In the first Crusade, on their way to fight the Muslim infidels in Jerusalem, the armed pilgrims asked themselves a provocative question: Why should we trek so far to kill people we barely know when we can just as well massacre infidels closer to home?
And thus the crusaders of the 11th century embarked on some of Europe’s first pogroms against Jews. These anti-Semitic rampages in the heart of the continent had the added advantage of helping to finance that first Crusade, as the pilgrims expropriated the wealth of the Jews they killed.
Europe is once again witnessing the collateral damage of conflicts in the Middle East. Extremists who are involved in a modern-day crusade in the Middle East — or have been thwarted from making the journey to Iraq or Syria — have asked themselves a question very similar to that of their 11th-century counterparts: Why not kill the infidel at hand rather than the infidel afar?
The question — and the answer as it played out last week in the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris — is as ugly today as it was more than 900 years ago.
In both cases, the crusaders believed that their actions were of world-historical importance. In the 11th century, it was Pope Urban II who issued the call to arms that turned sedentary Christians into global marauders. Today, it is the Islamic State and al-Qaeda who are calling for their followers to slay the ungodly.
But as with those initial pogroms — not to mention the 2011 massacre by Anders Breivik in Norway or the serial murders of ethnic Turks in Germany by neo-Nazis between 2000 and 2007 — the recent atrocities in France are nothing but criminal acts.
This is not, in other words, a showdown between the forces of Enlightenment and the forces of barbarism. I have nothing but sorrow for the victims and nothing but rage at the perpetrators. But we must resist the temptation to confer the status of combatant on the murderers or the status of defenders of civilization on Charlie Hebdo.
The Real Battle
If these murders do not constitute a war, they nonetheless point to a deep conflict inside Europe. This conflict is not over whose religion is the one true religion. It is about the very identity of Europe.
In the 11th century, what animated the crusaders was not just the status of Jerusalem but the fear that Islam was lapping at the shores of Europe itself (and indeed, Islam already had a firm foothold on the Iberian peninsula). Today, a similar fear animates the Islamophobes and immigrant-bashers of the continent.
They fear that their old-fashioned vision of an overwhelmingly white, Christian Europe — with reassuring borders that define who is French and who is German and who doesn’t belong in the cozy culture of “Western civilization” — is fast disappearing. They disapprove as much of the border-erasing trajectory of European integration as of the demographic transformations of European immigration. They desperately stick their fingers in the civilizational dike to preserve the Christian heritage of the continent.
But the Europe of their imaginations, to the limited extent that it ever existed in reality, has already passed into history.
Immigration to Europe is nothing new, of course. Particularly after World War II, colonial connections diversified the continent as Indonesians came to Holland, Algerians to France, and Trinidadians to the UK. During the labor shortages of the 1960s and 1970s, guest workers from the Balkans, Turkey, and North Africa poured into countries like Germany and Switzerland, which had little or no colonial connections, to supply surplus labor. Many guest workers returned home, but some stayed to raise families and create multiculturalism avant la lettre.
Those changes prompted the first wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. In 1968, Enoch Powell gave his infamous “rivers of blood” speech to his fellow British Conservatives in which he predicted future violence because of the influx of Commonwealth immigrants. The National Front began mobilizing anti-immigrant sentiment in France as early as 1970. The similarly xenophobic Republican Party in Germany started up in 1983.
Although Powell’s “rivers of blood” did not come to pass, the anti-immigrant strain in European politics has only grown more virulent. And Europe has continued to change. The wars of the post-Cold War era — in Bosnia, Kosovo, across North Africa, and in the Middle East — brought in refugees and migrants, and the attractions of a unified Europe drew people from all over the world.
The demographic shifts in Europe over the last decade have been dramatic.
Between 2005 and 2013, according to UN population surveys, the immigrant population in Switzerland jumped from 22.9 to 28.9 percent, in Spain from 10.7 to 13.8 percent, in Italy from 4.2 to 9.8 percent, in Sweden from 12.3 to 15.9 percent, in Denmark from 7.2 to 9.9 percent, in Finland from 2.9 to 5.4 percent, and in the UK from 8.9 to 12.4 percent.
