From Anti-Semitism to Islamophobia: The European Far Right’s Strategic Shift

From Anti-Semitism to Islamophobia: The European Far Right’s Strategic Shift

Farid Hafez (University of Salzburg)

Only few politicians welcomed the success of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud after the last elections in March 2015. Among them were leading members of political parties such as The French Front National and the Austrian Freedom Party who would have been widely regarded as anti-Semitic 15 years ago. But the strategy of Europe’s far right has changed in the 2000s. Right-wing extremist and right-wing populist parties have tried to ‘mainstream’ by shifting from old anti-Semitism to contemporary Islamophobia. Along the way, they tried to build alliances with Israel’s far right. This shift has also made alliances possible which would have been unimaginable 15 years ago and has fostered cooperation within the West’s far right, from Eastern Europe to the USA.

Old histories
The general xenophobic campaigns of the 1980s have given way to Islamophobia as a specific expression of racism. This development appears reasonable, as Islamophobia has somehow become a kind of ‘accepted racism’ and cannot only be found on the margins of European societies, but rather at the centre. Hence, Europe’s far right tries to become compatible to a wider electorate. In the past, some right-wing extremist parties with an anti-Semitic profile often positioned themselves against Israel and defended Palestinians (and thereby Muslims) on the grounds of their anti-Americanism, as well as their anti-Semitism. This difference concerned foreign-policy issues, but not domestic policy, as the far-right extremist concept of ‘ethno-pluralism’ calls for the preservation of imagined homogenous nation states. He is in so far pluralist, as he accepts the existence of the ‘other’. But this difference is only legitimate, if nations exist separate from each other. Mixing different ethnicities within a nation becomes illegitimate, as it destroys the purity of the nation.(1)

New enemies
But even this concept of ethno-pluralism may dissolve against the backdrop of the process of religionization, with Islamophobia becoming more and more relevant. The English Defence League incorporated people of Asian descent into its ranks, just as the Austrian FPÖ began to incorporate Serbs – formerly excluded from the national community as Ausländer (foreigners) in the 1990s – into their ‘we’ by arguing that they all shared a common struggle against Islam, namely a European Occidental-Christian worldview. (2) Religion and not race becomes the defining character for drawing borderlines between identities. Islamophobia has become the main exclusionary project of the far right in an attempt to mark Muslims as naturally different, at times as inferior, and capable of conspiring against their Western ‘host societies’ in order to collectively oppress them and exclude them from the national collective. Or as Matti Bunzl put it: “Migrants became Muslims, and Europe’s Right wing found its target.(3)

 New alliances
Anti-Semitism has not only been a central characteristic of far-right extremist parties. It has even prevented different far-right parties from cooperating with each other across their national borders, as they feared burdening themselves with the bad reputation of their counterpart. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National for example regularly belittled the Holocaust and was widely regarded as a racist and anti-Semitic party and hence, its leader was largely seen as a radical, ideological right-wing extremist. When Le Pen tried to present himself as the defender of European Jewry, nobody would believe him on the basis of his numerous anti-Semitic actions. Meanwhile, his daughter Marine has succeeded him. And she has successfully managed to position herself as a fighter against the ‘Muslim threat’ and a defender of Jewry. She excluded FN politicians, who greeted with the Hitler salute and regularly news the new strategy of drawing parallels between Islam and National Socialism. Muslim religion is portrayed as a genocidal one and Muslims are portrayed as the main enemies of Jews in the past and present. By that, Europeans turn into victims on the side of the Jews, as they are portrayed side-by-side with Israel standing against the ‘Islamic threat’, branding the Muslims as the fascists (‘Islamofascism’) of our days.(4)  A German far right activist said in 2011: “I guarantee you that the Kristallnacht will return. But this time Christians and Jews will be driven through the streets persecuted and killed by Islamists”. Marine Le Pen now compares Muslims praying on French streets to the invasion of France by Nazi Germany.

This attempt to position one’s party as defenders of Judaism and fighters against ‘Islamization’ is not unique to the FN, but has become a matter of common strategy for many far-right populist and extremist parties, and it eventually led to a delegation of European far-right parties paying a visit to Israel. This shift away from anti-Semitism and towards Islamophobia is best documented by the so-called ‘Jerusalem Declaration’ which was signed in December 2010 by the Austrian FPÖ, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, the German Freedom Party, and the Swedish Democrats. The Declaration guarantees Israel’s right to defend itself against terror and says: “We stand at the vanguard in the fight for the Western, democratic community” against the “totalitarian threat” of “fundamentalist Islam”. Islam now becomes the common threat to Europe and Israel.

Far-right parties with former historical links to fascism or National Socialism try to distance themselves from the old anti-Semitism by positioning themselves as pro-Israeli and pro-Jewish, while the epistemic essence of racialization only moves from the Jewish to the Muslim subject. The ‘Muslim’ in the Islamophobic paradigm becomes the iridescent embodiment of the culturally inferior, yet powerful and threatening enemy within, who lies in wait to conquer Judeo-Christian Western civilization. The European far right even goes so far as to cooperate on a global level with Israel’s far right.

This shift even changed possibilities of formal cooperation. While the Front National was often persona non grata for many right-wing populist parties, on the grounds of its extremist image, the FN has now become more acceptable as a partner for formal cooperation following its shift from anti-Semitism to Islamophobia, and Marine Le Pen has even become the head of the European Alliance for Freedom, which is home to many leading far right parties in Europe. The exchange of ideas and experiences leads to transnational and transatlantic cooperation: ideologically, in the sense of borrowing discourses from each other (e.g. fight against mosques), and on an organization level, in the sense of building personal networks (e.g. common conferences) that lead to the third level of cooperation: formal networks and activities (European Alliance for Freedom). Hence, Geert Wilders now says to Netanyahu: “We share his criticism of Iran . . . and his opposition to a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria”, questioning not the existence of Israel, but of Palestine.

It is clear then, that the relationship between anti-Semitism and the far right political camp has shifted tremendously. Anti-Semitic prejudices no more represent a pillar of the far right and Islamophobia has become a main focus of Europe’s contemporary far right parties.

(1) Karin Priester, Rassismus. Eine Sozialgeschichte, (Leipzig: Reclam 2003), 247-293.
(2) Farid Hafez, Islam in der Debatte – über das “Eigene” und das “Fremde“, in Christian Danz & André Ritter (ed.). Zwischen Kruzifix und Minarett. Religion im Fokus der Öffentlichkeit, (Münster-New York-München-Berlin: Waxmann Verlag 2012), 15-30.
(3) Matti Bunzl, ‘Between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Some thoughts on the new Europe’, American Ethnologist, Vol. 32, no. 4, 2005, 499– 508 (505).
(4) Peter Widmann, ‘Der Feind kommt aus dem Morgenland. Rechtspopulistische ‘Islamkritiker” um den Publizisten Hans-Peter Raddatz suchen die Opfergemeinschaft der Juden‘, Jahrbuch für Antisemitismusforschung, Vol. 17., 45-68 (61-68).


Farid Hafez is a researcher at the Department of Political Science at the University of Salzburg. He earned his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Vienna. Hafez has been teaching at a number of universities in the world. He has been a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University. Hafez is the editor of the German-English Islamophobia Studies Yearbook, and has published more than 10 books and 20 articles. He is editor of an upcoming ‘European Islamophobia Report’ and advisor of the Georgetown-based ‘The Bridge Initiative’ that extends education about Islamophobia to the public.

Image: Aarhus: Solidarity With Israel – Stop Sharia!