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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

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