Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Right-wing extremists"

The recent Austrian elections saw gains by far-right parties. The death of one of their leaders, Jörg Haider (at four times the legal alcohol limit, author of the carnage on the right), brings to mind an important debate in the blogosphere and elsewhere about the nature of Europe's anti-immigration and anti-Islamization parties.

Europe is facing some tough choices, too long put off, about its immigration policies and how they will impact Europe's political future. Will Europe's cities become Islamicized and start sprouting "countries within countries" -- a return to the medieval practice of fragmented sovereignty and theocratic legal systems? Consider that Britain has now endorsed shari'a courts for civil and personal status cases, with the full force of of the state behind them, and you'll see that it's no hypothetical question.

Liberal journalist and historian Ian Buruma has recently written about how important it is to listen to voters' concerns about such issues. Such questions and concerns are generally ignored by Europe's elites, leaving voters frustrated and prone to vote for fringe parties as a protest.
... to see the rise of the Austrian right as a revival of Nazism would be a mistake. For one thing, neither [far-right] party is advocating violence, even if some of their rhetoric might inspire it. For another, it seems to me that voters backing these ... parties may be motivated less by ideology than by anxieties and resentments that are felt in many European countries, including ones with no Nazi tradition, such as the Netherlands and Denmark.

In Denmark, the hard-right Danish People's Party is the third-largest party in the country, with 25 parliamentary seats. Dutch populists such as Rita Verdonk, or Geert Wilders, who is driven by a paranoid fear of "Islamization," are putting the traditional political elites -- a combination of liberals, social democrats and Christian democrats -- under severe pressure.

And this is precisely the point. The biggest resentment among supporters of the right-wing parties in Europe these days is reserved not so much for immigrants as for political elites that, in the opinion of many, have been governing for too long in cozy coalitions, which appear to exist chiefly to protect vested interests. In Austria, even liberals admit that an endless succession of social democrat and Christian democrat governments has clogged the arteries of the political system. It has been difficult for smaller parties to penetrate what is seen as a bastion of political privilege. The same is true in the Netherlands, which has been governed for decades by the same middle-of-the-road parties, led by benevolent but ... paternalistic figures whose views about multiculturalism, tolerance and Europe were, until recently, rarely challenged.
And opposition to such developments hardly makes one a "fascist." The European Left has worked tirelessly to vilify anyone who questions or objects to its project of civilizational suicide. For the most part, the media slavishly parrots this line.

Actually, European parties of the democratic Right are easy to identify and distinguish from fascist parties. The distinctive historical characteristics of fascism -- a closed society and economic system; extreme forms of chauvinism, bordering on racism; contempt for democratic politics and worship of violence and violent leaders -- are less relevant today than certain other hot-button issues.

The most obvious are antisemitism and attitudes toward Israel. Even more important is the question, how do the local Jewish community and Israeli embassy feel about the party in question? Answers to such questions are strongly correlated with deeper attitudes: What is the party's attitude toward political democracy? How does it feel about Islamification, as a social phenomenon? As a political-legal phenomenon? Specific questions better illuminate the issue: for example, are they hostile to the Bosnian Muslims persecuted by the Serbs? If so, what is the nature of their hostility?

An even easier way to make the distinction is to ask, which European figures of the recent past do they admire and mimic? Does the list include conservative, democratically-oriented figures like Churchill, De Gaulle, Adenauer, Thatcher, or the last Pope? Or is the list populated with names like Mussolini, Hitler, Antonescu, Milosevic, or Le Pen?

On a very relevant, hot-button issue, the far-right, quasi-Nazi parties of Europe have been quietly shifting toward support of radical Islam, in spite of their anti-immigrant rhetoric. Austria's Freedom Party, for example, is strongly opposed to the combined American-European attempt to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

Asking the right questions and not fudging the answers are all that is needed to sort this issue out.

(Read this post from earlier this year about the Islamicization debate. See here and here for related posts from last year.)

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