‘Islamisation of the Occident’: fear of Islam as a mobilising force of the European new right

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  • 1 Freie Universität Berlin, , Germany
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Recent research has investigated the emotional underpinnings of support for the political new right. Some of these works focus on the supply-side of support, emphasising specific political styles and discourses, whereas others emphasise the demand-side, highlighting cultural, economic and emotional factors. Lacking from this research, in particular for the European context, is an understanding of how supporters of the new right experience and make sense of pertinent cleavages with regard to emotions. The present study sets out to acquire a more detailed understanding of the emotional narratives of supporters of the new right, in particular with regard to fear and religious cleavages. Using group interviews with supporters of new right parties and movements in Germany, we show that narratives involving fear pertain to the idea of a valued collective ‘We’ that consists of political and cultural elements, and serves as a reference point to collective identity and an antidote to existential insecurities. Further, the collective We is perceived to be threatened by cultural differences and changing majority-minority relations with respect to five domains of social life: demography, liberal democratic order, public majority culture, security and welfare.

Abstract

Recent research has investigated the emotional underpinnings of support for the political new right. Some of these works focus on the supply-side of support, emphasising specific political styles and discourses, whereas others emphasise the demand-side, highlighting cultural, economic and emotional factors. Lacking from this research, in particular for the European context, is an understanding of how supporters of the new right experience and make sense of pertinent cleavages with regard to emotions. The present study sets out to acquire a more detailed understanding of the emotional narratives of supporters of the new right, in particular with regard to fear and religious cleavages. Using group interviews with supporters of new right parties and movements in Germany, we show that narratives involving fear pertain to the idea of a valued collective ‘We’ that consists of political and cultural elements, and serves as a reference point to collective identity and an antidote to existential insecurities. Further, the collective We is perceived to be threatened by cultural differences and changing majority-minority relations with respect to five domains of social life: demography, liberal democratic order, public majority culture, security and welfare.

Introduction

Since the increase in refugee migration to Europe in 2015, challenges related to flight, migration and social integration have become one of the most pressing political issues. But even before 2015, these challenges had been a breeding ground for the emergence and electoral success of new (radical, populist) right-wing parties across Europe (for example, Ivarsflaten, 2008; Wodak, 2015; Mols and Jetten, 2020; Leininger and Meijers, 2021). This is evident, for example, in the electoral success of the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, the Rassemblement National in France, or the Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party) in Denmark, all of which have put issues of migration and social integration on their agendas (McKeever, 2020; Muno and Stockemer, 2021). In order to understand the success of these parties and related social movements, many have argued that economic and cultural grievances drive specific emotions of the new right (see, for example, Jansen, 2011; Salmela and von Scheve, 2017; Betz, 2020).

Although emotions among the new right are diverse and include feelings of déclassement, hate and resentment, fear stands out as a particularly relevant emotion. This is true when examining the German case of the AfD and related voter alliances, but also of other movements and parties across Europe. Fear in the discourse of the new right is frequently associated with concerns over status and employment, and especially with culture. In this respect, religion as an object of fear is particularly salient in this discourse. The new right are said to be concerned about the threat of an alleged hostile ‘Islamisation’ of society (Wodak, 2015; Berntzen, 2020). Paradigmatic examples are the protest group Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident) in Germany and the SIOE (Stop Islamisation of Europe) movement in other countries. Religion, and in particular Islam, here becomes a key reference not only for fear, but for a cluster of emotions including anxiety, hate and resentment.

Research has mainly begun to investigate the supply side of this emotional dimension of the new right, asking how political parties and organisations articulate, construct and address the emotions of their supporters and the general public (for example, Block and Negrine, 2017; Ekström et al, 2018; Breeze, 2019). The most comprehensive treatment of fear, in this respect, has been provided by Wodak (2015), who investigated the ‘politics of fear’ in the new right discourse. In contrast, little is known about the emotions of supporters of new right parties and movements. Hochschild’s (2016) study of Tea Party supporters in Louisiana, USA, is a notable exception, as is Cramer’s (2016) work on resentment in rural Wisconsin, USA. Both emphasise emotional processes that are also frequently mentioned in European debates; in particular, hate, anger and resentment towards cultural and political elites, immigrants and minorities (see Salmela and von Scheve, 2017). None of these, however, focuses specifically on fear in conjunction with religion. Hence, the emotional articulations of right-wing support have mainly remained a matter of public debate, in particular in the European context, and thus of speculation and discursive attributions.

The present study sets out to acquire a more detailed understanding of the emotional narratives of supporters of new right parties and movements, in particular with regard to fear. Instead of looking generally at political issues and cleavages, we focus on religion as one of the most prominent markers of fear among the new right. To do so, we concentrate on a specific country case, namely Germany, to investigate fear among the new right. Germany has recently witnessed high success rates of new right parties in state and federal elections and has a particular prominent history of right-wing populism and extremism due to its National Socialist past.

In the remainder of this article, we first review research on the relevance of emotions for the success of the new right, with an emphasis on cleavages concerning religion and fear as a particularly salient emotion. We then outline our research design and describe our methodological approach as well as the specific methods we used. Last, we present the results of our analysis, summarise our findings and offer some concluding remarks.

The new right, religion and emotions

Political parties and social movements of the new right differ in their political ideologies and discourses and have been characterised by a broad range of criteria. It is also not uncommon that labels such as ‘right-wing populism’, the ‘far-right’, ‘alt-right’, or ‘right-wing extremism’ are used interchangeably, thus reflecting an ongoing debate about the manifestations, causes and, in normative terms, dangers of the new right for liberal democracy. In Germany, the new right ‘is frequently defined as an anti-democratic movement dating back to the late sixties or early seventies’ that can be characterised by its ‘rejection of universalism, pluralism, liberalism, parliamentarianism, equality, and multi-culturalism’ (Woods, 2007: 7). In line with Salzborn (2016: 38), we also contend that the new right represents ‘the intellectualization of right-wing extremism through the formulation of an intellectual metapolitics, and the pursuit of a (right-wing) cultural hegemony’. In contrast to the ‘old’ right, the new right, among other things, typically mobilises ‘culture’ rather than ‘race’ to construct agonal moments between the familiar collective self and the Other (Minkenberg, 1992).

