When the 20-year-old Eritrean Muslim refugee Khaled Idris Behray was found dead in the German city of Dresden with contusions and signs of stabbing all over his body, the local police immediately declared no signs of foul play. According the haphazard police report, Behray died from unknown causes. Days later, Dresden police have been forced to concede that Behray was stabbed to death, though the perpetrators are still on the loose.
Behray’s murder occurred the day after thousands of followers of a newfangled German group called the Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident, or PEGIDA, rallied in Dresden. Drawing from the ranks of the working and middle class across Germany, but particularly in the economically struggling cities of the former East Germany, the movement that claims to defend Christian Western civilization against the advance of Islam. Even as its founder, Lutz Bachmann, has been forced to resign from his leadership role for photographing himself impersonating Adolph Hitler, PEGIDA is beginning to influence the German debate in a way far-right extremists in the country could have never have imagined just a year ago.
To be sure, Muslims aren’t the only target of the PEGIDA supporters, who gather weekly by thousands. The group’s leadership also spreads hatred towards migrants and refugees of other religions and cultures. Average PEGIDA demonstrators do not only express their “worries“ towards Islam (“We don’t want Sharia“ or “They are all terrorists“ are what you hear often from them), they also point out that the “migration flood“ has to stop and that refugees are not welcomed. Statements like this sound more absurd if you consider that in German cities like Dresden, where the right-wing movement started, just 8.2 percent of the population are immigrants while only 0.1 percent of Dresden residents are Muslim.
The situation in other European countries is at least as severe as in Germany. In neighboring Austria, you will not find an extreme right-winged political party in the German parliament, but political life in Austria is strongly affected by the FPÖ (Austria’s Freedom Party), which was founded after World War II by former Nazi politicians. Today, the party is well-known for spreading hatred against Muslims, refugees and immigrants. Heinz-Christian Strache, the party’s current leader, often prefers to pose with a crucifix while claiming that Austria and Europe have to defend itself against a new “Ottoman siege,” a reference to the siege of Vienna by the Ottoman empire that occurred hundreds of years ago. (The Islamophobic blog, “Gates of Vienna,” was a key intellectual influence on Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian white extremist who killed over 70 innocent people at a Labor Party-run youth camp in Utoya).
During the last elections, every fourth Austrian voter cast ballots for the FPÖ. And in the last months and weeks, Muslim women were attacked on streets or in the metro stations around Vienna while mosques were smeared with swastikas. Now, the conservative Austrian government wants to enact a new “Islam law“ which forbids Islamic organizations inside Austria to receive foreign money. The law evinces a clear double standard, as it focuses on Muslims while ignoring non-Muslim organizations and it has been described as “racist“ or “undemocratic.“ Austrian politicians like Sebastian Kurz, the country’s foreign minister, even demanded an official, state-funded translation of the Quran, infuriating the Muslim community, which considers any version of the Quran in a language other than Arabic to be an interpretation of the word God, not a “translation.”
In a recent interview, Dudu Kücükgöl of Austria’s Muslim Youth organization said that the attacks on Muslim women have been influenced by “the undifferentiated coverage regarding the rise of the “Islamic State” (IS). The hatred towards Muslims in Austria has grown much, too much”, Kücükgöl complained.
This December, unknown assailants used pepper spray to attack a Muslim kindergarten in Vienna. Twenty children struggled for air while they lay on the ground. Police have still not identified the suspects, raising questions about the infiltration of the far-right in the ranks of Austrian law enforcement. Not only does the FPÖ enjoy strong support from Austrian police, a number of cops posed in election posters for the extremist party.
In nearby Netherlands, the PVV (Party of Freedom) of Geert Wilders is dominating the political debate regarding Islam, migrants and refugees. Wilders, who may be the world’s most well known and influential Islamophobe, and who has risen from obscurity almost entirely on the basis of his anti-Muslim politics, has often repeated that the Quran has to be banned. He has gone as far as comparing it with Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”. Despite his rabidly Islamophobic rhetoric, or perhaps because of it, Wilders and his party have become a force to be reckoned with in Dutch politics. Efforts to prosecute Wilders for hate speech have only backfired, as advocates of “freedom of expression” including groups set up by the European far-right have successfully cast him as a martyr of free speech.
