Regional Thoughts on the Rise of Populism in Europe

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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Views from the Region

Many European countries are holding elections in the coming months. There has been a rise in populist, xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric even among more centrist candidates. Regional commentators across the Middle East have followed with concern the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric coming especially from the far-right in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Some observers worry about the impact of a disintegrating EU, while others see shades of the Arab Spring in the faces of discontent European youths.

Hurriyet Daily News’s Mustafa Aydin sums up the concerns of many in the region over the rising populist and Islamophobic rhetoric in Europe, and is also quick to point out that the concurrently rising anti-EU sentiment may spell disaster not only for the countries involved, but for the region as well: “Amid rising populism, xenophobia, and anti-establishment moods globally, several European countries including the Netherlands, France, Germany, and possibly Italy are preparing for an election cycle that may have significant impact on the future of the EU and indeed Europe…. While an environment of heated controversy and criticism has always been an essential part of the EU, the international system today is slowly transforming itself into a somewhat multipolar world, where the choices of citizens of several member states in their national elections with their  [aversion] toward European integration and its multiculturalism will not only decide the future shape of the EU, but also determine the role of Europe in the world. The outcome will no doubt have an impact on the future of the world, considering the two world wars we have witnessed so far were started essentially as European wars.”

Hussein Shobokshi, in an op-ed for the Saudi Gazette, suggests that the elections will have a direct impact on the future of the Middle East, especially as a number of European countries are preparing to take stringent anti-immigration measures: “the victory of Geert Wilder, which is anyway expected, will be influential and will echo in other European countries, encouraging others who are following the trend of anti-Muslims and anti-EU stance, especially in a country like France, followed by Belgium.….What are the implications of these elections on the Middle East? Europe will continue to view that the Middle East environment as ‘repulsive’ for peace, coexistence, moderation and economic prosperity. Why not, as these countries are suffering from it and the results are direct consequences? Thus, European countries may impose sanctions on some of the states in the region, which form part of the immigrant groups (as done by the administration of American President Donald Trump) amidst increasing rate of human rights reports of these countries, including the pros and cons. It is true that the next European elections [are] a purely a European affair, but for sure the results will have repercussions on us here in the Middle East!”

Regional observers have been paying particular attention to the upcoming presidential elections in France, where, according to Al Arabiya’s Talmiz Ahmad, the far-right candidate leads the polls and is assured a place in the second round of voting. Such is Marine Le Pen’s confidence in her first round victory that, in a recent foreign trip to Lebanon, “Le Pen generally ignored the country’s two-thirds Muslim population, and alienated most politicians by setting out her West Asia policy as consisting of: no more refugees, strong affiliation with the Christian community, and support for the Bashar al-Assad government, which she simply saw as the enemy of ISIS….Le Pen, today the leader in the campaign with 26 percent support, has promised to close Salafi mosques, get rid of foreign imams and foreign funding for extremist groups, and deport French citizens affiliated with militancy. Le Pen’s platform, sternly nationalist and anti-immigration and avowedly anti-Muslim, has surged in national appeal over the last two years, so that her party was in first place in the 2015 regional elections.”

Given the rhetoric coming from the French right, it is perhaps not a surprise that Turkish commentator Emre Gonen, writing for the Daily Sabah, applauds Emmanuel Macron—a centrist candidate—for his moderate stance on immigration: “He is definitely trying to combine the values of a liberal economist with the principles of a left-leaning progressive politician … what Macron is trying to do is revive the ‘center’ in French politics… Up until now, Macron has tried to be sympathetic to everyone, declaring the French war in Algeria before the independence a ‘crime against humanity.’ He has withdrawn a little after the outcry the declaration created, but this still shows the ‘third way’ he has chosen, mostly represented by Justin Trudeau. Liberal market orientations, social support systems and a ‘humane’ approach to the tragedies of our time, mainly the immigrations and exiles. Could this be the best way to tackle mounting extreme-right movements? Seeking a very large consensus at the center, without demonizing the refugee or glorifying ‘international solidarity’ at all costs, could be efficient. The French presidential elections will be very important in this sense.”

Jordan Times’s Osama Al Sharif attempts to provide a comprehensive analysis of the recent populist turn in Europe and identifies several drivers behind the rise of anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric and policies on the continent: “At the heart of this populist wave is the drive to preserve the identity of majority white, Christian and monocultural European societies. It represents a backlash against globalisation, multiculturalism and immigration especially from Muslim countries. What is particularly dangerous about this phenomenon is that its advocates are willing to sacrifice post-World War II European values of inclusion and liberal democracy in order to safeguard the nation’s cultural identity from a perceived Muslim threat…. Outrage against what is perceived as corrupt and scandal-ridden ruling establishments has given traction to populist movements that play on ultra-nationalistic, racist and religious sentiments. Unlike America, European millennials are becoming more conservative today as they search for a national identity…. While Western policies towards Muslim countries may present part of the explanation, one has to look at the state of the Muslim world today and the struggle that is going on between various doctrinal schools within Islam and its spillovers. Dealing with radicalism and extremism is something that has to start right here, in the heart of the Muslim world. That process will be long and arduous.”

In an op-ed written for Asharq Alawsat, Eyad Abu Shakra approaches the question by asking a different, but related, question: “How is it possible that immigrants and descendants of immigrants become enemies of immigration? What is the excuse for former victims of racism and extremism in their forefathers’ homelands practice racism and extremism against others, just because they arrived in their new home earlier, enjoyed its milk and honey, and then shut out the late comers? … Still, the democratically-elected world leaders, throughout their debates and actions, are only dealing with symptoms rather than treating root causes. Everybody is chattering about freedom, and yet has reservations about its most significant product … globalization. Everybody is looking at the issue of security, but turns a blind eye to hotbeds of injustice, nests of deprivation and swamps of ignorance that threaten peace and security of societies across the globe.”

However, as The National’s Faisal Al Yafai is quick to point out, populism, xenophobia, and nativism are not uniquely Western phenomena. In fact, the previous experiences across the Arab world point to not only their existence, but also to possible responses from which the West can learn: “Turning inwards [like] the populists advocate and the openness to new ideas that the progressives advocate are both authentically Arab responses. There are strands of political thought within the histories of Arab countries and the histories of Islam that have offered similar answers…. Simply because populists frame their arguments in the language of faith does not mean it carries the weight of centuries of religious practice…Indeed, many of the answers the populists offer – the nativism, the return to an unsullied age – have been offered before. That includes the worst effects of these answers: the rise in sectarianism across the Middle East is part of this creation of ‘enemies’, usually drawn from ethnic or religious minorities. It parallels the same demonization of difference that is taking place in the West…. Combating the drift away from internationalism that is taking place in the United States and Britain will… take cool analysis, strategy and alliances. But those alliances need to be sought everywhere…. Across the Middle East, there are allies for western progressives. The future that they want… is open, tolerant, and outward looking. Western and Arab progressives should seek it together.”

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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