Will Europe's populist rise hamper post-Hebdo healing?

Europe needs its leaders to be inclusive in response to Wednesday's attack, experts say in France. But populist parties are cutting off the political breathing space needed to do that.

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
Hassen Chalghoumi (center r.), imam of the municipal Drancy mosque in Seine-Saint-Denis, is surrounded by journalists as he pays his respects outside the offices of weekly satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris Thursday, a day after gunmen stormed the offices.

The terrorist attack in France that targeted a satirical weekly, killing 12 people, has seen an outpouring of solidarity, both in France and around the world, in defense of shared values of free speech and tolerance.

But at the same time, the attack has given new fodder to Europe's burgeoning populist movements – in a way that could prevent mainstream leaders from easing the tensions in their countries magnified by the assault on the magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Rising resentments across Europe call for leaders to act inclusively against Islamophobia, experts say. But the Continent's populist swing, already eating away at support for mainstream parties, could extract a greater political cost than European leaders are willing to make.

“What happened was so tragic that it will have a lot of direct and indirect impact, not just in France but for actually the whole world,” says Ralf Melzer, who monitors extremism for the Berlin-based nonprofit Friedrich Ebert Foundation. “It will be [used] as the latest proof for populists."

"The challenge," he says, "is to separate the phenomena, to fight with all possible measures that a free, democratic society has against extremists, and at the same time not mixing this up with the entire Muslim community.”

Rising populist voices

The challenges of extremism and weariness toward foreigners is shared across Europe, even as each country has its unique set of issues, according to Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College in London.

France and Britain have large numbers of marginalized immigrants, many of them Muslim, as well as the largest number in absolute terms of youths who have gone to fight with jihadists in the Middle East. Germany is grappling with a new anti-Islamization movement known by its acronym "Pegida," in part because of a swell in asylum seekers from war-torn Syria. Many of those refugees are also causing tensions in Italy and Greece, where they first attempt to arrive in Europe.

Indeed, populists are already holding up the French tragedy as justification for their politics, which say that the mainstream parties aren’t tough enough on extremism. 

"We've got people living in these countries, holding our passports, who hate us," said United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage. "Luckily their numbers are very, very small but it does make one question the whole really gross attempt at encouraged division within society that we have had in the past few decades in the name of multiculturalism."

Marine Le Pen, head of the National Front in France, said that “as of now, France is at war against Islamist fundamentalism, because these Islamists are at war against France.”

And in Germany, a growing populist party on the right, some of whom support the grassroots Pegida movement, said the attack proves the group’s credibility. “This bloodbath proves wrong those who laughed or ignored the fears of so many people about a looming danger of Islamism,” said Alexander Gauland, a regional leader of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). “This gives new clout to Pegida demands.”

They are tapping into a growing anti-immigrant sentiment that has been sitting under the surface in many European nations, says Chris Aalberts, a lecturer and researcher in political communication, based in the Netherlands. There, the country's populist leader, Geert Wilders, described the threat of radical Islam as “war” today. 

Political pulls

But the "we told you so's" of Europe's populists – combined with their increasing political influence – might be undermining leaders' ability to defuse tensions.

Mr. Menon says that in 2005 in Britain, after the bus bombings in downtown London, then Prime Minister Tony Blair made a speech urging the nation not to use the terrorist attack as an excuse for anti-Muslim sentiment.

But the newly ascendant populist parties across Europe might make openhanded gestures like Mr. Blair's politically untenable for mainstream leaders – thereby silencing the kind of messages needed to prevent the rise of further Islamophobia.

“We are facing a terrorist tsunami because of multiple factors – geopolitical issues, what’s happening in Africa, Syria and Iraq, and internal political issues,” says Mathieu Guidere, a professor at the University of Toulouse II on Islamism, terrorism, and radicalization. “Then in France, you have the right- and left-wing politicians squabbling over issues like immigration and integration. It makes for a huge and very dangerous cocktail. And this will make any policy extremely difficult to implement.”

And the populist parties are setting the national agenda in many countries, including pushes for harsher measures from national governments regarding terrorism.

'We cannot simply say we're fighting terrorism'

Mr. Guidere says the solution lies in integration, not legislation. He notes that in France, 14 new laws on terrorism have been created since the 9/11 attacks, to no real effect. “The answer cannot be anymore new laws. It’s no longer a legislative issue. It’s about socialization: education, the Internet, and especially awareness. We cannot simply say we’re fighting terrorism. We need to look further at this issue.”

Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations envoy for human rights, warned the attacks could be exploited. “With xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiments already on the rise in Europe, I am very concerned that this awful, calculated act will be exploited,” he said in a statement. 

Muslims in Paris say they already feel the backlash. In the northeastern district, home to many immigrants, a resident named Faiza, who was born in Algeria and only wanted to give her first name, says she worries that the Charlie Hebdo attack will bring a wave of Islamophobia in its wake. “I hope people won’t fall into Islamophobia, but I think things are deteriorating unfortunately. People are losing hope. And it’s putting our lives at risk.”

She says the attack has nothing to do with her religion, but she can't help but feel like she's in the limelight.

“I feel ashamed a little bit. I wear the headscarf and I feel uncomfortable now," she says. “In the metro this morning, I felt like people were looking at me more. Maybe it was my imagination, but I felt uncomfortable. I feel a bit more stigmatized now.”

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