Nativism informs the way in which far-right organizations identify the members of the national community and those who challenge or threaten it. According to a leading researcher on populist politics, Cas Mudde, nativism is an ideology that asserts «states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (the nation) and that non-native elements (persons and/or ideas) represent a threat to the homogeneity of the nation-state» (Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. Cambridge University Press).
On the far right, differences between natives and non-natives tend to be justified mainly through racist and neo-racist nativist arguments stressing the distinct biological, cultural or civic characteristics of the national identity.
Secularism and republicanism
Why do some far-right organizations present themselves as the “true guardians”standing up for the nation’s liberal customs and culture, including women’s or LGBTQ rights? This question inspired my recent study on the discourse of the French far right on Islam in the aftermath of the 2015 terrorist attacks.
Given the difficulty of accessing some of these organizations for fieldwork, I relied instead on systematic content analysis of 77 official websites belonging to parties and grassroots movements, to understand how nativist anti-Islam arguments have been adapted to better align with dominant conceptions of the national identity. In France, these are secularism (the belief in a strict separation between church and state) and republicanism (a universalist model of citizenship).
While classic racist interpretations of nativism embrace biological prejudices, neo-racist interpretations adopt a cultural version of nativism. One classical way of defining nativism is on the grounds of prejudices related to race. In this case, nativism is grounded in the belief that inherent and immutable differences and hierarchies exist between individuals. Biological racism became mostly discredited within the European far right after the Second World War, after which time neo-racism—also called ethnopluralism—was adopted strategically by far-right organizations in its place. Neo-racism justifies differences between individuals mainly in cultural rather than (simply) natural prejudices.
In this understanding, indigenous (Western) people are not inherently “superior” in biological terms, but are, rather, different and incompatible with others because of the cultural and civic characteristics of their national identity.
This form of nativism consolidated in the late 1970s under the influence of the French Nouvelle Droite (ND). Since—if not before—the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in New York and Washington, a specific anti-Islam cultural nativism has emerged within the far right (but not only there). Largely inspired by Huntington’s thesis on “The Clash of Civilizations,” this interpretation sees Islam as fundamentally irreconcilable with the “cultural roots” and “principles” of Western democracies. This form of cultural nativism conceives Islam as a threat to the nation’s tolerance, to the separation of church and state, to women’s equality, to LGBTQ rights and to animal rights.
A new racism?
By analyzing the content of 77 websites of far right organizations in France, I found that, while only a few discriminate against Muslims on biological grounds alone, the majority wraps nativist arguments in the dominant conceptions of French citizenship: secularity and republicanism.
On the far right, further divisions emerge when it comes to the interplay between far-right anti-Islam discourses and baseline national values. On the one hand, some groups endorse mainstream values, but promote xenophobic understandings of secularity and republican universalism (such as the former Front National, now Rassemblement National).
On the other, groups might oppose mainstream values by locating themselves outside the social contract, either by adopting, say, ultra-Catholic religious (CIVITAS) or anti-republican discourses (Egalitè et Reconciliation).
In its quest for political legitimacy, the far right may thus refer to widely accepted national values, given that understandings of the national identity in civilizational terms may be compatible with at least some nativist anti-Islam arguments (neo-racism).
For the far right, often associated with (neo) fascist and (neo) nazi ideologies that are anti-democratic, the extent to which its anti-Islam discourse is perceived as compatible with baseline democratic national values is fundamental to its acquiring legitimacy within the political system.
Enter the political system
It is this desire to enter the political system that induces the far right to adapt its nativist discourse to the available discursive opportunities that define belonging to—i.e. legitimate acceptance within—the national community.
Although it is difficult to generalize from one case study, similar tendencies exist in other countries. Outside France, various far-right organizations are also actively seeking societal legitimacy. Yet seeing the far right as having a monopoly on islamophobia would be a mistake, since it would suggest that liberal democracy—with its cherished value of tolerance—is somehow naturally averse to islamophobia.
This view however is problematic, since it disregards how readily anti-Islam civilizational discourses, like Huntington’s, can and have become part of mainstream society. The unsolved question remains how mainstream parties will manage such exclusionary rhetoric.
Photo: FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP
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