When ignorance was bliss: Domestic extremism in Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

While governments spend more time and funding on countering Islamic extremism, Europe faces an increasing threat from domestic extremist groups that has a growing potential to distort mainstream politics on the continent, says Tamás Berecz.

Tamás Berecz is a senior analyst of the Athena Institute, a Budapest-based independent research organisation.

"After the 9/11 attacks, international terrorism became the bogeyman of the West, something that lurks in the dark and only waits for the right time to strike. This fear was not unfounded.

The first decade of the 21st century was dominated by Jihadi terrorism: Kuta, New York, Madrid, London. Islamist terror groups became the first priority to secret services and other authorities.

The aforementioned attacks shocked the West and thus started an avalanche of counter-terrorist legislation, not to mention two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Whilst one cannot argue that international state-funded terrorism is not a threat anymore, the awesome amount of resources, expertise and money that have gone into the War on Terror was fairly successful.

Since the 2005 London bombings, no large-scale Islamist terrorist incident has been carried out on Western soil. Nevertheless, international terrorism is still on the top of the threat-pyramid while a chain of recent events and new research indicates that this attitude towards far right and far left extremist groups must change.

There have been several strong signs in the past few years that show that fighting domestic extremism should be a top priority in Europe. The so-called Malmö sniper targeted members of ethnic communities, killing one person and wounding several others.

A German extremist cell operated for more than a decade killing nine immigrants and a policewoman. The Roma serial killers in Hungary killed six people in 2008 and 2009 keeping the whole Hungarian Roma community in terror for a year.

Anders Breivik's case is well known, while most recently Polish authorities foiled a plot aimed at killing the country's prime minister and blowing up the Sejm. Far-left extremist activity is also on the rise, especially in Southern-European countries.

After these incidents, this year, the Athena Institute identified more than 100 far-left or far-right, high-risk extremist groups currently active in thirteen European countries. Half of these groups are involved in inciting racial hatred and carry out permanent hostile propaganda campaigns against at-risk communities.

The other half use violence, weapons and even kill their supposed enemies. There are no countries without organised extremist groups among the thirteen scrutinised.

At the same time, due to the nature of extremist groups, many politicians in the mainstream political arena assume that the threat is not too serious. The membership numbers of the groups are fairly low, their activity is mostly about spreading hate speech on the internet and organising small protests.

They are also poorly funded and mostly loosely organised. These factors prompt people to believe that domestic extremist groups are simply incapable to do serious harm or affect society and mainstream politics in a substantial way. However, the aforementioned examples have proven the contrary.

What is even more important: with the immense changes in mass communication it has become much easier to deliver messages on the “dangers” of immigration, Islamisation, homosexuality, criminality to large audiences.

Extremist groups utilise these opportunities to the fullest and seems to be quite capable of reifying and redefining socioeconomic and cultural issues that necessarily emerge from modern multicultural/multi-ethnic/poly-religious societies as racial issues that “threaten the majority”. This way these organisations are able to distort the mainstream political process.

These processes can lead to new standpoints, such as Angela Merkel’s speech about the failure of multiculturalism, that was followed by other leaders like David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy; or policies that are clearly anti-democratic, such as the banning of the burqa in public places in France, Switzerland banning the construction of new minarets, or the policies in Hungary, where the government handles many socioeconomic issues surrounding the Roma community as an issue of policing.

However, there is a much more direct way through which extremists affect mainstream politics, and that is their stronger or looser ties to political parties, some of which have MPs or even MEPs.

In Hungary for example, the far-right anti-Roma, anti-Semitic Jobbik party has the third biggest parliamentary faction. This party founded the Hungarian Guard extremist group that regularly launch intimidating campaigns against the Roma community.

In Greece, the Golden Dawn (GD) is the fifth biggest party in Parliament with close ties to several far-right extremist groups whose sympathisers regularly harass and intimidate immigrants. The Greek government’s reaction to the growing popularity of GD was a large scale crackdown on illegal immigrants.

Europe as a whole is now looking at the writing on the wall. The continent has a flourishing extremist subculture that is slowly but steadily crawling out into the mainstream. Organised extremist groups learned to use the new technologies in mass communication as well as the ways they can abuse democratic processes.

They also reacted to the activities of authorities by creating leaderless resistance movements to avoid infiltration, arrests and paralysis after bigger crackdowns.

However, the most worrying aspect of modern domestic extremism, besides the serious deathly attacks, is their obvious capability to distort mainstream politics.

Whilst Europe is preoccupied with other security issues such as Iran’s nuclear programme, and the sombre economic situation of the eurozone and the whole EU in general, extremist groups grow more and more popular and far-right and far-left parties keep channelling their ideas into the democratic political arena (Syriza, Golden Dawn, Jobbik, FPÖ, Sweden Democrats, etc.).

If such groups and parties go on to push the centre towards the extremes by forcing them to compete for the same electorate, and if they continue to block sensible immigration policies, integration programmes and economic policies, Europe, as we know it right now, will be destroyed."

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