Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1336, (16 - 22 March 2017)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1336, (16 - 22 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Islam foil in European politics

The rise of right wing parties and politicians in Europe has been greatly spurred by prejudice against Islam and Muslims in general

People shout slogans during a protest in front of the Dutch Consulate in Istanbul (photo: Reuters)
People shout slogans during a protest in front of the Dutch Consulate in Istanbul (photo: Reuters)

“The truth is: Islam does not belong to us. It brings violence and danger everywhere. We need to de-Islamise and close our borders,” says Geert Wilders, the Dutch anti-Islam, anti-immigration, anti-EU politician and leader of the Dutch far-right Party for Freedom (PVV).

Wilders, with his core slogan, “Make Netherlands ours again,” is on course to achieve his best result yet in a Dutch general election. He has not only shaken Dutch politics, but European politics also with his populist agenda, views on immigration, Islam, multiculturalism and the EU.

His stance on Islam is so extreme that no major political party in the Netherlands is ready to work with him regardless of the elections result. So, even if his party were victorious and comes first, it would be very difficult for Mr Wilders to join any coalition government in the Netherlands.

But that would not matter because his effect on the European politics is increasing, his popularity is soaring and his ideas are not any more on the fringe of the political debate in the Netherlands and other European countries, such as France, the UK, Germany and Denmark.

He already pushed other mainstream political parties to adopt some of his extreme views on immigration, multiculturalism and what it means to be Dutch. People close to him say this is basically what he wanted.

For example, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has hardened his message on migrants. In a full-page advertisement message addressed to “all the Dutch” published in leading newspapers, the Dutch premier cited the difference between what is “normal” and belongs to Dutch society and what is not, referring to immigrants as people who are misusing freedom, separate women from men, tolerate hate speech and discriminate against other beliefs and faiths. Mr Rutte concluded with this massage: “Be normal or be gone.”

Edith Schippers, minister of health and welfare and member of the ruling Liberal Party (VVD), talked about what she called a broad “coalition of freedom against political Islam.”

The debate on Islam in the Netherlands has broadened into a debate over “what we stand for” versus “what is alien to us”, “what is normal” versus “what is not normal”, and who belong “in” and “out” of European culture.

Most political parties in the Netherlands emphasise that the real problems that face the country are lack of integration, discrimination, intolerance, racism and “radical Islam”. However, Wilders insists it is not Muslims who are the problem; it is Islam that is the problem with its alleged limitations on individual liberty, free speech, freedom of religion and women’s equality. For him, the Netherlands might accommodate Muslims, but not Islam.

It is not convincing to link Mr Wilders’ wide appeal to any economic challenges that the Netherlands might have. In fact, the economy has very little to do with Mr Wilders’ white nationalist movement.  

By many measures, the Netherlands is thriving. The economy has grown for the past 11 quarters, the economic rate growth is about 2.5 per cent, a quicker pace than the EU average and higher than the US. The weaker Euro has helped their exports and unemployment is low.

So, if it is not the economy, what it is behind his phenomenon? And why so many Dutch are angry at the establishment?

The answer: “It’s about identity, stupid.”

The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. It has a population of only 17 million, but only Taiwan is smaller and has a larger population.

Because of its demographic characteristics and high population density, the Netherlands has had to plan its land use strictly and reclaim land from the sea by polders. 

With scarce natural resources, population density and integration problems, immigration has become a major political theme. The Netherlands has a sizeable minority of non-indigenous people, namely Turks, Moroccans, Iraqis, Indonesian and Chinese. There is also considerable emigration coming from new EU member countries. According to Eurostat, the non-indigenous peoples — ie non-native Dutch — constitute about 21 per cent of the total population.

And immigration without integration means problems all the way. The Dutch Turks and Arabs, above all Moroccans, continue to live in claustrophobic enclaves marked by high unemployment and low levels of integration.

A 2011 government report found that 40 per cent of Dutch Moroccans between ages 12 and 24 had been arrested, fined and charged for different offences.

The low birth rate and ageing Dutch population, contrasting with high birth rate and younger age in the immigration population, has become a source of tension and uncertainty in the country.

Meanwhile, Islam in the Netherlands grew apace — both Amsterdam and Rotterdam are now about 25 per cent Muslim. It is not an unfamiliar phenomenon in Europe. And the demographic imbalance scares many in the West.

An intervention from senior US Republican congressman Steve King was all too revealing. In an astonishing supportive message to Mr Wilders before the elections, Mr King tweeted: “We can’t restore our civilisation with somebody else’s babies,”, adding “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny.”

Later, he explained to the CNN: “We need to get our birth rates up or Europe will be entirely transformed within a half century or a little more. And Geert Wilders knows that and that’s part of his campaign and part of his agenda.”

His comments sparked a backlash on social media and condemnation from democratic politicians. The Republican Party and the Trump administration avoided comment in yet another indication of the growing bond between the Trump wing of the Republican Party and white nationalist movements in Europe.

Whenever there are social, political or economic challenges, immigration is an easy target in Europe nowadays. And the PVV is targeting both: The conflict with Islam and the harm the European Union allegedly causes to the Netherlands’ economy and sovereignty are the two main themes in Mr Wilders political beliefs.

Extremism and radicalisation are now discussed in the Dutch media more than ever before, with finger pointing at Islam as the source of lack of integration, violence, radicalisation, identity crisis, intolerance, discrimination and mass asylum.

Wilders’ central promise is to de-Islamise the Netherlands, ban The Quran and “Make Netherlands for the people of the Netherlands.”

Last year he was convicted of inciting racial discrimination over his promise to reduce the number of Moroccans in the country. His response was: “Moroccans are not a race. And people who criticise Moroccans are not racists.”

Brexit, on the other hand encouraged him to be more vocal in his views towards the European Union, which he calls an elite-driven project that does not benefit “ordinary people”.

The issue of European integration took centre stage in Mr Wilders’ political views since 2012. His political programme titled “Their Brussels, our Netherlands”, explicitly criticised the EU’s handling of the Euro crisis.

Some of his major objections to the EU is the austerity measures deriving from Brussels and the free movement of labour, which allow the “EU-nationalists to enjoy ever-lasting lunches”.

“On the long term, we will need to leave the European Union, we will need a Nexit.” Wilders wants to scrap the euro and return to the Dutch guilder.

The PVV has been a Eurosceptic party from the outset, opposing Turkish EU membership, calling the EU project a “multicultural super state”, claiming that “thanks to that club in Brussels, Europe is swiftly turning into Eurabia” (a reference to a portmanteau of Europe and Arabia used to describe the threat of the Islamisation of European societies, thereby weakening its cultural existence).

Mr Wilders’ party can win the election and theoretically he can form the government. However, it is unlikely. Traditionally, Dutch governments are always coalitions of several parties. And when you have 28 parties to choose from, the fragmentation of the votes will most definitely mean a coalition government. The problem for Mr Wilders is that all the main Dutch parties have refused to consider working with him.

Empowering his brand of politics is very risky. There are fears that not only the Netherlands may be starting to lose its tolerance, but also many other countries in the EU.

True, there are religious, social, economic and cultural ghettos in Europe. But this is a political challenge and attaching it to Islam as a religion is not the right answer.

The majority of Muslims in Europe are integrated. The few who are not should not be the group that represent Islam in the West. Because by portraying Islam in this light, only radical ideology will prevail and that will feed Mr Wilders’ ideology, as well as France’s Marine Le Pen and Frauke Petry, leader of the Alternative for Germany Party.

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