On November 29, 2009, after a wide-spread campaign by the Schweizerische Volkspartei in Switzerland, a ban on minarets, the prayer towers of mosques, was voted into the Swiss constitution. Even though the government opposed the initiative, the constitutional amendment received 57.5% of the votes in a national referendum and the support of 22 of the 26 Swiss cantons. The reasoning behind the proposal and the ban is the idea that minarets are not needed to practice Islam, are instead simply symbols for fundamentalists, and therefore, the amendment did not violate the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Swiss constitution.
The above anecdote is not an isolated example and clearly indicates the increase in popularity of right-wing ideology in Europe, even in countries traditionally regarded as beacons of hope for the protection of human rights for all. Traditionally, researchers looked at demographic and social background characteristics to explain people’s likelihood to vote for a right-wing party and concluded that un-educated, younger males are more likely to vote for extreme organizations. However, the recent popularity of right-wing extremist agendas in developed democratic nations, known for their highly educated citizens, poses a serious problem for such a conclusion. Other explanations have thus become more popular and these include institutional factors, such as electoral and political systems, and economic factors, such as the size of immigration flow and unemployment rates. However, while the electoral system, immigration, and the dents in economic development contribute to the establishment and rise of right-wing parties, it is ultimately the effect of cultural and attitudinal factors, such as anti-immigrant sentiments, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and political dissatisfaction that offer a complete, albeit disturbing, picture of the reality of right-wing extremism in Europe.
Anti-immigrant sentiments are often fueled by xenophobic fears of outsiders who are perceived as harbingers of a cultural shift and a threat to Western values and social cohesion. The reality that many refugees and immigrants are reluctant to integrate in their new places of residence, for example Muslims in France, exacerbates the issue, and this reality provides fodder to Marine le Pen and the National Front to demand homogeneity and deportation of immigrants. When the ideal opportunity arises, such as an economic crisis, political elites take advantage and reinterpret historical events to fit their anti-immigrant mobilization agenda. The outcome is called nationalism by some and patriotism by others, but what it basically refers to is the need people have to emotionally attach themselves to something that is bigger than they are. With a need to belong to a group that seemingly is interested in their well-being, many fall preys to political entrepreneurs who exploit nascent xenophobic attitudes for political gain.
Islamphobia is another characteristic that has increased support for right-wing extremism in European countries. The terrorist attacks of 9/11, Madrid, and London, and recent events in the Middle East uprising and the increased number of refugees seeking assistance have pushed some EU member states’ governments to reconsider the free and unobstructed flow of people. These have only increased intolerance toward migrants in the EU and have spurned comments about closing the borders. Marginalized populations face the worst consequences. The focus on terrorists and undocumented immigrants, sometimes considered one and the same, somewhat disregards the plight of those most vulnerable and in need of protection. Muslim and Roma populations are discriminated against on a regular basis and the fear of the enemy within seems to have paralyzed inchoate ideas of equality among people of diverse backgrounds and has began the process of mass hysteria permeated with hatred and intolerance toward the so-deemed inferiors. Suddenly, leading EU members engage in rhetoric convincing citizens that Europe can have human rights or security, but not both. Moreover, since basic human rights would only be denied to suspected terrorists or undocumented immigrants, who did not deserve them anyway, most people accept the argument as it clearly only applies to those who are threats to their peaceful existence. Subsequently, forced evictions become a common feature of Roma policy across the EU and the denial of rights to suspected terrorists is accepted as necessary practice. Such conditions are fertile ground for extreme right-wing ideologies to grow in and flourish.
Anti-immigrant and xenophobic attitudes are by no means monopolized by the West; they are also very salient and enduring in Eastern European countries. Following the dismantling of the communist regimes, people in Eastern European nations found themselves in a transition period marked by corruption, hyper-inflation, and increased crime rates. Some reports indicate that the percentage of poor people increased from 4 to 45 right after the end of the Cold War. The majority of former communist nations found themselves in what Carothers refers to as a “political grey zone”, which is marked by poor representation of people’s interests, corrupt political and law officials, and poor performance by the state, which have weakened many people’s beliefs in the value of democracy and have led to wide-spread dissatisfaction with democracy. Disillusioned, alienated, and most of all frustrated, people in nations in transition are easy prey to right-wing groups who purport to advocate return to traditional values and economic stability based on homogeneity.
Relying on anti-immigrant agendas and xenophobic attitudes, right-wing extremists reject cultural pluralism and proclaim that the only true democracy is the democracy based on homogeneity of the population. Once again Europe has placed the rights of certain minorities aside in order to protect that greater good it is striving for. Unfortunately, the greater good seems to always benefit certain nations and certain populations while millions others are left to fend for themselves. The undermining of civil liberties, the permeating xenophobic and negative attitudes toward migrants and minorities, the rise of extreme political parties that have actual impact on public policy, and the weakening effect of international human rights tools are serious causes for worry that must be addressed if Europe is to retain the claim that it is a region in which international human rights are valued and respected.
Economic disparities and ever-increasing anti-immigrant sentiments precipitate violations of human rights in the name of security and economic stability and contribute to the rise of right-wing parties. Instead of acknowledging a history of accomplishments made by migrants and minorities who have shaped Europe into what it is today, the major Western actors have chosen to play on xenophobic fears and allow intolerance and hate to become widespread. As the example of the Swiss ban on minarets reveals, the rise of right-wing tendencies is a reality that unfortunately does not simply reflect the agendas of extreme right-wing parties. The strong impact of anti-immigrant, xenophobic, and Islamophobic attitudes is clearly evident in the realization that it is no longer just the neo-Nazis that hold such believes; instead, in contemporary Europe, there is a wider acceptance of anti-immigrant sentiments that the economic crisis and the threat of international terrorism have elevated to an exceptionally high degree. In the case of the amendment to the Swiss constitution, it was not just the right-wing party votes that approved the ban; the truth is that the majority of votes, on all sides, went into accepting the law.
A compromise will have to be made as homogeneity cannot, and must not, be the final goal. What defines a nation is not only how it expresses itself, but also how it differs from other nations. A true European integration will allow for the social and cultural differences to be respected while the common goal of equal treatment for all members, along with access to economic development, is reached. For this to take place, the European nations must not only advocate on paper, but also in practice, the equal application of human rights to all and encourage acceptance of diversity instead of forcing assimilation and similarity. Without consideration for the different sociological, economical, and cultural heritage that migrants across the Europe carry and without fighting the right-wing demagogues who offer simple solutions to complex problems, Europe faces the danger of going back to where it started and any strides to unite the region that have so far been made would turn out to have been in vain.