Book review: Liberal Roots of Far-Right Activism: the anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century

Right Now! regularly publishes book reviews that have appeared in the latest volume of E-Extreme, the newsletter of the ECPR Standing Group on Extremism & Democracy. In this post, Callum Downes reviews Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism: the anti-Islamic Movement in the  21st Century, by Lars Erik Berntzen.

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In the Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism: The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century, Lars Erik Berntzen investigates the rise of anti-Islamic sentiment among the far-right in Western Europe and North America from 2001 onwards. He proposes that in order to understand this phenomenon we must first examine what he refers to as a ‘liberal paradox’ that is common among the contemporary far-right (Berntzen, 2019). This book offers a unique perspective of the anti-Islamic sentiment that is dominant among the modern far-right (Rydgren, 2018: 2) and presents new evidence to challenge the widespread academic consensus that the adoption of liberal values by the anti-Islamic far-right is primarily a strategy to prevent persecution and obtain legitimacy.

Of late, academic studies into the far-right have identified that the contemporary anti-Islamic far-right have abandoned many of the traditional values associated with the far-right and in their place embraced liberal and progressive positions (Berntzen, 2020: 38-40). For instance, many have discarded traditional anti-Semitic positions, perceiving the nation-state of Israel and the Jew as a natural ally in the fight against Islam (Mudde, 2019: 28). Noticeably, in place of these traditional values, the development of anti-Islamic sentiment among the contemporary far-right has seen the inclusion of liberal and progressive positions, defining themselves as the defenders of such liberal values as gender and sexual orientation equality (Betz & Meret, 2009: 319).
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While the anti-Islamic far-right’s hostility towards Muslims sits well with the traditional far-right, their inclusion and support of liberal and progressive values is clearly inconsistent with the far-right’s traditionally conservative views (Berntzen, 2020: 5). This is what Berntzen refers to as the ‘liberal paradox’. The widespread academic consensus suggests that the anti-Islamic far-right’s inclusion and exclusion of certain positions ‘should not be taken at face value.’ (Berntzen, 2020: 40). Rather, the anti-Islamic far-right’s inclusion and exclusion of certain values is deemed to be strategic, concealing more extreme positions whilst appearing more moderate in public in order to avoid condemnation and attain legitimacy (Fleck & Muller, 1998: 436).

Nevertheless, Berntzen questions this widespread academic consensus and argues that the contemporary anti-Islamic far-right ‘is in fact liberalism that has drifted to the far-right’ (Berntzen, 2020: 165-166). This leads Berntzen to the central claim that he makes in his book, that the anti-Islamic far-right is ‘characterised by a semi-liberal equilibrium'. (Berntzen, 2020: 172) In other words, the anti-Islamic far-right exists in a state of balance between liberal and progressive values on the one hand and authoritarian and traditional positions on the other. So as to justify this claim, Berntzen initially poses two research questions. Firstly, ‘what characterises the anti-Islamic movements’ structure and composition? [Secondly,] how, and to what extent, does the anti-Islamic movement incorporate progressive and liberal values?’ (Berntzen, 2020: 3).

In order to engage with these research questions the book provides a study of four specific dimensions of the anti-Islamic far-right. First, it examines the background and biographies of movement figureheads. Secondly, it analyses the official ideology of the anti-Islamic far-right. Thirdly, it examines their organisational networks in order to assess whether their programmes are coordinated or not. And finally, it tracks the mobilisation of recruits and sympathisers in order to assess whether they align with the official ideology of the anti-Islamic far-right. Berntzen examines the expansion of anti-Islamic sentiment among the far-right from 2001 and 2017 and asserts that this expansion can be understood to have undergone four waves. They are characterised by the creation of new activist groups which have established movements in several countries (Berntzen, 2020: 65-76).

By examining the emergence of anti-Islamic sentiment among the far right from 2001 onwards, Berntzen conducts an analysis of the biographies of thirty anti-Islamic figureheads in order to assess their public appeal and obtain an explanation for why certain values have become more widespread among the anti-Islamic far-right than others (Berntzen, 2020: 76-77). Berntzen identifies that among other things a left-wing background is more common than a far-right or extreme right background amongst these figureheads, and suggests that a leftwing legacy may be an explanation for why the anti-Islamic far-right embrace and advance positions that are typically considered left-wing (Berntzen, 2020: 80-81). Following the exploration of the four waves of anti-Islamic expansion, Berntzen turns to examining the official ideology of the anti-Islamic far-right. Beginning with an examination of the collective action frames that are employed by the anti-Islamic far-right, Berntzen distinguishes the diagnostic, prognostic and motivational frames from one another.