Religion, or more specifically Islam, has become instrumental in establishing these cultural boundaries of otherness (see Marzouki et al, 2016; Zúquete, 2017; DeHanas and Shterin, 2018). Two studies are particularly noteworthy in this respect: Roy’s (2016) research on the role of religion in the Rassemblement National in France and Brubaker’s (2017) comparative study of European right-wing populist movements. DeHanas and Shterin (2018: 178) summarise their findings, stating that the link between religion and the new right is primarily ‘identitarian and negative’, focusing on distinctions between the ‘civilized’ Western world and ‘barbaric’ Muslims. According to Roy and Brubaker, the new right tends to reinvent a Christian past that is threatened by immigration from predominantly Muslim countries. In their narrative, ‘the people’ need to be saved by expelling Muslims. Using some examples from German and Austrian populist parties, Palaver (2019) argues that the populist right-wing discourse on religion is specifically geared towards eliciting fear among its audience. Also, Wodak (2015) shows how Islam is part of the new right’s ‘politics of fear’ that insinuates a hostile process of ‘Islamisation’.

These studies hint already to the importance of emotions in understanding the rise of the new right. Social science research rarely considers emotions to be idiosyncratic or subjective psychological ‘states’, but rather as processes fundamentally shaped by culture and social structure and vice versa (for example, Turner and Stets, 2005). This constructionist perspective on emotions is essential, for example, in studies focusing on media discourse of the new right (Block and Negrine, 2017; Ekström et al, 2018; Breeze, 2019), and for research investigating emotions as they are experienced or articulated by supporters of new right movements and parties (Cramer, 2016; Hochschild, 2016).

With regard to the new right, in particular its populist varieties, two aspects seem relevant to understand its emotional roots and narratives: long-term changes in modern societies’ structural and cultural conditions, as well as discourses aimed at tapping into and exploiting the emotional repercussions of these changes. As argued by proponents of modernisation theory (for example, Bauman, 2001; 2006), modern societies have seen a host of developments, including globalisation, individualisation and economic deregulation that promote widespread insecurities: for instance, with regard to identities, status positions and geopolitical conflicts. As we have argued elsewhere (Salmela and von Scheve, 2017), these insecurities can be considered ‘emotional opportunity structures’ (Ruiz-Junco, 2013) for political entrepreneurs, who pursue discursive strategies that either transform such insecurities into (usually hostile) Other-directed emotions (anger, resentment, hate) or contain narratives that provide specific targets or domains for these rather diffuse insecurities, thereby transforming them into more specific emotions, such as fear.

Given the relevance of fear with regard to the new right’s perspective on religion, it is surprising that most studies do not consider the prototypical structure of fear and examine the way that the new right actually constructs these narratives with regard to religion. This is even more surprising, especially since Islam and Muslims have been framed within a new politics of political violence and securitisation following the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 (Asad, 2007). Although there is a wide range of different forms of fear, it is typically a narrative based on three ideas: the salience of a particular good or value (for instance a person, object or idea); the belief that this good is threatened and is likely to be harmed; and that this harm is largely beyond one’s control (Dehne, 2016). In terms of this prototypical concept, how does the new right actually construct fear with regard to religion and a hostile Islamisation? Moreover, most studies tend to focus on media discourse. What has received far less attention is how supporters of the new right make sense of religion and how it is a discursive resource for their collective political positioning. What emotional narratives do supporters articulate with respect to religion? Is fear actually a salient emotion in this context and how specific are these collective articulations? To answer these questions, we conducted a number of group interviews with supporters of the new right.

Methods

To acquire a better understanding of how emotions – in particular, fear – shape new right supporters’ views on religion and the cleavages surrounding religion, we conducted group interviews among members of new right parties and activist groups in Germany.

Sample and data

We conducted group interviews (Frey and Fontana, 1991) because we were interested in (a) differences across political groups, (b) in the collective dimension of emotions, and (c) because we suspected that in individual interviews, respondents might too easily rely on discursively ‘streamlined’ knowledge. Interviews were conducted with natural groups: that is, social groups that exist beyond the specific research context, groups being our unit of analysis and group members our unit of observation. Groups were sampled on a number of criteria likely to produce a broad range of different narratives. First, we included groups from East and West Germany, since they imply distinct political socialisation contexts and significantly different levels of religiosity. Second, we included groups whose members predominantly recruit from both rural and urban areas, which are known to be linked to different political leanings and exposure to immigrants. Third, we sampled the demography to include younger and older respondents and different genders. Finally, we sampled different types of organisational backgrounds, in particular political parties and activist groups.

The total sample included 24 individuals (two female) in five groups, three of which were all male, varying in size between four and ten individuals. Age (21–75 years) and socioeconomic status varied considerably across as well as within groups. Three groups were recruited from members of local chapters of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a new right party with notable electoral success in the past decade, presently being the largest opposition party in the German parliament. One group consisted of members of a local chapter of the Identitarian Movement, a youth movement that is active in many European countries and is described as being part of the global ‘alt-right’ (for example, Virchow, 2015). The fifth group consisted of members of the German Pegida movement (see earlier) (Dostal, 2015). All interviews were conducted between November 2017 and March 2018, lasted approximately two hours, and were conducted at a time and place determined by the groups.

While we sought to instigate the discussions, which were structured by the participants, our main goal was to stimulate self-sustaining debates (Przyborski and Wohlrab-Sahr, 2009: 106f). Therefore, we prepared a brief interview guideline that started with an open and general stimulus question on what ‘religion’ meant to the group. More specific questions on Islam, Christianity and other religions were introduced only when the groups brought up these issues. All group interviews were fully transcribed and then analysed.

