If these aren’t fascists, they’re close enough as to make no difference.
Last week, a shaven-headed gang calling itself the "English Defence League" staged an anti-Muslim rally in Birmingham. On Youtube, EDL supporters had boasted of belonging to "the most organised and ruthless street army in the country"; the scene outside the Birmingham mosque, with football hooligans and skinheads battling local Muslims and anti-racists, seemed to confirm it.
The EDL originated with far-Right bloggers, hallucinogenic types who see evidence of a caliphate in every advertisement for halal kebabs. Its real muscle, however, comes from the soccer hooligan "firms", yobs who combine beery chauvinism with casual ultraviolence and thus have provided recruits for far-Right thugs for the last 30 years or so.
Significantly, the EDL’s provocations follow the political breakthroughs of the British National Party. The recent European elections saw major gains for far-Right and neo-Nazi groups across the continent. In Britain, the BNP polled more than a million votes under the leadership of Nick Griffin, a Holocaust-denying, alumnus of the old National Front. An advocate of the "suits-not-boots" school of fascism, Griffin struggles, not always successfully, to keep his more unreconstructed seig-heilers under control, and so the hardcore brawlers from the BNP seem to have gravitated to the EDL (and similar groups like Stop the Islamisation of Europe), where they’re at least guaranteed a good ruck.
In the wake of the Birmingham fracas, Communities Minister John Denham drew an analogy with the 1930s, a comparison that seems hyperbolic until you look more closely. You see, he wasn’t talking about Hitler’s Germany so much as England’s own indigenous fascist tradition.
In 1936, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists launched a campaign along similar lines to the EDL’s current caper. Instead of provoking Muslims with attacks on mosques, the BUF picked on Jewish immigrants — most famously, attempting a blackshirted rally through London’s East End.
Too often, we think of 1930s fascists as cartoon characters, sociopaths so obviously villainous as to attract only the consciously genocidal. But in the early 30s, Mosley boasted considerable support. The media tycoon Lord Rothermere, for instance, saw Mosley as a man of destiny, sweeping away Britain’s democratic paralysis to get the economy moving again. Hence the tabloid Daily Mail‘s attempt to drum up fascist recruits with a notorious article entitled "Hurrah for the Blackshirts".
That’s one difference with the situation today. The new fascists have little support for their economic program (insofar as they even have one). On the other hand, where Mosley’s respectable backers tended to skate over his antisemitism, today the racial agenda of the EDL circulates remarkably widely.
Consider the following statements: Muslims will not integrate. Muslims are more fertile than Christians and are outbreeding them. Europe is becoming a province, a colony, of Islam. Europe will either be Islamicised or there will be a civil war. Most likely, Muslims will resort to terrorism as part of their takeover. They are already spoiling for violence.
You might think all these come from the EDL or Stop the Islamisation of Europe. They don’t. They’re actually from the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian: each sentence a straight précis of remarks by the American scholar Daniel Pipes at a Quadrant dinner last year. The Herald reported it; the Oz reprinted it.
The circulation of these attitudes invites an interesting historical comparison. Imagine if, in a yellowing newspaper from the 1930s, we found an article about the violent Semitic menace spreading across Europe, talking about how Christians would soon become enslaved to the Judifiacation of Western civilisation, we would peg the author as (at best) an apologist for Mosley-style bigotry. But how are these current attitudes any different?
You might say it’s not racism — Islam’s a religion, not a race. Leaving aside the question as to definitions of "race" (try providing, for instance, a theory of "race" that is not itself racist), Pipes explicitly talks about Muslim fertility, which only makes sense if you understand Islam in essentialist terms, a eugenic characteristic like skin colour or nose shape.
Nor can Pipes simply be dismissed as some marginal crackpot (he is a crackpot — just not a marginal one). You can find a very similar analysis in the writings of Christopher Caldwell (whose book Reflections On The Revolution In Europe has been respectfully reviewed all around the world), Mark Steyn, the late Oriana Fallaci, Melanie Phillips, as well as a variety of lesser tub thumpers at home and abroad.
The public sphere today tolerates a level of anti-Muslim bigotry comparable to that directed against Jews in English-speaking countries during the 1930s. No, not analgous to that fostered by Hitler in Germany — there’s no Muslim Holocaust looming — but akin to what was accepted in countries like Britain and Australia. For instance, there’s a famous quote from TW White, the Australian delegate at the conference discussing Jewish emigration from Nazi Germany. White explained that it would "no doubt be appreciated that as we have no racial problem we are not desirous of importing one".
Today, White’s comments are widely (and correctly) seen as utterly shameful. But do not exactly the same assumptions underlie talk of Islamification? Back then, the Jews of the racialised imagination were clannish and refused to assimilate. They wore strange clothes, they ate peculiar foods; they harboured dangerous and radical ideas. Aren’t differences just like these the reason why, each time some desperate group tries to flee Afghanistan or Iraq, you can confidently expect a shock jock or tabloid columnist to fulminate against letting them in? We have no racial problem; we are not desirous of importing one.
If we need more examples of British fascism against which to measure these new developments, we could leave the 30s and move to the last time there was an upsurge of neo-fascism in Britain. The brief flowering of the National Front during the 1970s is widely seen to have been sparked by Enoch Powell’s 1968 warning about the perils of what was then called "coloured" immigration. The West Indians and the Pakistanis came from a different culture; there would, Powell warned, be "rivers of blood" unless immigration ceased.
Go back to Pipes’s article, replace the word "Muslim" with "Pakistani" and, voilà, it’s 1968 all over again.
Of course, the Daniel Pipeses and the Mark Steyns and the rest of them don’t themselves organise marches against mosques. But you can’t warn against looming race wars over the future of civilisation, and not expect the boots-and-braces crowd to launch a preemptive strike. Defend Britain! Stop the Islamisation of Europe! Etc, etc.
Now, one shouldn’t telescope events. By 1936, the BUF had a pretty solid organisation, emerging out of a much worse economic climate, and today neither the EDL nor the BNP really comes close (though there are interesting comparisons to be made between Griffin and Mosley). There’s no Hitlerite takeover imminent for Britain; today’s Nazis are still, for the most part, more interested in beer halls than putsches.
Nonetheless, these are dangerous times, particularly if you belong to a minority. Across Eastern Europe, anti-Roma racism has reached a fever pitch, with the world taking very little notice — Madonna recently drew jeers in Bucharest simply for suggesting her fans refrain from discriminating against "gypsies" (who were also, let us not forget, marked out for genocide by the Hitlerites).
Even in the US, where there’s much less of a native fascist tradition, the Tea Party protest movement drew a crowd of perhaps 75,000 to Washington the other day to protest Barack Obama as a fascist, communist Muslim. Slate records one demonstrator carrying a sign reading "Diversity Is A Disease", a slogan that gives a pretty good idea of where these people are coming from.
In the current context, combating the mainstreaming of anti-Muslim bigotry matters. It matters a great deal.
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