This essay was originally written as a submission for the Gulen Youth Platform competition of the University of Houston. As no winners were announced for the competition, I have decided to post this essay here. Extremism is probably an appropriate topic on this blog in the light of the shooting in Orlando, although this essay deals with extremist politics rather than extremist terrorism.
Please note that this was written as an essay for an academic competition, and so while I have made some minor edits to make it more appropriate for a blog post, I have also decided to display the bibliography.
The European Migrant Crisis & the Rise of Extremist Politics
Many Greeks were at the edge of their seats as they watched the election results roll in on TV on a January afternoon in 2015. They were quick to rejoice when they learned that Syriza, a leftwing party, had won the elections on an anti-austerity platform, defeating the conservative incumbent New Democracy party. Many noticed, however, that beneath those results was a more troubling prospect: the success of the “Popular Association” party- more widely known as Golden Dawn. They had just won 6.3% of the vote and come in third place while their leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, and other top party deputies were still in prison.
If Syriza had campaigned and won with the attractiveness of its economic policies to a country experiencing immense hardship, then Golden Dawn stood for something quite different. ‘Neo-nazi’, ‘far-right’, ’extremist’; these were among the most popular terms used by the press to describe Golden Dawn. Although it had toned down its rhetoric somewhat during the election, everyone knew the cornerstones of the party’s ideology. Members had murdered Pakistani immigrants and a famous anti-racist singer, hence why top party leaders were on trial for running what prosecutors feel is a criminal organisation. It did not help that the leaders had described immigrants as “barbarian hordes” and called for “[ridding] the country of this stench”.
But why did Golden Dawn achieve so much success, against all the odds? How could a party so
extreme garner over half a million votes in a country with just a little over ten million people? It would be one matter if this were an isolated case, but it is a different matter altogether when it is remembered that extremist parties are on the rise all throughout Europe. After an investigation of this issue, it can be discerned that at the root of the rise in popularity of right-wing extremism is a fear of immigrants and refugees, most of whom held faiths and spoke languages that their host countries did not share. In a globalised world with increasingly unequal levels of welfare and development, conditions are ripe for extremism to flourish.
What disparities have arisen in the world today? One of the most obvious examples that come to mind is the Syrian crisis. The Syrian state, which erupted into flames after a violent government crackdown in March 2011, has been embroiled in an immensely destructive civil war. The result is starkly visible in the high number of Syrian refugees now registered with the UNHCR: 4 million. Neighbouring countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon, have become overwhelmed with the influx of refugees, with one in five people in Lebanon now a refugee from Syria. It has also been estimated that roughly nine in ten Syrian refugees are living below the poverty line in their host country, and with resources already stretched to the limit, measly handouts from the UN coupled with the difficulty of finding decent-paying employment gives Syrians a bleak future outlook.
It is with little wonder, then, that Europe, with its high level of development, has become a new magnet for refugees looking for a better future. Just as migrants from across the Atlantic went to the United States in search of the American Dream a century earlier, migrants from the Middle East are now arriving at the coasts of Greece and Italy in search of an antidote to their nightmarish suffering from the warfare in their countries. Many refugees attempt to enter Europe by crossing from Turkey on small wooden boats, a perilous journey that has led to eight hundred deaths, while crossing from North Africa to Italy is more dangerous still. Over a million refugees arrived in 2015 alone, with nearly half a million applying for asylum in Germany. In short, an ill-prepared Europe was greeted with a tsunami of migrants fleeing destruction.
As refugees poured across borders, flooding small European countries as they tried to reach Germany, a vigorous debate on ethics was unleashed across Europe. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, announced an “open-door policy” for refugees, declaring that it was “no more or less than a moral imperative”. Not all European leaders, however, agreed. The Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban said curtly that Hungary “had a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country”; he proceeded to suggest that the Greek border be walled off from Macedonia so that migrants could no longer travel north. Europeans were split about whether to try to protect their core value of freedom of movement and to find a solution for the humanitarian disaster, or to turn back the tide of alien immigrants in a bid to protect the integrity of their borders and conserve the social fabric of their nations.