Analysis

To analyse our data, we combined concepts from existing theory and research with the documentary method (Bohnsack, 2010). This approach proposes to distinguish between the subjective sense of ‘what’ individuals introduce as their own theories about the world from ‘how’ they produce their social reality collectively through more latent and taken-for-granted knowledge. To reconstruct this latter ‘documentary meaning’, we focused on instances of notable metaphorical and interactive density – that is, on text rich in metaphors and exchanges between group members – to reconstruct recurring patterns of collective knowledge (Bohnsack, 2010: 102ff). In line with this, we conceive of our interviews as collective efforts of self-presentation and self-understanding that provide insights into unambiguous, taken-for-granted views as well as into the contested and debated perspectives.

Based on the literature reviewed above, we used the following sensitising concepts to guide our inductive analysis. First, we used the concept of boundary work to sensitise interpretations of narratives involving distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Lamont and Molnár, 2002). Second, we paid attention to statements invoking religion, either as a substantial or functional category. Third, we paid close attention to instances that directly or indirectly referred to emotions. We looked for specific emotion words, prototypical emotional narratives (Kleres, 2011) and affective registers (Berg et al, 2019). Fourth, the introduced prototypical narrative structure of fear proved a valuable guideline for our analysis. Fear results from the belief that a valued good is threatened and likely to be harmed and that this harm is largely beyond one’s control.

Fear of Islamisation among the new right

When activists of the new right talked about religion and cultural differences as important cleavages in contemporary societies, articulations of fear became evident along three major categories that emerged from our data: self and collective identity, Muslims as a threat to valued goods, and loss of control. Very generally, it is noteworthy that although our stimulus question and re-inquiries were geared towards religion, the group discussions very quickly centred on general issues of culture and cultural difference. This is an important finding in itself, suggesting that our respondents’ understanding of religion is less geared towards spiritual and transcendental elements, but more towards cultural practices, beliefs and values. We decided to arrange our results according to the most important categories that emerged from our analysis, and not as determined by the different groups we interviewed. We point out the group context wherever it becomes important.

Collective identity: antidote to existential insecurity

References to a collective identity as a valued good were common across all groups we interviewed and were intricately linked to articulations of fear and religion. Although the specific semantics of the collective We differed across groups, they retained a ‘true people’-based connotation, which entailed political and cultural references.

Respondents described this We as consisting of liberal as well as cultural and historically anchored political subjects belonging to a national body. They considered themselves liberal in that they emphasised their status as citizens of the democratic and liberal polity of the Federal Republic of Germany. The liberal outlook was, in this sense, defined by the description of corresponding political ideas such as the rule of law or democratic principles, but also by way of citizenship. This is illustrated, for example, by Armin,2 a member of an East German chapter of the AfD. When their group discussed what it means ‘to be German’, he produced the Grundgesetz (German Constitutional Law) from his pocket, called it “our Bible” and read the paragraph regulating German citizenship, closing with the words:

Armin: ‘And with this I own every discussion ... if you now say ... “Well, that’s what it says on paper, that’s not worth anything, and I have other views.” Well, then we are on different worlds. This here is the much-pictured German. Basta. Unity.’

The legitimacy and validity of the constitutional law seems undeniable for this respondent and defines a categorial rationale of belonging: those who hold German citizenship belong to the political community; those who act against or argue outside of its scope, do not belong – they are incompatible with the collective We.

What also becomes apparent here is the materiality of the affective dimension of collective identity. The political community and its ideology are not just abstract ideas, but they can be touched and felt through the pages of a book. The materiality of the book thus lends credibility to liberal constitutionalism and delimits the boundary of a legitimate debate on political belonging.

Aside from the historically grown legal and liberal norms of political self-understanding, we found a range of cultural references in respondents’ self-conceptions that are deemed important conditions for political community. This is illustrated by two quotes from members of the Identitarian Movement:

Nils: ‘Identity is giving meaning to the meaningless. Now, we are born, we are thrown into the world, and, no idea – that in itself is absurd. What helps is a kind of narrative, a narrative in which I can place myself. And identities are stories for me. I have the history of the German, whatever, European history, Christian history … It’s a narrative in which I have the freedom to place myself.’

Denis: ‘[Our organisation is about] national pride. That’s what many people say. [...] But I find that [...] falls a little bit short. Yeah, I’m referring to myself, and I’m putting some more effort into it. [...] But, there you cannot necessarily talk of pride, but more of love of one’s homeland or country, I think.’

On the one hand, these examples reflect the idea that the individual subject (‘thrown into the world’) becomes aware that simply being in the world requires a meaningful narrative (‘identity as narrative’) to make sense of this world. These are historically anchored narratives of the nation, of European heritage, and includes Christianity. On the other hand, and although this collective dimension was mostly embraced by our respondents, it was also looked at reflexively, further qualified by an element of choice and liberal thought, rooted in individual traits and preferences, as becomes evident in ‘the freedom to place oneself’.

Importantly, religion in conjunction with national identity becomes an antidote to existential insecurity. Being ‘thrown into the world’ bears strong connotations of a lack of agency, uncertainty and insecurity, and national identities that include religious heritage act as a remedy against these feelings. This also becomes evident in the reference to ‘love’ (of one’s homeland), which trumps feelings of ‘pride’ often mentioned in connection with national identity.

Taken together, narratives of voluntary choice, such as those embodied in references to German Constitutional Law, and narratives emphasising the lack of agency without belongingness, such as those referring to a communitarian national heritage, were roughly balanced in the groups. Moreover, respondents frequently acknowledged the historical variation and emotional ambivalence of the social formations that provide collective identity, as this quote from a member of the Identitarian Movement illustrates:

Denis: So, this is what we are always accused of: yes, national pride. But that’s much more complex with us, [...] it’s, so to speak, like an onion: you have the family, you have the local community, you have different regional dialects. For me there is no such thing as this is a genuinely German culture, [the] Germans, for me there is no such thing. [...] Then of course there is the national, we definitely have our own history, the language, but also Europe.

