“Western countries need to defend Western civilization.” Does this rhetoric about defending the West sound familiar? If you are like me, you are reminded of the 2001 Congressional address given by George W. Bush, explaining the contrast between our way of life and the way of life Islamic extremists would have us live, if they succeed in their goal. However, in 2010, this narrative is not coming from George W. Bush. It is a quote from the blog of one of Europe’s brightest political stars and leader of an expanding anti-Islam movement that is propelling right-wing populist parties to the political forefront across Western Europe. This man is Geert Wilders.
Geert Wilders is a Dutch politician who has made it his mission to protect freedom and stop Islam. Using what some might call “hate speech”, Wilders is a populist who opposes the establishment and is making waves in the Dutch parliament. Looking more like an aging rock star than a politician, with charm and elegance in spades, Wilders is the leader of the Freedom Party (PVV) which went from nine parliamentary seats in 2006, to twenty-four in 2010, due in large part to Wilders’s erudition and ability to manipulate fear of Muslim immigration and frustration with the political establishment. Despite their disdain for him, after the Freedom Party’s astonishing gain, the traditional parties have no choice now but to include him in the government.
Wilders speaks of himself as a man who is bold enough to express the sentiment that he believes everyone else is afraid to express: That Muslims are destroying Europe and will continue to do so, and that Europe must fight to protect the West. Openly stating these ideas has currently put Wilders on trial where he could face up to a year in prison. He is charged with five counts of causing religious offense to Muslims. The charges included group defamation, inciting hatred of Muslims and non-western ethnic minorities, and inciting discrimination against Muslims and non-western ethnic minorities. These charges originated from comments made between October 2006 and March 2008 in interviews, newspapers, and on internet forums. Prosecutors say that Wilders described Islam as “the sick ideology of Allah and Muhammad” and its holy book as “the Mein Kampf of a religion that seeks to eliminate others.”
Perhaps the main source of evidence against Wilders is his 2008 short film entitled Fitna. In the film, (which can be seen on You tube) texts from the Qur’an and graphic imagery are used to depict Islam as a brutal, highly aggressive, and rapidly growing force bent on destroying the West. Wilders remains defiant and continues to deny accusations of racism. In a 2010 interview with the BBC News, Wilders claims he has nothing against Muslims, and that he only hates Islam. Although he has been linked to other right-wing politicians such as France’s Marine Le Pen or Austria’s Jörg Haider, he vehemently denies being associated with them or what he calls “their racist propaganda.”
In 2002, Wilders left the MP after the party acknowledged their support for Turkey’s entry into the EU. He branched off to start his own Freedom Party. If he were to gain complete control over the Dutch government, Wilders and his party would enact the following policies:
- Ethnic registration of all Dutch citizens
- A full immigration ban for people from Islamic countries
- No new mosques and the closure of Islamic schools; a ban on burqas and the Qur’an
- A ban on head scarves in all governmental institutions
- The Netherlands will leave the EU if Turkey is permitted to join.
Wilders’s popularity has increased as a result of his trial, as well as from the attention being focused on two fundamental speeches given abroad in the United States and Germany. In the United States, Wilders is fast becoming a right-wing celebrity. Invited by several anti-Islam groups, Wilders has traveled around the United States, receiving awards for his efforts to uphold freedom. It was reported by the Dutch television station Arvo that Wilders gets up to $20,000 to speak.
Wilders attracts enthusiastic Islamophobes, claiming that Europe is facing the same difficulties as the United States in regard to Islam. He proclaims that all must work together to put a stop to the infiltration of Western countries. On September 11, 2010, Wilders gave a speech that solidified his place as leader of the anti-Islam movement. In the speech, which can be watched on his blog, Wilders refers to New York City as an ideal city of freedom, and argues against the highly publicized Ground Zero mosque.
Islam Does Not Belong in Germany
It is not only in his native Netherlands and The United States where Wilders in drawing attention, he recently has caused quite a stir in Germany after being invited to give a speech in Berlin by a man some are calling Wilders’s German counterpart, René Stadtkewitz. On September 10, 2010, René Stadtkewitz announced that after being removed from the Berlin branch of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which he had represented for years, he is now the founder of a new party called “Die Freiheit” (Freedom), directly inspired by Wilders’s Freedom Party. Stadtkewitz considers himself a part of the Counter Jihad Movement which stands in opposition to the Islamization of Western Europe.
