Photo: Carsten Koall

Europe’s right-wing “civil war” against refugees

  • October 26, 2015

Borders & Beyond

As right-wing leaders whip up the hatred, it is no longer exaggerated to claim that Europe is on the verge of a low-intensity civil war against refugees.

Explosives, heaps of Nazi propaganda and a substantial number of firearms are displayed on a table at the Bamberg police station. They were retrieved from the homes of several neo-Nazis in the Bavarian city. Thirteen people were arrested on suspicions of plotting a terrorist attack against a local refugee center, which currently houses more than 400 refugees.

The neo-Nazis planned to charge the center during a protest march organized by the extreme-right organization Die Rechte (“The Right”), using explosives and nitrate bombs that they had simply purchased on the Internet. Needless to say, the attack would have had disastrous, and most likely deadly, consequences for the center’s inhabitants.

These events do not stand on their own.

In the very same week, Europe was shaken by a murderous sword attack at a school in Sweden, leaving two dead and several wounded. The 21-year-old suspect, who was dressed in black and wearing an SS-helmet, allegedly had links to the Swedish extreme right, and clearly selected his victims on the basis of race.

And in Cologne, mayoral candidate Henriette Reker, whose campaign revolved around the support for refugees, was heavily wounded in a knife attack. Again, the perpetrator was affiliated with the extreme right, and openly declared that he was acting “to protect the country from foreigners.”

Next to the “incidents” that receive widespread media coverage, moreover, stands a seemingly endless series of arson attacks and other forms of vandalism against (projected as well as inhabited) asylum seekers centers in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands. Besides a few devoted neo-Nazis, an even greater number of citizens without any prior experience in extreme-right activism are now getting organized in committees and campaigns against the opening of refugee centers in their neighborhoods.

Advocates of a more solidary approach receive serious threats, and new extreme-right movements are gaining visibility on Europe’s streets — not in the last place Germany’s ever-growing PEGIDA, which now also has branches in Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Few mainstream politicians have been willing to openly affiliate with these movements, though there are significant exceptions. The infamous Geert Wilders, Dutch MP and leader of the Islamophobic “Freedom Party” attended a PEGIDA demonstration in Dresden.

Although this remains unconfirmed, Wilders’ party also appears to be heavily invested in the formation and funding of aforementioned citizen committees. His seemingly more moderate colleagues on the right, however, shy away from publicly associating themselves with these right-wing activist initiatives. Instead, they appear to stand on the sidelines, employing a number of well-tried frames in order to flare up the debate.

Their first and most prominent tactic is to systematically present refugees as “fortune hunters” who left their homes and forced their way into Europe in order to live a luxurious, lazy life at the expense of the “hard-working” European citizen.

Ironically, right-wing pro-austerity politicians are particularly eager to stress that the European welfare state will not be able to sustain itself under this pressure. The sudden increase of the European population and the costs it entails, they claim, will deprive us of the financial means to maintain our current standard of social security and solidarity.

Needless to say, we are speaking of the very same politicians and parties that have consistently strangled this welfare state to death over the last four decades. But this “argument” is also particularly fitting for those “new-right” populists (Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France, Nigel Farage in the UK), who tend to pursue strongly neoliberal economic policies while disguising themselves as conservative but “social” anti-austerity parties.

A second prominent frame is of course the claim that every Muslim is a potential terrorist — or, at best, a fundamentalist — and that the national security of European member states is at stake. (Most of the refugees who currently make it to Europe are perceived as Muslim — whether and to what extent they actually identify themselves as such is deemed irrelevant.)

This particular Islamophobic frame is not exactly new, of course, but it is striking that some media and politicians actively seek to depict Syrian and Afghan refugees as religious fanatics. For example, a few weeks ago several media spread the rumor that in German asylum seekers centers, Christian refugees would be systematically bullied and intimidated by their Muslim peers.

By lack of any recent Muslim-perpetrated terrorism (as opposed to nationalistic and/or racist-inspired forms of political violence, which has boomed over the past months), conservative politicians throughout Europe endorsed this rumor in order to stress once more that Christians would not be safe so long as Muslim refugees were equally allowed access to the European continent.

