"It might be tempting to dismiss this strategic shift as political opportunism and move on, but there are good reasons to take the BNP’s embrace of Islamophobia seriously. "
As Nick Griffin made clear in one interview this week, Islam remains a top issue for the BNP during the election. Like similar parties elsewhere in Europe, the BNP has increasingly shifted its discourse away from the crude ‘anti-black’ racism of its predecessors toward placing much stronger emphasis on Islamophobia.
The BNP first launched its ‘Campaign against Islam’ in the hours following the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001. Griffin has since recruited sympathizers within the Sikh community to communicate the party’s position on Islam to voters, such as during the BNP’s election broadcast for the 2004 European elections.
It might be tempting to dismiss this strategic shift as political opportunism and move on, but there are good reasons to take the BNP’s embrace of Islamophobia seriously.
Our study of BNP voting – ‘Angry White Men’ – provides evidence that Griffin’s party recruits higher levels of support in constituencies which have a large Muslim community. Moreover, we find that the presence of non-Muslim Asians has no significant effect on BNP voting and that support for the BNP is actually lower in areas with large black populations (nor are we the only researchers in Europe who find this relationship). The point is that the drivers of support for the far right are changing and becoming more complex. As we argue in our study, the appeal of Griffin’s BNP is more subtle than the crude racism and xenophobia of the old 1970s National Front.
The ‘traditional’ approach to the far right has been to talk tough on immigration and undercut its support (as with the classic reference to Thatcher saying voters are feeling ‘swamped’ about immigration). But branding the BNP simply as “anti-immigrant” misses the point and won’t appease the modern day BNP voter who is driven by a diverse array of concerns over perceived threats to ‘British’ values and culture. Anti-immigrant the party is, but in some parts of the country the BNP is also successfully mobilizing intolerance toward Muslim communities. These communities are already settled and are not going anywhere which means that it is going to be much more difficult for mainstream elites and policy makers to formulate a coherent and convincing response to the far right.
Talking tough about limits on immigration is one thing; talking about voters’ concerns over communities which are already established and which contribute to social and political life is another matter altogether. As Lauren McLaren notes in an earlier entry, in this election the mainstream parties are unlikely to thrust immigration to the forefront of their campaigns, but they are even less likely to talk about concerns over Muslims and Islam.
As I discuss in my forthcoming book, aside from coinciding with the increased salience of immigration the rise of the BNP has also taken place amidst a broader pool of anxiety and concern among voters over the role of Muslims and Islam in wider society.
At the time of Griffin’s breakthrough into the European Parliament last summer one poll by YouGov suggested that 44 per cent of voters agreed with the statement that ‘even in its milder forms Islam poses a danger to Western civilization’. The most recent British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey similarly suggests a reservoir of latent support for parties which specifically adopt hostile positions toward this minority group, indicating that only around one out of four voters have positive views toward Islam and five out of ten would be ‘bothered’ if a large Mosque sprung up in their local community.
As elsewhere on the continent, this anti-Muslim ‘frame’ is an important tool for the BNP because unlike its earlier emphasis on anti-Semitism arguments about the alleged ‘threat’ posed by Islam have support among sections of British media and the political establishment. In turn, the far right’s message is being delivered amidst a climate which is more favourable and might inadvertently legitimize this message in the eyes of voters.
Take, for example, the invitation to Geert Wilders last month to show his anti-Islam ‘Fitna’ film to members of the House of Lords, or coverage of Muslims in sections of the tabloid press. Few mainstream outlets endorsed anti-Semitism in the 1970s but today we don’t have to look too far to find support for Islamophobia – and BNP voters are much likely to read the Daily Mail, Daily Express or The Sun than other papers.
It is for all of these reasons that Griffin is working hard to claim ownership over the anti-Islam issue. Most voters remain unconvinced by Griffin and still hold extremely negative views toward the party. His Question Time debut was generally seen as a disaster, with only 4 per cent of voters afterward saying they would “definitely consider” voting BNP. But it is also for these reasons that it would be mistaken to overlook the changing message of the far right and ignore deeper currents within public opinion on which the party is preying.