PARIS (Reuters) - Far-right political parties in Europe are stepping up their anti-Muslim rhetoric and forging ties across borders, even going so far as to visit Israel to hail the Jewish state as a bulwark against militant Islam.
National Front leader Marine Le Pen has shocked the French political elite in recent days by comparing Muslims who pray outside crowded mosques — a common sight during the holy month of Ramadan — to the World War Two Nazi occupation.
Oskar Freysinger, a champion of the Swiss ban on minarets, warned a far-right meeting in Paris Saturday against “the demographic, sociological and psychological Islamization of Europe.” German and Belgian activists also addressed the crowd.
Geert Wilders, whose populist far-right party supports the Dutch minority government, told Reuters last week he was organizing an “international freedom alliance” to link grass-roots groups active in “the fight against Islam.”
Earlier this month, Wilders visited Israel and backed its West Bank settlements, saying Palestinians there should move to Jordan. Like-minded German, Austrian, Belgian, Swedish and other far-rightists were on their own Israel tour at the same time.
“Our culture is based on Christianity, Judaism and humanism and (the Israelis) are fighting our fight,” Wilders told Reuters in Amsterdam last week. “If Jerusalem falls, Amsterdam and New York will be next.”
While he seeks anti-Muslim allies abroad, Wilders said some older far-right parties such as France’s National Front or the British National Party were “blunt racist parties I don’t care for” and he would avoid cooperating with them.
Campaigns aimed at Muslims have been gaining ground in Europe, most notably with the Swiss minaret ban last year and France’s law this year against full facial veils in public, which Wilders said the Netherlands should copy next year.
Support for these steps has spread beyond anti-immigrant parties and toward the political center as globalization and the aging of Europe’s population fuel voters’ concerns about national sovereignty, according to a leading French analyst.
Political scientist Dominique Reynie said the financial crisis had prompted more voters to agree with the far right that their political elites were incompetent.
“Some people refuse what they see as a change in their cultural or religious surroundings,” he told the Paris daily Le Monde. “These are the problems posed by mosques, burqas and the provisions of halal food.”
Some on the far right see similar trends in the United States. Wilders attended a rally in New York on September 11 to protest against a mosque planned near Ground Zero and the leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, Heinz Christian Strache, has said he wants to visit the United States to meet leaders of the Tea Party movement.
Marine Le Pen, who is preparing to succeed her father Jean-Marie as head of the National Front, had in recent years toed a more moderate line before her anti-Muslim comments. She notably refused to echo the anti-Semitic views expressed by her father.
Sunday, she insisted all public subsidies for building mosques must stop. Several politicians and Muslim leaders have said Muslims often pray in the street because they do not have enough space in mosques and urged that more be built.
The rightists’ Israel visits set what some analysts call the “new far right” apart from older extremists who were often anti-Semitic and backed Arab countries against the Jewish state.
Declaring support for Israel gives them an opportunity to oppose Muslim opinion in their home countries, since European Muslims are often pro-Palestinian, as well as celebrate the Jewish state as the front line against militant Islam.
“It is not Israel’s duty to provide a Palestinian state,” Wilders said in a speech in Tel Aviv. “There already is a Palestinian state and that state is Jordan.”
A so-called “Jerusalem Declaration” issued by four other European rightists during their Israel visit also staunchly defended the country’s existence and its right to defend itself “against all aggression, especially Islamic terror.”
Heinz-Christian Strache from Austria, German Freedom Party head Rene Stadtkewitz, Sweden Democrat MP Kent Ekeroth and Filip Dewinter, head of Belgium’s Vlaams Belang party, denied they were stoking Islamophobia with their statement.
“The Arab-Israeli conflict illustrates the struggle between Western culture and radical Islam,” Dewinter said in Tel Aviv.
Strache made a similar link to Europe, telling a conference in Ashkelon — a city that has been hit by rockets from the nearby Gaza Strip — that Israel faced “an Islamic terror threat that aims right for the heart of our society.”
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz accused the rightists of “trading in their Jewish demon-enemy for the Muslim criminal-immigrant model” and visiting Israel only to get “Jewish absolution that will bring them closer to political power.”
Additional reporting by Sara Webb in Amsterdam; editing by Andrew Dobbie