Moreover, several governments — those of Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and soon Poland — have capitalized on this widespread Islamophobic stereotype, and announced that they would only grant admission to a limited group of Christian refugees.

This supposed incompatibility between “Islamic” and “Western” or “Christian” cultures is also employed in a third, increasingly prominent, frame that politicians use to invoke fear among their constituencies. Muslim men are consistently and systematically depicted as sexually hyper-aggressive. Although worrisome, reports of sexual harassment, forced marriages and rape at European refugee centers have been blown out of proportion in the media.

As some politicians present it, male refugees came here with no other intent than to rape “our” women and daughters — a qualification that of course is shockingly problematic in many respects, yet strikingly often heard even in the mainstream public debate.

Geert Wilders, for instance, recently referred in Parliament to Syrian refugees — who, in the public perception, are predominantly young and male — as “testosterone bombs.” In a similar fashion, his party’s main ideologist Martin Bosma once warned that Muslims were attempting to gain control over Dutch society through a “politics of the womb.”

As stated, this image of newly arrived refugees as inherently lazy, ungrateful, exploitative, dangerous, intolerant and sexually hyper-aggressive is not only upheld by the extreme-right. Quite the opposite: it appears that seemingly moderate right-wing politicians — not to mention the occasional “social democrat” — are often no less eager to present the so-called “stream” of refugees as an imminent threat to the European way of life.

As a “new” extreme right has increasingly been able to present itself as a respectable, legitimate voice in the public debate, center-right and even some popular “socialist” parties are particularly disposed to the risk of losing their voters’ support. As a consequence, and in line with the developments of the past 15 years, the dominant political discourse in many European countries has shifted dramatically to the right.

In the Netherlands, for instance, some local departments and individual MP’s of the ruling party VVD now tend to profile themselves as even tougher hardliners than their main competitor on the extreme-right side of the spectrum. And in Belgium, the leading Flemish party N-VA is invoking a discourse and implementing policies that its once-popular neo-fascist competitor Vlaams Blok could only have dreamed of.

Tellingly, one of N-VA’s most explicitly racist politicians — who is also believed to have ties to Flanders’ fascist movement — now is Belgium’s state secretary for asylum policy and migration. An explicit racism once associated with the marginal extreme right, in short, has turned mainstream.

In the meantime, the parliamentary left stands idly by. Although some social democrats and left-liberals reluctantly advocate a more “humane” migration policy, the aforementioned racist representations of refugees generally remain uncontested.

As the right has successfully framed the dominant public perception of refugees, the left avoids any direct confrontation on these matters. Fearful of losing popular support, they tend to deal with the refugee “crisis” in managerial terms. At best, they invoke a weak and depoliticized language that presents their constituency as “hospitable” or “welcoming” to Europe’s new “guests.”

This mainstream left of course is more than willing to condemn the increasing organized violence against refugees. But it nevertheless fails to establish its connection with the explicitly racist language that is produced by their right-wing counterparts.

Part of Europe’s population is systematically represented as inherently aggressive, parasitical, rapist and dangerous. At the same time, right-wing politicians consistently blame the political “establishment” (of which they are obviously part themselves) for ignoring the imminent dangers that “mass immigration” entails.

It should not surprise us, then, that some citizens sooner or later will “take matters into their own hands.” Even when media and representatives formally denounce their acts, the dominant right-wing discourse is perceived as an implicit legitimization or even encouragement.

Indeed, without either openly glorifying or condemning it, many right-wing politicians present the ensuing violence as a “logical” or “predictable” consequence of Europe’s migration policies.

It is no longer exaggerated, I think, to claim that Europe is on the verge of a low-intensity civil war against refugees and other minority communities. The responsibility for this emerging organized violence — which is not unlikely to strongly intensify in the months and years to come — lies not in the last place with its right-wing politicians.

Mathijs van de Sande

Mathijs van de Sande is a PhD researcher in political philosophy at the KU Leuven (Belgium), and is currently a visiting scholar at The New School for Social Research in New York. He is a member of the Netherlands-based, radical left/anti-racist organization Doorbraak.

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