Sasha Polakow-Suransky, New York Times, October 12, 2017
When rapid immigration and terrorist attacks occur simultaneously — and the terrorists belong to the same ethnic or religious group as the new immigrants — the combination of fear and xenophobia can be dangerous and destructive. In much of Europe, fear of jihadists (who pose a genuine security threat) and animosity toward refugees (who generally do not) have been conflated in a way that allows far-right populists to seize on Islamic State attacks as a pretext to shut the doors to desperate refugees, many of whom are themselves fleeing the Islamic State, and to engage in blatant discrimination against Muslim fellow citizens.
But this isn’t happening only in European countries. In recent years, anti-immigration rhetoric and nativist policies have become the new normal in liberal democracies from Europe to the United States. Legitimate debates about immigration policy and preventing extremism have been eclipsed by an obsessive focus on Muslims that paints them as an immutable civilizational enemy that is fundamentally incompatible with Western democratic values.
Far-right leaders are correct that immigration creates problems; what they miss is that they are the primary problem. The greatest threat to liberal democracies does not come from immigrants and refugees but from the backlash against them by those on the inside who are exploiting fear of outsiders to chip away at the values and institutions that make our societies liberal.
The trend is unmistakable. Hungary’s ruling party has plastered anti-Semitic ads on bus stops and billboards; an overtly neo-Nazi movement won 7 percent of the vote in Greece’s 2015 election; Germany’s upstart far-right party, which includes a popular member who criticized Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as “a monument of shame,” won 13 percent in last month’s election.
In France and Denmark, populist leaders have gone to great pains to shed the right’s crudest baggage and rebrand themselves in a way that appeals to Jews, women and gay people by depicting Muslims as the primary threat to all three groups. But their core goal remains the same: to close the borders and expel unwanted foreigners.
Cultural and demographic anxiety about dwindling native populations and rapidly increasing immigrant ones lies at the heart of these parties’ ideologies. In America, Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, worries about the impossibility of restoring “our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” In Europe, the right frets about who’s having the new German or Danish babies and the fact that it’s not white Germans or Danes — a social Darwinist dread popularized by the German writer Thilo Sarrazin, whose best-selling 2010 book, “Germany Abolishes Itself,” warned that barely literate Muslims were poised to replace the supposedly more intelligent German race.
Ms. Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front party, has a similar fear, and she sees birthright citizenship as the vehicle for replacement. Although she doesn’t use the term favored by many Republicans in the United States (“anchor babies”), she insists, as she told me in an interview last May, that “we must stop creating automatic French citizens.”
The notion of a Great Replacement has crossed the Atlantic and found an eager audience among groups who have long espoused similar white supremacist ideas. The Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders warned in 2015 of “masses of young men in their 20s with beards singing ‘Allahu akbar’ across Europe.” He labeled their presence “an invasion that threatens our prosperity, our security, our culture and identity.”
A year later, Mr. Wilders attended the Republican national convention, where he headlined an L.G.B.T. pro-Trump event along with the anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller and the alt-right wunderkind Milo Yiannopoulos. Before he began his talk in front of a wall featuring photos of barechested men, “Make America Great Again” hats and a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, Mr. Wilders was introduced as “the hope for Western civilization.”
Calais and Charlottesville may be nearly 4,000 miles apart, but the ideas motivating far-right activists in both places are the same. When white nationalists descended on Charlottesville in August, the crowd chanted “Jews will not replace us” and “you will not replace us” before one of its members allegedly killed a woman with his car and others beat a black man; last week, they returned bearing torches and chanting similar slogans.
Just as Mr. Trump has plenty to say about Islamic State attacks but generally has no comment about hate crimes against Indians, blacks and Muslims, the European far-right is quick to denounce any violent act committed by a Muslim but rarely feels compelled to forcefully condemn attacks on mosques or neo-Nazis marching near synagogues on Yom Kippur.
Those who worry that a godless Europe and an immigration-friendly America are no match for Islamic extremists have ignored an even greater threat: white nationalists.
Their ideology is especially dangerous because they present themselves as natives valiantly defending the homeland. Because they look and sound like most of their co-citizens, they garner sympathy from the majority in ways that Islamists never could. White nationalism is in many ways a mirror image of radical Islamism. Both share a nostalgic obsession with a purist form of identity: for one, a medieval Islamic state; for the other, a white nation unpolluted by immigrant blood.
If the influence of white nationalists continues to grow, they will eventually seek to trample the rights of immigrants and minorities and dismiss courts and constitutions as anti-democratic because they don’t reflect the supposed preferences of “the people.” Their rise threatens to transform countries that we once thought of as icons of liberalism into democracies only in name.