit taken by the latter; so is driving down working class living standards through unemployment, other measures to hold down real wages, reduced pensions and cuts in welfare benefits. Inevitably these measures are deeply unpopular, and lead to electoral problems for the key parties carrying out these measures. Therefore they are accompanied by a drive to divide and weaken any resistance, particularly by scape-goating minority communities.

The Muslim population is particularly targeted both because visible Muslim communities are a ready target for racism, and because it serves the interests of imperialism internationally to delegitimise the voice of Muslims, both within Europe and in the Middle East itself.

Imperialism’s interventions in the Middle East and Central Asia have not been popular in all sections of the population within Europe, but it is Europe’s Muslim populations that have expressed the most resolute mass opposition. Retaining legitimacy for these assaults on the Muslim world includes constructing Muslim political opposition with Europe as an enemy fifth column, and within the Middle East itself as a dangerous ‘clash of civilisations’ which threatens the ‘Western way of life’.

Various arms of the state are engaged in the offensive to suppress dissent and whip up Islamophobia. For example in Britain last year ‘exemplary’ prison sentences were imposed on Muslim youth protesting Israel’s bombing of Gaza. ‘Anti-terrorism’ measures are used to undermine civil liberties for Muslims in particular and cow opposition to war. Legal measures restricting Muslims’ cultural expression continue to be adopted across Europe. In Norway a law was passed in 2006 allowing schools to ban girls and women from wearing the Muslim face veil. France has long banned the wearing of simple headscarves in education. In April this year it extended this to make the wearing of the burqa anywhere in public an illegal act.

Over the past decade the far-right in Europe has advanced, through pursuing this reactionary agenda. Recent examples include Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom securing 15.5 per cent of the vote in the 2010 Netherlands election and the Sweden Democrats entering their Parliament last year on 5.7 per cent. In March this year the French National Front’s Marine Le Pen topped the opinion polls for next President. The Danish People’s Party is the third largest of Denmark’s parliament having won 13.9 per cent in 2007.

Like the fascism of the 1930s, the contemporary extreme-right does not confine itself to electoral politics. Street violence and attacks are an integral part of its development – seen very clearly in the rise of the EDL in the UK as a violence, street-fighting force. This violence is primarily directed at Muslims and other minority populations, with increasingly regular attacks on Mosques and other Muslim buildings or communities, breaking up meetings and racist assaults. But Norway shows that the labour movement and the left and all those seen as defending multiculturalism and supporting diversity are also a target. At its extreme wing this political violence includes terror attacks aimed at mass killings.

However this terrorist and violence threat from the far right is underplayed or ignored, while the alleged ‘Islamist terror threat’ is played up, despite the reality of the evidence. Police forces across the European Union indicate there have been as many far-right terrorist attacks in the last three years as those described as ‘Islamist’ inspired. Europol reports a total of four of each for the years 2008 to 2010 inclusive. There has been no recorded terrorist act carried out by a Muslim in Norway.

In Britain, the government’s revised anti-terror strategy – Prevent – published in June, focuses entirely on the threat of violence from extreme Islamist forces and does not even mention the potential threat from the extreme right and the activities encouraged by the rhetoric of the EDL and its associates. Much of the media is similarly taken up with exaggerated and prejudiced concerns about Muslims, labeling all politically active Muslims as potential extremists, and ignoring the evidence that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the UK are more patriotic, more law-abiding and more moderate in their views that their white counterparts. 

In this overall Islamophobic context it is perhaps not surprising – though it should be a wake-up call – that most of the Western media initially responded to the Norwegian atrocity by stirring up a bilious campaign against Muslims. The Wall Street Journal editorial suggested the attacks was the work of a ‘jihadist group’. The Independent headlined a piece “Analysis: Jihadist networks have long singled out Norway” and the Sun’s front page headline was ‘“Al-Qaeda” Massacre: Norway’s 9/11’.

The far-right in Britain, as elsewhere in Europe, has grown over the past decade. While not achieving the level of breakthrough of some continental far-right parties, the British National Party (BNP) increased its share of the vote in UK general elections from 0.2 per cent in 2001; 0.7 per cent in 2005; to 1.9 per cent in 2010. Its vote in Euro-elections grew more sharply from 0.9 per cent in 1999; 4.9 per cent in 2004; to 6.2 per cent in 2009, when it won two MEPs. While it is was driven back electorally in the 2010 elections and has fallen into internal crisis, at the same time a street-fighting force on the same politics has emerged with greater strength.

The English Defence League (EDL) has been mobilising against Muslim communities over the past two years, with regular ‘demonstrations’ that unleash violence, assaults on people and buildings. It also organises actions to disrupt and breakup meetings of socialists and anti-racists. Less reported, but the most frequent violence is the growing number of attacks on Muslims and Islamic institutions in towns right across Britain.

Responding to the revelations of the Norwegian mass killer’s connections to the EDL, an obliging media, including the BBC, allowed its leader to present the EDL’s violent racist gangs as a peaceful protest movement. Legitimacy is being conferred on this violently racist movement in a similar way to the platform the media has given the BNP leadership.

Any pretence that the EDL is a non-violent, English nationalist protest movement of some legitimate variety is easily dispelled by the numerous videos that indicate the character of these mobilisations, such as here, here or here.

Britain’s far-right also has a history of involvement in terrorism. Since 1999, when former BNP member David Copeland killed and injured more than one hundred with three nail bombs, other far-right activists have been convicted and imprisoned for making nail bombs and possessing firearms and explosives.

The threat in Britain from far-right violence is no less than elsewhere in Europe. In response all progressive political forces need to ally themselves with the Muslim population that bears the brunt of the violence currently taking place. A movement that responds both to the BNP’s electoral campaigns and counters the EDL mobilisations with events that defend diversity, as advocated by Unite against Fascism and One Society Many Cultures is vital and must be supported. A mass movement is needed based on the broadest possible alliance of all those opposed to racism, Islamophobia and the far-right, which also confronts the false Islamophobic and racist arguments on which fascism is basing its advance.

Contrary to the mistaken urgings of Searchlight, the struggle against the far-right would be undermined if anti-fascists concede ground to the government’s Islamophobic agenda.

Tower Hamlets

In an act of extreme provocation, on 3rd September the EDL plans to take its message of hatred and division in a demonstration – which will inevitably involve threats of and actual violence – to Tower Hamlets, the district in Britain with the highest Muslim population (36.4 per cent). The local borough council is led by Britain’s first Muslim directly elected Mayor and is subject to a sustained right-wing media campaign claiming a sinister Muslim takeover. There are widespread calls from the local community for the EDL mobilisation to be banned.

The local broad alliance of anti-fascists, United East End, supported by the UAF, One Society Many Cultures, the local council, local unions and churches and others are organising a response on 3rd September, with a mass demonstration and celebration of the area’s diversity. Every possible person should be encouraged to attend this event, to defend the community in Tower Hamlets, and to show that the EDL are a tiny minority and that the majority of people reject the politics of hate they advocate, the consequences of which we have seen in Norway.

The details of the Tower Hamlets 3rd September demonstrations are available here.