This Christmas was open season on Muslim immigrants in Sweden, where a mosque filled with worshippers was firebombed, injuring at least five. A few days later, another mosque in Sweden was attacked, and then another on New Years. The assault on three mosques in three weeks suggests a level of far-right coordination which is unprecedented and aimed entirely at a single, widely demonized group.
The attacks on Swedish Muslims have grown in direct proportion to the popularity of a far-right party called the Swedish Democrats, who became the third strongest party of the parliament after the last elections with 13% of the vote. Meanwhile, assaults on mosques have also increased in Germany and Austria, with mostly right-winged culprits vandalizing mosque walls with Nazi symbols or throwing pig heads inside. As the ghosts of Europe resurface, the police and other state-run institutions in these countries remain curiously reluctant to discuss the attacks as an explicitly Islamophobic phenomenon.
Institutionalized racism and Islamophobia
The current events in Europe are not a surprise. PEGIDA and similar right-winged movements and political parties are a result of institutionalized racism and Islamophobia. The role of German media regarding PEGIDA is notable. Well-known mainstream news magazines like “Der Spiegel” or “Focus” are primary culprits, especially against Islam and Muslim migrants. For years, the magazines have run Islamophobic headlines like “Mecca Germany – The Silent Islamization” (Der Spiegel), “Scary Guests” (Focus) or “Allah’s Rightless Daughters” (Der Spiegel). These widely respected publications routinely feature front page photos or some faceless, Burqa-clad woman or an angry looking, bearded young men. On occasion, the angry young man appears in a hoodie, a symbol of urban discontentment that German conservatives identify with crime, terror and the destruction of the “traditional” way of life.
By far, Germany’s leading news source promoting Islamophobia, racism and hatred towards migrants and refugees is Die Bild, one of the world’s most high-circulated tabloids. The paper is owned by neoconservative Axel Springer SE, an aggressive support of Israeli and American foreign policies who acts as a German version of Rupert Murdoch. As rallies raged across Europe against Israel’s military assault on the besieged Gaza Strip, Bild initiated a public campaign to stain Palestine solidarity activism as a form of anti-Semitism. The paper declared: “Jew hatred – Never again!” A few days after the the demonstrations, Bild published an explicitly Islamophobic article in which the author, Nicolaus Fest, called Islam an “migration barrier” and added that most criminals are migrants with Muslim backgrounds who bear an endemic hated of women and homosexuals. Fest’s rant was so overheated that even a few Bild staffers felt compelled to distance themselves from it.
The case of Ramsis Kilani highlights Bild’s double standards in blinding relief. Born and raised in Germany, Kilani lost his family during Israel’s attack in Gaza this summer. Ibrahim Kilani, who married a second time and moved to Gaza few years ago, had been killed together with his wife and his children after the IDF bombed their housing block. Although all of them were citizens of Germany, Ramsis, his mother and his sister only learned about the mass murder through social media. Germany’s mainstream media seemed to have studiously avoided reporting on the atrocity that slaughtered an entire family of Germans who happened to be of the wrong religion and ethnicity. Following public pressure, a few papers published accounts of the killing and ultimately, even Bild interviewed Ramsis Kilani. Yet the paper never published the story. Instead, it ran a giant and entirely sympathetic spread on Israeli soldiers killed by Hamas fighters during the invasion of Gaza.
The German government has not mentioned the death of the Kilani family until recently. “Migrants like us are second-class citizens in Germany”, says Kilani, whose family even did not get an official condolence. The young German-Palestinian has campaigned to spread the facts regarding the Israeli occupation of Palestine across his country, but to little avail. For his public crusade to educate Germans about the plight of Palestinians and for his activism on behalf of migrants, he has become a target of PEGIDA followers. “Right-winged trolls contacted me regularly and called my murdered father an ‘Islamic terrorist’ and his wife a ‘birthing machine,’” Kilani told me. Like many other young and educated Germans with “foreign roots,” Kilani is considering leaving the country of his birth one day if the situation continues to deteriorate.
