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Mainstreaming the Extreme: the British Media and Far Right Islamophobia

Whether through propagating theories about ‘Eurabia’ or the Great Replacement, mainstream publications have helped radicalise public opinion, says Julian Petley

Photo: Alamy

Mainstreaming the ExtremeThe British Media & Far Right Islamophobia

Whether through propagating theories about ‘Eurabia’ or the Great Replacement, mainstream publications have helped radicalise public opinion, says Julian Petley

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According to draft extracts of the Prevent review leaked to the Guardian, the government’s counter-terrorism programme has been too heavily focused on right-wing extremism and insufficiently concerned with Islamist extremism.

The leaked documents claim that “there has been a ‘double standard’ approach to tackling different forms of extremism, with individuals targeted for expressing mainstream right-wing views because the definition of neo-nazism has expanded too widely, while the focus on Islamist extremism has been too narrow”. They also argue that it has taken a view on right-wing terror which has been “so broad it has included mildly controversial or provocative forms of mainstream, right-wing-leaning commentary that have no meaningful connection to terrorism or radicalisation”.

But as Sir Peter Fahy, the former police lead for Prevent, asked: “How are the police supposed to judge what is mainstream?” As he explained,  the police are concerned primarily with the likelihood of people being drawn into violence, not whether their views are mainstream. 

Given that the review is being undertaken by William Shawcross, whose antipathy to Islam hardly needs stressing, such sentiments are entirely unsurprising. They also need to be seen in the context of the growing assault on the numerous critics of Prevent. This is being spearheaded by Policy Exchange, of which Shawcross is a senior fellow, whose recent report Delegitimising Counter-Terrorism insists that “the biggest terrorist threat still emanates from Islamist, not far-right, extremism” and that “Muslim individuals who may present a security risk are being under-represented in referrals, given that Islamist terrorism is by far the greatest security threat”.

This is despite of the fact that in July 2021, Ken McCallum, the director-general of MI5, warned that extreme right-wing terror accounted for one in five of all counter-terror investigations, a threat that had ‘grown and morphed quite substantially over the last five to ten years. A particular problem he identified was the ‘high prevalence’ of teenagers in right-wing terror investigations, which he suggested was because youngsters were being swept up in a ‘toxic ideology’ of ‘online extremists and echo chambers’. 

As Nafeez Ahmed has already pinpointed the report’s authors’ own imbrication in elements of the far-right, I want here to argue that much “right-leaning commentary” in sections of the national press in Britain goes far beyond the “mildly controversial or provocative” and has long been a key conduit by means of which the idea of “Islamisation”, long associated with far-right extremism, has been enabled to enter mainstream political discourse.

As the then UK Counter Terrorism Policing Lead, Neil Basu, pointed out in an open letter in March 2019:

“The reality is that every terrorist we have dealt with has sought inspiration from the propaganda of others, and when they can’t find it on Facebook, YouTube, Telegram or Twitter they only have to turn on the TV, read the paper or go to one of a myriad of mainstream media websites struggling to compete with those platforms.”

However, in order fully to understand how such ideas have entered the mainstream, we first need to make a brief detour into history.

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As is abundantly clear from the “manifestos” of mass murderers such as Anders Breivik, Patrick Crusius, Peyton Gendron and Brenton Tarrant, the perpetrators of the majority of far-right terrorist attacks on people of colour, and particularly Muslims and those who support them, have all seen themselves as foot soldiers in the war against “Islamisation”, whose latest guise is the “Great Replacement”.

This was actually the title of the manifesto of the Christchurch mass murderer, Brenton Tarrant. This notion was popularised by the philosopher Renaud Camus in Le Grand Remplacement (2012), which warns against the Islamisation of Europe and strongly influenced both Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, the latter warning of mass immigration in Le Suicide Francais (2014). 

In The Strange Death of Europe (2017) it was cited by Douglas Murray, who warned that “Europe is committing suicide. Or at least its leaders have decided to commit suicide … As a result, by the end of the lifespans of most people currently alive Europe will not be Europe and the peoples of Europe will have lost the only place in the world we had to call home”.

