The Russian war machine has been roaring, raising several questions that will preoccupy Europe for years to come. The aggression against Ukraine is by no means less than a historical turning point. The events of 2014 during the occupation of Crimea will repeat itself in 2022. US General Wesley Clark, former commander of NATO, painted in his famous book on modern warfare, a picture of Europe at the outbreak of the Balkan crisis in the 1990s: hesitant and divided. Today, amidst the Russian invasion, it looks like this picture is being redrawn.
Reevaluating the Danger
Europe’s issue with sources of threat dates way back and is crammed with fluctuations. As the continent reached the peak of its strength - militarily and economically - the imminent danger did not come sailing from lands where its fleets spread terror and destruction. The danger crept from inside it. The twentieth century engraved the greatest lesson in the European mind and conscience. Two world wars were enough to convince Europe that nationalism and extremist fascism could pose the greatest threat to Europe, its security and well-being, and indeed its existence. During the second half of the century, Europe - allied with the USA - waged its most exciting battle against the communist ideology.
The collapse of the Soviet Union unleashed endless literature anticipating that Islam (or Islamic extremism) would turn into an alternative enemy. However, international relations - until the September 11 attacks – would debunk that. After the attacks, many in the East and West saw that theoretical perceptions, fantasies and assumptions that had a dash of wildness, could turn into a (main course) in international relations.
Over the years, France has ramped up its political, diplomatic and cultural influences, with the hope of building an international alliance against what it considers the main source of danger to France, even to Europe and to the entire Western civilization. This approach reflected an important qualitative difference between the European and Anglo-Saxon mentalities. The elite class in the USA – the official one and the unofficial - was preoccupied with the danger that China and Russia could pose. On the other hand, significant segments from the European elite class were entangled in the trap of Islamophobia propaganda.
The difference between the two opposing shores of the Atlantic was stark in the different discourses and a different prioritization of sources of danger. While many European countries - influenced by the French stance - were taking measures marred by Islamophobia, the US House of Representatives, in December 2021, was discussing a law to combat the phenomenon of Islamophobia in an attempt to confront discrimination against Muslims around the world.
The said bill requested the US State Department to establish a special mission to monitor and combat Islamophobia, and include state-sponsored violence against Islam and the impunity from such acts in the ministry’s annual human rights reports. The bill would formulate a comprehensive strategy to establish US leadership in combating Islamophobia worldwide.
Moreover, the USA has officially condemned - several times - the various forms of persecution faced by the Muslims of Myanmar and China. The US Congress, in a report on the bill, noted the "staggering rise in Islamophobic violence around the world, whether the atrocities committed against the Uyghurs in China or the Rohingyas in Burma (Myanmar).”
Islamophobia: Made in France
The fear of Islam and Muslims (Islamic extremism specifically) was quite prevalent among Western cultures, but at varying degrees. France, however, was nearly solely preoccupied to a pathological degree with Muslims across the country and in Europe. The Islamophobic rhetoric voiced by the extreme right started to gain momentum, until it became during the presidency of Emanuel Macron, almost a general national hysteria.
The state itself was trapped in this rhetoric, even though the French political system is supposed to be neutral towards religions. The presidency of Jacques Chirac did witness the first major French official measures that caused controversy internally and externally (the law banning religious symbols). Nonetheless, Macron’s era witnessed the peak of the rise of Islamophobia, to the extinct that heralding the dangers of Islam became a distinctive feature of the official French discourse.
As The Guardian newspaper phrased, “Once Europe’s liberal hope, Macron is now prey to France’s toxic populism.” He started adopting a harsh language hostile towards immigration and immigrants. Eventually, presidential candidate and television star Eric Zemmour became at the forefront thanks to a speech that said France would be under the control of Muslims in what he called "the great replacement." Macron, who was perceived years ago as a representative of a new type of self-confident democracy, has become a reproduction of the rhetoric of the far-right fascism.
Macron did not have the courage to admit that a large part of France's Muslims are victims of a regional, moral and social apartheid. A recent poll showed that among 67,000 who were released from prison, there were 47,000 Muslims. Moreover, the unemployment rate among Muslims is 14%, which is twice the national average.
A distinctive report published by Swiss news agency Swissinfo showed that in November 2019, more than 10,000 people participated in a demonstration in Paris denouncing Islamophobia. The political class was divided over it, and it was fiercely criticized by the government and the extreme right. Swissinfo considered that the main messages of the demonstration were “Stop Islamophobia” and “No prejudice against Muslims.”
A Communist Party spokesman commented: “There is a prevalent atmosphere of hatred against Muslims and we cannot stand still.” One here cannot turn a blind eye to the devastating impact of numerous terrorist attacks over the past years - especially in Paris - perhaps the most violent of which was the November 13, 2015 attacks.
The “Great Replacement” Conundrum
The past few years saw a vast fascist expansion on both sides of the Atlantic, which intertwined at the level of both discourse and practice - with the Russian narrative. Some of the elements of this narrative did not shun that Vladimir Putin represents a symbol for them, especially with regard to power politics and a clear contempt for democracy and Western liberal values. It is certain that some of this rhetoric’s morals are not universally accepted.
Zemmour, the most vocal when it comes to today's French Islamophobia discourse, warns of what he calls the "great replacement," reflecting France's three-dimensional predicament: fundamentalist secularism, demographic fading, and identity crisis.
Zemmour also calls for other ideas that risk the future of Western / Western relations, foremost among which is his stance on free trade, which he considers a "curse." There is also his stance on immigration, which has expanded to include an unwelcome speech on the prospect - just the prospect - that France would receive immigrants from Ukraine, and his call for freezing relations with the European Union and the establishment of an independent foreign policy. His statements also demonstrate an impulsive nature that underestimates history, which in turn raises great fears for the EU that already suffered major losses with Britain’s exit in 2016. The EU is even heading towards losing more spaces and allies due to the fascist right-wing tendency. These chauvinistic ideas threaten to truly jeopardize Western democracies.
In the face of the significant rise of a populist rhetoric that targets Western values - before it targets Islam or Islamic extremism - the election of Joe Biden as President of the United State partially restored the momentum of aligning behind pluralistic and democratic values that extended geographically to include countries in the far east and down to Australia. With the birth of the Anglo-Saxon AUKUS alliance, the gap among allies in Europe was extending to its farthest. It was one of the reasons behind the Atlantic/Atlantic divergence, whereby the entanglement in Islamophobia, ideologically or demographically, was tight to the extent that it facilitated the enlargement of the European-Russian economic ties and reached to the point of the dependence of European energy policies to a large extent on Moscow’s decision.
The past few years have unraveled organizational links that go beyond the consensus in thought and discourse between the European far-right and its counterpart in Russia, which allowed what could be dubbed as the “Russian penetration,” to reach new depths. Since World War II, European Anglo-Saxon relations have not seen the extent of rupture that occurred during the past few years. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came to clearly reverse the course of action. While the orchestra of the French Right (and behind it other European right-wing movements) is playing the symphony of “Islamic danger,” Europe found itself forced to line up quickly in the face of a great real danger igniting the fire of a military conflict. It is the first of its kind since the First World War and is fitted out with a language from the remnants of the Cold War. The Russian discourse in the Ukraine crisis is not limited to what is only military. Rather, it also reproduces extremely dangerous statements about “historical rights” in Ukraine. As for the threat of the “nuclear option,” it has been a slap for the official and unofficial European elite and has reinstated the question on the actual sources of threat.