Spreading hatred behind the Israeli flag
It is not a coincidence that media outlets that take a pro Israel line and rail against anti-Semitism play a significant role in spreading hatred towards migrants and Muslims. Right-winged parties like the Austrian FPÖ have discovered that it is much easier for them to spread their hatred beneath pro-Israel cover. For instance, the FPÖ made it clear that “supporting the Jewish State against Islamism” has become one of their new political pillars. Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, has learned the same lesson, scrapping her father’s overt anti-Semitism and opposition to Europe’s special relationship with Israel and replacing it with an aggressively neoconservative outlook. In turn, she has attracted support from right-wing French Jews and cultivated a mainstream appeal her father could have only dreamed. But the seething racism that was a hallmark of her father’s politics remains firmly entrenched in the platform of her National Front.
Geert Wilders and his Party of Freedom were among the leaders of the European far-right’s alliance with Israel’s rightist Likud. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post’s Benjamin Weinthal, an American neoconservative operative funded by right-wing billionaire Sheldon Adelson, Wilders declared that Israel is the “only light of democracy in the Middle East”. He then demanded that the European Union and the United States stand by Israel’s side in the clash of civilizations — a war pitting the “Judeo-Christian” West against Islam. Wilders declared that the name of the state of Palestine should be changed to “Jordan,” suggesting that Palestinians either be forcibly expelled from their homes or stripped of national identity. In 2014, Wilders agitated unsuccessfully but flamboyantly for a commemoration for former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the Dutch parliament.
The rise of movements like Pegida and the far-right surge across Europe is the fulfillment of the vision Anders Breivik laid out in his 1500 page manifesto. Breivik fancied himself as the eventual commander of a continent-wide movement to guard Europe against the multiculturalist onslaught, waging war through politics and paramilitary means against the liberal elements he described as “Cultural Marxists” and of course, against the barbarian hordes washing up on the gilded shores of Christian Europe. Breivik claimed that he carried out his attacks with accomplices and that he left behind sleeper cells of Islamophobic activists ready to carry out his plan while he languished behind bars. Breivik was himself influenced by a wide array of hardline American right-wingers from Daniel Pipes to Robert Spencer, and quoted at the length the work of the German neoconservative author Henryk Broder.
Broder writes mostly for “Die Welt,” a paper described as the “BILD for intellectuals” which also belongs to the the Axel Springer SE empire. Puffed in the neoconservative Tablet Magazine as a curmudgeonly “satirist and gadfly” who represents “Germany’s most annoying Jew,” Broder is in fact a key actor in the constellation of anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian forces across Europe. Broder maintains close ties to the right-wing Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is known for its annual list of “Anti-Semitic/Anti-Israel Slurs.” (Alternet editor Max Blumenthal and frequent contributor David Sheen made the #4 slot on this year’s list, though the Wiesenthal Center failed to explain how the two Jews’ behavior was in any way anti-Jewish). In 2012, Broder convinced the Weisenthal Center to name the famed German journalist and left-wing publisher, as the world’s ninth biggest anti-Semite. The public denigration of such an esteemed figure highlighted the sense of inviolability and arrogance that had come to characterize the pro-Israel forces who influenced German politics on left, right and center.
During the past week, mainstream media outlets have described the Charlie Hebdo massacre as “the worst terror attack on European soil.” Of course, Breivik was a terrorist who killed 77 innocent people — 65 more than the Islamic extremists who murdered the staff of Charlie Hebdo. But the characterization is no accident. Indeed, Western media outlets and politicians prefer to not view Breivik as just another white, psychopathic mass murderer while reserving the highly subjective term “terrorist” for swarthy people from Muslim backgrounds. Thus they obscure the role Breivik played in galvanizing the resurgence of Europe’s far-right and ignore the inspiration he drew from an established and well-funded global network of Islamophobes.
If the Western intellectual class wants answers on the radicalization sweeping across Europe, it can start by looking in the mirror and examining its own pale reflection.