Jamie Bartlett is head of the Violence and Extremism Programme at the London-based think tank Demos. Jonathan Birdwell is a researcher on the Violence and Extremism Programme at Demos. They are currently undertaking a major research project into the growth of far-right street-based movements across Europe, including the largest ever survey of far-right activists, which is due to be completed in October 2011.
For the past five years, in the bastions of civilized Europe, the far right has been resurgent. Extreme right-wing political parties have scored unprecedented electoral success in a number of countries, including Austria, France, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Far-right street movements of disgruntled young men, barely seen for a generation, are appearing in greater numbers in busy Strassen, plazas, and boulevards. Until Friday, governments and the security services viewed this as a worrying trend, but one that could be contained. With the stunning, tragic attacks in Norway, that has now changed. Intelligence agencies, concerned more with al Qaeda for a decade, are suddenly alert to a new and deadly threat.
Possibly more significant, the growing power of these parties exerts a gravitational pull on the political center. David Cameron and Angela Merkel both recently announced the death of multiculturalism, and Nicolas Sarkozy's burqa ban has been a vote-winner in France.
Below the political fracas, a new breed of far-right and nationalist street-based groups are also getting a more confident swagger. In Britain, the English Defence League (EDL) has employed a similar blend of far-right and populist ideas, springing up in 2006 to protest against what it sees as creeping Islamism in British society. With smart use of social media sites, the EDL has been able to mobilize between 2,000-3,000 people for demonstrations, and claims to have a Facebook membership of 90,000. Britain has not seen anything like it since the 1970s. (Anders Behring Breivik, the Oslo bomber and Utoya gunman, is believed to have been in contact with members of this group — possibly even attending a March in 2010 — and openly admired their tactics; he wanted to set up a Norwegian Defence League.) In France, Le Bloc Identitaire is a street-based movement that has arranged pork and wine parties outside mosques, as a statement of defence to the French secular constitution.
In our research, we have found that these groups are often torn between sometimes conflicting goals of seeking respectability among their peers and recruiting new members. In Denmark, where we were conducting fieldwork last week, the extreme far right is fragmented over positions on anti-Semitism, homosexuality, and race. Many are now talking about themselves as "modern nationalists" focused on the growth of Islam, while trying to dissociate themselves from Nazi connotations to gain legitimacy. Interestingly, comments on a forum of one of the newest far-right groups — the Danskernes Parti (Danes' Party) — led by an up-and-coming 21-year-old named Daniel Carlsen, claim that Breivik is a "madman," not a nationalist, and is "pro-Jewish" as a member of the Freemasons.
It is in this febrile environment that the creaking networks of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and Christian fundamentalists, are finding new life and new recruits. The truly radical right in Europe is still only miniscule, but even before the Oslo attacks, signs of a coming revival were evident.
Of course, each far-right group has its own idiosyncracies. Indeed, the first rule of extreme right-wing movements is to not offend national sentiments. Some radical right-wing groups, as the British neo-Nazi terrorist group Combat 18, are obsessed with anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. Others believe in racial supremacy and the importance of Aryan purity. In Scandinavia, Nordic mythology often features. Some share overlap with violent football hooligan groups, like White Pride in Aarhus. It is these groups that intelligence and security agencies have long followed, as violence is a central part of their worldview — an important point that distinguishes them from more mainstream groups.
The relationship between ascendant far-right extremism and political violence is suddenly a top political and security concern. Right-wing groups will come under great scrutiny, and governments are likely to re-examine the case for proscribing some of them. But should they? For the past six months, we have been examining this question through a large-scale survey of extreme right-wing political activists and sympathizers across Europe. The answer is far from simple.
Over the last decade, the extreme right in Europe has become more palatable. The overt racism and chest-beating nationalism of previous years have been discarded. What characterizes the new far-right is a defiant, aggressive defense of national culture and history in the face of a changing world, of secularism, and even of democracy and liberty. While each has its idiosyncrasies, far-right parties are responding to genuine concerns of many voters: that modern globalization hasn't benefitted them, that mass immigration — especially from Muslim-majority countries — is threatening local and national identity.
Perhaps most important, these new far-right parties like Geert Wilders' Freedom Party in the Netherlands or Marine Le Pen's Front National in France expertly portray mainstream politicians as spineless, soft-boiled, venal, self-serving slaves to political correctness and orthodoxy. Recent events — such as banking bailouts, the Eurozone crisis, and the News International hacking scandal — certainly lend some credibility to the view that politicians are indeed out of touch with ordinary people.
This potent mix of populism and far-right ideas — often utilizing powerful historical and cultural reference points, such as enlightenment philosophers and national flags — has meant the forming of new alliances and a blurring of obvious left and right lines. Thilo Sarrazin, for example, author of the book Germany Does Away With Itself, which argues that the country is sleepwalking into a multicultural abyss, is a prominent member of the left-wing Social Democratic Party. One leader of a Danish far-right organization described himself to us as an atheist Marxist.
A significant chunk of European voters is clearly impressed. Le Pen is currently third in the polling for the 2012 French presidential election. Wilders' Freedom Party is also the third-largest in the Netherlands. In Scandinavia, the True Finns, the Danish People's Party, and the Swedish Democrats all secured their best-ever electoral results over the past 18 months. Germany and Austria's far-right parties are resurgent, sparking atavistic European fears. Further east, the Jobbik Party is now the third largest political party in Hungary, having doubled its seats during the last election.
Of course, the political right actively distances itself from the more extreme fringes. But there is certainly some ideological overlap between them. They share an affinity for inflammatory rhetoric premised on anexistential crisis. Western civilization is under threat, attacked by multiculturalists, Jews, and Muslims bent on destroying Christendom and national identity. Breivik's "manifesto" — a 1,500-page enunciation of his thinking posted online just hours before his killing spree — illustrates these themes precisely. He explains how cultural Marxism has destroyed European identity, with multiculturalists willingly complicit. Islam, he says, is now the biggest threat to Norway (and Europe) through "demographic warfare." We found this sentiment rife among a variety of far-right groups in Denmark.
No one really knows the exact relationship between extreme right-wing movements and political violence. Indeed, academics are still arguing, without resolution, about whether peaceful but extreme Islamist organizations are "gateways" into Islamist terrorism.
Yet all terrorists believe they are defending a wider constituency, fighting for ideas that others agree with but are too ignorant or afraid to take action. Breivik made one, eerie tweet from his account, paraphrasing the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill: "One person with belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests." Like al Qaeda, far-right terrorists often see themselves as vanguards — striking a blow that will awaken the masses.
There's no question that someone like Anders Behring Breivik is more likely to find that environment in Europe now than a decade ago. And though he may have acted alone, there are certainly more like him who share his concerns, his ideology, and his belief that without immediate and drastic action Western civilization will be lost. The world can no longer afford to ignore this growing threat