It was clear that many opted for the latter choice, and in this poisonous climate, political radicalisation has bred and grown across Europe as extremist parties formerly on the fringe of the political sphere were able to move to the centre of action. The most striking example is Golden Dawn, which continued its anti-immigrant rhetoric. Six months after the January election, a new election was called by Syriza, and campaigning under the call of “no to illegal immigration” and a manifesto that called for immigrants to be rounded up, Golden Dawn came once again in third place. In fact, in areas with the most immigrants, particularly the Aegean islands, voter support for Golden Dawn doubled, with voters flocking to what was branded “the only nationalist choice”. Murdering immigrants had not been able to blunt Golden Dawn’s success but rather seemed to have enhanced it.
But Golden Dawn is not the only formerly fringe extremist group to have risen in popularity. Another example from Germany is PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West), an anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant movement that originated in Dresden. In February 2016, far-right groups across Europe joined together to help support PEGIDA as the thousands of members of the group marched in multiple European cities to make known their desire to turn away immigrants, resulting in violent scuffles against pro-immigration activists and police. For example, in Leipzig, 200 masked protesters erected barricades, vandalised buildings and set the top floor of one on fire.
This frustration in Germany manifested itself not simply through popular demonstrations, but,
similarly with Golden Dawn, culminated in regional elections in March 2016 which saw the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party win enough votes to become a major player in three local state legislatures. The success of the party, which campaigned on suspending the right to asylum, asked the police to shoot at refugees crossing the border and declared that German immigration policy was driven merely by guilt over the Holocaust, marked the first time since the Second World War that a party whose platform could be described as right-wing extremist had won such a significant share of the vote.
To many outside of Europe, the meteoric rise in popularity of far-right extremists that so publicly approve of violence towards immigrants may seem difficult to comprehend. Why is peaceful coexistence so difficult to achieve? The fear and suspicion that some Europeans feel towards the refugees, however, is easier to understand when analysed through the light of recent events. On New Year’s Eve in 2015, five hundred criminal complaints arose after mass attacks and sex assaults in Cologne by people whom were described as North African. Later, a major terrorist attack in Brussels by Islamic terrorists fuelled further fear as many Europeans blamed a lax immigration system for allowing such dangerous militants to be in their midst). Aside from these concrete fears of physical danger, however, are also fear of a breakdown of the traditional order in society due to the arrival of so many new incomers. As Leo McKinstry writes in the Sunday Express, “…the very fabric of European civilisation is disintegrating.The traditional bonds of solidarity and shared identity are collapsing. In their place there are fully justified fears about terrorism, extremism, alien customs and savage misogyny”. In a way, right-wing extremism has become a response to, and is seemingly justified by Islamic extremism. The fivefold increase in the attacks on refugees and migrants reported in Germany in 2015 are perhaps justifiable as an expression of the fear and distrust of the newcomers who locals believe have destroyed their security; to defend against extremists requires becoming extremists themselves.
Fear of immigrants has led to right-wing extremism, which has in turn created violence. If this issue of illegal immigration continues, it is easy to imagine that right-wing extremism would also continue to rise in popularity. How, then, should this issue be resolved? In this interconnected world, the problem is multifaceted; to resolve the immigration crisis would require a long-term political solution where Syria and other nations in the Middle East and North Africa return to stability. With such a feat still very unlikely, it is difficult to envision anything being able to stem the flow of immigration from the Middle East to Europe, due to the lure of the wealth and stability of the European countries. On the other hand, it may be more possible to reduce right-wing extremism. Hannah Arendt, a political theorist, said that extreme groups gain momentum by “by offering solutions when other alternatives appear unable to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man”. The issue of illegal immigration is perceived as a threat by many Europeans, on their security and society, and they feel that conventional centrist parties have not been able to address their concern; rather, in their perception, by pursuing open-door policies, they are exacerbating the problem. The first step to reduce the appeal of right-wing extremism would be to find solutions that help address these concerns in a meaningful way. One possible proposal would be, as Angela Merkel has now promised, to give refugees temporary shelter but ask them to return to their home countries once their respective political crises are over, which would help to reduce local concerns of long-term cultural differences.
In addition, intercultural understanding should be promoted to encourage harmony between refugees and locals. A better grasp of each others’ history, beliefs, traditions and values would decrease the level of distrust and fear between each other. An understanding of asylum as a universal human right, as listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, may also be beneficial to the process.
In the end, there are no easy answers as to how right-wing political extremism in response to the immigration crisis can be reduced. This particular instance of extremism is the result of a more globalised world where disparities in wealth and political stability has led to mass immigration, which in turn has created fear of the destruction of Europe. However, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, and if we work together to address this global issue, then there is nothing that can impede our global village from continuing on the road to harmonious co-existence.
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