To summarise, collective identity and the collective We are constructed as a ‘loved’ and valued good that acts as an antidote to existential insecurities; it is narrated as an anchor to which respondents hold fast when reflecting about the social world. The collective We provides security in a world portrayed as increasingly complex and uncertain. This We consists of categorical boundaries in terms of political-liberal and legal norms, primarily defined by citizenship and German Constitutional Law. The boundaries and fear-repelling attributes of the collective We, however, become fuzzier and ambivalent when constructed with regard to cultural ideas and practices pertaining to the nation, to Europe, or Christianity. We interpret these inconsistences as an outcome of more encompassing processes of modernisation and social change – in particular, individualisation – which also render subjects’ emotional lives as less determined by traditions and tightly integrated social groups, but instead by individual choice, identity work and self-care (for example, Salmela and von Scheve, 2017).

Muslim immigrants as a threat: from cultural difference to power relations

In addition to the valued collective We, a second major reference for fear were threats to specific domains of social life. In the interviews, we found that these threats emanate from the trope of the ‘foreign’, which is constructed as a danger to the collective We through a wide array of ascriptions. From these, we have singled out two basic dimensions, ‘cultural difference’ and ‘being outnumbered’, which are the building blocks of the five domains of social life perceived to be threatened.

Cultural difference in our interviews typically implied an understanding of culture as primarily defined by religious beliefs and practices. Contrary to respondents’ descriptions of the collective We, culture in this context is not considered fuzzy and malleable, but rather a fixed quality of groups. In constructing cultural difference, interviewees semantically homogenised their own group and the Other: the collective We now appeared as a homogeneous, spatial and cultural entity that is challenged by immigrants. This challenge arises from the idea that immigrants are ‘carriers’ of cultural practices that are not only different, but in fact incompatible with the autochthonous culture.

The belief in cultural differences and incompatibilities surfaced through various categories, but was ultimately represented in the image of Islam. Throughout the interviews, categories of alterity, nationality and ethnicity emerged, as was evident in uses of words like ‘foreigners’, ‘migrants’, ‘Turks’, ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’. However, all these signifiers were used more or less synonymously for being Muslim. In addition, gender was a crucial category to exemplify differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’. In a more general sense, these references and rhetorical strategies mirror contemporary neo-racist discourse, in which difference is mainly constructed along the category of ‘culture’ (Balibar, 1991).

The second key dimension, ‘being outnumbered’, is closely linked to cultural differences and incompatibilities, but focuses more on assumptions about population dynamics and presumed changes in power relations. Cultural difference is widely considered problematic, but only tends to become a significant threat when combined with changes in the relations between the cultural majority and minorities. This reflects scholarship on multiculturalism arguing that many cleavages surrounding immigration are related to ideas and conceptions of minority-majority relations (Kylicka, 1995).

These two dimensions are the building blocks of the five key domains of social life that are considered to be under threat – and thus fear inducing – by what respondents broadly described as the process of Islamisation: demography, liberal democratic order, public majority culture, security and welfare.

Demography

In the interviews, the topic of demographic change combined accounts of cultural difference and incompatibility with the idea of being outnumbered. Immigration and birth rate statistics are key to this imaginary. One notion of demographic change centres on (forced) migration and related policies. In this respect, the increasing numbers of refugees since 2015 and the lively debates over immigration policies across Europe were key reference points for interviewees’ perceptions of changes in cultural minority-majority relations. In 2015, the number of asylum seekers in Germany peaked at approximately 890,000 individuals3 and continued to be at elevated levels until 2019. The interviewed groups unanimously described this time as a period of ‘open borders’, ‘mass migration’, and ‘refugee waves’, which were believed to lead to an overall shift in the power balance between cultural groups. Harald and Elisabeth, both members of Pegida, articulated these concerns, providing a good example of how Islam becomes a signifier for complex population dynamics:

Harald: ‘And the other thing are the sheer masses, because of the opening of the borders, or the keeping open of the borders, one has to say, they had already been open before [the refugee crisis in 2015], and one just didn’t close them. According to the principle: we can’t do anything about it, what are we supposed to do? And that is the increase in Muslims here. And at some point, it will be the sheer masses. [...] Nobody claimed that Islamisation is coming abruptly, overnight. It comes stepwise, through a shift in the power balance. And this is my fear.’

Elisabeth: ‘It has been for years. Taking ever more room.’

A further perspective on changes to demography and power relations hinges on birth rates. In this narrative, gender relations become crucial. Across the interviewed groups, participants constructed cultural difference along a line implying that Muslim women would show notably higher birth rates than autochthonous women, and that this will, in the long run, lead to a shift in minority-majority relations and a reversal of political power. This becomes evident in a quote from Denis and Nils, members of the Identitarian Movement:

Denis: ‘Well, we have about 80 million inhabitants. 70 [...] So about 60 million are now so genuinely German, and 20 million are just immigrants. We have a fertility rate of 0.2 for German women born between 1974 and 1992, while Muslim women have an average fertility rate of 3.1 for women born between that year and 1992. This means that this is already being tipped over in many large German cities – so in Frankfurt [am Main] I think this is already the case, so there are already over 50 per cent migrants – and, if you look at the demographic change today, then we have a much higher mortality rate and we have even more immigration by refugees. So, and if we continue to calculate that, if it stays that way, and those are the nice figures now, then I think we will be from 2040, ... a little later perhaps, ... A little later perhaps, we are definitely a minority in our own country. And that will always go on like this. And the 0 to 15-year-olds, we’ve been the minority for a long time.’

Nils: ‘Yes, uh [...] so in any case something will change.’

This dialogue illustrates the rhetoric of cultural homogenisation that was present throughout the interviews. Importantly, it also points at contradictions among interviewees’ imaginations of identity. For example, Denis used interchangeable references for the Other: “immigrants” became “ Muslim women” which then turned into “ refugees”. Whereas Denis in a former quote opposed the idea of fixed identities; he constructed difference by the opposing categories of “genuinely German” with those of “immigrants”. A presumed higher reproductive activity among Muslims would, in the long run, reverse majority-minority relations, making “Germans” a “minority in our own country”.

Regardless of these inconsistencies and contradictions, the presumed population dynamics and changes in power relations were unanimously perceived as threats to the collective We. Fear in this regard can be further defined with respect to the perceived coping potential and the assumption of ‘fixed’ identities. Whereas the topic of immigration was characterised by a critique of extant immigration policies and the principled possibility to change these policies, the issue of birth rates, its implied population dynamics and the inertia of ‘foreign’ identities lacked such a potential. Since fear hinges on perceived coping potential, the topic of demographic change and its connotation of powerlessness are likely to amplify many of the other threatened goods we discuss in the following sections.

Liberal democratic order

The imagination of demographic change goes hand-in-hand with various specific threats to the collective We. One of these is the narrative about the political and legal order of the valued We that is under threat. Constructing this threat, respondents repeatedly essentialised Islam by arguing that its ‘ultimate interpretation’ – as a member of the southern chapter of the AfD put it – lacks any concept of the separation of religion and the state. Along the same lines, respondents quoted surahs from the Quran and constructed theological hypotheses: for instance, that the ‘separation between politics and religion never took place’ because of the historical absence of ‘enlightenment in Muslim societies’. Respondents also invoked the notion that Sharia is supposed to be ‘incompatible with the German Constitutional Law’.

Again, the notion of ‘being outnumbered’ is essential in this narrative: all groups escalated this political conflict to an actual threat through the idea that, in the long run and through ‘demographic change’, Islam would overthrow the liberal democratic order to install an Islamic caliphate. All groups argued that only a specific concept or interpretation of Islam renders this scenario plausible. Accordingly, Muslims should submit to the prevailing liberal democratic order as long as they are a minority. Once they constitute a majority, however, they are obliged by divine law to establish an Islamic order. From this standpoint, respondents constantly denied Islam the status of a religion that is subject to many lived concepts and change, but rather characterised it as a ‘political ideology’, effectively thwarting integration and the amenability of Muslims to democracy. Fear of Islamisation is thus not only rooted in the appraisal of cultural difference and a belief in changing power relations, but likewise specified by imaginations of the political incompatibility between Islam and the liberal democratic order.

Public majority culture

Islam is further seen as conflicting with what interviewees describe as the ‘German Leitkultur’:4 the German way of life. It is important to note that even though this notion of threat refers to everyday practices, all groups qualified the perceived incompatibility of German and Muslim practices by a distinction between the private and the public spheres. Referring to the principles of liberalism, respondents repeatedly affirmed that religious practices ‘are a private matter’ and should not become an object of indignation as long as they remain compatible with legal norms. However, everyday Muslim practices become an issue once they extend to the public sphere and disrupt citizens’ presumed ‘peaceful’ communal lives. In this respect, Muslim practices were perceived as intentional acts of disregard and misrecognition of the public.

Interviewees frequently expressed secular sensibilities towards different aspects of Muslim practices that become visible in public. Gender, again, is a key reference in our interviews. Respondents argued that Islam promotes a ‘sexist culture’ that is directly opposed to ‘German’ gender norms, which in their essence are assumed to embody gender equality. Headscarves or modest clothing, for example, were seen as important indicators of these cultural differences. Likewise, mosques and minarets were perceived as a means for Muslims to show off their emerging cultural power.

The notion of ‘being outnumbered’ was an important part of these narratives of conflict over the public sphere. The interviewed groups saw considerable changes in minority-majority power relations by referring to, for example, ‘parallel societies’ in the city of Berlin where ‘one does not feel at home any more’. An example from an interview with a West German chapter of the AfD illustrates how feelings of cultural alienation and ‘becoming a minority’ are expressed. Here, the threat stems from perceived changing food practices in public schools:

Gerhard: ‘The problem starts when you start to affect society with your faith in such a way that you restrict the rights of others, and we have to see where Islam does that. [...] In our city, for example, there are no more pork dishes in the schools, except at the Protestant school. [...] Now, you could ... at least make [and offer] a pork meal, but you have to know that a kitchen, in Islamic teaching, is impure if even one pork meal is prepared there. [...] And that is why it must be so that everyone, including Christians or non-believers or whatever non-Muslims, all receive a pork-free diet.’

In sum, a culturally diverse public sphere – that is, a public sphere in which certain Muslim practices become visible or are accounted for – becomes appalling for our respondents, posing a threat to their cultural sensibilities regarding gender, religion or food. In other words, a culturally diverse We seems impossible to grasp and recognise for our respondents because it lacks the capability to establish communal bonds and disintegrates the political community.

Security

The interviewed groups also frequently articulated fears related to bodily wellbeing, both in individual and collective regard. Interviewees were quick to interpret gender as a marker of cultural difference: in their view, a ‘sexist culture’ and, more specifically, ideas of ‘masculinities’ of male Muslim immigrants promote crime and Islamist terrorism. The notion of ‘being outnumbered’ in this narrative was not only made salient by respondents referring to anecdotal evidence and personal experiences, but also by referring to what they described as ‘official statistics’.

Two strategies were most prevalent: the groups referred to crime statistics, either to demonstrate a presumed increase in overall crime rates (especially since 2015) or to indicate higher (relative) crime rates among immigrants and refugees compared with the native population. This is illustrated by one member of the Identitarian Movement:

Chris: ‘Of course, when you say something like that [...] you don’t mean everyone. But there are certain trends in a particular collective that simply show something to that effect. Of course, not all refugees are rapists and murderers, terrorists, whatever. But it is astonishing that when such cases come to light, that they are very often refugees, that this group is simply disproportionately present among the perpetrators. And at some point, you can no longer deny that. This has nothing to do with hate or racism when you talk about facts. Facts can’t be racist!’

The belief that members of a specific social category are ‘disproportionately’ represented among criminal offenders and terrorists renders them a particularly salient threat to individual and collective wellbeing. This is particularly true when respondents established links between Muslim immigrants and terrorism, since the very nature of terrorism is to induce fear (Bauman, 2006). Likewise, research on the securitisation of asylum suggests that the characterisation of immigrants and asylum seekers as threats to security is likely to induce fear (for example, Hansson Malmlöf, 2016).

Welfare

Finally, respondents were also keen to articulate fears in relation to social and economic welfare. Members of the interviewed groups mutually confirmed their views that immigrants and asylum seekers are better provided for by the state in terms of social security than ‘the Germans’ are. Immigrants and asylum seekers are supposed to ‘drain’ the welfare state or deprive the native population of jobs and resources. Gerd, a member of the West German AfD chapter, provides an example:

Gerd: ‘I believe that the social system that we have here could perhaps serve as an example to other parts of the world; if we allow too many people to enter this country, it will simply collapse and then we will no longer be able to make the contribution that we are making today to support other countries, and we no longer have the exemplary function that we could perhaps still offer.’ 

This quote shows how both cultural difference and group relations become essential for the threat narrative: Gerd imagines immigrants not as members of the workforce contributing to economic welfare, but considers them exclusively as beneficiaries of the welfare state.

Threats from within and losing control

The image of Islamisation is finally bolstered by another fear-inducing pattern of meaning making: the uncontrollability of the threat(s). Fear to a large extent rests on the appraisal that a threat cannot be averted or its consequences coped with. Research on boundary work argues that the identification of the Other always implies a specific self-characterisation. Hence, while the interviewed groups drew cultural boundaries through political, religious, cultural, gender-related and economic narratives, they implicitly recounted the We as being liberal, secular, democratic, economically productive, and so on. However, besides these implicit positive self-references, members of the interviewed groups also discussed a range of undesirable qualities of the collective We. We summarise these interpretations under the label threats from within.

Islamisation as an ‘external’ force becomes unmanageable and irreversible, in particular when constructing the collective We as a political and cultural minority. The We in these narratives becomes a ‘hollow’ and ‘rotten’ entity: the delusional and ignorant ‘welcoming and humanistic do-good culture’, which, because of its ‘lack of national pride’, is not willing to stop the ‘torrent’ of Muslim immigrants. A member of the Identitarian Movement summarises this criticism:

Andreas: ‘[...] About Islam [and the threat] ... there is [the publicist] Stocker, [...] who has written: he sees the threat of the West not in the headscarf, but in the sweatpants.’

[all laugh]

Andreas: ‘And, hey, of course I [as a devout Catholic] have more intersections with a devout Muslim than with the, the selfish egoist, uh, oh in Prenzlauer Berg [a bohemian Berlin district], if that’s where they live.’

[all laugh]

Andreas: ‘[Our] criticism of Islam, of course, refers first and foremost to what we have here at the moment, the negative consequences of Islam.’

Although Islam was clearly imbued with negative attributes in our interviews, a second important ‘threat to the West’ came from within the interviewees’ own cultural community. ‘Sweatpants’ in the above quote stands for many issues the groups complained about, which amounts to a perceived devaluation of desirable virtues, rendering the collective We weak and vulnerable: wearing sweatpants here is associated with a withdrawal from the public, with laziness, consumerism, hedonism and unproductivity – characteristics that are met with blatant contempt from many of our respondents. Put differently: how can a “country [in sweatpants] serve as an example to other parts of the world?”, to quote the respondent in the above paragraph. In stark contrast to the many devaluations, respondents also acknowledged a range of desirable, and in fact admirable, traits among Muslims, which they lamented was lacking in their collective We, such as national pride, family values, solidarity and a strong group consciousness. From this perspective, the groups saw themselves as a minority that still upheld traditions and pride vis-à-vis a majority that celebrated cultural diversity and at the same time disdained its own culture.

The idea of losing control further gains momentum in a second regard: although interviewees marshalled a general criticism against their co-nationals, the perceived weakening of the political community was at the same time attributed to a range of ‘elites’, as is usually found in populist ideologies. Interviewees were quick to blame political parties, ‘mainstream’ media and ‘cultural elites’ for this lack of control. In this respect, the narrative of fear was closely linked to other emotions, such as anger, contempt and resentment. The groups accused these institutions and their social milieus of refraining from controlling any of the above-mentioned threats. Moreover, they accused elites of strategically promoting Islamisation. Gender becomes an important category to express the perceived corroboration of the collective We, as the following quote from a member of Pegida indicates:

Gunnar: ‘And here, for a long time now, a policy has been pursued that has led, already led, to the fact that the people who create value do not multiply so much. By that I mean the destruction of families –’

Heinz: ‘Yes.’

Gunnar: ‘– through gendering, through feminisation of men here as well.’

[Heinz laughs]

Gunnar:’ It’s a certain kind of development here. Softening of the men’s world.’

In this quote, different fear-inducing patterns intersect: the birth rate of a valued in-group is deemed too low compared with other groups. Whereas this idea implies narratives about cultural difference and being outnumbered, Gunnar argued that this is intentionally so. The comparably lower birth rates of the in-group are a political strategy, steered by feminist policies and men who are ‘softened’ or ‘feminised’. In sum, our interviewees turned cultural differences pertaining to Muslims into unavoidable threats to the collective We and their majority status, because no policies are in place that would prevent further immigration and declining birth rates of the in-group. These narratives also reveal a striking contradiction between the perception of Muslims as a threat to Western culture and the acknowledgement of and admiration for their principles of national pride, family values, solidarity and traditional gender roles. This speaks to a constellation in which fear is closely intermingled with feelings of envy. Although the respondents hardly ever articulated this emotion, envy typically signals that one desires certain goods and qualities that another party possesses, coupled with the desire that the other party loses these qualities. This component of spite, malice and ill-will that is integral to envy can be easily reconciled with feelings of fear, as is the case, for example, in ressentiment, which has been argued to be a characteristic emotion of the new right (Salmela and von Scheve, 2017).

