Fighting for Europe’s Soul

In the first Crusade, armed Christians set out to “liberate” Jerusalem from Muslim rule. In addition to slaughtering thousands of Muslims between 1096 and 1099, the crusaders also launched pogroms against Jews, pagans, and even other Christians.

What animated the crusaders wasn’t just Jerusalem’s status. It was the fear that Islam was lapping at the shores of Europe itself.

Today, all of Europe is mourning the victims of recent attacks in France by modern-day crusaders inspired by their own extreme interpretation of Islam. But another group of extremists — a much larger contingent of Islamophobes and immigrant-bashers — fears the growing Islamic presence in Europe.

Look no further than Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who massacred 77 people in 2011 in protest of the country’s pro-immigrant policies, or at the anonymous assailants who firebombed French mosques in the wake of the atrocious Charlie Hebdo attacks.

These anti-Islamic extremists fear that their old-fashioned vision of a white, Christian Europe is vanishing. Actually, the Europe of their imaginations has already passed into history — to the extent that it ever existed.

Particularly after World War II, colonial connections diversified the continent as Indonesians came to Holland, Algerians to France, and Trinidadians to the UK. During the labor shortages of the 1960s and 1970s, guest workers from the Balkans, Turkey, and North Africa followed.

More recently, wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, North Africa, and the Middle East brought refugees and migrants. And the attractions of a unified Europe have drawn people from all over the world.

These rapid changes have sown anxiety in populations that don’t consider their countries to be “immigrant societies,” leading to a virulent anti-immigrant strain in European politics.

In the German heartland, an organization called Pegida — short for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West — has proven enormously popular. Despite calls by German political figures for people to stay home, Pegida organizers held an anti-immigrant rally in Dresden that attracted 25,000 people in the wake of the French killings.

Although a counter-demonstration attracted 35,000 people, Pegida is on a roll. In a German poll last month, half of the respondents declared their sympathy with the group and its anti-Muslim agenda.

In England, meanwhile, anti-immigrant fervor catapulted the nativist UK Independence Party from nowhere into a serious contender. Following the tragedy in France, UKIP leader Nigel Farage spoke of a “fifth column” inside European countries “holding our passports, who hate us.” That sentiment boosted his popularity.

But the organization best positioned to leverage the Islamophobia welling up in Europe is France’s National Front party. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, was already leading early polling for the 2017 presidential contest even before the recent killings. Le Pen has argued that Islam is not compatible with France’s secular society and has compared Muslims worshipping in the streets to the Nazi occupation of France.

Le Pen is the face of the new extremism: sufficiently liberal in some respects (divorced, pro-choice) to reach out to the mainstream while aggressively intolerant enough to appeal to the base.

This Islamophobia, however, is the tip of the spear. The real thrust of the far right is to keep immigrants out, period.

Le Pen has called for a reinstatement of both border controls and the death penalty, which would put France at odds with the rest of Europe. Farage recently said that “Any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door.”

Extremists of all stripes would love to see the return of the Crusades. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda would like to see rivers of blood in the streets of Europe. And the far right understands that an all-out war with a committed enemy is a sure path to political power — and with it persecutions, mass deportations, and European disintegration.

Forget the false frame of the West versus Islam. With Muslims rushing to condemn the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the two are basically on the same side.

The real battle is over the soul of Europe. And the far right is rallying like it’s 1099.