By Peter Welby
December 26, 2018
“I like to eat. But I don’t like Muslim food,” said a Facebook user, suggesting that they do not possess much familiarity with the world’s cuisines. This is one of many confused and outraged reactions to news of the recent Halal certification of Toblerone, the popular Swiss chocolate.
The news was broken by a spokesman for Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), a German anti-immigration party, who suggested in a Facebook post that this was a result of the Islamicisation of Europe.
Gerald Batten, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which is anti-EU, spoke at an anti-Islam rally in September, alongside people considered sufficiently mad that Batten’s predecessor Nigel Farage criticized his attendance. In January, Matteo Salvini (now Italy’s deputy prime minister) warned that Islam threatens his country’s “culture, society, traditions and way of life.”
The list of populist parties in Europe with a strange fixation on Islam is not short. Two of them (Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands and the Freedom Party in Austria, currently part of the government) even have the same name.
But where does this obsession come from and what does it mean? The obvious answer is two decades of Jihadi terrorism in the West, searing popular consciousness most vividly on 9/11, but followed in Europe by hundreds of smaller attacks and plots in the years since.
Populists, as the name suggests, respond to popular concerns. In every attack and plot, jihadists proclaim loud and clear that they are Muslim. Such proclamations will always find a more secure home in the mind of the observer than the thousands of honest, theologically reasoned demonstrations of why such “jihad” is not legitimate.
Moreover, the observer — the voter that populist politicians appeal to — is not attentive. He or she is likely to be working or lower-middle class; probably not university educated, and does not pay that much attention to the news. Simple messages have more traction in such a constituency, and what message is simpler than: “The Muslims are coming.”
I have written before about the effect of cultural memory. I doubt that the majority of voters of the abovementioned parties (or indeed their opponents) would be able to tell you much about the siege of Vienna in 1683.
But that does not undermine its effect: That deep in the cultural memory of much of the Western world is a sense of Islam being in profound opposition to European life. Of course, this works both ways — it leads to the Crusades being regarded as a justified response to the Muslim threat.
The less obvious answer is the populist need for a bogeyman. There have been many in the past, Jews prominent among them. But if the solutions are easy, as they usually are in a populist narrative, then the problems need to be caused by something identifiable. In this instance, the fact that Muslim populations in Western Europe are growing, and are predicted to continue to do so, is a perfect candidate.
There is a tendency by many commentators, and even more activists, to conflate populist politicians and parties with the far right. This is what the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called “terminological inexactitude.”
Populist parties are essentially majoritarian, trimming their policies to what they think the majority of people want to hear, and governing on that majority’s behalf rather than on behalf of the entire country. The far right is not populist: It retains its views regardless of how many votes they will garner, and if it wins elections, history tells us that it will ensure that it does not run the risk of losing one in the future.
A recent example of that distinction is the demonstrations that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. Opposition to Islam was a feature that the far-right Unite the Right marchers shared with populists. Opposition to Jews was not. When the marches paraded at night shouting “Jews will not replace us,” they horrified the pro-Israel majority in the US. Identification with Nazis is not a populist tactic; it does not win elections.
The far right does, however, share some approaches with populists on the matter of Islam. Many far-right groups identify themselves with the Crusaders (Templar symbolism is common); much attention is given to Islamist terrorism and Muslim criminals, with a particular focus on sexual crimes. That focus bears some resemblance to classic white supremacism.
The similarities of some of these approaches are a problem for those seeking a more constructive approach to Islam. As noted, populists tap into popular concerns, and Islam is a popular concern.
When (usually) left-wing campaigners shout that all who are concerned about Islam are fascists and no better than Nazis, the reaction is not one of horror at the comparison, but rather defence against those who so readily dismiss those concerns without serious engagement.
Meanwhile, the far right can sneak into a more mainstream political position by pretending to be populist, and using the screams of Antifa protestors to argue that there is no substance to the accusations against them.
If we want to change the narrative, we must work with populist politicians and their voters. We must learn to distinguish between the populist and the fascist. And we must realize that there is no point seizing the moral high ground if all it allows one to do is watch the world change around you. There is an important discussion to be had with all sections of society about religious pluralism and interreligious relations, which the West urgently requires.
Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously, he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Center on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen.