Paris attacks: liberals must fight the far right, or they'll win

The terror attacks play into a narrative of "Islamisation" exploited by parties across Europe

November 15, 2015
A flower is stuck in a bullet hole in the outside wall of the Café Carillon in the Rue Alibert in Paris, France, 15 November 2015. © Marius Becker/dpa
A flower is stuck in a bullet hole in the outside wall of the Café Carillon in the Rue Alibert in Paris, France, 15 November 2015. © Marius Becker/dpa

“This is war. Nothing else,” tweeted Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, as news of the latest Islamist terrorist atrocity filtered out of Paris and onto our television screens. Like other radical right populists Wilders has long warned of the threat from Islamists and the wider "Islamification" of Europe. Since 9/11 the so-called "Eurabia thesis" has become a central reference point for not only the hard right but also some mainstream voices. It emerged long before the arrival of Islamic State, or the refugee crisis, but these events are bringing the idea to new audiences. In its various forms the theory posits that a conspiracy is underway to "Islamise" Europe, through terrorism, forced migration or disproportionately high birth rates among already-settled Muslims. The established politicians, so the argument goes, are either too weak to respond or, worse, are complicit through their unquestioning support for multiculturalism and their enforcement of political correctness. Europe, argues Wilders and others, thus faces an urgent fight for cultural and ethnic survival. What happened in Paris is taken as yet further evidence that the theory holds.

Read more on the Paris attacks:

What we know so far

A quantum leap in Islamic State's capabilities

Why the 11th Arrondissement was the target

Of course, that a majority of Muslims in Europe openly repudiate fanaticism and violence underscores the flaws in this thinking. But unlike a few years ago it is no longer so easy for liberals to dismiss these ideas as a fringe obsession. If an election were held in the Netherlands tomorrow polls suggest that Wilders and his party would win more seats than the current coalition parties combined. In Austria, the Freedom Party, whose leader warns that "Islamisation" threatens "Christian-Western culture," sits comfortably in first place with over 30 per cent of the vote. In Switzerland, the Swiss People’s Party, which has campaigned against the spread of Islam, recently won the highest share of the vote for a radical right party in Europe’s entire post-war history. In Sweden, the initially liberal approach to refugees now sits uncomfortably with the fact that in just 12 months support for the hard right Sweden Democrats has more than doubled to over 25 per cent. In France, and even before the attacks in Paris, Marine Le Pen and the National Front looked set to breakthrough in regional elections next month and push hard for the presidency in 2017. Away from elections, meanwhile, the resonance of such arguments is also underscored by the emergence of "counter-Jihad" groups like Pegida in Germany.

The claims among followers of these groups, that Islam is incompatible with Western values and that Europe’s weak leaders are unable to meet this threat, are by no means the only reason for their support. But they are quickly becoming a central ingredient. And unlike earlier years liberals now seem to be losing the argument. It has always been easier for progressives to warn about the rise of the radical right than take seriously its underlying appeal and set out an alternative. Across Europe the radical right is connecting because it recognised early on that public anxieties over migration, refugees and Islam are as much about perceived threats to their cultural security, values and ways of life as they are about welfare states and the distribution of resources. By pitching unequivocally to this feeling of cultural angst, however fluid and abstract it might seem, the likes of Wilders and Le Pen are drawing strength from voters who stand firmly on one side of a value divide in Europe—between liberal progressives who celebrate social change, cosmopolitanism, open Europe and have little patience for those who think otherwise, and cultural conservatives who feel fundamentally under threat from this change, want to assert the values of their own group and worry about the capacity of Islam to accommodate central aspects of democratic life, such as the freedom of expression and gender equality.

The liberal mainstream never engaged seriously with this debate. Too often it shouted down its critics as fascists and racists and moved swiftly on. The radical right may be wrong but it is offering a clearly defined prognosis of what has gone wrong and a diagnosis in terms of what should be done. It then responded quickly to events, weaving a narrative of cultural loss, abandonment and threat through the immigration, Syria and refugee debates while Europe’s elites looked weak. As leaders fumbled in their response to the refugee crisis the radical right was perfectly willing to gamble on the argument that IS would exploit the events to import terrorism. Now that gamble has paid off. Poland, where the radical right also gained at recent elections, has joined others in publicly turning its back on the liberal claim that open Europe is the only way forward. Soon, public opposition to accepting refugees will harden. Wilders and his brethren will make hay. Liberals, meanwhile, change their Facebook pictures and voice solidarité. But it all feels so empty. Big questions about identity, values and integration will continue to be ducked. Unless liberals can set out their own vision for how Europe can tackle its multiple crises, of which violent Islamism is only one, they risk losing the argument completely and all that this would entail.