Catriona Robertson

journeys at home and abroad

Suits not boots? The far right in Europe

H-C Strache, leader of Austria's Freedom Party (from Viennese Jesse Alexander's blog it ain't bunk)

A matinee idol is how the Vienna Review described Heinz-Christian Strache’s appearance on campaign posters in June last year.  His Freedom Party went on to win 27% of the votes in Vienna’s October election.

Well dressed, articulate and on the rise – continental Europe’s far right leaders produce slick and sophisticated material.  BBC Radio 4 has a two-parter Driving on the Right and this Tuesday’s programme (4pm) will cover Austria and Germany.

Last week the focus was further north.  A Mexican, who has lived and worked in Denmark for 8 years and is married to a Dane, is finding it impossible to obtain a permanent residence permit.  The new regulations have been brought in under pressure from the Danish People’s Party, who hold the balance of power in parliament.   In Sweden, a member of the Sweden Democrats took the BBC reporter to a part of town with a higher proportion of Muslims, but stayed in her car – with her two Great Danes – out of a mixture of reluctance and fear.

Concern over migration to Denmark and Sweden (in particular by Muslim migrants), a perceived lack of integration and pressure on welfare benefits, and what came over as a sentimental longing for their culture to stay the same seemed to be at the heart of the populist parties’ appeal.

It wasn’t clear how these two countries welcome new arrivals nor what opportunities there are to become part of Swedish or Danish society.

The leader of the English Defence League, Stephen Lennon, was interviewed on BBC TV’s Newsnight before the EDL’s protest in Luton on 5th February.  EDL protests have a history of violence – boots not suits – and their followers are not generally described as matinee idols.  Jeremy Paxman’s rather sneery interview manner pointed up the class gap between the likes of Paxman and the EDL’s membership; it did little to tease out what Lennon’s underlying concerns were or why a whole raft of worries – from crime to the protection of gay and women’s rights, drugs, terrorism and prostitution – appear to be fixed only on ‘militant Islam’, rather than the usual wide and complex range of wicked issues that exercise policy makers.

The Swiss referendum on the building of minarets and niqab bans in other parts of Europe have knock-on effects in the UK, but we have yet to see much mainstreaming of far right politics: the British National Party’s seat in the European Parliament is about it.  Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, may be a hero to his followers but has very little credibility as a national politician.

Heinz-Christian Strache, 2009 (Manfred Werner, Wikimedia Commons)

It is hard to imagine anyone in the UK taking seriously someone who waves a large cross at a proposed site for a new Islamic centre – but Heinz-Christian Strache has found it a vote-winner in Vienna.

So why are significant numbers of voters across Europe falling for it?

I was talking last week to someone who works ecumenically in Nordic, Baltic and other European countries.  His view is that when Christians become less confident in their own faith they are more susceptible to feeling threatened by people with a more secure and informed identity.  So insecure, ‘cultural’ European Christians find it difficult to accept Muslims from other parts of the world – who seem to be more confident in who they are and why they live the way they do.

If this is true, it could also be true of people of any religious or philosophical tradition – a received set of values, whether religious or not, is not as useful as a worked-through, fully-owned religious, ethical or moral position in being able to relate positively to people from a different tradition.  The differences (perhaps because between two known positions they are measurable) are therefore seen to be rather small in comparison to all the commonalities, and appear less significant.  If you’re not quite sure where you stand, the distance may seem that much greater and even unbridgeable.  It might also prompt you to define your own identity in relation to the ‘other’, rather than in a more rounded way.

Listening to the Danish politician on the programme speak about the necessity of listening to far-right concerns and responding to them, rather than dismissing them out of hand, I hope that Newsnight’s next interview with the EDL rightly condemns the violent protests, but engages more fully with their concerns.

Euroblogger Jon Worth has written an informed reflection on the programme, Nordic politics and culture which is well worth a read.

The next programme is on Radio 4 on Tuesday 15th March at 4pm.

8 comments on “Suits not boots? The far right in Europe

  1. Pingback: Fear and Hope « Catriona Robertson

  2. Pingback: How culturally secure are you? « Catriona Robertson

  3. David Llewellyn Foster
    15 February 2011

    Bernard Lewis has been quite alarmist about the crisis within Europe over Muslim integration. Although the pervasive influence of Wahabi extremism is of genuine concern and needs to be addressed intelligently, we do not hear enough about the very real danger of Ratzinger’s reactionary Bavarian brand of “catholicism” however, that is far more dangerous and insidious. It is surely no coincidence that the ascendancy of a right-wing Austrian movement accompanies this resurgent Vatican rear-guard desperation. If Wahabism is truly bad, how bad is it to conceal an endemic culture of institutionalised paedophilia ? When old Viennese bells ring this loud, it is high time to raise the alarm throughout Europe, for we neglect this creeping trend of authoritarian historicist supremacy at our peril.

    • Catriona Robertson
      20 February 2011

      Thanks for your comment.

      Raising alarms is alarmist ;) I would rather support those individuals and groups who are working towards building trust across the different religious and philosophical communities in Europe. Last year I was pleased to find Roman Catholic churches and local interfaith groups in Vienna involved in listening to and understanding their neighbours from different religious and philosophical traditions.

  4. Alan quinn
    15 February 2011

    Europe – Driving on the Right
    Why do you persist with the notion that Facism is right-wing policy.? It is left-wing, to whit, Hitler, Stalin. Pol pot etc. etc

    Left-wing politics is about state control of the individual, industry etc; right-wing politics is about the individual in society i.e. small government, about freedom of the individual to find their own way in life – although you’d hardly know it from Conservative governments in the last 50 years! – it is now permanently tainted by left-wing politics

    • E Hill
      19 February 2011

      Absolutely right! Nazi was after all an abbreviation of National Socialist! Fundamentally, fascism is just authoritarian and anti-liberalism, which easily operate in a democracy, if that is what the majority of people want.
      It was only anti-Semitic, homophobic mass-murderers like Hitler that gave it a bad name. Undeniably, the so-called socialist/ Marxist regimes of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Mugabe etc were just fascist regimes and were also responsible for far more misery, starvation, injustice and death than all of the so-called right-wing dictatorships.
      Authoritarian anti-liberals, or fascists if you will, have just as much right to their opinions as anybody else, no matter how morally repellent the liberal intelligentsia may find them, and if Authoritarian anti-liberals are in the majority, so be it!
      I was interested to hear, during this programme, a young Turkish woman say that she felt sick at the thought that the Freedom Party now has 26% of the vote in Austria.
      Well, now she knows how tens of millions of Western Europeans feel at the sight of tens of millions of immigrants (especially the illegals) who are flooding across our frontiers, when we see their mosques on our streets, when we see their children in our schools, their adults in our benefits offices, their elderly in our surgeries and hospitals, their protestors calling our soldiers murderers, their thieves, rapists and paedophiles in our jails, etc, etc.
      Yet somehow, her feeling sick about the rise of fascism is OK, but our feeling sick about a tide of immigration is not, despite the fact that these are our countries being taken over by intolerant, alien cultures who then abuse our rights and freedoms by insisting they have every right to retain those cultures and we have every obligation to accept them.
      Far from acknowledging our right to feel protective about our country in the face of mass immigration of aggressive and fast-growing alien cultures, they call us racists at every turn, especially whenever we oppose their cultural requirements (e.g. mosques everywhere, cremations in the open air, assertion of the right to carry daggers in public, assertion of the right to wear veils when teaching, etc, etc).
      Even worse, they object to our cultural trappings as being offensive to them and we are the ones who are expected to conform to their requirements.
      Immigrants don’t even recognise the irony that the very freedoms that we value so highly and have fought long and hard over are the ones that are now being used against us in an attempt to dominate our cultures and societies.
      We have fought over the centuries for our freedoms, the sorts of freedoms they want to deny us. Diversity is one of the outcomes of our freedoms and we have embraced it, but only to our cost, because we have been compelled to embrace Islam, a religion that will not allow diversity among its own followers; witness their intolerance of “marrying out,” at divorce or adultery, at refusal to bow to the will of male relatives, of public displays of affection, of women wearing trousers, and all of their other mediaeval beliefs and practices.
      And that young Turkish woman is only facing being kicked out of someone else’s country, she is not facing being assimilated by an aggressive and fast-growing alien culture and bankrupted by the additional demand on our public services and welfare systems.
      And no matter how hard immigrants try to integrate and no matter how much tax they pay, a country does not become theirs after only one generation, especially when they retain most of the features of their own culture, particularly their religion in the case of Islamic immigrants.
      Islam isn’t just a defining and completely unenlightened religion, it is also a strong cultural and political movement which is only interested in domination and control, even to the extent of defining the law. It is not at all interested in integration or diversity.
      The moderates are not the people that end up running their countries, their sects and their mosques. The moderates leave their own countries to escape the domination and tyranny of the clerics, to escape the oppression and lack of freedom, accompanied by the poverty and injustice that go with them, inherent in their societies.
      Well, the rise of right-wing populist movements in Europe is our response to this invasion. It is our extremists taking back our countries and as immigration and Islamic extremism increases, populist parties will grow in numbers, wealth and strength and they will become mainstays of western political systems.
      Unfortunately, at the moment, the far right in the UK is represented by ignorant racists, but it won’t be long before intelligent and articulate fascists begin to break cover and assert themselves.
      Trust me on this; there are millions of them, but they are fearful of speaking out, cowed as they are by liberals and Political Correctness Nazis, and embarrassed by the perceived connection to the ignorant racists that currently occupy the “outed” right wing.
      The backlash has begun, and the more immigrants we get, the stronger it will be.

      • Catriona Robertson
        27 February 2011

        Some of your comments would perhaps be more usefully directed to the BBC, which broadcast the programme. As already noted, I did not mention fascism in my post.

        I agree with you that people are entitled to their opinions. But whilst it is no-one’s business what is inside someone else’s head, it does become everybody’s business once they start behaving according to their values and views. We have laws to protect us from, inter alia, violent and discriminatory behaviour.

        Your description of Islam and British Muslims does not match my experience, nor scholarly enquiry, in any way – as you will know if you read this blog regularly.

        How we live together in this country is for us to decide – through the democratic process, informed by our own experiences, the media and academic research. I’m not convinced that the ability or the desire for different people (and we are all different from one another to a greater or lesser extent) to live well together depends on certain patterns of in-migration or out-migration, still less on the presence or absence of people from a particular world religious or philosophical tradition.

        There is no substitute for eschewing identity politics and getting to know real people and real communities in all their complexity. I recommend it.

    • Catriona Robertson
      20 February 2011

      I didn’t mention fascism in my post.

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