Political extremism has, in many places, become a kind of new normal. In most democratic political systems, we find parties that proffer illiberal policies and promote intolerance of targeted groups. They typically do this, however, while playing within the rules of the democratic game. Extremist parties therefore pose a bedeviling challenge to democracies, namely how to resolve the paradox of being asked to tolerate the intolerant.
On the Margins: Extremist Parties in Democratic Systems
In both mature and young democracies, political extremism is becoming a new normal. But deciding just how to deal with extremist parties poses confounding challenges to electoral systems premised on tolerance. In Europe, far-right extremism has proved to be surprisingly resilient and is today at its postwar height. And in many Arab Spring countries, Salafi parties have opted to enter the political arena for the first time, overcoming their ideological objections to electoral politics in order to pursue their vision of an Islamic state.
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After decades of condemning parliamentary politics, Salafis have created political parties for the first time in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya. Before the Arab Spring, the majority of Salafis condemned parliaments as sinful because they usurp God’s role as legislator. However, many Salafis have swallowed their ideological objections to party politics in order to nudge the new regimes closer to their own vision of an Islamic state.
Though Europe has consistently struggled to escape fully from the shadows of fascism and far-right politics, the landscape of postwar European politics has never truly been “far-right free.” Far from being ephemeral, the far right in postwar Europe has proved to be remarkably resilient. So much so that, today, it could be argued that at no point during the entire postwar era has the challenge from this political tradition appeared so pressing.