When blood starts flowing, where will Wilders' voters be?

Geert Wilders.
By Ian Buruma

Do the many supporters of anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders fully realise the dangers of a divided society? When people feel rejected, they will start to display hostile behaviour.

The usual percentage of people voting for extreme-right parties in Western European countries - whether out of protest or out of conviction - is around 15 percent. Twenty percent is considered high. In the Netherlands opinion polls suggest that 40 percent of Dutch people agrees with the ideas of Geert Wilders. Agreeing with him doesn't necessarily mean that they will vote for him, but it is a serious phenomenon.

It seems too simple to say that Wilders' popularity is based solely on the behaviour of Moroccan youth, as some have suggested. This doesn't explain, for instance, why radical populists get high scores in other European countries. It may be that the British, Swiss, Danes and Austrians have their own versions of the loitering Moroccan youth in the Netherlands, but it is striking how many people who say they are afraid of non-Western immigrants seem to live in villages that hardly have any.

'Left-wing church'

Resentment is usually the source of populism; resentment against the political and cultural elites who are deemed responsible for the decay, the decadence, the flood of alien elements, and the betrayal of the common man. This has happened before. I think the current widespread dissatisfaction has to do wit the consequences of globalisation, the ill-understood - but not imaginary - power of multinationals and political institutions, and the apparent powerlessness of national governments that are perceived as pursuing their own interests rather than those of the voters, who in turn feel like they've been left to fend for themselves in a time of rapid changes. These transformations are felt much more in poor areas than in places where the elite live.

Politicians like Wilders thrive on this general feeling of discomfort. They do this by linking problems like crime, Muslim extremism or the undemocratic nature of multinational corporations to the ever simmering resentment against the 'cultural elites', the 'left-wing church', or whatever they want to call the perceived wrongdoers.

A few Americans have now joined the choir by blaming this cultural elite for undermining Western resilience to the point that Europe will soon be 'Islamised' and become 'Eurabia'. In his book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, US journalist Christopher Caldwell argues that European cultures have become too weak to be able to resist the much stronger Islamic culture (whatever that may be). What's more, the higher birth-rate among Muslim will soon put them in the minority.

Eurabia

Given that Muslims now make up only about 5 percent of the European population this seems like a bold statement. Additionally, when Muslims do well they tend to have fewer children so poorer Muslims will have to work very hard indeed to make up for the difference. What's more, a great number of Muslims are not practicing. The link between Islam and the street violence in the immigrant-dominated Slotervaart neighbourhood of Amsterdam, or Rotterdam West, has always been shaky.

The alarming image of Eurabia, which Wilders and others like him are holding up to their voters, is often based on a categorical confusion. A recent article in an American publication referred to criminal behaviour but young immigrants in Amsterdam as a 'war against the West', as if rioting there was part of a worldwide jihad. Religious orthodoxy, or neo-orthodoxy, is also often equated with ideological extremism, as if there was potential assassin behind every bearded Wahabi, every veiled woman.

Of course the link between Islam and violence is not always imagined. People are being killed in the name of jihad. Some neo-orthodox Muslims are recruited for the Holy War. It is worrisome that some European Muslims, especially the young, sympathise with such holy warriors. And the violent threats against critics of Islam are an essential problem that the government needs to be firm against.

Still, it will always be necessary to distinguish between religion and revolution, between orthodoxy and violence. There is no room for this distinction in Wilder's statements. He is careful enough not to say this in so many words, but the logical conclusion is that everything that has to do with Islam needs to be removed from Europe like a cancer.

Too chic

The fear of being overwhelmed by foreigners is usually associated with the right. Historically this is true. The so-called saviours of our civilisation - against the Bolsheviks, the Jews or the decadent elites - have usually come from right-wing circles.

The perceived threat of Islam has changed this. They may consider themselves too chic to associate themselves directly with Wilders, but these days it is often people from a left-wing background who rail the most against Islam.

A certain degree of aversion to religion among people who fought to free themselves from religion in the sixties is understandable. The men who came from villages in Morocco and Turkey during those same sixties often have ideas about women and homosexuals that are out of touch with the more progressive ideas we have come to accept as normal.

But, again, intolerance against homosexuals, though reprehensible, is not the same as revolutionary extremism. As long as no violence is involved, that kind of intolerance is something we can live with, just like we live with orthodox Christians or ultra-orthodox Jews. Good education can help there, and of course everything needs to be done to prevent aggression against women or homosexuals. But normative differences will always exist; it comes with being a pluralistic society.

Another thing is that the strict, purist form of Islam propagated and funded by Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with the traditions of Anatolia or the Rif mountains. This kind of neo-orthodoxy appeals above all to second generation immigrants, those who were born in Europe but don’t quite feel ‘at home’ there yet. Wahabist purism is not an old tradition, let alone Moroccan. It is a relatively modern ‘born again’-type religion that is propagated over the internet, often in English, and appeals to people who don’t feel at home anywhere.

Kulturkampf

The political extremism of groups like Al Qaeda isn’t traditional either. Most conservative Muslims disapprove of Osama Bin Laden’s religious pretences. Political Islam has been influenced by many ideas in the past one-hundred years, including Marxism. I’m not saying this to defend political Islam, which is certainly dangerous. But the danger would be even greater if we look at the fight against violent political Islam the way Wilders does: as a clash of civilisations, a Kulturkampf against Islam as a whole.

If we are going to win the fight against political violence it is important that peaceful Muslims, even very strict ones, can find a place in European society. Only then can we isolate the violent elements and prevent more Muslims from sympathising with a bloody dream in the name of their religion out of fear, anger or resentment.

You can say a lot of things about Tariq Ramadan, the Islamic philosopher who was just fired as an adviser to the city of Rotterdam: vanity, intellectually wooliness, opportunism. But he has never pleaded for an Islamic state in Europe, let alone a violent revolution. He wants European Muslims to behave as democratic citizens. Certainly, he propagates an orthodox interpretation of Islam, but the tries to combine this with his mainly leftish political ideas. Politics, says Ramadan, should be inspired by the ethical impulse of faith. He may not always be tolerant, but he will always be a democrat.

And yet Ramadan has now become another hate symbol among people who agree with Wilders. That is hardly surprising. If you start from the premise that Islam is a threat to Western society, and any openness towards Muslims in Europe is a cowardly collaboration with evil, then the kind of rapprochement which Ramadan is talking about becomes impossible.

One consequence of the popularity of Wilders’ world image is that many highly educated immigrants no longer feel welcome in the Netherlands. Some are returning to Turkey, which of course is just fine with the Wilders supporters.

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But there is a much bigger risk attached to the Kulturkampf. If people feel rejected, one shouldn’t be surprised if they develop a hostile attitude. As the hostility increases we will get exactly what so many people are so afraid of. The distinction between believers and ideologists is blurred. Sympathy turns to action. Society as a whole is divided into camps, Muslims against non-Muslims. That’s when the blood starts to flow in the streets.

Islamic extremists would like nothing better. Some racists in the Netherlands might applaud it too. But whether the 40 percent of Dutch people who now say they agree with Wilders will still want any part of it is another question altogether. It is in any case something worth considering on the way to the polling station.

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