The Far Right: A Disease We Have Allowed to Fester 18 June 2016

The details of the assassination of Jo Cox MP are difficult to read. Stabbed, and then shot three times at close range by Tommy Mair. The tributes to the late politician describe her as universally liked, moral, kind, and committed to representing not only her constituents, but refugees, the poor, and the abused. Witnesses report that the murderer shouted “Britain First” or “put Britain first” during the attack, and with pictures emerging allegedly showing the assailant in Britain First demonstrations, it seems likely this murder was, at least in part, a reflection of the hatred and bigotry of the far-right.

For those in Britain who feel threatened by the increasing confidence and activism of the far-right (namely, Muslims, migrants and minorities) – it seems bewildering that only now has society woken up to the very real danger posed by them. Jo Cox’s assassination is after all, not the first far-right murder. In the same year as Lee Rigby was brutally killed on the streets of London, Pavlo Lapshyn, a neo-nazi, undertook a campaign of terror that included the murder of elderly Muslim Mohammed Saleem and the detonation of three bombs in mosques in the Midlands. Muhsin Ahmad, another elderly Muslim, was murdered in 2015 by two men aping the rhetoric of the far-right, taunting the pensioner with accusations of being a “groomer” and a “paedophile” before attacking him. Barely a weekend goes by without a protest on the streets of Britain against Muslims, Islam or migrants. The English Defence League, the recently revived National Front, the German inspired PEGIDA-UK, and of course, Britain First, have all been active with protests and demonstrations this year. The latter in particular stage “mosque invasions” and regularly film their “Christian patrols”.

It’s easy to pretend such groups are laughable. Media coverage of their activities more often takes the form of mockery rather than any recognition that for many, they pose a real threat. Hidden amongst the headlines of the London Mayoral Campaign, itself dogged by dog-whistle racist campaigning that befits the BNP more than the conservative party, is the revelation that over 100,000 people voted for Britain First. 100,000 people in London alone were willing to vote for a man whose platform included the closure of all mosques. In a wider European context, the picture becomes even more unsettling. It was not so long ago, five years ago in fact, that Anders Brievik murdered 77 people in Norway in the name of a pan-European religious fascism – the case for which he made in his manifesto, entitled 2083: A European Declaration of Independence. It was barely a few weeks ago that a far-right terror plot planned for the Euro 2016 tournament by a French ultra-nationalist was stopped, him being arrested with explosives and weaponry. It isn’t just fringe groups however – politicians too now are dabbling in extreme rhetoric. Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico believes “Islam has no place in Slovakia”, “Islamisation”, a troublingly vague phrase, was deemed “constitutionally banned in Hungary” by its Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The mutterings of small xenophobic states, you might say to reassure yourself, but as Peter Oborne pointed out – such declarations have faced no opposition from larger partners in European Union, including Britain. It barely needs to be said, but across the Atlantic, Donald Trump continues to succeed on his platform of outright racism, Islamophobia and bigotry, repeatedly standing by his policy of “banning Muslims” from the country.

All of this has taken place under our noses. We’ve allowed the rhetoric, the campaigning and the policies of the far-right to grow and fester. And as killings of Muhammad Saleem and Jo Cox stand testament to, our inattention costs lives.

Part of the reason for this is that the media and political establishment point to Islamic extremism as the existential threat facing our society. In fact, the fear of Islam has in many ways spurred the growth of the far right. Dr Matthew Feldman of the Centre for Fascist, Anti-Fascist and Post-Fascist studies writes that the “far-right have coalesced around this anti-Muslim prejudice as a kind of lowest common denominator that they can all agree on”. The fear of an Islamic threat to Europe, one that is presented as posing a fundamental danger to European society, has provided disparate extremist groups a common enemy to rally against. But this Islamic threat is sensationalised. Muslim extremists are represented consistently as ideologically inspired, all personal and political motivations erased, and turned into devout soldiers of Islam – despite academics, terror experts, and civil servants all stressing ideology is a minor factor. The end result of such whitewashing is to imply that it is Islam, and by extension all Muslims, who are responsible for the massacres. Anything which gives lie to this narrative is underplayed. Thus the meme of Muslim shooters as Quranically inspired “terrorists” and far-right killers as “lone wolves” emerges. Islamic extremism is sensationalised. Far-right extremism is downplayed. Such representations, aside from being inaccurate, only add fire to nationalist and far-right fantasies of an “Islamic conquest” looming over Europe, of Muslim hoards at the doors of Vienna, ready to attack, and of migrants and refugees, attacking nations from within as a traitorous fifth column (which lest we forget, is what Nigel Farage called Muslims)

The murder of Jo Cox should be a line in the sand. It should be the moment at which we stop accepting far-right rhetoric in mouths of reputedly mainstream politicians, the moment at which we stop underplaying the danger of white supremacism, the moment at which we assess Islamic extremism with clear and cool eyes and not the fanatic clash-of-civilisations sensationalism of before. If we continue on as normal, then we risk even more lives in an ever-divided society.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.