Expert Interview: The Far-Right 28 April 2014
On Religion speaks to Dr Matthew Feldman, expert on the contemporary far-right in the UK.
Could you tell us a bit about your research at the Centre for Fascist, Anti-Fascist and Post-Fascist Studies?
It was founded in July 2013, and is the first research centre in Britain dedicated to the study of the far-right and its opposition, past and present. Other countries like Germany and the US have had things like this for many years, while teaching and research at Teesside has long focused on fascism and the far-right. So in that sense, it’s a development of ongoing research among scholars internationally on this subject, but also the culmination of long-standing work in this area done at Teesside University.
There have been claims of an emerging pan-European far-right, one which is in clear opposition to Muslims. Is this a thesis you would agree with?
Yes, to an extent. Historically speaking, there have always been international links between fascist and far-right groups – going right back to the late 1920s, but also during the Spanish Civil War and later WWII, as well as lots of links since – in fact, the so-called World Union of National Socialists was actually founded in 1962, and has members in literally dozens of countries around the world! So the far-right has had transnational tendencies for decades, even if we still talk about ultra-nationalism as a defining feature of fascism (and less so, the far-right). So that isn’t really new. What is relatively new is the scapegoating of Muslims in the US and Europe in the 21st century. The fact that international links of the far-right have coalesced around this anti-Muslim prejudice – as a kind of lowest common denominator that they can all agree on (as opposed to white supremacism, anti- semitism, parliamentary democracy, and many other ideological fissures) – is a recent development, and a troubling one, not just for Muslims, but for all citizens of good will. But for the far-right, it’s more like old wine in new bottles: demonising minority groups in the interests of fomenting division in communities in Britain, Europe and the US.
What are the particular features of the modern far-right movements? What makes them far-right? What is the best way to describe them?
As I suggested above, one of the common features might even be transnational links! It is strange to think of the far-right in this way, but the so-called ‘counterjihad movement’ is similar to other far-right tendencies since the watershed year of 1945 (International Third Positionism, Neo-Nazism and Blood and Honour/skinhead music might all qualify here).
What tends to place these groups on the far-right is a ‘populist ultra-nationalism’ – a kind of organic nationalism that can take nativist or even biologically racist forms. To be sure, it’s a complex area, with lots of sub-questions like ‘Is this group revolutionary? Do they accept parliamentary democracy? What about the use of political violence?’ Of course, all of those questions could equally apply to other ideologies – think of radical environmentalists, amongst many others – but the emphasis on ‘national community’ tends to be a hallmark of the far-right.
When you get the systematic embrace of revolution, notions of a quasi-religious ‘new order’ and willingness to use violence in the defence of an ‘imagined community’, that’s when you start to get into the fascism, which might be considered a specific subset of the wider ‘far-right’ stable which can include electoral parties like the BNP, looser movements like the EDL and the ‘counterjihad movement’, or even internet-based virtual ‘imagined communities’ like the white supremacist Stormfront.org, at one point home to literally tens of thousands of members from around the world.
Is the EDL a far-right group? In your opinion, in what future direction do you see the EDL moving now Tommy Robinson has left?
As mentioned above, yes, I do see them as a far-right group; more specifically a ‘new far-right’ group. Their scapegoating of minority communities, rejection of the democratic process. and most importantly, (ultra-)nationalism would all point to the group being on the far-right of the political spectrum. It is hard to predict what will happen to the EDL now that ‘Tommy Robinson’ has left the group, but it seems hard to mistake the decline in support and marches over the last few months as little other than a long-term death knell for the group in its present form, barring a major change of circumstances.
Why do you think Lapshyn, a Ukrainian PhD student, attacked Muslims in Britain (rather than back in Ukraine)?
That is a good question, and I believe enquires are still ongoing as to why Lapshyn started his killing and attempted bombing spree here in the UK rather than earlier in Ukraine. On the face of it, it’s a case of white supremacism: he didn’t like seeing non-white faces, and saw more of them in Birmingham than he did back home. But that might not explain why he started to attack mosques however; did he see that as part of the ‘counterjihad movement’? Or was he specifically targeting Muslims the whole time, and if so, why, if he was radicalised in the Ukraine? So there are still things about the Lapshyn case that are uncertain. What isn’t uncertain is that he was a racist murderer whose actions should be condemned by anyone and everyone.
Are government strategies doing enough to tackle far-right groups? What do you think is the best way to address the problem?
As an historian and analyst, I’m not in the best position to comment on either of these questions. But broadly speaking, yes, I do think the government takes the far-right seriously, and recent strategies (like Prevent, or the more recent Taskforce Report), specifically mention the far-right in their remit. So in that sense government strategies do take account of the far-right. In terms of the second half of the question, I suppose one way, not necessarily the only or best way, is for people from all communities and backgrounds to come together to show that the vision of British (and other) societies held by the far-right is wrong, and that multi-cultural societies do work, and are worth defending against extremists – of any shade or colour.
Interested in religion, politics and popular culture? Subscribe to On Religion quarterly magazine for a year with a one-off payment of £19.