Anti-Muslim feelings propel right wing in Europe
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 12:58 PM
STOCKHOLM - On the heels of elections that stunned many in this famously progressive land, Kent Ekeroth and his peers marched through the castle-like parliament doors this month on a mission to combat what they call Sweden's greatest problem: Muslim immigration.
The 20 Swedish Democrats - the first national lawmakers from a party initially spawned in the 1980s by white supremacists - are working to impose a moratorium on new mosques, ban the shroud-like coverings worn by some conservative Muslim women and largely halt immigration from predominantly Muslim nations.
Alarm over the anti-immigrant wave intensified recently as authorities warned "dark-skinned" residents in the southern city of Malmo that one or more snipers are targeting immigrants, killing one and wounding eight in 15 separate shootings this year.
The rise to office of the Swedish Democrats in September's elections touched off a heated debate in this country, home of the Nobel Prize and known as the "conscience of the world" for aiding refugees and pioneering laws for women's equality and gay rights. Yet even here, the Swedish Democrats made it into the Rikstag by tapping into a surge of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment sweeping across many nations in Western Europe, propelling right-wing and nationalist parties to their biggest gains in years.
"The Swedish are tired of walking around in their own neighborhoods and feeling like they're in Saudi Arabia," said Ekeroth, an intense 30-year-old and founder of the new Anti-Islamic Fund, which promotes criticism of radical Islam. "It is time for the Swedish to be comfortable again in their own country."
At the same time, resentment is brewing in nations like Sweden over a rising tide of Muslim immigrants and the reluctance of some to adopt local customs, testing the limits of tolerance in some of the world's most open-minded societies.
Unlike in the United States, where Latinos dominate the immigration debate, European angst is increasingly focused on waves of Muslims - Turks, Iraqis, Somalis and others - who have become the hottest-button issue in recent elections. In Austria this month, the far-right Freedom Party made massive gains in regional elections after an anti-immigrant campaign that included a "Bye Bye Mosque" Internet game. It allowed players to target virtual minarets in elegant Vienna and pastoral Alpine villages with a single word: "stop."
With climbing unemployment rates and painful spending cuts in the aftermath of the economic crisis, even mainstream leaders of the center right, including France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, are noting the growing anti-immigration undercurrent. Through measures including a ban on the full-length veils worn by conservative Muslim women, critics say, Sarkozy is seeking the support of the far-right backers of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the French nationalist who made a strong presidential bid in 2002.
Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued her toughest line yet on immigrants. For weeks, Merkel has condemned Thilo Sarrazin, a former Central Bank board member turned folk hero in Germany who penned a shocking bestseller arguing that Turkish and Kurdish immigrants are genetically inferior.
But the book also ignited a debate in Germany over the unwillingness of many immigrants - particularly Muslims - to integrate. Merkel last week appeared to side with immigration critics, saying at a party conference that Germany's experiment to build a "multicultural" nation had "failed, absolutely failed."
The long-liberal lands of Scandinavia and the Netherlands are also seeing a nationalist party renaissance. Last week, a conservative Dutch government came to power with the support of the anti-Islamic party of Geert Wilders, who is standing trial on a charge of inciting racial hatred against Muslims. In exchange for his support, Wilders extracted promises that the new government would take dramatic steps to curb immigration and follow the French in banning full-length Muslim veils.
In recent months, right-wing and nationalist parties have also consolidated or are now poised to expand their power in Denmark, Norway and Finland.