Images of terror in concert arenas, markets and other popular public areas haunt citizens of Europe after the dismal events of the recent weeks in Manchester and London. As popular artists such as Ariana Grande and The Black Eyed Peas belt out hymns of hope in response to these acts of terror, the media ceases to highlight the threat of radical extremism both in Europe and abroad.

According to the Autumn 2016 Standard Eurobarometer Report, Europeans feel that the two greatest issues currently facing the European Union are immigration and terrorism. These concerns top other concerns such as the economic situation and the state of member state public finances by almost double. Simultaneously, a staggering 82% of Europeans report that they want the EU to do more to fight terrorism, with 40% of people believing their country is at high risk of attacks. These strong sentiments towards taking action against terrorism put national governments and the European Union institutions under immense amounts of pressure to assure citizens that their safety is of upmost importance. In response to these concerns, a myriad of measures at the EU level have been implemented since January 2015, including increasing EU funding to fight terrorism, giving increased powers to Europol, calling for new strategies to tackle extremism, and improving upon many measures regarding immigration and travel security.

Despite these efforts, fear still emanates in the hearts of many. Some do not feel that these measures are adequate to address such pressing issues as terrorism and crime – the Soldiers of Odin are one of such groups. Originally formed in Finland in 2015 under the name of the famous Norse God, the Soldiers of Odin are a vigilante group that has seen rapid growth in Europe over the past two years. The group’s mandate: to preserve and defend communities from crime related to immigration. Reportedly created due to concerns involving various sexual assaults and crimes in Helsinki and other European cities during the New Years Holiday of 2016, the group can be linked to an overall dissatisfaction towards the influx of refugees and migrants coming to Europe from countries such as Libya, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, which they believe is linked to an overall decrease in security. While the group itself denies targeting people of specific races or religions, many have accused its members of white supremacy and extremism – the group’s creator being Finnish white supremacist, Mika Ranta.

While the Soldiers of Odin see foreigners as their main threat, the group also appears to hold a large amount of distaste for the internal state of security. Currently, the Soldiers can be found patrolling the streets in over 25 different locations in Europe and beyond, looking for ‘danger’ on the streets. In every location, a strong sentiment of mistrust towards the government and law enforcement system is shared. In an interview conducted by Mail Online in Finland, members expressed their discontent, stating that the Finnish government has “screwed everything up” and that “politicians are allowing migrants to rape our women, and they are doing nothing about it”. The group often pairs this mistrust in government with grandiose claims about migrants’ involvement in the dismantling of safe, respectful communities.

A Movement: From Finland to Beyond.

Facing the facts, there is no doubt that Europe has seen a period of mass migration from those seeking asylum in EU member states. In 2015, EU member states gave protection status to a total of 333,350 asylum-seekers, increasing by 75% from the previous year. Roughly half of those given protection were from Syria. However, compared to member states such as Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Sweden, Finland saw a relatively low number of people entering the country seeking protection. Nonetheless, the anti-immigrant sentiment remains strong in many areas of Finland. There is some evidence to believe that the actual number of migrants entering areas like Finland is less important to groups like the Soldiers of Odin than the symbolic threat that they represent. While crime and terrorism have physical repercussions, and are thus easy to label as the core threat, underlying these incidents, an ideological threat emanates. It is clear that the Soldiers of Odin do not see the influx of migrants solely as a threat to security; rather, they see this influx as an existential threat to their way of life.

This phenomenon can equally be observed outside of the borders of the European Union. The Soldiers of Odin have gained considerable traction in Canada and the United States even without a comparable mass influx of immigration as experienced in Europe. In a report from the Anti-defamation League, it is argued that the mere prospect of increasing immigration has been enough to fuel membership in the U.S. chapters. A symbolic dichotomy between true ‘Americans’ and invasive ‘foreigners’ appears to be key to this movement. The group’s website, plastered with the catchphrase, “ready to take your country back?” describes the Soldiers of Odin U.S.A as “defenders of our culture,” emphasizing their role as vigilantes against foreign influence.

As well, similar to European chapters, crime and terrorism in the face of a complacent and irresponsible government is at the core of the American Soldiers of Odin movement. They argue that higher authorities exhibit an overall “lack of concern” for controlling immigration and respecting the integrity of American communities. In addition, they state that they hope to “work with local authorities” to be “their eyes and ears for the areas they cannot see,” implying that the current police enforcement system is lacking in some respect.

‘Making Communities Safer’: Propagating Political Illusions.

Reflecting upon the Soldiers of Odin movement: many have cautioned against the group’s potential connections to neo-Nazism, fascism, white supremacy, nativism and extreme nationalism. While these aspects of the group are certainly problematic and deserve attention, an underdeveloped criticism of the group lies in its general tendency to propagate sentiments of mistrust and fear around inflated – or sometimes completely illusionary – political realities.