There is in fact nothing essentially new in such ideas, which date back at least as far as the Reconquista – the centuries-long process in which the Christian Iberian kingdoms opposed and conquered the Muslim kingdoms. Much more recently, President de Gaulle argued in 1959 that it was better to grant Algeria independence than to offer Algerians full French citizenship, as that would turn France into an “Islamic country”, famously declaring that “my village would no longer be called Colombey-les-Deux Eglises but Colombey-les-Deux Mosquées”.

Also worth noting is Jean Raspail’s 1973 novel Le Camp des Saints, in which France is overthrown by Indian refugees. Significantly, this became a best-seller in 2011, is much admired by Steve Bannon and Donald Trump and is discussed at length by Murray in The Strange Death of Europe.

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In 1993, during the Muslim genocide in the Balkans, the Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic told the journalist Paul Koring that “the Islamic world does not have the atomic bomb, but it has the demographic bomb”, and in the same year the Serbian academic Darko Tanaskovich, in an article headlined “Europe Will Not Avoid the Demographic Jihad”, warned in a Serbian newspaper of “an economic, diplomatic, and especially a demographic jihad”. Nor were such sentiments limited to Serbia. For example, in America Alone (2006), Mark Steyn, who had by then been a regular columnist for the Telegraph for several years, appeared to suggest that genocide was an understandable reaction to demographic change, stating that: 

In a democratic age, you can’t buck demography except through civil war. The Serbs figured that out as other Continentals will in the years ahead: if you can’t outbreed the enemy, cull ‘em. The problem that Europe faces is that Bosnia’s demographic profile is now the model for the entire continent.

In this respect, it is surely highly significant that Tarrant live-streamed the Christchurch assault to the backdrop of Serbian nationalist music, including a piece which glorified the Bosnian Serb nationalist leader, Radovan Karadzic.

The notion of ‘Islamisation’ informs in one way or another books such as Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), Patrick Buchanan’s The Death of the West (2002), Melanie Phillips’s Londonistan (2006), Michael Gove’s Celsius 7/7 (2006) and Norman Podhoretz’s World War IV (2007). And in the first decade of the new millennium, the idea of “Eurabia” became fashionable in anti-Islamic circles. One of its most prominent early exponents was the journalist and author Oriana Fallaci, who attacked what she called “Islamofascism” in The Rage and the Pride (2002) and The Force of Reason (2004). In an interview published by the Wall Street Journal on 23 June 2005 she stated that “Europe is no longer Europe, it is ‘Eurabia’, a colony of Islam, where the Islamic invasion does not proceed only in a physical sense, but also in a mental and cultural sense”.


However, the notion of Eurabia found its fullest expression in Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis (2005) by Bat Ye-or (Hebrew for ‘Daughter of the Nile’), the pseudonym of an Egyptian-born Jewish woman, Gisèle Litmann, who fled Cairo for Britain after Suez and now lives in Switzerland.

This advances the truly bizarre thesis that Eurabia was a deliberate political project whose roots lie in the European Community’s establishment, during the 1973 oil crisis, of the Euro-Arab Dialogue (EAD). This was intended to forge closer political, cultural and economic links between Europe and the Arab world, but to Ye’or, however, this was the sinister means whereby European politicians and civil servants willingly laid the groundwork for the subjugation of Europe and its irreversible transformation into Eurabia.

Through EAD, European media, universities and schools were converted into channels for Arab propaganda and historical disinformation that exalted the Islamic contribution to European civilisation and negated Europe’s Judeo-Christian heritage. The process allegedly begun by EAD continued with EU initiatives such as the Euro-Mediterranean Foundation on the Dialogue of Cultures and Civilizations established by the European Commission in March 2002, and, in Ye’or’s view, the results are clearly evident in Europe’s “resurgent anti-Americanism”, “Judeophobia” and, most of all, in the “cult” of “Palestinianism” which “poisons Europe”

The Eurabia thesis has been aptly described by Matt Carr in the journal Race and Class as “flat-out barking gibberish, which falls somewhere between hyper-Zionist propaganda, crude conspiracy theory and delirious fantasy”. Yet the notion rapidly percolated through to sections of the British press.

For example, the historian Niall Ferguson referred to Bat Ye’or in an article entitled ‘Decline and Fall of the Christian Empire’ in The Sunday Times, 11 April 2004. This concerned Europe’s “demographic decline” and warned that “a youthful Muslim society to the south and east of the Mediterranean is poised to colonise a senescent Europe to the north and west”.

Likewise, in a Mail article on 4 November 2005 about the urban disturbances in France, headed ‘Ghettoes, Race Riots and the Lessons for Us All’, Melanie Phillips cited Bat Ye’or to back up her claim about “the erosion of national identities across Europe”, and similarly in the Telegraph, 8 November 2005, Steyn referred to the disturbances as “an early skirmish in the Eurabian civil war”. 


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The Great Replacement

Exactly the same process of percolation and propagation can be observed in the case of the Great Replacement theory.

This is the subject of much of the sixth chapter of Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe (once promoted, incidentally, by Viktor Orbán on his Facebook page). As Peter Oborne has pointed out, “the inexorable rise of Douglas Murray tells us a great deal about public discourse in Britain. Twenty years ago he would be on the far-right fringes”, but now he has become one of our most notable “public intellectuals”’: associate editor of The Spectator, a frequent contributor to the Mail, Telegraph, Mail and The Times, a regular figure on BBC political programmes, and from 2011 to 2018, associate director of the Henry Jackson Society. 

The “theory” is only infrequently cited explicitly in Murray’s myriad articles for British publications, but it deeply informs virtually everything that he has written about Muslims and Islam. To take but one of numerous possible examples: in an article on the 2011 census in the Mail, 11 December 2012, he argues that, for the first time, “less than 90 per cent of the country is white, while the population is increasing in size at an unprecedented rate as a result of immigration”. In his view, this has “dramatically changed the cultural make-up of this country” and “spells the end of our unified national way of life”.  

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The “theory” also underlies Zemmour’s remarks in a softball interview with him in The Spectator, 27 November 2021, in which he states that “immigration is war. They want to invade our European countries”  and goes on rage that “it is by destroying our cultures, our history, that they [the “woke”] make a clean sweep of all that and allow a foreign culture, history and civilisation to come and replace it”. And even though it isn’t named, the Great Replacement idea absolutely dominates the diatribe by Lionel Shriver against immigration in The Spectator, 28 August 2021, in which she draws on statistics in two highly questionable reports by Migration Watch to warn that “the country’s original inhabitants” risk “becoming a minority in the UK”, a situation that she describes as “socially and even biologically unnatural”.

Not for nothing has Otto English described Shriver as “Tommy Robinson with a thesaurus”, and as Kenan Malik pointed out in the Guardian, 5 September 2021, what she is essentially arguing here is that for Britain to remain Britain, it must remain predominantly white. 

‘National Cultural Sabotage

That such ideas, once confined to the far-right fringes, now appear in a publication such as The Spectator is less a sign that they have become mainstream and more an indication that “right-wing-leaning commentary”, to use Shawcross’s phrase, now includes, in certain publications, views which are in fact very far from mainstream, even on the Right. 

In this respect, it is instructive, as well as profoundly disturbing, to note that in his 1,500-page “manifesto”, A European Declaration of Independence, Anders Breivik, the perpetrator of the Norwegian massacre on 22 July 2011, repeatedly referenced articles in British right-wing newspapers. He also reproduced two in their entirety, one from the Mail by Melanie Phillips and the other from the Telegraph by Philip Johnston and Robert Winnett. 

The former, from 29 October 2009, is a jeremiad against what Phillips claimed was Labour’s immigration policy, and it takes up a full three pages of the manifesto.  Given that Breivik “justified” his massacre of young Norwegian Labour Party members on the grounds that their party’s immigration policies and support for multiculturalism had opened the door to the “Islamisation” of Norway, it isn’t exactly difficult to see what appealed to him in this typically overwrought and apocalyptic tirade, which accuses Labour’s immigration policy of being nothing less than “an act of unalloyed treachery to the entire nation” and “a deliberate and secret policy of national cultural sabotage”.

