The essay “Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism: The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century”, authored by Lars Erik Berntzen, is perhaps the first academic attempt to map and analyze the non-violent far right community in Europe from a comprehensive ideological and theoretical perspective. Dr. Berntzen is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Comparative Politics of the Bergen University in Norway, and an affiliated researcher at the C-REX (Center for Research on Extremism) at the University of Oslo. He has studied Muslim culture and immigration in Norway, but also the ideology of Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. Berntzen’s 2011 Master’s thesis was the first study of anti-Islamic political mobilization in Norway. In 2018, he earned his PhD in Political and Social Sciences from the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, with a doctoral thesis about the anti-Islamic movement in the United States and Western Europe between 2001 and 2017. The theory that Berntzen aims to demonstrate is the simultaneous expansion of the far right along with liberal activism, which is the also topic of his book.
The author, in the attempt of mapping the anti-Islamic movement and investigating its expansion, poses two research questions. The first is: what characterizes the anti-Islamic movements’ structure and composition? Secondly, how, and to what extent, does the movement incorporate progressive and liberal values? The book provides a study of four specific dimensions. First, it studies the background and biographies of far-right leaders, ideologues and representatives, to provide an insight about their motivation to join. Secondly, it studies their official ideology. Thirdly, it analyzes the organizational networks, to study whether their initiatives are coordinated or not. Finally, it tracks the mobilization of sympathizers and recruitment, to understand if the recruits indeed align with the official ideological platform.
According to Berntzen, the extent to which liberal views permeate the anti-Islamic movement has far-reaching consequences for the basic understanding of what the anti-Islamic movement is. In the analysis of the four dimensions, the book focuses on political initiatives and central figures from six “stronghold” countries: Britain, the United States, the Netherlands, Germany, Norway, and Denmark. This is followed by a frame analysis of statements by eleven key initiatives known for their anti-Muslim rhetoric in Germany, Norway and Britain— all epicenters of anti-Islamic activism. The author points out that Norway was the first country to have an explicitly anti-Islamic organization: Stop Islamization of Norway (SIAN), which was established in 2000. The two main movements in Britain and Germany are the English Defense League and Pegida, respectively.
Berntzen also argues that modern gender norms and key liberal positions are clearly at odds with the traditional far right and its rigid views on gender roles. For instance, when it comes to women’s rights they hesitate between “protector frames” with a male point of view (our women), and “equality frames” with a female point of view. The author defines this ideological duality as strategic frame ambiguity. That is why, Berntzen says, anti-Islamic groups reach out to animal rights, LGBT, and women’s rights groups, as well as Christian conservatives, Jewish and pro-Israeli initiatives, in order to build a “negative” coalition. The Norwegian researcher thinks that the anti-Islamic movement exists in a state of balance between modern and liberal values on the one hand, and traditional and authoritarian values on the other. He describes this state of balance as semi-liberal equilibrium. In his view, liberal stances largely predate the authoritarian ones.
Additionally, Berntzen elaborates on the concept of nativism and how it differs from old far-right ideologies. The new far-right conception of nativism is primarily based on citizenship and adherence to “Western values”, not necessarily ethnicity or race. It is, therefore, a more inclusive form of nativism. However, the author warns that the term “far right” is not used to define an ideology in itself, but is a highly abstract conceptual container which includes extreme and radical right ideologies. Nativism is considered to be the common denominator of far-right ideologies, whereby the nation-state should only consist of members of the native group, non-natives are thus a threat by default. If an ideology does not have nativism at its core, the author adds, it is incorrect to define it as far right. How to distinguish between radical right and extreme right ideology lies in their approach to the political system. Whereas the extreme right is anti-democratic and willing to use non-state violence to achieve their goals, the radical right, while critical of the establishment, works within the confines of democracy.
Berntzen also defines the meaning of “anti-Islamic” in his research. Far right groups view Islam as a political, totalitarian, and destructive force. Therefore, he defines anti-Islam in terms of “framing Islam as a homogeneous, totalitarian ideology which threatens Western civilization”, while the term Islamophobia contains an inherent emphasis on emotional reactions.
The refugee crisis, among other factors, according to the author, has facilitated the growth of the far-right movement in Europe. It is now recruiting and mobilizing new sympathizers with transnational propaganda campaigns. The reasons people join far-right movements, Berntzen says, depend on ideological compatibility, a personal network and an external shock. He identified four waves of far-right expansion: online and in-party politics, through social alliances and in local communities, the transnational solidification and the British role, and the surge of Pediga in Germany and its eastward expansion.
The author claims the reorientation of the far right towards the defense of liberal values is clear. The conclusion of his research shows that anti-Islamic actors in Norway, Britain, and Germany share the same collective action framework and ideology. However, some of the ideological pillars of the “old” far right still remain, but in internal discourse rather than official statements. Anti-Semitism in far-right non-violent parties is still widespread. The Italian journalist Gad Lerner, for instance, was insulted by several far-right militants at a rally of Matteo Salvini’s Lega, who told him: “You’re not Italian, you’re Jewish, go away!”
In the northeastern town of Schio, the right-wing majority supported by Brothers of Italy did not approve of the proposal to install Stolpersteine to remember deportations to Nazi camps because it was deemed “divisive and hateful”. These reactions are not limited to Italian far right, but also expand eastward in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere, among right-wing parties. In this case, the ideological framework of the “old” far right overlaps with the new one. The difference is that while attacking Islam as a whole is considered legitimate and part of the official political discourse, negative comments about Judaism and Jews are relegated to internal discussions or personal opinions of (many) militants and officials.
In conclusion, Berntzen provides accurate data about the evolution of far-right ideology and its connection to the liberal roots of Western values. His book is a serious comparative research of this new phenomenon and deserves academic attention to further elaborate theories on political extremism and the anti-Islamic movement.