The Soldiers of Odin patrol the streets to make “safer” communities in lieu of police presence; however, it has been argued that the opposite is the reality. Police in many of the areas occupied by the Soldiers have noted that the group’s patrols have not aided in stopping crime. Rather, the group actually adds to the level of insecurity in the regions that they occupy, as police resources are needed to monitor the group’s activities, which are often found to be connected to hate speech. Violence also appears to be embedded in this movement. This past April, a large fight broke out on Toronto’s streets between the Soldiers of Odin and anti-racism protestors – an incident that required roughly 40 police to arrive on the scene. Similar incidents have been witnessed across Canada. Meanwhile, reports show that many of the members of the Soldiers have criminal backgrounds and histories of violence. Just recently, the group’s leader, Mika Ranta, received multiple penalties and an 18 month suspended sentence for assault.

These instances of violence are ironic considering that the group initially formed in Finland due to parallel concerns involving migrants in Helsinki. In the book, Migration, Terrorism, and the Future of a Divided Europe, author Christopher Deliso notes that while the number of attacks committed by migrants was actually relatively low in Finland, the Soldiers of Odin were still able to turn into an international franchise due to the uncertainty created by the migrant crisis. Using this uncertainty as fuel for their movement, the group attempts to take the law into their own hands and, in doing so, further propagates mistrust and anxiety, channeling these sentiments towards certain groups of people and the political establishment.

Combatting Illusions: A Job for European Citizens?

The Soldiers of Odin are but one example of the impact that fear-mongering and finger-pointing can have on people’s beliefs and, ultimately, their actions. Riding the wave of xenophobia created by the crisis, the tendency towards dichotomizing people into ‘us’ and ‘the other’ categories has become a powerful form of rhetoric. Similarly, populist parties have capitalized on this rhetoric to garner support in many parts of Europe. Populism, which can be defined as the division of society into two homogenous groups – the ‘pure’ people and the ‘corrupt’ elite – has found its way into many party’s anti-establishment platforms. Populist party leaders, claiming to be ‘true’ representatives of the people against the unsympathetic, self-serving politicians in Brussels and other national governments has dominated much of the recent political discourse in Europe, as well as the United States with the election of Donald Trump.

The question then becomes: in a time where the political scene is so uncertain, how can the European Union institutions regain people’s trust and prevent the escalation of xenophobia and finger-pointing? To this question, there is no simple answer. In a recent Facebook Live interview on migration, employment and terrorism with European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, he argued that the future of the European Union “depends on us and what we are willing to construct.” Noting that many citizens feel “discontented” in terms of being protected by the European Union, he emphasized Europe’s role in “protecting our interest, our history, our culture, and, thanks to our identity, to open our doors to those who want to follow our rules and come to work in Europe.”

With reports on the threat of terrorism frequenting our television screens, social media and newspapers, European citizens as a whole will play a role in combatting xenophobia and mass institutional mistrust moving forward. While criticism can be – and should be – made of policy regarding migration and terrorism prevention, attention should be paid to not propagate overly inflated or false political realities. The Soldiers of Odin are not the first vigilante group in Europe to have taken an anti-immigration, anti-establishment stance and they will likely not be the last. The presence of this vigilantism represents the development of internal mistrust in the European system. Highlighted by Jean-Claude Juncker’s White Paper, the future of Europe will ultimately depend on how European’s respond to pressing issues such as security, trust, legitimacy, and migration. A dialogue ridden with finger-pointing and hate speech will only hinder the possibility for coordination on this front.

Hayley Stauffer

Sources:

The Telegraph on the London Terrorist Attack: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/05/london-bridge-attack-latest-gunshots-heard-police-launch-fresh/

Eurobarometer Reports from Eurostat: http://ec.europa.eu/COMMFrontOffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/Survey/getSurveyDetail/instruments/STANDARD/surveyKy/2137

European Parliament on Terrorism:

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/external/html/europe-and-terrorism/default_en.html

Anti-defamation League Report on the Soldiers of Odin:

https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/combating-hate/Soldiers-of-Odin-USA-Report-web.pdf

Daily Mail on the Soldiers of Odin:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3426685/Nazi-daggers-SS-hats-hangman-s-noose-night-patrol-Soldiers-Odin-neo-Nazi-led-vigilantes-vowing-Europe-s-women-safe-migrant-sex-attacks.html

Sitra Report on Migration Flows in Finland:

https://media.sitra.fi/2017/02/24031812/From_fragmentation_to_integration.pdf

Eurostat Press Release on Migration:

http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/2995521/7233417/3-20042016-AP-EN.pdf/34c4f5af-eb93-4ecd-984c-577a5271c8c5

Reuters on the Soldiers of Odin:

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-finland-idUSKCN0UR20G20160113

Reuters on the Arrest of Mika Ranta:

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-vigilantes-sentence-idUSKCN0Y92M4

CBC on Violence in Toronto:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/violence-breaks-out-as-protesters-clash-in-nathan-phillips-square-1.4051336

On the Rise of the Soldiers of Odin:

Deliso, Chris. Migration Terrorism, and the Future of a Divided Europe: A Continent Transformed. ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2017

Definition of Populism:

Mudde, Cas. Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

European Parliament Facebook Page, interview with Antonio Tajani:

https://www.facebook.com/pg/europeanparliament/posts/?ref=page_internal

Juncker’s White Paper on the Future of Europe:

https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/white_paper_on_the_future_of_europe_en.pdf