The announcement of the Freedom party coming just weeks before the 20th anniversary celebration of German Unification, allowed high ranking members of the German government to weigh in on Stadtkewitz’s new party. President Christian Wulff sparked his own debate when he suggested Germans be more open and tolerant towards each other. “The future belongs to nations that are open to cultural diversity”. He went on to say, “Christianity doubtless belongs in Germany. Judaism belongs doubtless in Germany. That is our Judeo-Christian history. But now, Islam also belongs in Germany.” Angela Merkel called Stadtkewitz comments inflammatory and unhelpful, but encouraged Muslims living in Germany to conform to fundamental “German values.” She went on to emphasize that there is no leeway on this issue.
Perhaps unhelpful to Merkel and her government however, Stadtkewitz is quite useful in promoting Wilders’s agenda. He praises Wilders’s idea of instituting a headscarf tax in the Netherlands, as well as paying quite a hefty sum to bring Wilders to Berlin; somewhere around 12,000€ (about $16,701). He told a Dutch television station, “Islam may also be a religion, but mainly it’s an ideology that opposes everything that matters to us.”
René Stadtkewitz is not the only politician causing an outcry in Germany. Banker, politician, and author Thilo Sarrazin has made more of an impact than his friend Stadtkewitz. Thilo Sarrazin, a controversial politician with the center-left Social Democrats, recently published a book in which he depicts Muslim immigrants as a dangerous threat to Germany. He states in his book, Abolishing Germany- How We’re Putting our Country in Jeopardy, that “Turks and Arabs are making Germany dumber” and ”Muslim immigrants are more fecund.” He continues to say, “in no other religion is the transition to violence and terrorism so fluid.”
Since the publication of his book; the book and Sarrazin himself have become wildly popular. The question of whether or not Germany will now, for the first time in its history, have a right-wing populist party that will act as a catalyst for opposition to Islam, might be answered very soon. To this day, it is the only country in Western Europe that does not have one.
Keep Arab Architecture in the Middle East
In other parts of Europe, the right-wing populist have made great strides in taking slightly more control from the majority governments. In Switzerland, the Swiss People’s Party, the largest party in parliament, led by Christoph Blocher, were able to pass a law banning minarets from being constructed in Switzerland. The ban won with 57% of the vote and twenty-two out of twenty-six cantons (provinces) agreeing. The ban became highly publicized after criticism arose due to a controversial poster, scaring citizens into believing Muslim control was only a matter of time if the ban was not successful, and a video game on the SPP website, where members could shoot down minarets popping up on their familiar landscape.
Supporters of the ban believe minarets represent the growth of an Islamic ideology and legal system (Sharia law). Although the ban passed without a hitch, the Swiss government was fearful and concerned with the image of Switzerland in the Muslim world. The Swiss People Party’s leaders stated “When someone comes to visit Switzerland they don’t want to see Arabic architecture.”
Blocher also denounced a conference on Islam and was unconvinced of the benefits in discussing Islam and integration. Currently there are only 400,000 Muslims living in Switzerland and four minarets. Unlike most other countries, the Swiss Muslim population is made up of immigrants from former Yugoslavia, and have no prior history of extremism.
Not Racist but Nationalist
The line is more clearly drawn in France where Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Le Front National (The National Front) has consistently targeted immigrants from former North African French colonies, since its founding in 1972. Dismissed as racist, old-fashioned, anti-Semitic, and lacking intellect, Le Pen and his party were simply considered angry outsiders. The current face of the National Front, however, is Le Pen’s daughter Marine. She acknowledges her father made provocative statements, but stands by him and believes much of what he predicted has come true.
Le Pen is set to take her father’s place as leader of the National Front early next year. She is charming, often seen smiling and distributing kisses during her campaign appearances throughout Paris. She defines herself as non-dogmatic and an intellectual. According to Le Pen, the National Front is not a racist or xenophobic party, but a patriotic party. “I want to unite all the French”, she says in a Le Monde interview.
The National Front took 9% of the vote in last spring’s French regional elections. Le Pen, while campaigning in the South of France, stated all other parties want to Islamize France and plan to introduce “Sharia law”. In an interview with The Independent, Le Pen stressed that, “We are in a trial of strength between Islam and the secular values of the French Republic–an insidious trial of strength and one that we are losing.” Although her examples of loss are not quite convincing, several swimming pools have allowed ‘women-only’ times for Muslim bathers. Twenty-two Quick Burger restaurants (out of hundreds) now sell only halal meat (meats permitted by the Qu’ran). Some schools have taken pork off of the lunch menu and a few streets are occasionally blocked to allow Muslims to pray in the open air. Not precisely “Sharia Law”.