Whereas the diagnostic frame suggests that the West is under threat of Islamification, the prognostic frame proposes the nonviolent solution of a greater emphasis being placed on Western values rather than multicultural doctrine and authoritarian legislation (Berntzen, 2020: 90-96). Thus, the motivational frame depicts their hostility and opposition to Muslims as a ‘defensive battle for freedom and democracy.’ (Berntzen, 2020: 96). In light of his findings on the collective action frames implemented by the anti-Islamic far-right, Berntzen suggests that the anti-Islamic far-right incorporate a third type of master frame into their collective action framing. Rydgren’s (2005) distinction between the ‘fascist’ and ‘ethno-pluralist’ master frames employed by the far-right does not take into account their position on such liberal values as gender and sexuality; thus, Berntzen suggests that the anti-Islamic far-right’s shift from targeting specific ethnicities to Muslims and their inclusion of liberal and progressive values is ‘sufficiently different to constitute a third master frame for the far-right’, which he refers to as the ‘civilizational master frame’ (Berntzen, 2020: 103-106).

Succeeding his assessment of the anti-Islamic far-right’s ideology, Berntzen’s book turns to examining the organisational network of the anti-Islamic far-right. From his analysis Berntzen draws three significant conclusions. Firstly, from investigating the anti-Islamic far-right’s online presence we are able to identify a fundamentally transnational nature (Berntzen, 2020: 118-122). Secondly, that ‘birds of a feather really do flock together’. Anti-Islamic groups reach out to groups that share similar liberal and progressive positions, such as feminist, LGBTQ+, and pro-Israeli groups, although there are doubts that these groups reciprocate the anti-Islamic far-right’s advances (Berntzen, 2020: 125-126). The third and final significant conclusion reached in this chapter is that the anti-Islamic far-right’s ideological span of liberal positions is built on ‘negative coalitions’; simply put, that sympathisers and activists are united by what they are against (Berntzen, 2020: 128). Finally, Berntzen turns to examining the sentiment of members and followers of two-hundred and ninety-eight anti-Islamic groups on Facebook, in order to evaluate whether recruits and sympathisers align with the official ideology of the anti-Islamic far-right.

His sentiment analysis concludes that recruits and sympathisers with the anti-Islamic far-right align with their official ideology. Firstly, that they use the same diagnostic frame which states that Muslims and Islam constitute an existential threat (Berntzen, 2020: 144), and secondly, that the inclusion of liberal and progressive values by the in-group is dominant (Berntzen, 2020: 146-150). By providing detailed analysis of these four specific dimensions of the anti-Islamic far-right throughout his book, Berntzen answers his two initial research questions. Firstly, that the anti-Islamic expansion of the far-right is a transnational movement with a consistent worldview and ideology (Berntzen, 2020: 165). The transnational anti-Islamic movement continuously incorporates both traditional and liberal values, hence being characterised by what Berntzen refers to as a semi-liberal equilibrium (Berntzen, 2020: 165). Thus, this book provides a unique answer to the ‘liberal paradox’, maintaining that the anti-Islamic far right’s inclusion of liberal and progressive values is genuine rather than an attempt to avoid condemnation and obtain legitimacy.

One omission that may raise eyebrows is the book’s unwillingness to assess the political consequences of the conclusion that it reaches. For instance, does Berntzen’s conclusion that the anti-Islamic far-right are characterised by a semiliberal equilibrium offer credence to their political agenda? By stating that the anti-Islamic far-right are more liberal and progressive than one typically supposes, one can in turn potentially legitimise the far-right and their political agenda. Nevertheless, the book’s aversion to examining the consequences of its conclusion provides scope for further research in this field, as scholars can turn their attention to the political consequences that may ensue if we are to accept that the anti-Islamic far-right’s inclusion of liberal and progressive values is genuine.

To conclude, this book provides a unique insight into the development of anti-Islamic sentiment among the far-right, and challenges widespread academic consensus regarding the contemporary far-right’s inclusion of liberal and progressive positions. Scholars who study or have an interest in the far-right, Islamophobia, and social movements should pay significant attention to this book.

By Callum Downes
Published May 25, 2021 9:30 AM - Last modified May 25, 2021 9:30 AM
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