ECMI Minorities Blog. Hate to the Extreme(s): The Distorted Uses of Religion and Culture in Europe

Image courtesy: Harrison

Authors: Kyriaki Topidi and Fatima Soualhi

We live in unsettled and challenging times: apart from the unprecedented situation that the pandemic is imposing on humanity, we are at the same time struggling with manifestations of extreme hate in multiple settings, though not unrelated ones. This analysis will explore how two, very different at the outset, manifestations of extreme hate, namely far—right and Islamist extremism, may be relying and reinforcing each other. Moreover, both far-right and Islamist extremism are slowly moving from the fringes to the centre, thus becoming more mainstream. Two recent examples out of a larger group of incidents from a European context are illustrations of this.

The first example concerns the recent unveiling (of yet) another incident of right-wing extremism in the German police forces.  On 16 September 2020, 29 police officers were suspended for sharing images of Hitler and neo-Nazi propaganda in at least five online chat groups on the basis of the offence of using ‘symbols of anti-constitutional organisations’ and ‘hate speech’. All those suspended were police officers in the North Rhein Westphalia region, aged between mid-20s and mid-50s.

The second example is equally tragic:  a few weeks later, Samuel Paty, a French middle-school teacher was murdered on 16 October 2020 in a suburb of Paris. Paty was killed and beheaded in an act of Islamic extremism. The perpetrator, Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov, an 18-year-old Muslim, Russian-born refugee of Chechen descent, killed and beheaded Paty with a knife. His motive for the murder was that Paty had, in a class on freedom of expression, shown his students a Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad. This episode was followed by another two incidents, a knife attack at a Church in Nice and a shooting in the streets of Vienna, bringing ‘Islamist violence’ to become once again a key issue in France and in Europe.

The German case reflects a typical example of radicalism, where the liberal values of democracy are challenged along with the positive value of pluralism and the constitutional limitations to popular sovereignty. The French case is more aligned with extremism understood as the complete antithesis to democracy.

Regarding the former case, over the last five years, Germany has witnessed an alarming rise of the far-right. To attract more members, right-wing extremists focus their propaganda on hostile stereotypes which they consider are more likely to be embraced in the public discourse. These hostile stereotypes include ‘foreigners’, in particular asylum seekers, Muslims, Jews, but also policy-makers in some cases. Moreover, this hostility can be a motive for homicide: as showed by the murder of nine people in two shisha bars in Hanau, the armed attack on a synagogue in Halle which killed two people and left seven injured, and the murder of the regional CDU politician Walter Lübcke who openly supported refugees. At the same time, socio-political expressions of the ‘new’ and ‘old’ right have dramatically diversified to cover several activities within society including social media presence, military training, music events and political and economic discourse against Muslims in Germany.

The German case is also tightly connected with features of populism: it begs a question as to what drives the demand for populist radical right politics and views. The usual way to explain it is to relate it to a crisis linked to modernisation or other analogous processes which lead to a division between self-perceived ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ that emerge as a result of this transformation. The ‘losers’ opt for radical right views out of protest, anger or frustration. Part of the far-right discourse is relying on nativism, claiming that only members of the native (majority) group should inhabit a given space, while the non-natives should not because they are perceived as threatening to the cohesion or homogeneity of the dominant majoritarian group. In line with Ahmed and Pisoiu’s core framework on identitarianism, cultures should strive to retain their uniqueness (ethnopluralism); and while ideology is a thing of the past, culture is not. The final element in this framework adds the idea that the majority is acting as a threatened minority with strong anti-refugee and anti-migrant positions (retorsion).

However, the trouble is that such radical views are not as far from the mainstream as one might think: it is essentially only a matter of degree between the radical right and western forms of democracy. In practice, and increasingly in online spaces too, little seems to distinguish racism of this kind included in everyday discussions from that found on accounts/spaces of those associated with the far right in Germany and elsewhere. Radical right views are insisting on the trinity of corruption-immigration-security, emphasizing socio-cultural issues of alleged incompatibility with the ‘Others’. This approach allows larger segments of citizens to be drawn and convinced by it.

Moving to the French example, political (and legal) discourse has for years revolved around ‘integration’, a term which sometimes can be difficult to understand. According to Abdelmalek Sayad, an Algerian sociologist, in The Suffering of the Immigrant, integration is a kind of process that can only be talked about after the event, to say whether it succeeded or failed. But above all, one should not imagine that it is a harmonious process free of conflict.

In France, as well as in the whole of the Old Continent, the Muslim community has been identified as having difficulties integrating. A study conducted by Harvard University shed light on some of the reasons why Muslim immigrants have not integrated as well as their Christian counterparts. The study found out that in France there was clear anti-Muslim discrimination in the competition for middle-class jobs, which in turn had substantially diminished Muslims’ chances of attaining a middle-class lifestyle. The study also found that immigrants of Muslim heritage express less attachment to the country of residence than their Christian counterparts. And these patterns do not improve in the succeeding generations. Therefore, one could say that the integration of the Muslim community, at least in the French context, has been a failure and the cause of this failure can be seen as twofold: Islamophobia on the part of French society and Muslim immigrants’ tendency to identify more with their country of origin in response to this Islamophobia.

Apart from this, some identity issues need to be considered as well. Many young Muslims often find themselves poised between the culture and traditions of their country of origin and a secularized multi-cultural society in their countries of residence. They are "hybrids" because they are affected by two forces, often at odds with each other, while they try to claim and shape their (often evolving) identity. This uncertainty, inability and non-"belonging" turns often into anger, crimes, marginalization: in this way they become easily exposed and attachable to extremist ideology.

In sum, vulnerable identity-seeking Muslims, some of them born and raised in Europe, can be seen as a generation frustrated by the lack of socio-economic integration in Western societies, which ultimately does not fulfil their hopes and does not encourage their future prospects. Moreover, their view of the global Umma (i.e. 'nation', 'community') is a form of revenge against globalization, a reaction to their current state of isolation and vulnerability. Conveniently, the global Umma is designed by the Islamic extremists as corrupted by the values of Western society, because it promotes freedom of expression that allows, for instance, the portrayal of the prophet Muhammad. Islamic radicalism thus becomes the "model" of reference for the realization of a new identity, based on an interpretation of Islam and an idea of the world completely new to them, potentially fulfilling, full of stimuli and morally ‘just’. A model of reference that is presented as allowing Muslims to finally become ‘winners’.

Interestingly, however, far-right radical groups and Islamic extremists are using similar tactics, especially when they, for example, instrumentalize the Covid-19 pandemic. Both offline and online, these two extremes are in fact developing an unholy rhetorical alliance by perpetuating the cycle of hatred. Fundamentally, the growth of Islamic extremism in Europe can only be fully understood in connection to the nationalist responses that it generates and vice versa, as one provides to the other the vital space to spread. Even if 21st century nationalism may have more than one centre of control and is on the point of becoming truly transnational in its modus operandi, the far-right narratives are almost entirely built on the ‘defence’ of the majoritarian communities in Germany and elsewhere.

The main difference between previous historical racist positions held is that at present this type of ‘differentialism’ is based on cultural differences, not biological ones. Using issues that are likely to gather large societal consensus (such as gender equality or emancipation of women), the cultural character of the conflict between the two extremes becomes more and more mainstream. By analogy, Islamic extremism has used approaches, targeting ‘unbelievers’ in the name of God. By reinforcing narratives coming from the extremes, the far right and Islamic extremism in reality are moving their visions of the world from the periphery to the centre at great risk for our societies. They are also fuelling the spread of a ‘cultural war’ in Europe.

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