The election of a far-right, conservative political leader, such as Sebastian Kurz, as chancellor of Austria may have been unexpected, but it is not surprising, given the wave of political support that far right-leaders have been receiving in recent years in Europe.
A few months ago, the popular Angela Merkel’s party narrowly survived a tough contest from far-right parties in her country. Marine Le Penn, leader of the far-right National Front of France (until recently) had been long posing a threat to establishment politics in France with her brazen nationalism and attacks against liberal politics -- which she blamed for all the ills in the country.
Even in countries like Sweden and Denmark, which are known for their political liberalism and tolerance of diversity, far-right ideas and political groups seem to be gaining strength.
What, one may ask, is behind this tectonic shift in European politics?
Cause and effect
Over the last two years, much of Western Europe and UK was struck by two types of man-made disasters. One was the influx of refugees -- mainly from the war ravaged Middle East -- and the other was terrorist attacks perpetrated by adherents to radical Islam.
Over a million refugees thronged the major Western capitals after fleeing from atrocities in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other sub-Saharan countries. When countries affected by the sudden but steady invasion of foreigners -- such as Germany, France, Sweden, Spain, and Italy -- were trying to cope with the growing crisis, several capitals were also hit by terrorist attacks of deadly proportion.
According to a recent report from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), there is practically no country in the OSCE that has not been affected by violent extremism.
The report stated that in 2016, terrorist attacks in OSCE-participating states (57 of them spread across Europe, North Africa, and North America) caused more than 1,000 deaths.
They destroyed billions of euros worth of property and infrastructure, undermined people’s confidence in government and institutions, and created fear and suspicion between members of different ethnic and religious communities.
A flood of people
The OSCE countries in Western Europe have also been facing invasion by refugees, ironically from the same countries that have been a major source of terrorism. A record number of 1.3 million sought asylum in Western Europe by 2016 -- mostly coming in from Syria, Iraq, Libya, and sub-Saharan Africa.
The numbers continue to grow even after many European countries have tried to thwart the flood-gate.
While on one hand, refugees from the Middle East continued to flood the streets of European capitals, mayhem continued to occur. In Paris, 130 people died in a series of coordinated armed attacks in clubs and restaurants in 2015. The perpetrators turned out to be descendants of Muslim immigrants from North Africa.
Six months later, a truck mowed down 84 people on Bastille Day in Nice, France. In Berlin that year, another truck mowed down a dozen people. In Brussels airport, 32 people died in a bomb explosion by terrorists.
In Manchester, London, 22 people died in a bomb attack in a concert in early 2017, followed by another incident of a terrorist driving through a crowd in Westminster, London killing seven people.
During summer this year, a van driven by a terrorist through a crowded street killed another dozen people in Barcelona. This litany of terror incidents does not include scores of other incidents of stabbing, failed bombing, etc that have occurred over the last two years in the various major cities of Europe.
Under ordinary circumstances, these terror incidents could have been described as law-and-order situations created by a disgruntled person or persons. But the singular reason why these incidents are not referred to as criminal acts by disgruntled or deranged people, is because in almost all cases the perpetrators either identified themselves as combatants fighting for the so-called IS, or, were later found to have links with some other radical Islamic group.
Far-right leaders of Europe are attractive to their supporters because of their rhetoric, which rhymes well with current circumstances
But who is really hurt
The rise of far-right political forces in Western Europe has not happened in a vacuum. It has happened because far-right political forces that were marginalised in a liberal society started to come to the limelight by attributing terrorist attacks to the growing number of immigrants in their countries and the government’s immigration policies.
They started to propagate that after years of unchecked migration, Europe is on the verge of collapse in the hands of Muslims and Islam. This propaganda was further strengthened by the sudden rise of IS in Syria, and its ability to mobilise and radicalise youths from a vast number of countries.
According to The International Centre of Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, from late 2011 to 2013, between 3,300 and 11,000 individuals had gone to Syria to fight against the Assad government. Of these, about 1,900 were from Western Europe.
Far-right leaders of Europe are attractive to their supporters because of their rhetoric, which rhymes well with current circumstances.
It is unfortunate that in a part of the world that had seen many horrific incidents of terrorism in the past arising from political unrests (Irish Nationalists, Basque separatists, Algerian war) with no attribution to a religious group, the recent acts of terrorism are attributed to Islam and Muslims.
It is not only because a single entity is claiming responsibility, but also because the perpetrators claim to be adherents to Islam. And this happens more tragically at a time when the followers of the perpetrators’ faith are fleeing in-drove to seek refuge in the very countries where they are committing these acts.
Is there any question then, that the fringe political parties in Western Europe will use these to rouse public animosity towards immigration and Islam?
The end product
A serious consequence of continued acts of terrorism in Europe, the US, and elsewhere is the resurgence of nationalism in many countries forcing mainstream politicians to gradually lean more to the right. Although, it was not against Islam or Muslims per se, it is believed that Brexit voters in UK were drawn by the anti-immigrant stance of the UK Independence Party which supported Brexit.
As incidents of terrorism increased and refugees kept on flooding Europe, the far-right was further able to stoke Islamophobia and an anti-immigrant rhetoric to gain political support and power.
The far-right’s political gain in Western countries may be few and far between for now, but if Muslims and Muslim countries do not get their act together to bring an end to terrorism, the mainstream politics in many of the Western countries may shift to the right increasingly. This may not bring an end to democracy but will definitely curtail liberal politics in many countries.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.