The anti-Islamic far-right is spreading in Europe—and going mainstream

A sleeping giant.
A sleeping giant.
Image: Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke
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In recent months, a street movement called Pegida—Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident—has emerged from nowhere in Germany, seeking to “protect Judeo-Christian culture” and halt to what it calls the spread of Islam. Though it denies being xenophobic or racist, its leader quit after being pictured dressed as Hitler. Pegida’s rallies have attracted tens of thousands of people in Germany.

And now the group is spreading abroad. Pegida held its first march in Vienna and is to hold its first British rally in the city of Newcastle on Feb. 28, with more planned in the UK. Britain already has anti-Islamic groups such as the English Defence League, a small but vocal force. Only this weekend, the EDL attracted as many as 1,000 people to a march against the building of a mosque.

Time will tell how popular Pegida will be outside of Germany—only a few hundred people showed up in Vienna—but its rising profile is a small part of the growing shift into the mainstream of far-right groups that would have once been shunned.

Britain is also coping with the rise of the anti-immigration UK Independence Party, whose leader has blamed immigrants for his being late to his own campaign events. In France, the Front National is a more organized and established version of much the same sentiment. In 2002, the Front National’s overtly-racist leader at the time, Jean-Marie Le Pen, shocked many by getting to the run-off in the presidential election, and the whole of the French establishment united against him. His daughter, Marine Le Pen, now runs the Front National, which was the most popular party in the last nationwide elections held in France and has become so prominent that she was invited to speak at the Oxford University student union last week (link in French)—her speech was delayed by three hours due to protests. She even gets to write editorials in the New York Times now.

Even Britain’s Prince Charles, who rarely speaks on political matters, is worried about the radicalization of Muslim youths within his future kingdom. The growing acceptance of far-right subject matter as part of political discourse in Europe may just be a sign of our more polarized times—similar things are happening on the far-left in Greece and Spain, for example.

But it could also mean that Europe will have to come to accept voices like Pegida in the mainstream for the foreseeable future. If nothing else, it is a test of the region’s tolerance for dissent. As Germany’s vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel suggests:

Whether you like it or not, people have a democratic right to be right-wing or nationalist. People also have a right to spread stupid ideas, such as the notion that Germany is being Islamicized.