What unites Europe’s far-right parties perhaps more than any other issue is their loathing of Islam. Photo: Getty
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How do I tell my daughter that people across Europe fear minorities like us?

Anti-Semitism is now taboo in mainstream political discourse in a way in which Islamophobia isn’t.

In 2006, at the height of the hysteria over the face veil, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland imagined what it must be like to be a Muslim in Britain. “I wouldn’t just feel frightened,” he wrote. “I would be looking for my passport.”

On Sunday, as the European election results began to flood in, with far-right parties on the march from Scandinavia to the Club Med, I joked with my (American) wife that we might have to start packing our bags and head across the pond.

Hundreds of column inches have been devoted to explaining how austerity economics, democratic deficits and mass immigration have helped bolster the continent’s far-right fanatics and neo-Nazi nutters. Our politicians and pundits have been less keen, however, to discuss the Islam-sized elephant in the room: what unites Europe’s far-right parties perhaps more than any other issue is their fear and loathing of people such as my wife and me.

Take the Front National, which won the European elections in France. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, bangs on about the “progressive Islamisation” of her country and compares Muslims praying in public to the Nazi occupation of France. Consider also the Danish People’s Party, which topped the polls in Denmark. Its founder Pia Kjærsgaard refers to Islam as a “political movement” and claims that the Quran teaches Muslims “to lie and deceive, cheat and swindle”.

How about the Finns Party, which doubled the number of its MEPs? The senior MEP, Jussi Halla-aho, has accused Islam of “sanctifying paedophilia” and a Finns councillor called Amon Rautiainen has called for Muslims to be “boiled alive”. In neighbouring Sweden, the populist Swedish Democrats gained their first two MEPs. The party’s leader, Jimmie Åkesson, once referred to Muslims in Sweden as “the biggest foreign threat since World War II”.

Here in Britain, there is Ukip, which is equally obsessed with Islam. Nigel Farage supports a ban on the burqa; Ukip’s chief whip, Gerard Batten, wants to stop the building of mosques; its former leader Lord Pearson has claimed “the Muslims are breeding ten times faster than us”. In recent weeks, Ukip candidates were shown to have accused Muslims of “grooming” children to be “sex slaves” and claimed that “anyone who does not fear Islam is a fool”.

In some respects, Muslims are the new Jews of Europe. The vile shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels on 24 May, in which three people were killed, might make this statement sound odd. Anti-Jewish attacks are indeed on the rise in Europe, which is deplorable and depressing, but thankfully anti-Semitism is now taboo in mainstream political discourse in a way in which Islamophobia isn’t. These days, most anti-Semitic attacks are carried out by second-generation Arabs and are linked to anger over Israeli policies. Anshel Pfeffer, of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, acknowledged this in his report on the Brussels museum attack: “Some of the far-right parties in Belgium, such as Vlaams Belang, have actually tried to transform their image and hide their anti-Semitic legacy, professing to be friendly to Jews and supportive of Israel.”

Yet Islamophobia has gone mainstream. So it is time to ask my fellow Britons: is there a future for my family and me on this continent? I’m a proud British citizen, born and raised here, not to mention an ardent Europhile; my seven-year-old daughter is counting down the days until she can watch England play in the World Cup.

Nevertheless, Muslims are bombarded with hostile headlines and subjected to verbal or physical attacks on a near-daily basis. Social media has emboldened an army of online Islamophobes; in the real world, mosques have been firebombed and politicians line up to condemn Muslim terrorism/clothing/meat/seating arrangements.

It is establishment parties that helped pave the way for the Muslim bashers of the “new” far right. In France, it was Nicolas Sarkozy, not Marine Le Pen, who declared that halal meat was “the issue that most preoccupies the French”. In Germany, it was a Social Democratic Party politician, Thilo Sarrazin, who published a book claiming that Muslim immigrants were inferior to everyone else. And, here in the UK, it was a Labour immigration minister, Phil Woolas, not Nigel Farage, who published election pamphlets accusing his Lib Dem opponents of working with “militant Muslims” and whose advisers circulated emails discussing the “need . . . to explain to the white community how the Asians will take him out”.

Meanwhile, poll after poll shows Europeans worrying about the spread of Islam – despite Gallup finding that European Muslims are as patriotic as their non-Muslim peers (and, in the case of the UK, more so!). Three out of four people in France say that “Islam is incompatible with French society”. Only 22 per cent of Germans think Islam is part of German society. Just over half of Britons – 52 per cent – believe “Muslims create problems in the UK”.

How do I explain these polls, and these election results, to my British-born, England-supporting daughter? Should I worry for her safety? Or am I being paranoid?

If only. Next year is the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. Eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men and boys were lined up and shot in the heart of Europe. It was the worst genocide on the continent since the Second World War and was made possible by a far-right campaign of demonisation and dehumanisation. I wish I could believe the mantra of “never again”. But these European election results fill me with dread. 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this article is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.