Photo by Jacco de Boer
The elections to the European Parliament in June 2009 were the first chance many Europeans had to express any kind of democratic opinion during the worst financial meltdown since the 1930s. Less than half bothered to do so. Of those who did, some chose to vote for parties that had nothing to say about the meltdown at all and thought there should be no European Parliament anyway.
Among the oddest and nastiest of these was the personal creation of ‘Captain Peroxide’, one Geert Wilders, in the Netherlands. First elected as a city councillor in Utrecht, then as a member of parliament for the conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy in 1998, Wilders quit the party on the issue of Turkish accession to the European Union and set up his own Groep Wilders – later renamed the Party for Freedom – in 2004. It gained nine seats in the 2006 parliamentary elections and notched up 17 per cent of the vote in the 2009 European elections, coming in a close second behind the Christian Democrats of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende. In the tangle of Dutch coalition politics, speculation mounted that Wilders might soon become Prime Minister, on the back of just one policy – Islamophobia and its discontents.
Or, to be fair, perhaps two. After all, Wilders, born in 1963 to a Catholic family on the southern Dutch border with Germany, did acquire some certificates by way of training as a health insurance clerk. So the Party for Freedom wants a good health service for the elderly too, despite proposing huge cuts in public expenditure.
However, Wilders owes his fame entirely to his brash Islamophobia, his contempt for the ‘sharia-socialists’ who, he believes, submit to militant Islam in the name of ‘cultural relativism’. Self-promoting populist that he is, he knows when he’s on to a good thing – and the importance of focus. So he just keeps banging away, like this:
‘All throughout Europe a new reality is rising: entire Muslim neighbourhoods where very few indigenous people reside or are even seen... The shops have signs you and I cannot read... These are Muslim neighbourhoods, and they are mushrooming in every city across Europe. These are the building-blocks for territorial control of increasingly larger portions of Europe, street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood.’
Or this: ‘Now [it] is clear why Winston Churchill... compared the Qur’an to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf... Now [it] is clear why Heinrich Himmler was an admirer of Islam. And now [it] is clear why President Obama, who said in Cairo that Islam has a tradition of tolerance, should be sent back to school. Islam is a threat to the Europe of Bach and Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Socrates, Voltaire and Galileo.’
And, doubtless, ‘Mozart’ as well – another Wilders nickname, in recognition of his hairdo. Pursued by death threats and prosecutions, Wilders has been under Salman Rushdie-style state protection for several years. For a while he was barred from entering Britain to promote his propaganda film Fitna (‘Strife’ or ‘Ordeal’ in Arabic) and his recent attempt to visit Turkey has also been rebuffed. But, thus far at least, the more attention he gets, the more popular he becomes in the Netherlands.
On policy detail he happily skates over thin ice. When he demanded the banning of the burqa, it turned out that just 50 women in the Netherlands would be affected. The Qur’an, he says, should be banned along with Mein Kampf – and the Dutch law that bans it. Cod statistics are quoted to prove that ‘mass immigration, demographic developments and Islamization are certainly partly causes of Europe’s steadily increasing impoverishment and decay’.
He’s much more at ease with his unqualified admiration for Israel, a country he journeyed to as a young man ‘for the girls’ – he couldn’t afford to get to Australia – and has revisited more than 40 times since. He praises Israel as the ‘canary in the mineshaft’ of advancing militant Islam, and claims it is this that distinguishes him from the likes of the British National Party or the National Front in France. Wilders says publicly he will have nothing to do with them.
Likening Islam to the Nazis has a special resonance in a country they occupied. Wilders has made a perverse use of it. He admonishes Muslims: ‘If you... start thinking and acting like jihad or sharia, we will expel you.’ ‘Mass’ immigration halted, ‘militant’ mosques demolished, ‘administrative detention’ (as in Israel) enforced; ‘the cultural dominance of the Christian, Jewish and humanist traditions’ written into the Dutch constitution: Wilders aspires to give Muslims the starring role in the lexicon of hate.
Perhaps, for all the country’s post-War liberal reputation, there is here an earlier resonance altogether: with racist Dutch colonialism in Southeast Asia, and in Indonesia particularly – which is, of course, the world’s most populous Muslim country. ‘It’s not a clash of civilizations,’ Wilders reiterates, ‘it’s a clash between barbarity and reason.’ That’s what they always say, not least to people who are ignorant of both history and the Qur’an.
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