Two groups will hold opposing demonstrations in Denmark this weekend in a sign of the continent's challenge with identity politics.
English Defense League protesters clash with police in February / Reuters
When two groups of European protesters face off in Denmark this Saturday, they will represent two opposing sides of an increasingly important division in Europe's identity. The first is planned by the far-right English Defence League and aims to start a pan-European anti-Islamic movement. The Guardianreports "at least 10 anti-Islamic and far right groups from across the continent" are expected to attend. The second demonstration is in response: anti-fascists who plan to protest the rally. The anti-fascist coalition Projekt Antifa is booking transportation from Copenhagen to the demonstration in Aarhus, with at least one English group already committed to joining. "A big turnout of anti-fascists from Denmark and other European countries is expected," reports The Guardian.
It's hard to know how to read this standoff. The English Defence League emerged in 2009 as the largest populist street movement in several decades, has been shown (despite its claims) to be strongly associated with knee-jerk anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric, but has often fallen short of its grand aspirations. Turnouts in the past have been sparser than promised, and a 2011 report from British think tank Demos suggested "police and other agencies ought to consider downgrading their estimates on the size and strength of the EDL's marches and demonstrations," calling the EDL's own estimates "inflated."
So is counter-protesting the far-right group perhaps doing more harm than good, lending the extremists too much credibility?
Not if you buy the anti-fascist argument. Nick Lowles of Hope not Hate told reporters that the EDL's "focus on the threat of Islam, presenting it as a cultural war, has a far wider resonance amongst voters, especially in Europe, than old-style racists. They conflate Islamist extremists with immigration and in the current economic and political conditions it is extremely dangerous." That's a compelling view for a number of reasons.
To start with, let's go back to that think tank report. It largely confirmed The Guardian's 2010 exposé on the EDL, which looked at the racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric in the group's protests. Immigration, not Islamic extremism, is the top concern among EDL supporters, the report found. Nearly half of supporters "claim[ed] to have joined the EDL because of their views on Islam," while 31 percent also "cited their love of England, commitment to preservation of traditional national and cultural values, and representation of the interests of 'real' British countrymen ... as their reason for joining." To sum up: this is a movement very much about identity politics.
Identity politics appear to be on the rise in Europe, and precisely at a time when Europe can't afford that: the Eurozone crisis means that Europe needs to be more unified, not less. The trend is surely, in part, about economics. Demos found EDL members to be deeply pessimistic and "disproportionately likely to be out of work" -- consistent with Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman's theory in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth that economic stagnation leads to upticks in intolerance. It's also consistent with a separate Demos report on far-right and populist groups throughout Europe, where the groups' online activists were "slightly more likely to be unemployed." Though the Demos writers were careful to stress that this could be about the activists' student status, unemployment also seemed, anecdotally, to inform the anti-immigrant sentiment. "I would like to send them back to their homes, rather than having to maintain them and give them jobs," a supporter of an Italian federalist party told researchers. "It would be better if they gave Italians a job first, for example to me, since I am unemployed."
It seems that European society at present is more open to the EDL's stated goal of a pan-European anti-Islamist movement than it might otherwise be. This might already be changing European politics. A recent study, on the inclusiveness of immigration policies, showed that the trend towards more inclusive policies was largely due to electoral pressures. The study also found, however, that naturalization rights in the ten European countries studied stagnated and even regressed after 2002.
Why is this worrisome? Three obvious reasons: crypto-fascism is scary, nationalist and protectionist impulses hurt economies, and the E.U. would like to stick around (most of these groups are anti-E.U.). But there's another problem: these groups actually isolate European Muslim communities even more. Muslim immigrants' failure to integrate culturally, as well as perceptions of unfairness and race-based economic discrimination, may lead to religious radicalization, according to some scholars. So can feelings that the West is out to get the Muslim world.
Groups like the EDL are likely worsening these problems. And that's why counter-demonstrations just might prove to be important after all. If each "anti-Islamist" demonstration sends a message to Muslims that they're not welcome, then anti-fascist groups can at least provide a competing message.
There's no getting around the ugliness of the European far right, or the dangers involved in its rise. But the presence of a well-organized and vocal anti-fascist opposition is somewhat encouraging. Traditionally, complacency and lack of interest has been more of a problem than competing agendas.
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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.