Geert Wilders tries to break America

Luckily, his anti-Muslim tract gains little traction in the US.

The deepening of the Eurozone crisis – with Greece, Spain and Italy on the brink and threatening to bring the rest of the EU down with them – has stoked fears about the rise of the far-right and the future of European politics.

In Greece, the extreme right party Golden Dawn secured twenty-one parliamentary seats, making it the most far-right party to enter an European legislature since the Nazi era. Similarly, Marine Le Pen’s anti-euro, anti-immigrant National Front Party achieved a record 17.9 per cent of the April vote in the first round of France’s presidential election. These wins illustrate how frustrated voters, disenchanted with mainstream political parties, are increasingly turning to fringe parties on both left and right.

No wonder that Dutch MP Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party, has just released his new book, Marked for Death: Islam’s War Against the West and Me, in New York. With 24 seats in the Dutch parliament in 2010, Wilders’ party was the third largest bloc, supporting Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s minority coalition in return for a range of anti-Muslim concessions – a crackdown on immigration and a ban on the burqa. But last April, when Wilders pulled out of the coalition due to its support for austerity measures, Rutte’s government collapsed.

Wilders’ broad anti-Euro, anti-austerity agenda – calling for Netherlands’ budget policies to be decided domestically, not by the EU lawmakers in Brussels – has given him a platform to exploit the wave of opposition to austerity sweeping across Europe and beyond. A new poll shows that for the first time, his Freedom Party has outstripped the ruling Liberal Party in popularity, making them second only to the Socialists, who have doubled their seats to 30.

But Wilders’ Muslim thesis is so unhinged that it raises concerns about the resurgent legitimacy of far-right ideology under the stress of political and economic crisis. His Marked for Death essentially sets out a rationale for his call for an “International Freedom Alliance”, an umbrella organisation of groups and individuals “fighting for freedom against Islam”. The agenda is simple – the Qur’an should be banned, mosques forcibly shut down, Muslim women who wear a headscarf taxed, Muslim immigration halted, and potentially dangerous Muslims deported en masse.

Wilders’ hostility toward anything to do with Islam makes him incapable of recognising the growing impetus for reform across the Muslim world. For instance, Wilders takes aim at the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the intergovernmental body for 57 Muslim member states, as a clandestine vehicle for a global Islamic Caliphate conspiring to “elevate Shari’ah Laws over human rights.”

While the OIC is far from perfect, this overlooks how since 2005, under the leadership of Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the body has taken serious steps to promote internal Muslim reform – establishing the world’s first Muslim human rights commission to investigate abuses of “internationally-recognised civil, political, economic and social rights” in Muslim countries; issuing a comprehensive resolution condemning “all forms of terrorism”; while condemning Arab dictatorships trying to crush local democratic movements.

In his zeal to demonise Islam as a Nazi-like “totalitarian political ideology” and “existential threat”, Wilders turns a blind eye to such efforts for progressive Islamic reform. It is not a surprise, then, to find Wilders equally oblivious to the American Muslim experience. A study by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security finds that American Muslim communities “have been active in preventing radicalisation”, and that the threat of home-grown terrorism, while already “minuscule”, has continued to decline. American Muslims regularly confront “individuals who express radical ideology or support for terrorism”, prevent “extremist ideologues from preaching in mosques”, and communicate “concerns about radical individuals to law enforcement officials”. No wonder even the RAND Corporation concludes that terrorists “would find little support in the Muslim community” in the US.

But then, published by notorious neoconservative outlet Regnery Publishing, Wilders’ Marked for Death offers little new in the profitable field of anti-Muslim scaremongering.  Indeed, it is no coincidence that his Freedom Party has for years received funding to the tune of six figures from many of the same US sources published by Regnery, such as Robert Spencer, Daniel Pipes and Pam Geller – whose stale stereotypes about Islam are amply regurgitated in his book ad nauseum.

The US publication of Marked for Death in English thus reveals the extent to which US ultraconservatives are getting desperate. With upcoming elections on the horizon, they have thrown the ‘Wilders card’ in a vain attempt to project his alleged European experiences on to an American audience to scare them into voting against Obama – which is precisely why Wilders is marketing his book in the US, and not Europe.

Fortunately, his book’s boring message is falling on deaf ears. Bar an interview with the equally unhinged Sean Hannity on Fox News, Marked for Death has received negligible acclaim in the American press. Discerning readers will note the most obvious reason: in the name of defending “freedom”, Wilders’ political programme is based entirely on the idea of forcibly eliminating the freedom of all Muslims across the West to practise and speak about their faith – whether or not they oppose extremism (which most do). Only someone utterly ignorant of American history would attempt such a thing in the Land of the Free.

Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is an international security expert and Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development. His latest book is A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), which is now a documentary feature film, The Crisis of Civilization (2011)

Geert Wilders in 2011. Photo: Getty Images
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As the Gaslighter-in-Chief takes office, remember: you're not going mad

Why do I feel so angry and anxious about Donald Trump? Because I've seen what happens when you can't trust your own mind.

This might sound strange, but it was on a psychiatric ward that I first gained one of the most important insights into covering politics. I must have been no more than 12: I was there to visit a relative who had been sectioned after putting his hand through a window. He was convinced that the local newspaper had a front-page news story mocking him. My dad brought him a copy of the paper to show that wasn’t true. “They must have changed it,” came the stark response.

It was then I realised: your mind can lie to you. And losing your grip on reality is like being trapped down a well with sides made of slippery, moss-covered stones. Where are the handholds to pull yourself out? You can no longer trust what you hear, what you see, what you think you know. There is no evidence that can change your mind.

Our acknowledgement that this feeling is frightening partly explains the strong social taboo against lying in politics. Do politicians lie any more than normal people? Probably not. But their lies have traditionally been more stigmatised – for good reason. Any discussion of politics relies on basic agreed facts, from which flow a common reality. It’s why the experience of being lied to is so disorienting. You begin to question yourself: did that really happen? Do I know what I think I know?

I remembered that moment when I first saw Donald Trump deny that he had ever “mocked” a disabled reporter. A lie that brazen induces a kind of mental vertigo. I saw him do it. I saw the video! During the US election I saw him standing up in front of a crowd at a rally in South Carolina and say: “Now, the poor guy, you ought to see this guy.” Then he bent his hands in at the wrists, jerking wildly, adding: “Ah, I don’t know what I said! Ah, I don’t remember.”

The impression was a textbook example of what my school playground would have called a “spastic”. The reporter in question, Serge Kovaleski of the New York Times, has a disease called arthrogryposis, in which his joints contract, bending his wrists.

Immediately after the incident, Trump claimed: “I have no idea who this reporter . . . is, what he looks like or his level of intelligence. Despite having one of the all-time great memories, I certainly do not remember him.” (Let us pause briefly to note Trump’s casual and telling conflation of physical and mental disability.) Unfortunately, Kovaleski tells a different story. “Donald and I were on a first-name basis for years,” he said. “I’ve interviewed him in his office.”

For the past few months, I’ve been asking myself why, exactly, the election of Donald Trump has made me so angry and anxious. Is it because I hate democracy, because I think working-class voters are stupid, that I am a swan-eating metropolitan who wouldn’t go outside the M25 if my life depended on it? (No, no and no. Come on, guys, I sometimes go to Brighton!)  I think it’s because that moment on the psychiatric ward – and seeing several loved ones suffer mental illness since – taught me that drowning in your own mind, unable to climb out, is an almost indescribably horrific experience. So what kind of person inflicts that on others by wilfully distorting reality for their own political gain? It is cruelty. I’m in charge, and let me tell you: you don’t know what you think you know. I didn’t mock that reporter you saw me mocking. I didn’t even know he was disabled. I don’t remember him. What kind of politician deliberately makes his audience feel as though they are losing their minds?

I’ve written before about “gaslighting” one of those internet-friendly buzzwords that normally make me flinch. It’s what happened to the families of the Hillsborough dead, where their grief was compounded by the message that their sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, had brought it on themselves. It’s what happens in abusive relationships, where the victim’s sense of self is slowly chipped away until they internalise the lie that “he only hits me because I make him so angry”. It’s what happens in America when a police officer fires shots into a black man’s back and the community is told it was self-defence.

That was why Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes was so powerful – and why Trump’s itchy Twitter finger served up a swift reply. We longed to see our version of reality reassert itself. “There was one performance this year that stunned me,” said Streep, collecting a lifetime achievement award. “It was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it.”

Streep called on her audience of movie stars – the kind of people Trump hates, except for when they offer him a cameo in Home Alone 2 – to stand up to this kind of bullying, and to defend journalists’ ability to “safeguard the truth”.

Inevitably, Trump responded in his usual thin-skinned way. He called Streep “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” and added: “For the 100th time, I never ‘mocked’ a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him ‘groveling’ when he totally changed a 16 year old story that he had written in order to make me look bad. Just more very dishonest media!” So brace yourself. This is what we should expect for the next four years. All hail the Gaslighter-in-Chief.

History is written by the winners, and now we can see a false narrative being built in real time, tweet by tweet. Yet those of us who understand even a little how painful it is to be a prisoner of your own mind have to remind each other: no matter what he says, we still know what we know.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge