CAIRO – 20 November 2017: In a scene reminiscent of Gotham City, an estimated 60,000 people marched through Warsaw on Saturday waving red-and-white Polish flags, carrying flares and filling the air with red smoke. Although the march primarily consisted of young men, older Poles and families also took part.
The march coincided with Poland’s Independence Day, which commemorates the reinstatement of Polish sovereignty at the end of World War I after being partitioned and ruled since the late 18th century by Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although many official government events took place earlier in the day, the far-right march overshadowed this and was the largest Independence Day event in recent years.
Some protesters carried banners depicting a Falanga, a far-right symbol dating to the 1930s, as participants expressed sympathy for xenophobic and white supremacist ideas. One banner read, "White Europe of brotherly nations," while people marched under the slogan "We Want God".
Demonstrators burn flares and wave Polish flags during Poland's Independence Day in Warsaw. REUTERS/Franciszek Mazur
“When you get 60,000 people marching through Warsaw in an annual gathering of Europe's far-right movements waving these sorts of banners and shouting anti-Muslim slogans then there is a right to be concerned,” said Yvonne Ridley, renowned journalist and Secretary-General of the European Muslim League, to Egypt Today.
As one of Europe’s largest far-right demonstrations in recent years, the march drew influential far-right figures from around Europe; notably including Tommy Robinson, ex-leader of the English Defence League, and the leader of the Italian Forza Nuova party, Roberto Fiore.
Take into consideration the number of attendees at this rally. This does not mean that there are just 60,000 supporters of the far right in Poland, this means that there were 60,000 people who believed passionately enough to make the time to publicly display this passion.
This populist rhetoric of intolerance is not confined to Poland however. With the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union, far-right sentiment in Eastern Europe was allowed the space to blossom. After the 2008 economic crash this accelerated throughout Europe, and ever since the continent as a whole has bore witness to a sharp rise in the popularity of right-wing political parties, organizations and movements. This threatens the fundamental principles of tolerance and liberty which have guided Europe since the fall of Nazi Germany, and accentuated with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
This has taken place differently in the Eastern and Western Europe context.
“Most peculiar to Eastern Europe is that you don’t have a large Islamic presence. The fact that there is an anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic backlash there is interesting. This is has a lot to do with their recent independence,” said Johannes van Gorp, professor of Political Science at the American University of Sharjah, to Egypt Today.
Demonstrators burn flares and wave Polish flags during Poland's Independence Day in Warsaw. REUTERS/Adam Stepien
“The difference in the way the legacy of World War II and the holocaust has been dealt with in Eastern Europe has created opportunity structures for radical right-wing ideas,” he added. “Many Eastern European countries are playing fast and loose with immigration laws.”
A nationalist sentiment is central to right-wing ideology; this manifests itself in many ways and differs accordingly in respective countries. For example, the United Kingdom’s referendum to leave the European Union can be interpreted as a struggle to retain the quintessential British culture, which many people feel has been diluted by an influx of immigrants from all corners of the EU and the world.
While anti-Semitism has long occupied an important position in the culture surrounding far-right politics, we are increasingly seeing the adoption of an anti-Islamic rhetoric.
“In extreme groups, anti-Semitism and anti-Islam go hand in hand,” said van Gorp. “As for ‘mainstream’ populist radical right groups, especially in Western Europe – they have certainly become more anti-Islamic than anti-Semitic.”
Ridley added that “sadly anti-Semitism has not gone away, but it now has a new soul mate in Islamophobia.”
“I believe Islamophobia is the wrong term, and it should be called what it is: hatred of Muslims,” she continued.
Those in the UK who act in this far-fight, anti-immigration stance, claim they are acting under the direction of patriotism, yet clearly have no understanding of the country’s history that underpins patriotism. Of course they will have heard the age-old adage: “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” but the connotations of this clearly pass them.
Britain ascended to its once-global supremacy through the domination of submissive states and the plunder of their wealth. Yet, the sharing of ideas, items and importantly individuals helped found the country they believe now needs to be saved from foreign influence.
Similar far-right nationalist movements can be found all over Europe. From the Freedom Party in Austria, which in 2016 came a close second in the presidential race while making advances in the legislature, to the Swedish Democrats in Sweden. From France’s National Front, which gained 6 million votes in 2016 presidential election, to the Alternative for Germany party.
Austria's extreme-right Freedom Party. AFP
“The further away we move from World War II, maybe we’re seeing a normalization of European politics, and that in democracy there will always be a strong element of radical right-wing thinking,“ added van Gorp.
Economic grievances, a fear of terrorism and a fear of immigration
It is evident there has been a rise in the popularity of right-wing parties and organizations throughout Europe. Economic grievances, a fear of terrorism and a fear of immigration are the dominant factors. When a fear of immigration and a fear of terrorism hit a crossroads, a fear of Islam is what comes out the other end.
“I believe the rise of the Far Right in Europe has been mirrored in the growth of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric,” said Ridley.
A fresh cause for conflict in the Middle East came with the 2011 uprisings – the so-called Arab Spring – which saw a dramatic increase in both immigration, in the form of refugees, and terrorism in Europe.
The commonly referred to European refugee crisis began in 2015, when rising numbers of people arrived in the EU, from predominantly Muslim Arab countries. The majority travelled across the Mediterranean Sea or overland through Southeast Europe. Almost two million refugees and migrants crossed into Europe in 2015 alone, sparking a crisis as countries struggled to cope with the demand.
The EU's external border force, Frontex, put the figure crossing into Europe in 2015 at more than 1,800,000. These people included asylum seekers, economic migrants, and some hostile agents; some of which has gone on to commit attacks in Europe targeting civilians and the police predominantly. Divisions in the EU have arisen over how best to deal with resettling people.
During the Brexit campaign in the UK, Nigel Farage, head of the UKIP party, claimed that “every single aspect” of working people’s lives have suffered from immigration: from finding school places, to getting a doctor’s appointment, commuting to work, and finding a job. “People’s lives have gotten more difficult,” he said in June 2016.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage unvails controversial poster in Westminster, immediately condemned by MPs from all main Westminster parties. AFP
“In many cases Islam is seen as a code word for migrants making it easier for racists to spread their hate-fuelled messages,” said Ridley.
Geert Wilders, head of the Dutch Party for Freedom, adopts arguably some of the most disturbing rhetoric. Wilders wants to close all mosques, ban the Quran, and seal the nation's borders to asylum seekers and immigrants from Islamic countries to prevent the spread of Islam. “Islam does not belong to us. It brings violence and danger everywhere. We need to de-Islamize and close our borders,” the populist politician said in 2015.
"Dutch values are based on Christianity, on Judaism, on humanism. Islam and freedom are not compatible," he said in February 2017.
There is a fear that accepting increased numbers of refugees from Muslim-majority countries will lead to an increased terror threat. Terrorists are able to hide into the vast number of people following the migrant routes. In 2015, Europe experienced an unprecedented spike in terror attacks as terrorists either returned home to Europe from Syria and Iraq, or made use of the migrant routes; such attacks inspired others and led to many copycat attacks.
“Most refugees in the world today come from Muslim countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan; all have olive skins and are easy to target because of their vulnerable status. The influx of millions of refugees in Europe has caused widespread panic,” Ridley said.
Officials in Slovakia, Estonia, Bulgaria and Poland have said they want to take only Christian asylum seekers, or none at all.
The nationalist government in Hungary called a referendum, which took place on October 2, 2016, on whether to accept the European Union's migrant relocation plans. Although over 98 percent of voters supported Hungry having control of its immigration policy, the 44 percent turnout was too low to make the poll valid.
The anti-immigration campaign spurted a wealth of fear-mongering propaganda. Since Islam remains the common denominator, such propaganda only spreads and feeds people’s prejudices.
"Did you know? More than 300 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Europe since the start of the migrant crisis."
"Did you know? Almost one million immigrants want to come to Europe from Libya alone."
"Did you know? Since the start of the immigration crisis, sexual harassment of women has increased in Europe."
Supporters of anti-immigration right-wing movement PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) take part in a demonstration rally in Cologne. REUTERS
There is some truth to the notion that increased immigration has led to increased terrorism, but this is purely a numbers game.
Because of such threats, there have been major disagreements over how to deal with the influx of migrants. EU law states that asylum seekers must file an application in the EU country they arrive in, but this puts countries on the fringe, such as Greece, Italy and Hungary, under a disproportionate amount of pressure. EU ministers voted in September to share the refugee burden.
Some 1,321,560 asylum claims were made in Europe during 2015 alone. Germany attempted to set a precedent, and opened its doors. In 2015, it received over 475,000 new asylum applications, however real estimation for the number of asylum seekers in Germany in 2015 is much higher.
While Germany has registered the most asylum applications in 2015, Hungary took the highest in proportion to its population. With nearly 1,800 refugees per 100,000 of Hungary's local population claiming asylum in 2015, Hungry was forced to ease the flow by closing its border with Croatia. Sweden followed in a close second with 1,667 per 100,000. The EU average was 260.
As far-right parties continue to rise in popularity across Europe, all it takes is a moment of heightened patriotism to spark conflict. This occurred after the UK voted to leave Brexit, as a spike in hate crimes infected the country.
Germany’s open border policy faced major backlash as many Germans opposed the changes taking place in their country. The result was a rise in hate crimes. An average of almost 10 attacks a day were carried out against refugees in Germany last year, according to the country’s interior ministry.
Some European countries have an anti-Islamic bias entrenched in their laws. In Italy for example, Islam isn’t formally recognized, unlike Christianity and Judaism.
To appease the far-right, governments across Europe have been implementing what can only be perceived as discriminatory and anti-Islamic laws. Such discriminatory policies include a hijab ban for certain professions, a ban of the niqab in public – overt religious displays – and a regulation against building minarets, all of which restrict Muslim’s freedoms.
“It appeases voters and is a cheap and exploitive way of stealing the ground from underneath the feet of the Far Right,” said Ridley.
People gather for an anti-immigration demonstration organised by rightwing movement Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA) in Dresden, Germany, on Oct. 19, 2015. Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
Eerily similar to 1930s pre-Nazi Germany, immigrants and those considered “non-European” are being singled out as a scapegoat for the problems troubling many European countries. Groups which propagate fear and intolerance are gaining in popularity across Europe as a “fear of the other” becomes the norm. Well, to say it has become the norm is possibly too presumptuous; nevertheless, right-wing populist political parties and large demonstrations by far-right wing movements are becoming more common on TV screens.
“Can you draw similarities with the 1930s, pre-World War II Europe, and now?” van Gorp was asked. “Absolutely,” he replied.
“Those hardest hit by the recession and job shortages are told by the Far Right that all society’s ills are down to Muslims,” Ridley added. “Again, we've learned nothing from history – people are being targeted for their beliefs and faith.”
“Do we really want history to repeat itself again?”
While the U.S. prides itself on total freedom of speech, many European states place limits on the extent of free speech. While citizens are able to speak freely, the line is drawn at expressing hatred towards any particular group of people, and inciting violence. The racist rhetoric is so prominent during World War II and the death this caused has not left the minds of the Europeans.
While our onlookers from the West cry over their flag in an exaggerated show of patriotism, while chanting the favorite word: “freedom,” they forget an important point. The more excessive, the more unconvincing, runs the rhetoric in the UK.
Members of Unite Against Fascism and local people gather in a park in Tower Hamlets, east London, ahead of a demonstration by the right-wing EDL. AFP/Justin Tallis
Limits on freedom of speech in Europe allow once marginalized groups within society to live free, while they themselves do not impede upon the freedom of others. Europeans have direct experience when it comes to how intolerant nationalism can go seriously wrong, and understand how to try and avoid the terrors of World War II again.
However, we have seen this turned on its head. France’s ban on the niqab and other overt displays of religion are unfairly differentiating between groups in society.
“By outlawing this item of women's clothing, governments are satisfying calls from the Far Right and feeding their Islamophobia which affects a tiny, tiny minority of women,” Ridley concluded.
“Politicians in Europe have to take more responsibility for cultivating the right sort of atmosphere and acceptance of refugees regardless of their faith.”
While it must be remembered that these movements and parties lie on the fringes of mainstream politics, and are in no way representative of the majority, this reality shows a dark shift in the changing European political atmosphere.