Conclusion

The recent success of new right movements and parties across European societies has spurred a range of research looking at the emotional underpinnings of this success. Most of this research has either looked at individual-level emotional determinants of electoral behaviour and movement participation from a demand-side perspective, or at emotions in new right political discourse from a supply-side perspective. What is lacking, in particular in the European context, is a systematic understanding of the way emotions such as fear work as cultural narratives for the new right, and the manner in which supporters and voters of the new right make sense of pertinent cleavages with regards to emotions. Using group interviews, we therefore investigated the emotional narratives of supporters of new right parties and movements in Germany, focusing on religion as a particularly prominent cleavage, and on fear as an emotion known to play a decisive role in demand- and supply-side explanations of new right support.

Based on research of the cognitive antecedents of fear, our analysis capitalised on valued goods, perceived threats to these goods, and assessments of one’s coping potential. Our results show, first, that although religion was primed as the main topic of the conversations using adequate stimulus questions, the narratives predominantly revolved around issues of language, politics, history, language and cultural practices, which indicates a salient understanding of religion as a cultural and political, rather than a ‘spiritual’ and ‘transcendental’ phenomenon. Second, our analysis shows that that narratives involving fear frequently pertain to the idea of a valued collective We that consists of political and cultural elements, and serves as a reference point to collective identity and an antidote to existential insecurities. The political elements of this We include ideas of liberal democracy and of the rule of law, whereas cultural elements refer to national heritage, Christianity, language, practices and cultural traditions. The collective We is mostly imbued with positive emotions (for example, love) and is widely perceived as an anchor of identity in a world perceived as increasingly complex and uncertain. It consists of unambiguous categorical boundaries in terms of political-liberal and legal norms, which are primarily defined by citizenship and constitutional law. These boundaries become fuzzy when constructed with regard to cultural ideas and practices pertaining to the nation, to Europe or Christianity.

Third, our analysis shows that a further reference point of fear are threats to specific domains of social life deemed valuable. These threats are rooted in perceptions of cultural difference and the idea of being outnumbered by Others. Specifically, we find that the current demographic composition of society is suspected to change as a consequence of immigration and purportedly higher birth rates among immigrants compared with the native population. This contributes to the fear-inducing appraisal that the liberal democratic order is under pressure and will possibly be overthrown by a caliphate. Being outnumbered by Others further threatens an ideal image of respondents’ beloved majority culture that is essential to the collective We; it pressures public security and social welfare, all of which were articulated as matters of concern.

Although not every single enunciation framed Islam or Muslims as the responsible agents threating these valued goods, the patterns of interaction in our group discussions do suggest that ‘Muslim culture’ is, in essence, incompatible with these goods. Ascribed reproductive activity, orthodox religiosity, gender inequalities, violence and economic unproductivity are typical traits circumscribing the anti-modern, which is why the narratives fit well within the discourse of Orientalism. However, we also found instances where these traits were appreciated, even envied, and seen as characteristics lacking in the collective We. This also becomes evident in our further finding, namely threats from within the collective We and the perceived loss of control concerning cultural diversity and population dynamics. The perceived threat of Muslims becomes even more fear inducing when respondents categorise themselves as a cultural minority within a multiculturalist majority that has given up on traditional cultural virtues and instead engages in planned ‘Islamisation’.

Generally, it is striking that fear in the group discussions was notably rationalised. Contrary to widely held belief, our respondents hardly ever engaged in affectively charged or strongly emotionalised discourse in terms of a particular populist style (Diefenbach, 2022). Rather, fear followed an almost textbook-like constellation: respondents articulated beliefs which were seen as impeding their aims, goals and desires, coupled with the impression of a limited control potential. Clearly, many of the ideas the respondents articulated are false by any standards or at least questionable. This, however, does not undermine their role as a basis for collective emotions among supporters of the new right. Furthermore, overarching narratives of fear are accompanied by a range of other emotions revolving around contradictory or ambivalent stances: for example, contempt, envy and admiration with respect to the fear of losing control.

The present study contributes to a better understanding of the emotional underpinnings of the success of the new right. In particular, from a demand-side perspective where research has capitalised on theoretical arguments and survey research, our study gives a systematic reconstruction on the narrative elements of fear among the new right. Our study also suggests that political interventions aimed at offsetting illiberal, racist and extremist tendencies on the new right need to address and revise the belief structures underlying the various fears we described, rather than exclusively focusing on emotional styles and rhetoric.

Notes

1

Corresponding author.

2

All names used are aliases.

4

The German term Leitkultur means ‘dominant culture’ and is frequently used in debates about immigration, carrying both descriptive and deontic normative implications.

Funding

Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) within the Collaborative Research Center (CRC 1171 Affective Societies).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Salmela, M. and von Scheve, C. (2017) Emotional roots of right-wing political populism, Social Information, 56(4): 567-95.

  • Salzborn, S. (2016) Renaissance of the new right in Germany? A discussion of new right elements in German right-wing extremism today, German Politics and Society, 34(2): 3663.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Turner, J.H. and Stets, J.E. (2005) The Sociology of Emotions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Virchow, F. (2015) The Identitarian Movement: what kind of identity? Is it a real movement?, in P.A. Simpson and H. Druxes (eds) Digital Media Strategies of the Far Right in Europe and the United States, Lanham: Lexington, pp 17790.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wodak, R. (2015) The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean, London: Sage.

  • Woods, R. (2007) Germany’s New Right as Culture and Politics, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Zúquete, J.P. (2017) Populism and religion, in C.R. Kaltwasser, P. Taggart, P.O. Espejo and P. Ostiguy (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Populism, New York: Oxford University Press, pp 44566.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Asad, T. (2007) On Suicide Bombing, New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Balibar, E. (1991) Is there a ‘Neo-racism’?, in E. Balibar and I. Wallerstein (eds) Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, London: Verso, pp 1728.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bauman, Z. (2001) The Individualized Society, Cambridge: Polity.

