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As the nation goes to the ballot box tomorrow, there is a subsisting reality that a certain amount of damage has already been done. The Brexit campaign has allowed a trend of extremist nationalism to bubble to the surface, the consequences of which are increasingly becoming distinctly obvious for our country. But while it is too early to conclude definitively on the murder of MP Jo Cox, the attack does raise questions about extremist nationalism, and we should also take stock of the consequences of such extremist ideas invigorating large swathes of Europe’s political establishment. The irony of extremist nationalists being linked together by a type of transnationalism makes it even more pertinent for us to consider carefully the future of these isles. For, most certainly, irrespective of how the vote finally goes, the threat of that extremism remains prescient – for the UK, and far beyond.
Some fifteen years ago, as a budding academic at the University of Sheffield’s School of Law, I applied for funding for doctoral research into Europe and its religious minority of Muslims. I didn’t know it at the time, but my research took place just as something deeply insidious was being formed – the narrative of Eurabia. Echoes of this narrative can be heard in the background when one considers the murder of Jo Cox; then, as now, many in Europe feared extremists within or from Muslim majority societies – but Eurabia was different. It was, to put it bluntly, about the destruction of Europe from within, at the hands of its own Muslims. When my research was published, it was entitled ‘The “Other” Europeans’, pinpointing the theme that Muslim Europeans were often the ‘Other’ to our own ‘Us’.
At the time, I could not have envisaged how powerful such paranoid ideas might become. More than a decade ago, a prominent Muslim British scholar and Cambridge academic, Timothy J Winter, voiced his concerns about whether European ‘liberalism’ could tolerate Islam. He had a good point. Eurabia and the concern around Muslims generally, not just the fear of terrorism but also of an imagined cultural war, ceased to be the obsession of a few marginalised figures on the far right. From the early 2000s, the subject was slowly seeping into mainstream discussions about the future of Europe, playing on the fears of much wider numbers of European citizens – about their own neighbours. A decade later, we see the results – and they range from far right to left.
Europeans are about to gain a president from Slovakia for their Union – whose left-wing, formerly communist prime minister, Robert Fico, has declared, ’Islam has no place’ in his country. Slovakia’s western neighbour has another left-wing leader, Czech President Milos Zeman, who insists the refugee crisis is an ‘organised invasion’ and that it is ‘practically impossible’ to integrate Muslim populations. To the south, Hungary has a right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, who does away with centuries of European history in asserting that Islam has never been a part of Europe, and only a few weeks ago, Austria almost elected as president a far-right-wing candidate, who had a campaign slogan of ‘Islam has no place in Austria’. The examples go on, and they show one thing – extremist nationalism, buttressed by Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, is not sequestered in Europe to one marginal part of the political spectrum. It goes much further – and is likely to go further still.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned about the rise of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), which is seeking to position itself on an explicitly anti-Muslim platform – unabashedly, precisely because it sees such a platform as a vote-getter. The French establishment – not its extremists – has already been energised by concerns about the choice of Muslim French women to cover their hair with the hijab. Ironically, restrictions on such women are framed through the language of women’s empowerment, although they explicitly marginalise and disempower those women who wish to observe a deeply personal religious practice. We ought not to be surprised if Marine Le Pen's far-right Front National makes huge electoral gains. The repercussions for genuine social cohesion in all of these societies ought not to be underestimated.
Eurabia, as a term, is not as common as it used to be. But its legacy remains. As part of that legacy, one can note the political developments above. In a more violent and militant expression of extremist nationalism, nevertheless, we see far more deleterious effects. The most famous exponent would be Anders Breivik, who massacred so many in Norway in 2011, and it may well include the murder of Jo Cox last week. But Breivik’s ideology was not limited solely to militants such as him. Rather, significant elements of his thinking, particularly when it comes to seeing Islam primarily as a threat to European civilisation from within and without, were – and are – shared in Europe far beyond the violent fringe.
Might it then be better if we did decide to leave the EU? That’s simply a misplaced idealism we cannot afford. If we were to depart the EU we would likely accomplish the empowering of those extremist nationalist forces all around. In the UK, such forces would use their victory to push the political spectrum further to the right, polarising our country even further – and in Europe they would run further amok without the moderating influence of the UK to contend with.
Being in the EU may not stem those forces, whether within or without the UK, but it gives us the opportunity and the chance to make a better argument than they ever could. The paradox about the extremist nationalist position is that the truly patriotic decision may indeed be simply this – our patriotism is best served by being in the EU, and the forces keenest to damage our societies are best served by our leaving it. And if we find on Friday morning that we are committed to leaving the EU, then we will have to be even more wary of the consequences.
Dr HA Hellyer is Associate Fellow in International Security Studies at RUSI, and Senior Non-resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. @hahellyer
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Institute.