For the first time, it happened. No surprise, though. But there are lessons to be learnt, when we consider the repercussions of the election of members of a UK far-right party to the European parliament.
There should be little doubt about whether they are a far-right party – the British National Party (BNP) is, regardless of how it has tried to redesign itself, a party with radical racist and xenophobic views. Had this party come of age in the 1930s, their main target would have been Jews. Now a different group is being targeted: Muslims.
This follows a trend that exists all across Europe: the “new Jews” (ie, those who are now being discriminated against, as Jews were in the 1920s and 1930s) are invariably Muslims. A number of interesting studies have compared the public discourse around Jews in the 1920s with Islamophobic material in the mainstream press in Europe today – the results are not encouraging. It seems Europeans may not forget the Holocaust, but may forget what happened right before it.
What I was interested in after the elections, however, was not the similarities between how Jews were once perceived, and how Muslims are now perceived, but something else. The worry of Muslims overrunning Europe (essentially, the BNP’s fear) is shared by a growing proportion of people across the continent – to the point where one could begin to describe it as “a movement”. This movement that would be united by a fear, which they call “Eurarabia” (an amalgamation of “Europe” and “Arabia”). Many who share this fear are on the left, as well as in the centre – so, it cannot be said to be solely a “right wing” obsession. Indeed, this is something quite worrying – it is a xenophobia that can find sympathisers across many different sections of European society.
Nevertheless, the core of this group is on the right, and that raises interesting questions. Why the right? And what sort of repercussions does that imply for the future in terms of Muslim-non Muslim relations within the UK, and beyond?
In the UK, as well as across Europe, the left was the party of those who felt disenfranchised. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in the UK today are not descendants of indigenous Britons who converted to Islam, but the descendants of recent migrants to the UK who generally came from very modest backgrounds. Naturally, it was the left (particularly the Labour Party) which endeared itself to the Muslim community, from which it received overwhelming support. The right had the opposite experience – historically, rarely appealing to the disenfranchised, and more given to conservative views as to how the “nation” was constituted.
Such was the state of play in the 1970s until the 1990s. One of the ironies of this situation was that when it came to values, Muslims often shared the right’s focus on family and tradition. For more pragmatic reasons, they affiliated with the left.
The last decade has changed a lot of that. Labour went to war in Iraq – a war that turned out to be baseless, in a country that happened to be a predominantly Muslim country. Many in the Muslim community have become more enfranchised, and historically when migrant communities progress economically, they often become more interested in participation in centre or centre-right positions on the political spectrum. The left’s hold on the Muslim community has been broken.
But, coming back to the BNP’s wins, what do these political histories mean now for Muslims in the UK? While most Muslims are expressing fears about the intensifying discourse (which frankly borders on hate-speech), some are calling for their community to engage with the right wing with more seriousness. It’s a sign of maturity that rather than simply describe the BNP as being far-right extremists, some Muslims are asking: why is there support for the BNP in the first place? What have Muslims done, or not done, to create the conditions for that support to emerge?
All strata of British society are trying to analyse what has happened, and certain trends are emerging. Some want to deny any responsibility for themselves by condemning every voter for the BNP as a repentant racist, who simply cannot be helped or (worse) understood. But others are trying to understand why so many have now turned to the BNP, and where their resentment comes from, in an effort to remove those conditions for the future.
Both of these trends are also represented within the Muslim community. In their reaction to the BNP victories, Muslims have actually been shown to be more British than they might have been years ago. That’s a far cry from the common media perception of Muslims as unintegrated (and, often, incapable of being integrated) but it is borne out by the limited polling data we have on the attitudes of Muslims in the UK. More than the average non-Muslim, Muslim Britons are hopeful for the future of their country.
Matters are likely to get worse before they get better – this shift to the right has taken years and it will probably take a long time to settle in a more stable position. In the meantime, we may see Muslims joining centre-right parties, and drifting away from left wing politics.
That is surely good news for democracy in general – no part of the political spectrum should have a monopoly on a particular ethnic community. But matters will continue to deteriorate unless British and European society as a whole faces up to those who fear “Eurarabia” – not simply to shout them down, but to deconstruct their arguments with facts and examples of people who prove their fears unwarranted.
The BNP might not realise it, but they could turn out to be a good catalyst for the integration of the Muslim community: by reminding non-Muslims in Europe how ugly the far-right can get, and encouraging Muslims not to have their vote monopolised by a single part of the political spectrum.
The National (UAE)
Hisham Hellyer is a fellow at the University of Warwick in England and director of the Visionary Consultants Group