Very much in the same vein as Bat Ye’Or, Phillips claims that Labour’s aim was to “destroy Britain’s identity and transform it into a multicultural society where British attributes would have no greater status than any other country’s”. 

Warped Perceptions – and Their Consequences

Of course, all of the British journalists quoted in this article would vehemently deny that they were deliberately trying to incite racial violence – but that is not what is implied here. However, what it has shown – by quoting from a very small selection of myriad possible examples – is that there is a considerable overlap between ideas which appear in sections of the British press and those which animate far-right extremists, including, at worst, street fighters, and, at the very worst, actual terrorists.

As Jonathan Portes has argued: “Intellectual, political and street-level bigotry are inseparable, both in theory and practice”. The sentiments of Enoch Powell, which frequently found house room in right-wing British newspapers, were, for all the fancy language in which they were expressed, not significantly different from that of the National Front in the late 1960s.

Similarly, the regular columns on racial matters by Roger Scruton that appeared in The Times columnist, Telegraph, Mail and Spectator from the 1980s onwards found very distinct echoes in the propaganda of first the British National Party and then the English Defence League, and helped to give them a degree of ‘intellectual’ legitimacy those who made such claims”. And the same spectrum exists today between, on the one hand, those who use the pages of mainstream publications to claim, for example, that “immigration is war” and “the native-born are effectively surrendering their territory”, and, on the other, the street fighters of Britain First.  

If readers of supposedly reputable publications are told incessantly, year after year, that Muslim immigrants are overrunning their county and destroying its national identity, and if they believe this and then use social media to spread far and wide these highly inaccurate and inflammatory assertions, this simply cannot be without consequences.

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At best, these publications contribute significantly to a process whereby people’s perceptions of social reality become seriously warped – at worst, such perceptions may lead them to take violent action against those they hold responsible for what Phillips calls “national cultural sabotage”. Such articles do indeed play a significant role in the process whereby people come to over-estimate grossly the numbers of Muslims living in the UK: research by Ipsos in 2016 showed the perceived figure to be 15% whereas the actual figure is 4.8%. They also lead to people to over-estimate the numbers of those living in the UK who were not actually born here:  research by Ipsos MORI in 2014 put the perceived figure at 31%, whereas the official estimate is around 13%. Furthermore, the report noted that “newspaper readership is much more likely to be significantly related to concern about immigration, after controlling for other demographic differences, than any other issue measured (including health services, defence/terrorism, education and crime”. Because of this, the report concluded that the accuracy and balance of newspaper coverage “needs careful scrutiny”.

“Mainstream Right-Wing Views” and the Extreme Centre

This scrutiny is most certainly not going to cpme from the supine and utterly compromised IPSO, since it has repeatedly made clear that it applies Clause 12 of the Editors’ Code, which relates to discrimination, only to individuals making complaints about language directed specifically at them, and that it will not entertain complaints about the use of inflammatory language about categories of people, such as Muslims.

Former IPSO Chair Sir Alan Moses was taken apart by the Home Affairs Select Committee when he revealed to general incredulity and derision that in a year in which IPSO received 8,148 complaints under Clause 12, it upheld precisely one. 

Indeed, given its woeful record in failing to uphold complaints about the frequently extreme comments and opinions expressed by the pundits of the right-wing press, samples of which have been quoted here, it’s very difficult to avoid the conclusion that IPSO shares exactly the same view as Shawcross about “mainstream right-wing views” and “mildly controversial or provocative forms of mainstream, right-wing-leaning commentary”.

However, if the sentiments expressed by the journalists quoted in this article really are now “mainstream”, the fulcrum of political debate in this country has shifted even further to the right than when Tariq Ali wrote The Extreme Centre: A Warning in 2015. And that is extremely troubling. 

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