A major problem for Le Pen is the fact that France is a country where many Muslims are French citizens by birth, which has caused the National Front to change their ‘tune’, shifting from anti-foreigner to anti-Islamic. This change proved effective for the party and Le Pen. The more she raves against the burqa and Islamization, the more of a threat she poses to current French president Nicolas Sarkozy. The angry outsiders have become a focused, less aggressive, and perhaps more dangerous version of its former self.
The National Front is anti-immigration, anti-EU, and anti-globalization. The continuously right-shifting of Nicolas Sarkozy’s politics is a sign that he recognizes Le Pen’s power as well. He has positioned himself as a leader who seeks to preserve France’s national identity. This is clearly directed at Muslims, although recently action has been taken against the Roma, whom he began deporting last month. Even with the expulsion of Roma and the burqa ban, Sarkozy’s popularity continues to slip.
As of July 13, 2010, the burqa is banned in France and Belgium. This includes all public spaces. There is a fine of 150€ (about $208) for female violators. It also imposes steep penalties, including jail time, for men. According to a Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project study, 82% of French citizens approve, while 17% disapprove of the new law. Other countries showed less support: Germany 28%, Britain 32%, Spain 37%, and US 65%.
Politics of Fear, European Style
The right-wing populist parties are having small successes throughout Western Europe. In Denmark, Austria, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Italy, right-wing radicals have been voted into more seats than ever before. Italy’s Northern League was able to acquire their seats by passing out bars of soap to be used “after having touched an immigrant.” There is clearly a growing coalition of right-wing populists parties.
The reality is that these parties are not new. Many have existed for over thirty years. What has propelled them to the headlines is their discovery of what frightens voters and what appeals to them the most. The anger is no longer focused on all foreigners or a specific class; the finger is being pointed directly towards Muslims. One cannot deny the growing visibility of Islam in Europe and seeing this, right-wingers have taken up the cause of defending European values, although freedom of religion seems to be one that populist supporters seem to look over.
It is the politics of fear, European style. The fear that Muslim immigrants could change the face of European society scares the middle of society. The anti-immigration support is not just out of fear of falling under Sharia law, but for some, it is about justice, as Sarrazin mentions in his book; many fear Muslim immigrants are more likely to abuse the system, taking advantage of the social welfare state.
Media coverage of barbaric practices in some Islamic countries has fueled fires. Voters see women forced to wear burqas, gays and lesbians imprisoned and killed, infidelity punished by stoning, all of these things under the pretext of religion, and feel strongly as these practices stand in direct contradiction of modern European values. The terror of waking up to this explains the discomfort and encourages voter support.
A Continent Against Islam
Even supposing these parties are able ascend to power in their respective countries, the only thing which clearly unites them is their concept of Islam as the enemy. Each of these parties has different roots, and shares very few similarities when it comes to policy making. However, their ability to unite under the guise of protecting our way of life will continue to ring in the ears of voters as they head to the polls.
Two weeks into his trial, despite strong opposition from various anti-racist and anti-discrimination organizations, the Dutch public prosecution called for Geert Wilders to be acquitted of all the charges brought against him. Prosecutors Birgit Van Roessel and Paul Velleman decided after careful review of Wilders’s words and after viewing his film, that in fact statements made by Wilders were not directed towards Muslims as people, but towards Islam. Van Roessel and Velleman admit some comments could incite hatred, but only if taken out of context. If the complete test is considered, yes the words may be “hurtful to Muslims and may be met with emotional responses”, but he did not break the law. The verdict will be given November 5th, and it is likely Wilders will emerge without a scratch.
In July, Geert Wilders established the International Freedom Alliance; its mission to “defend freedom” and “stop Islam”. He hopes to spread this movement throughout the world, with focus primarily on Western Europe and the United States. When asked in an interview, which can be seen on the Alliance website, if he was aware of the risk that he is taking, he said calmly, “Yes.” and continued, “I believe we have been too tolerant of the intolerant. We should learn to become intolerant of the intolerant”.
Update from, The Daily Telegraph, November 9th, 2010.
“A Dutch court ruled in favour of a request by Mr Wilders’ defence lawyer to have new trial judges installed after allegations of improper conduct by a member of a judicial appeals panel directly involved in the case.”
For the full article see: Geert Wilders trial faces restart after judges dismissed
Joshua Grant is a freelance writer from New York City living in Paris where he teaches English.