Last October, the largely unknown French group Generation Identity occupied a mosque in the town of Poitiers. Founded only a month before, the group had already attracted interest after releasing a “declaration of war” through YouTube outlining goals focused heavily on opposing multiculturalism and Islam. The young activists presented themselves as a generation of “ethnic fracture,” who had suffered from record levels of unemployment, debt, multicultural decline and the “forced mixing of the races.” From the mosque’s rooftop, the group demanded a referendum on Muslim immigration.
While it is tempting to view such groups as isolated and largely insignificant, their recent emergence reflects how the radical right in Europe -- and, to a lesser extent, North America -- has spawned a new generation of activists who appear focused explicitly on tackling the perceived threat from Islam and Muslim communities. Often referred to as the “counter-jihad” movement, these groups include “defense leagues” in countries such as Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Scotland and Sweden; groups in Germany that rally opposition to the construction of mosques; and international networks that attempt to coordinate these activities, such as Stop Islamization of Nations and the European Freedom Initiative, the latter of which claims to coordinate 18 defense leagues.
True, most lack serious resources and mass support. But unlike the traditional far right, counter-jihad groups are less interested in influencing elections, recruiting formal members or offering broad ideological programs. Instead, they emphasize symbolic street- and social media-based campaigns opposing Islam specifically, and often keep their memberships deliberately fluid, thereby making it difficult to accurately monitor and track them.
As the political scientist Nonna Mayer observes
, many on the radical right now see themselves “as the defenders of equality, liberty and tolerance against their main enemy, Islam, described as a religion of fanaticism and intolerance, incompatible with democratic values and Western culture.”
Perhaps the most significant of these movements is the English Defense League (EDL), which in 2009 became the first such league in Europe. Within three years, the EDL had more than 80,000 followers on Facebook, an estimated 25,000-35,000 regular supporters and more than 80 local divisions. It has staged more than 50 demonstrations across the country opposing an array of Islam-related issues: Palestine, violent Islamism, alleged sexual exploitation of children by “Muslim gangs,” and Islamic education centers.
Such groups have attracted attention from security and policy communities that aim to gather data on manifestations of right-wing extremism. Yet one problem that confronts these efforts is the lack of reliable and objective evidence on who is actually drawn toward these groups and what their concerns are.
Popular assumptions tend to highlight four key groups. First are “globalization losers”: unemployed, low-skilled and poorly educated young men, who lack the skills and flexibility to prosper in the globalized economy and who have further suffered from the financial crisis and austerity. Second are “political protesters”: politically dissatisfied and apathetic citizens who reject mainstream elites and do not trust established institutions. Third are single-issue “Islamophobes”: citizens who are not necessarily prejudiced, but who perceive a threat from Islam and Muslims specifically, whether to resources, liberal values or established norms. Fourth are “xenophobes,” who are hostile toward ethnic minorities more generally.
To probe this issue, the Extremist Project
surveyed almost 300 self-identified supporters of the EDL who knew what the group stood for and agreed with its values. Our findings directly challenge the assumptions above. EDL supporters were no more likely than average to be unemployed, to have little education or to depend on the state for housing. Nor were they just young men; compared with the wider population, EDL supporters were more likely to be between the ages of 45 and 59. Finally, they were not politically apathetic: Supporters were no more likely than average to abstain from voting or refuse to identify with established parties. In fact, most said they had voted for a mainstream political party in the most recent election.
As for motive, we found little evidence that EDL supporters are single-issue Islamophobes. Respondents ranked their top two concerns as immigration and the economy, placing the option “Muslims in your country” in a distant third place. Where they do differ from the wider population is in terms of their attitudes toward immigration, multiculturalism and rising diversity. Those who are supportive of the counter-jihad group are extremely hostile toward ethnic minorities generally. They are also extremely negative about the effects of immigration and deeply pessimistic about relationships between different groups: Eight out of 10 saw Muslims as a threat to their native group and endorsed the idea that there will be a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and other groups; seven out of 10 thought immigrants undermine national cultural life and have had negative effects on the economy. Almost three-quarters thought that violence between different ethnic and racial groups is “largely inevitable.”
Addressing public anxieties over Islam is thus clearly necessary. But it is not sufficient. Our findings suggest that counter-jihad groups across Europe are rallying a base of citizens predominantly concerned about rising ethnic and cultural diversity who view these groups as a vehicle for expressing these anxieties. Nor will such groups disappear from the political landscape, given the reservoir of potential support that is evident within wider societies. Even within our sample of the wider population, for example, more than half of respondents saw the growth of Muslim communities as a threat, and almost half rejected the suggestion that British Muslims are compatible with the national way of life. The implications, then, are clear: either mainstream political elites begin exploring more innovative ways of addressing these ongoing concerns over rising ethnic diversity, and more specifically anxieties over the compatibility of Islam and already settled Muslims, or they risk converting a larger number of potential radical right supporters into actual followers.
Matthew Goodwin is associate professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham and an associate fellow at Chatham House. He is the author of the books “New British Fascism” and the forthcoming “Revolt on the Right,” as well as the Chatham House report “Right Response: Understanding and Countering Populist Extremism in Europe.”