In the 1980s I was a leading member of the racist National Front. Catholicism brought me out of the darkness – it can do the same for Europe

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These are troubling times. Europe is apparently on the verge of meltdown. Unable to withstand the heat caused by the growing friction between the European Union and its member states, especially as the former tries to force an open-door immigration policy on its member nations, there are fears that the melting pot might be melting. Such fears have been exacerbated by the rise of the new right, or what many would call the far right, in Europe.

In Austria, the Freedom Party’s candidate, Norbert Hofer, won the first round of Austria’s presidential election last month. In the second round run-off on Sunday, he will go head-to-head with an independent candidate aligned to the Green Party. Ominously, this is the first presidential election since World War II in which the two main parties failed to qualify for the presidential run-off, their candidates coming fourth and fifth in the poll.

Hofer’s victory follows in the wake of his party’s success in last year’s local elections in which the Freedom Party gained 30 per cent of the vote in Upper Austria, largely due to its stance against immigration.

In Bulgaria, the current prime minister, Boyko Borissov, has adopted a hardline stance on immigration. In Slovakia, the anti-immigration People’s Party did well in this year’s election, winning 14 parliamentary seats, the first time any of its members has ever been elected. In Sweden, the Swedish Democrats, a party similar in tone to Ukip, more than doubled its number of seats between 2010 in 2014. Now the third largest party in Sweden, it is anti-immigration, as well as being critical of the EU.

In Finland, the Finns Party (previously the True Finns) came second in last year’s general election. Party leader Timo Soini is Finnish foreign minister in a coalition government. The party advocates strict immigration controls and argues that Finns, not migrants, should take priority for social and healthcare spending. Its roots lie in rural Finland and it has championed welfare policies that give it a populist dimension.

The wave of Middle Eastern immigration into Europe has massively boosted support for the Danish People’s Party (DPP). In the 2014 European Parliament election the DPP came top, doubling its representation. In the 2015 general election the DPP received 21 per cent of the vote, becoming the second largest party in the Danish parliament, with 37 MPs, up 15.

It is now in government in coalition with the conservative-liberal Venstre party. The coalition has carried out a radical tightening of Danish immigration and asylum laws, which are now probably the strictest in the EU, except for Hungary, which, under populist conservative prime minister Viktor Orbán, has taken the singularly radical step of erecting a great fence round the whole country. Orbán also fuelled controversy and touched a historically sensitive nerve by alluding to Hungary’s historic role bulwarking Europe against the forces of Islam.

In Poland, the Law and Justice party achieved surprise victories in the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections, largely due to the EU’s callous mishandling of the migrant crisis and the threat this was perceived to pose to Poland’s control of its own borders and society. Tellingly, support for Law and Justice, and other similar parties, is coming mostly from young people. Polls showed that two thirds of students who voted in the parliamentary elections in October had cast their vote for parties with markedly Eurosceptic and anti-immigration policies.

Closer to home, the Front National (FN) in France has grown in popularity since its leader, Marine Le Pen, distanced herself publicly from her more uncompromising father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the FN’s previous leader. The FN won 6.8 million votes in regional elections in 2015 – its largest ever score. It was only stopped from taking control of its two target regions after the Socialists pulled out and urged supporters to back Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservatives.

In 2014 the FN won the French European Parliament election. Marine Le Pen is now considered a serious contender in the 2017 presidential election. Needless to say, immigration and Islamist terrorism such as the Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks have boosted support for the FN.

In Germany, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has adopted an anti-immigration stance since Frauke Petry took over as leader of this Eurosceptic party in July 2015. Petry’s victory led to several prominent members leaving, claiming that the party had lurched to the right. They have polled very well in state elections in 2015 and also in this year’s elections. This year they came second in the Saxony-Anhalt elections.

AfD MEPs initially sat with the Danish People’s Party and Britain’s Tories in the European Parliament but recently have aligned themselves with the Austrian Freedom Party. At its party congress this month the AfD adopted an explicitly anti-Islamic position, calling for a ban on burkas, minarets and calls to prayer under the slogan “Islam is not a part of Germany”. Members cheered when Hans-Thomas Tillschneider told the congress: “Islam is foreign to us and for that reason it cannot invoke the principle of religious freedom to the same degree as Christianity”. Few would seek to argue that the rise of AfD is part of the fallout from Angela Merkel’s migration policy.

