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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In Aleppo, the buildings are strong – it's the communities that will be hard to rebuild

Aleppo once housed the greatest souk in the Levant, but now it’s a city in ruins and the people are gone.

The only good news from Aleppo is that the Old City was built to last and significant parts of it can be repaired. Thick stone walls are strong. Last year, as the jihadists who call themselves Islamic State were blowing up temples in Palmyra, the ancient town in the Syrian desert, the director of antiquities at Damascus Museum told me that as long as the original stones were still there, experts could do a lot to reconstruct the lost buildings. Rebuilding the broken fabric of Aleppo will be expensive, but it won’t be impossible. It would also require peace.

The bad news is that the longer the war goes on, the more Syrians are scattered into a new diaspora and the harder it will be to restore their communities. I was lucky enough to visit Aleppo before the war, in 2010, when Syria was safe enough for me to take my mother and (then) nine-year-old daughter. The Old City’s alleyways and khans housed the greatest souk in the Levant. Aleppo was a great crossroads in the medieval world where the trade routes of Europe and Asia came together. Shakespeare put the place name into the incantations of the witches in Macbeth: “her husband’s to Aleppo gone, master o’ th’ Tiger”.

In modern times you could buy pretty much anything you needed, from washing machines to shiny counterfeit football shirts. Tiny shops would build piles of dried fruit, or rainbow pyramids of spices, or the dark green soap made from olive oil and bay that used to be aged like wine before it was sold. It took a year to make each bar.

Money can help rebuild. But the people who made the place what it was have gone. Half of Syria’s pre-war population has fled. When I walked through Aleppo’s burnt-out khans and broken alleys, they were echoing and empty. The war had snuffed out the old life. The only people I saw were soldiers.

 

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These are better times for President Bashar al-Assad. The Russian intervention has made him much more secure. It is a long time since the first year of the war, when he was expected to go the way of Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt and Gaddafi of Libya. His father, President Hafez al-Assad, created a system designed to be as rebellion-proof as possible.

When the people of Tunisia turned against President Ben Ali, the army did not intervene to help him; he jumped ship as fast as he could. In Egypt the people also turned against Hosni Mubarak, and so did his erstwhile Western allies; the army decided he had to go. In Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi faced a revolt that his forces might well have crushed, had they been left alone. However, Britain, France and the US provided the rebels with an air force, and Qatar, among others, trained and armed the rebels.

President Assad has been much luckier. Most of his security forces remained loyal, and they are still prepared to fight and die for the Syrian state. Britain and France did not provide the Syrian rebels with an air force. A critical moment came in 2013 after the chemical attacks around Damascus. The regime expected punitive strikes from the US, helped by Britain and France. When they did not happen, President Assad could celebrate. The most powerful countries in the world blinked first. When Russia became the first big foreign military power to intervene, it was on Assad’s side.

The Syrian army has not been good at taking the offensive. But it can defend, and it has mastered the ancient tactic of starving its enemies out. I saw the last few evacuations from Daraya, a suburb on the edge of Damascus. The UN described what had happened there as “four years of unrelenting siege”. It said that children starved and the population ate grass, amid fighting and aerial bombardment. Daraya’s surrender was a big blow to the rebel operations around Damascus.

The war feels much further away from central Damascus, including the Old City, than it did at the beginning of the year. Throughout the war the Old City closed down at dusk. Damascenes hurried home, frightened about crime, including the risk of kidnap for ransom, as well as rebel mortars. This time round, I was amazed to see that bars, restaurants, even boutique hotels, have started to reopen in the Old City. The nightlife is concentrated in the Christian quarter. Alcohol is available, and Syrian food, if you have the money to enjoy it, is delicious. Millions of people in Syria have neither the money nor the food to cook. UN sources told me that the regime is mostly responsible for blocking relief convoys. Various local truces, as well as rebel surrenders, have helped the regime-held centre of Damascus feel safer. That does not hold in the suburbs, still controlled by the rebels, especially eastern Ghouta, which shows no signs of wanting to capitulate.

 

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The road from Damascus to Aleppo runs through Homs, where it splits from the old highway, which is controlled further north, around Idlib, by rebels. Homs has acres of empty ruins. To get to Aleppo, the government has paved what used to be a country road that takes a big detour to the east.

It starts with a stretch several miles long of more deserted, overgrown rubble and the shells of houses. Every time I pass, I wonder what happened to the people who lived there. It takes about four hours to drive from Homs to Aleppo. Most of the journey is across an arid wasteland. I didn’t see a single building intact. The villages are traditional, made out of mud bricks, with cone-shaped houses that used to be the homes of farmers. Now their fields are untended, and their villages, like the suburbs of Homs, are empty and destroyed.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets: @BowenBBC

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times