Such rapid increases in a short period of time have created anxiety in populations that do not consider their countries to be “immigrant societies” like the United States or Australia.
An Islamophobia of Convenience
In the German heartland, the organization Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West (Pegida) has proven to be both enormously popular and an embarrassment to top German politicians.
This week, Pegida organizers went ahead with a rally in Dresden in the wake of the French killings and attracted 25,000 people despite calls by German Premier Angela Merkel and other leading political figures for people to stay home. Although a counter-demonstration in Dresden attracted 35,000 people, Pegida is on a roll, with more rallies planned in other German cities and even in other countries.
The leaders of Pegida grew up in East Germany, and their Monday marches recall the Monday demonstrations that took place in Leipzig in 1989. Some of Pegida’s rhetoric mirrors the chants of the East Germany democracy movement — such as “We are the People” — but with a more sinister slant.
Not surprisingly, given its anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim message, the group has attracted a hard core of extremists associated with football clubs and motorcycle gangs. But make no mistake: anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiment is very popular even among the so-called respectable elements in Germany.
Thilo Sarrazin was a prominent member of the Social Democratic Party when he published Germany Abolishing Itself, which described immigration as the weapon by which the country was committing suicide. The screed became a bestseller, and it was not because racist skinheads suddenly became avid book-buyers. In a German poll last month, half of the respondents declared their sympathy with Pegida and its anti-Muslim agenda.
In England, meanwhile, anti-immigrant fervor has catapulted the UK Independence Party into third place in the polls. In the wake of the tragedies in France, UKIP leader Nigel Farage spoke of a “fifth column” inside European countries “holding our passports, who hate us,” a sentiment that led to an uptick in his popularity. (Of course, Farage is an equal-opportunity bigot. In the spring, after new labor regulations went into force that allowed Romanians the right to work anywhere in the EU, he said, “Any normal and fair-minded person would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door.”)
But the organization best positioned to leverage the Islamophobia welling up in Europe is France’s National Front. Before the recent killings, Marine Le Pen was already leading early polling for the 2017 presidential contest, and her party was on top of the polls for local elections in March. Le Pen has called for a reinstatement of both border controls and the death penalty, which would put France at odds with the rest of Europe. She is the face of the new extremism: sufficiently liberal in some respects (divorced, pro-choice) to reach out to the mainstream but just as aggressively intolerant as her predecessors to appeal to the base.
The Islamophobia of these far-right movements is largely incidental. They traffic in anti-Islamic sentiment because it is both popular and more palatable than, say, racism or run-of-the-mill xenophobia. Charlie Hebdo, after all, wasn’t running cartoons that made fun of black people or Roma. But it’s open season, intolerance-wise, on Muslims. This Islamophobia, however, is the tip of the spear. The real thrust of the far right is to keep out immigrants of all stripes.
Preventing the Rivers of Blood
The first Crusade “liberated” Jerusalem in 1099 in a great outpouring of blood as the crusaders slaughtered Muslims and Jews alike in the great city.
It was but the first of a half-dozen crusades that raged across Europe and across the next couple centuries. The victims of later Crusades included pagans, Orthodox Christians, Albigensian heretics, and even, during the fourth Crusade, the Catholic population of Zara in present-day Croatia. The cycle of violence initiated by Pope Urban II’s call to religious arms claimed victims of all faiths and backgrounds, and produced a good deal of European-on-European violence as well.
Extremists on all sides would love to see the return of the Crusades. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda would like to see rivers of blood in the streets of Europe. And the far right understands that an all-out war with a committed enemy is one path to political power. Once in charge, they will recreate their own 9/11 moment in order to reverse European integration, build up a huge fence around Europe, and begin deportations.
Forget the false frame of the West versus Islam. It’s not historically or conceptually accurate, and the two are basically on the same side against the crimes of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The real battle is over the soul of Europe. And the far right is rallying like it’s 1099.
John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.