  • Bauman, Z. (2006) Liquid Fear, Cambridge: Polity.

  • Berg, A.L., von Scheve, C., Ural, N.Y. and Walter-Jochum, R. (2019) Reading for affect - a methodological proposal for analyzing affective dynamics in discourse, in A. Kahl (ed) Analyzing Affective Societies - Methods and Methodologies, London: Routledge, pp. 45-62.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Berntzen, L.E. (2020) Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism: The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century, London: Routledge.

  • Betz, H.G. (2020) The emotional underpinnings of radical right populist mobilization: explaining the protracted success of radical right-wing populist parties, CARR Research Insight, London: Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Block, E. and Negrine, R. (2017) The populist communication style: toward a critical framework, International Journal of Communication, 11: 17897. 

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bohnsack, R. (2010) Documentary method and group discussions, in R. Bohnsack, N. Pfaff and W. Weller (eds) Qualitative Analysis and Documentary Method in International Educational Research, Opladen/Farmington Hills, MI: Barbara Budrich Publishers, pp 99124.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Breeze, R. (2019) Emotion in politics: affective-discursive practices in UKIP and Labour, Discourse & Society, 30(1): 2443.

  • Brubaker, R. (2017) Between nationalism and civilizationism: the European populist moment in comparative perspective, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 40(8): 1191226.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cramer, K.J. (2016) The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DeHanas, D.N. and Shterin, M. (2018) Religion and the rise of populism, Religion, State and Society, 46(3): 17785.

  • Dehne, M. (2016) Soziologie der Angst: Konzeptionelle Grundlagen, soziale Bedingungen und empirische Analysen [Sociology of fear: conceptional foundations, social conditions and empirical analyses], Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Diefenbach, A. (2022) Zur rationalisierten Affektpolitik der “Islamisierung” am Beispiel rechtsextremer Basisaktivisten [On the rationalised politics of affect of “islamisation”. Examples from grassroot activists from the far-right], Soziale Welt, forthcoming.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dostal, J.M. (2015) The pegida movement and German political culture: is right-wing populism here to stay?, The Political Quarterly, 86(4): 52331.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ekström, M., Patrona, M. and Thornborrow, J. (2018) Right-wing populism and the dynamics of style: a Discourse-analytic perspective on mediated political performances, Palgrave Communications, 4(1): 111.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Frey, J.H. and Fontana, A. (1991) The group interview in social research, The Social Science Journal, 28(2): 17587.

  • Hansson Malmlöf, V. (2016) Fear: a risk that must be taken into account: the securitization of asylum seekers and refugees in Sweden, http://urn.kb.se/resolve?urn=urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-311165.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hochschild, A.R. (2016) Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, New York: The New Press.

  • Ivarsflaten, E. (2008) What unites Right-wing populists in Western Europe? Re-examining grievance mobilization models in seven successful cases, Comparative Political Studies, 41(1): 323.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jansen, R.S. (2011) Populist mobilization: a new theoretical approach to populism, Sociological Theory, 29(2): 7596.

  • Kleres, J. (2011) Emotions and narrative analysis: a methodological approach, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 41(2): 182202.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kylicka, W. (1995) Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights, London: Clarendon.

  • Lamont, M. and Molnár, V. (2002) The study of boundaries across the social sciences, Annual Review of Sociology, 28(1): 16795.

  • Leininger, A. and Meijers, M.J. (2021) Do populist parties increase voter turnout? Evidence from over 40 years of electoral history in 31 European democracies, Political Studies, 69(3): 66585.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Marzouki, D., McDonnell and Roy, O. (eds) (2016) Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion, London: Hurst.

  • McKeever, A. (2020) Immigration Policy and Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe, London: Palgrave.

  • Minkenberg, M. (1992) The new right in Germany: the transformation of conservatism and the extreme right, European Journal of Political Research, 22(1): 5581.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mols, F. and Jetten, J. (2020) Understanding support for populist radical right parties: toward a model that captures both demand- and supply-side factors, Frontiers in Communication, 5: 557561. 

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Muno, W. and Stockemer, D. (2021) A model for right-wing populist electoral success?, Populism, 4(1): 2556.

  • Palaver, W. (2019) Populism and religion: on the politics of fear, Dialog, 58(1): 2229.

  • Przyborski, A. and Wohlrab-Sahr, M. (2009) Qualitative Sozialforschung: Ein Arbeitsbuch [Qualitative social research: a workbook],  München: Oldenbourg.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Roy, O. (2016) Beyond populism: the conservative right, the courts, the churches and the concept of a Christian Europe, in N. Marzouki, D. McDonnell and O. Roy (eds) Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion, London: Hurst, pp 185202.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ruiz-Junco, N. (2013) Feeling social movements: theoretical contributions to social movement research on emotions, Sociological Compass, 7(1): 4554.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Salmela, M. and von Scheve, C. (2017) Emotional roots of right-wing political populism, Social Information, 56(4): 567-95.

  • Salzborn, S. (2016) Renaissance of the new right in Germany? A discussion of new right elements in German right-wing extremism today, German Politics and Society, 34(2): 3663.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Turner, J.H. and Stets, J.E. (2005) The Sociology of Emotions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Virchow, F. (2015) The Identitarian Movement: what kind of identity? Is it a real movement?, in P.A. Simpson and H. Druxes (eds) Digital Media Strategies of the Far Right in Europe and the United States, Lanham: Lexington, pp 17790.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wodak, R. (2015) The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean, London: Sage.

  • Woods, R. (2007) Germany’s New Right as Culture and Politics, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Zúquete, J.P. (2017) Populism and religion, in C.R. Kaltwasser, P. Taggart, P.O. Espejo and P. Ostiguy (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Populism, New York: Oxford University Press, pp 44566.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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