By Kudashkina Ekaterina
Interview with Jonathan Birdwell, senior researcher on violence and extremism program at DEMOS, which is a UK Think Tank focusing on power and politics.
Jonathan Birdwell: In terms of whether the neo-Nazi group that has come to life in Germany is a trend, is a growing trend of a broader kind of mobilization of more violent far-right individuals, I think, it is a bit too early to say. We did have Breivik in the summer, we do have the emergence of this group in Germany now. But I think it is slightly early to say there is a growing trend in violent far-right groups. Now security services in various countries might have different information, it might be able to say more confidently if there is a growth in these groups. But what I do think is that there has been a trend over the past 10 years in particular and, probably, in past 5 years, as well, of a growth of kind of new right of what we call ‘populist’, anti-immigrant populist movements across Europe. In some cases these are political parties, and in some cases street movements, and they have grown in number as well as in political strength across the range of countries throughout Europe. Now, most all of these groups obviously completely disavow violence and surely do not advocate violence or want to align themselves with more violent groups but the rhetoric and the concern of these groups is similar. They are concerned about immigration, they are concerned, in particular, about immigration from Muslim majority countries.
Q: Is there any corelation between the rise of popularity and the worsening of economic conditions?
Jonathan Birdwell: I think actually if you look at the emergence of these groups, most of them emerged prior to the recession, and in our research we asked online supporters of these groups why they supported these groups and most of them sided cultural, the desire to protect their culture in kind of cultural identity – that’s the most important issue for them and not necessarily economic issues. But I do think that we have to be concerned about the current economic situation seeding into a potentially strengthening of these groups because one of the defining characteristics of these groups is the fact that they are anti-elite, anti-establishment, and the more European political leaders look to be hapless and unable to deal with the economic situation, I think, that potentially strengthens the argument of these populist groups that the current crop of political leaders in Europe are simply out of touch.
Q: If we compare it with the recent “occupy” movement, do I get it right that the “occupy” movement actually represents the opposite part of the spectrum, so to say?
Jonathan Birdwell: Yes, I mean, to some extent, I would agree. You know, I think the “occupy” movement is a populist movement, it is anti-establishment, however, what’s interesting and why we started calling these groups populist groups is because they are far-right in terms of their approach to immigration and in particular to Muslims. Actually a lot of economic policies are probably quite in line with the “occupy” movement. So, for example, many of these groups are anti-international capitalism, anti-consumerism, pro-environmentalism, and so, I think, actually economically there is a lot of similarity between the “occupy” movement and these “far-right European populist groups”.
Q: But still the “occupy” movement looks so much more peaceful than those people at the extreme right are?
Jonathan Birdwell: I agree. But I don’t think violent extremism is the preserver of only one side of the political spectrum. I think, you know, it could be the case that we see the emergence of far-left extremists in the coming years. I think that tendency exists on all sides of the political spectrum. But I definitely agree that the “occupy” movement supporters, which certainly be at odds with the kind of anti-immigrant xenophobic rhetoric of these far-right groups. But they would probably share quite a lot in common in terms of their support for protectionism, kind of opposition to international capitalism and etc.
Q: Any kinds of extremism are a problem. But is there anything to be done about it? Is there a way to counter the extremist sentiment?
Jonathan Birdwell: Well, that is a hard question and I think from our standpoint is important that groups that do receive democratic support aren’t dismissed offhand as just racists and xenophobes. You know, people’s concern about immigration does have to be taken seriously and I think the more we can engage with these groups, even if we find their views distasteful, the more we can engage with them, then we can potentially bring them more into the mainstream and potentially tame the more extremist elements. I think just in modern society, in the 21 century inevitably there will be extremist movements, there will be fringe groups, that want to go further and want to use violence in the name of their pursuits. And that’s something the security services are going to have to be vigilant about.