In a way, I could claim to have a more keen sense than most people of the way things are going in Europe. As an angry and disaffected youth back in the 1970s and 1980s, long before my subsequent change of heart and conversion to Catholicism, I had been a leading member of the National Front, which would later metamorphose into the British National Party. I was a member of the National Front’s executive council and its national directorate and was chairman of its youth movement, the Young National Front. I was sentenced to prison twice, in 1982 and 1985, for “publishing material likely to incite racial hatred”, an offence under the Race Relations Act. One of my closest friends was Nick Griffin, later to become notorious as the leader of the BNP. I was best man at his wedding and co-edited a magazine with him. Perhaps, therefore, it could be suggested that I might have a sense of déjà vu as I observe the turbulent times in which we live. In some ways I do. The similarities are striking. And yet in many ways, and perhaps in the most important ways, things are very different today.

Racism is always evil, as is any other manifestation of hatred towards our neighbours or our enemies. Christians can never espouse racism, nor can they support with a clear conscience parties that advocate racism. It is, however, unfair to suggest that anyone who is concerned about the Islamisation of Europe or about the endemic corruption and overarching imperialism of the European Union is either a racist or a xenophobe. Such language is the sort of thoughtless knee-jerk reaction that is the death of rational discourse.

Furthermore, it is the sort of demonising and stereotyping of opponents of which the racists are themselves guilty. Against such dumbing-down of the real nature of the problem, I would argue, with Benedict XVI among others, that there are three mutually incompatible and inimical forces at work in the international arena: secular globalism, radical Islam and Christian orthodoxy. As Pope Benedict highlighted in his prophetic Regensburg address, the clash between these forces is at the troubled heart of our darkening world.

This struggle for the heart of Europe was encapsulated by a young priest, Fr Jacek Międlar, at an Independence Day rally in Warsaw in November. Considering efforts by the European Union to force Poland to accept large-scale Islamic immigration, he likened the EU’s coercion of the Polish people to the oppression of the Soviet occupation.

“Dearly beloved,” he said, “we’re not afraid of the peaceful Muslims, but they’re a minority. We’re afraid of fundamentalism. We do not want violence, we do not want aggression in the name of Allah … We must oppose it. We do not want the hatred that is in the Koran, in Surah 5 [expressed for Jews and Christians], but we want the love and truth of the Gospel. We want to fight with the sword of love and truth, to which St Paul the Apostle calls us in the sixth chapter [of the Epistle] to the Ephesians [6:14-17]. The Gospel, and not the Koran!”

“The Gospel,” the thousands in the crowd roared again and again. “And not the Koran!”

Fr Międlar continued: “Leftist and Islamic aggression aimed at everything Christian and national makes us very afraid. But we’re also afraid that our fear will turn into hatred. And we, as Christians, cannot let this happen. That’s why we, the Christians, want dialogue. But no one wants to talk to us, instead calling us fascists, racists, xenophobes, and infidel dogs. We can never allow this [succumbing to hatred]. We don’t want to fight with the hammer of hate they want to push in our hands … We want to fight with the sword of truth. With the sword of love! With the sword of the Gospel! With the Sword that is Jesus Christ, our living Lord and Saviour.”

Fr Międlar is a controversial figure in Poland. His congregation, the Vincentians, banned him last month from public speaking because of his links to extremist nationalist groups. But though many of us are unaccustomed to such stridency, especially on the part of the clergy, and though many of us might baulk at the crusading language, the words of this priest are nonetheless a challenge for us all. In a world of rising secular fundamentalism and rampant Islamic fundamentalism, what are we, as Christians, called to do? Do we say and do nothing? Wouldn’t such inertia and inaction in the face of the forces of evil and their destructive consequences constitute a mortal sin of omission? Might it not be mortal, not only to the individual soul who refuses to resist the evil, but mortal also to the culture he is called to defend? Isn’t a refusal to resist the culture of death itself deadly? Do we have the right to do nothing?

One is reminded of the famous line (who said it is uncertain) that all that is needed for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Racism is an evil which must be fought, but so is the secularist imperialism of the European Union. So, too, is the rise of Islamist violence in Europe. Such evils must be fought with the love of God and the goodness of His Gospel and not with the tools of hatred that the Devil delivers to those he calls his own. This is the real challenge: to fight evil without succumbing to evil in doing so.

If we pursue the noble goal in such a noble manner, dare we hope for a restoration of a “Europe of the Nations”, and perhaps, by the grace of God, a resurrection of the Europe of the Faith? Perhaps this is merely the nurturing of a wild and quixotic whim. An impossible dream. Perhaps it is. Yet even an impossible dream is preferable to the all-too-possible nightmare that we are currently facing. And as for the impossible, let’s remember that all things are possible with God.

Joseph Pearce is director of the Centre for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee (aquinascenter.com). His autobiography, Race with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love, is published by Saint Benedict Press.

This article first appeared in the May 20 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.