Ian Buruma thinks that Geert Wilders suffers from a “paranoid fear of ‘Islamization,'” and his book on the jihadist murder of Theo Van Gogh, Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerence, suffers in many places from the same myopia. But he notes here what we have noted many times: that Europe’s mainstream parties have abdicated responsibility to resist the Islamization of the continent, and are consequently losing ground to the parties that will deal with the issue. He does not see these parties, even in Austria, as neo-Nazi (which in itself will make Buruma a neo-Nazi, or at least a neo-Nazi sympathizer, in some people’s eyes), but as populist reactions to the out-of-touch elites and their supine response to the Muslims who want to make over Europe as an Islamic entity, and crow openly about their intention to do just that within a few decades.
“Europe’s far-right revival isn’t Nazism: Much of the support for the right-wing parties springs from a resentment of long-ruling political elites,” by Ian Buruma in the Los Angeles Times, October 3 (thanks to T. V.):
Two far-right parties, the Austrian Freedom Party and the Movement for Austria’s Future, managed to win 29% of the vote in Sunday’s general elections in Austria. This is double what they got in the elections of 2006.
Both parties share the same attitudes toward immigrants, especially Muslims, and the European Union: a mixture of fear and loathing. Because the leaders of the two parties, Heinz-Christian Strache and Jorg Haider, can’t stand each other, there is little chance of a far-right coalition actually taking power. Nonetheless, this is Adolf Hitler’s native land, where Jews were once forced to scrub the streets of Vienna with toothbrushes before being deported and killed, so the result is disturbing. The question is: How disturbing?
Twenty-nine percent is about 15% more than populist right-wing parties usually get even in very good (for them) years in other European countries. Strache, leader of the Freedom Party, wants the government to create a new ministry to manage the deportation of immigrants. Muslims are openly disparaged by leaders of both parties. Haider once praised the employment practices of Hitler’s Third Reich. Inevitably, the new rightists bring back memories of storm troopers and race laws.
Yet to see the rise of the Austrian right as a revival of Nazism would be a mistake. For one thing, neither party is advocating violence, even if some of their rhetoric might inspire it. For another, it seems to me that voters backing these far-right parties may be motivated less by ideology than by anxieties and resentments that are felt in many European countries, including ones with no Nazi tradition, such as the Netherlands and Denmark.
In Denmark, the hard-right Danish People’s Party is the third-largest party in the country, with 25 parliamentary seats. Dutch populists such as Rita Verdonk, or Geert Wilders, who is driven by a paranoid fear of “Islamization,” are putting the traditional political elites — a combination of liberals, social democrats and Christian democrats — under severe pressure.
And this is precisely the point. The biggest resentment among supporters of the right-wing parties in Europe these days is reserved not so much for immigrants as for political elites that, in the opinion of many, have been governing for too long in cozy coalitions, which appear to exist chiefly to protect vested interests. In Austria, even liberals admit that an endless succession of social democrat and Christian democrat governments has clogged the arteries of the political system. It has been difficult for smaller parties to penetrate what is seen as a bastion of political privilege. The same is true in the Netherlands, which has been governed for decades by the same middle-of-the-road parties, led by benevolent but rather paternalistic figures whose views about multiculturalism, tolerance and Europe were, until recently, rarely challenged.
Expressions of nationalism in postwar European democracies were always tolerated in soccer stadiums, but not in public life, by these leaders. Skepticism about European unity was routinely denounced as bigotry or even a form of racism.
All this is linked to resentment about immigrants. When the offspring of workers from countries such as Turkey and Morocco in the 1960s began to form large Muslim minorities in European cities, it caused tensions in working-class neighborhoods. Complaints about crime and unfamiliar customs were often dismissed by the liberal elites as racism. People simply had to learn to be tolerant.
This advice was not necessarily wrong. Tolerance, European unity, distrust of nationalism and vigilance against racism are all laudable goals. But promoting these aims without discussion, much less criticism, has resulted in a backlash. When the Dutch, the French and the Irish voted against the European Constitution, they were expressing their distrust of the political elites. And populists who promise to restore national sovereignty by rejecting “Europe,” fighting “Islamization” and kicking out the immigrants are also exploiting this distrust.
The rhetoric of xenophobia and chauvinism is unpleasant, to be sure, and, especially in a country with Austria’s past, even hateful. But the new populism is not yet undemocratic or even anti-democratic. The phrase most often heard in Austria among those who support the right-wing parties is “fresh air.” People say they voted for Haider or Strache to break the stranglehold of the ruling parties.
This is not an illegitimate motivation. And there’s certainly a case to be made that if people are anxious about their national identities, the sovereignty of their governments or the demographic and social complexion of their societies, such fears are best heard in the political arena. As long as people express their concerns, however distasteful to liberal ears, by votes rather than violence, democracy will not be seriously harmed….