Why Geert Wilders is a problem, not a solution
HIS big bleach-blond mane was unmistakable, but this time his mouth, the biggest in Dutch politics, stayed shut. Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-immigrant Freedom Party, is on trial for incitement to hatred and discrimination against Muslims. But when he appeared before judges in Amsterdam on October 4th, this champion of free speech declined to speak.
The court heard some of Mr Wilders’s greatest hits: “the Koran is the ‘Mein Kampf’ of a religion that intends to eliminate others” (2007); “Islam wants to control, subdue and is out for the destruction of our Western civilisation” (2008); a Koran stripped of its hateful verses, “should actually have the format of a Donald Duck [comic book]” (2007, again). The judges’ questions were comically innocent. Did Mr Wilders really say such things? Was it in the heat of the moment? Had he received legal advice? Did he really need to refer to Donald Duck? Stubborn silence.
Maybe the state should not be in the business of prosecuting politicians for their offensive views. But these are highly charged times in the Netherlands. The threat of murder hangs over the traditionally tolerant country. In 2002 Pim Fortuyn, an earlier anti-immigrant politician, was killed. Two years later so was Theo van Gogh, an anti-Islamist film-maker. Mr Wilders now moves only with a posse of bodyguards, and lives at a secret location.
Even more importantly, he has become the political kingmaker. His party came third in June’s general election, winning 15% of the vote, and will now prop up a minority government of the liberal VVD with the centre-right Christian Democrats. In exchange, Mr Wilders has secured the promise of tighter immigration rules, a ban on some Islamic garb and more money for care of the elderly. Newspapers are calling this the “Wilders 1” government.
Mr Wilders’s party is only one of many anti-immigrant and anti-Islam groups that are gaining ground in northern European countries previously known for their liberal social attitudes. The Dutch coalition deal was copied from Denmark, where the Danish People’s Party has backed a minority government since 2001. In Sweden’s recent election the far-right Sweden Democrats won seats for the first time, denying Fredrik Reinfeldt, the prime minister, a centre-right majority (he is now running a minority government). These parties, all with their own special characteristics, are distinct from older far-right groups such as France’s National Front and Italy’s Northern League, and have still less to do with thuggish movements in eastern Europe. But a common theme is a dislike of foreigners, especially Muslims.
A big question is whether Germany, the European country most inoculated from right-wing extremism, may be next. There have been stirrings of late, such as the sacking from the board of the Bundesbank of Thilo Sarrazin, a former Social Democratic politician, who published a book saying Muslim migrants were making Germany “more stupid”. Enter the inevitable Mr Wilders. He was in Berlin earlier this month to launch a new party called Die Freiheit (“Freedom”), founded by René Stadtkewitz, formerly a member of the Berlin branch of the Christian Democrats. To cheers, Mr Wilders declared that Germans, too, needed to defend their identity against Islamisation.
Mr Wilders should not be underestimated. By identifying the enemy as Islam and not foreigners, and by casting his rhetoric in terms of freedom rather than race, he becomes harder to label as a reactionary, racist or neo-Nazi. Mr Wilders does not want to associate with the fascist sort. He has no truck with anti-Semitism and fervently supports Israel. He is, for want of a better term, a radical liberal: he defends women’s emancipation and gay rights. He is fighting to defend the West’s liberties; the enemy is Islam (not Muslims, he says), which seeks, violently, to destroy them.
Such views chime with some American conservatives. The Washington Times this week called for Mr Wilders’s acquittal. Daniel Pipes, an American scholar and prominent scourge of Islamic radicalism, has called him “the most important European alive today.” Mr Wilders was invited to speak at a rally at New York’s Ground Zero to mark the 2001 September 11th attacks and oppose the construction of a new Islamic centre nearby. Yet Americans (and Europeans) should be wary of embracing Mr Wilders. To expose violent Islamist ideology is legitimate, even necessary; to attack Islam and the Koran is dangerous stupidity that weakens the civilisation Mr Wilders claims to defend.
Defanging the extremes
What should democratic parties do when lots of voters back a far-right party? At a time of recession, populism cannot just be wished away. One answer is to address legitimate grievances about the scale and nature of immigration. (In France Nicolas Sarkozy has, controversially, pinched far-right rhetoric.) Another is to use the law to curb blatant examples of hate speech.
But the temptation for many is to isolate the extremists, perhaps with an alliance of mainstream left and right. That risks intensifying voters’ sense that politicians are not listening to them, further boosting the extremists, but it may be necessary against the most odious groups. Some, like Mr Reinfeldt in Sweden, may try to ignore the far right. More stable would be a Dutch-style deal to secure their backing for a minority government; some Christian Democrats hope this will tame the wilder side of Mr Wilders. The danger is that it just gives him power without responsibility—and without forcing him to recant outrageous positions.
A better, braver strategy, in some cases, might be to bring far-right leaders into the cabinet, exposing their ideas to reality and their personalities to the public gaze. It may make for tetchy government, but it could also moderate the extremes. So roll the dice and make Mr Wilders foreign minister: for how long could he keep telling the world to ban the Koran?
Full article and photo: http://www.economist.com/node/17200240