In the wake of the Paris shootings, over forty world leaders and three million people marched in France to mourn the 12 people killed by three French-born Islamist radicals. Meanwhile, another thousand gathered at a town hall in Beauclaire, three hours away from Paris. They were led by Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front. In her address, she proclaimed she was not mourning with the people “who represent everything France hates,” but rather “where the spirit of tolerance is strongest, where sectarianism is less violent.” Clearly logic isn’t her forte, but Le Pen’s electoral breakthrough in March 2014, in which her party garnered a stunning 25% of the votes cast, suggests there is something about her that the French like.
The gathering, which ended with the singing of the French national anthem, is not to be dismissed so easily. Le Pen is at the center of the Europe-wide nationalist wave in which more and more Europeans want to see Muslims gone from their countries. Populism has never been so pronounced in Europe since the end of World War II. It is no longer some fringe extremist right-wing party’s platform calling for a suspension on immigration and prioritization of nationals’ welfare benefits and employment. Instead, it has become part of the mainstream discourse, which feeds on people’s worries about Islamist radicalization and making the people believe the entire Muslim people is a threat to European cultural and religious values.
Is nationalism a new phenomenon? No. And, the public outcry about radicalization of European nationals is not an illegitimate concern. There was a 74 percent growth in the number of Europeans seeking to join Jihadist movements in Iraq and Syria last year. A French man radicalized in jail was convicted of allegedly shooting three people in Belgium in June, and Europol estimated that the 5,000 or so European fighters in Syria will pose a great risk to European countries as they become more hostile to the West. Nationalism and populism naturally become more appealing as people encounter these alarming news next to the far-right politicians who are not afraid to put people’s agitation into words. As Alexander Gauland, a leading member of the Eurosceptic party, Alternative for Germany, maintains, “Everyone who has until now laughed or scoffed at the apprehensions of people of a looming Islamic threat are being punished by this bloodshed.” Yet whether their branding of the entire race of Muslims as a ticking bomb really addresses the root of the problem is questionable. Rather, it over-simplifies many issues that surround Europe today.
The conflicts in the Middle East in the past decade have led to hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers to Europe, most of whom are Muslims. This coincided with economic malaise in Europe, and in times of economic hardship people usually seek scapegoats to seemingly come up with a solution to their problems, who are usually minorities. Interestingly, the anti-Islamization Pegida protests in Germany were initiated in Saxony – a state with one of the lowest immigration rates but with one of the highest unemployment rates. Moreover, the same youth disenfranchisement and social discrimination that triggered French riots in 2005 have given more power to Islamist groups trying to attract impressionable youth. The combination of economic instability and failure to integrate immigrants and youth into mainstream society further compounds the vicious cycle of violence and stigmatization.
The vast majority of Muslims will not turn to violence, but condemning their entire race will surely not be a discouragement. It can be coercing an identity onto a group; some will discard it, while others might take a second look at their name tag. After all, many of the perpetrators are Europeans who were radicalized on their own soil. Attempting to separate “pure” Europeans from “potential Jihadists” will intrinsically entail discrimination and racial profiling.
The European Union’s founding principle, the Schengen agreement that protects the freedom of movement of people across Europe, is again placed under scrutiny. The British-led reform last year to introduce “emergency brakes” on immigration may have been abandoned in the end, but it won’t be long before the debate resurfaces again. It is imperative, however, to remember that institutionalization of ethnic discrimination will always create a slippery slope from populism.