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
Photo: Getty
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The Gupta scandal: how a British PR firm came unstuck in South Africa

Bell Pottinger was accused of exploiting racial divisions to deflect attention from a business family’s troubles.

Thuli Madonsela, who helped write South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution and made her name as a fearless public protector, calls it a “reckless and dangerous dirty tricks campaign”. The journalist Max du Preez, who exposed apartheid’s death squads, describes a knife being thrust into an old wound. Jonathan Jansen, a respected voice on race relations, sees “despair and distress” cast on a fragile democracy still struggling with apartheid’s legacy.

Following reports of a campaign that allegedly exploited racial divisions to deflect attention from a business family’s troubles, South Africa – a nation admired around the globe for its ability to forgive – is not in a magnanimous mood.

One source of the public anger is familiar: the Gupta family, which has accumulated vast wealth and influence and has close relations with President Jacob Zuma. The other was until recently unknown to most South Africans: the British PR firm Bell Pottinger, which was co-founded by Margaret Thatcher’s former adviser Lord Bell (who left the company last year). On 6 July, Bell Pottinger announced that it had fired one of its partners and issued a rare apology for the work it did until April for the Guptas.

The story begins in early 2016, when the family signed a contract with Bell Pottinger, whose previous clients include the repressive governments of Egypt and Bahrain, the Pinochet Foundation and Trafigura, the commodity firm involved in a waste-dumping scandal in Côte d’Ivoire. Unverified correspondence leaked to the media suggests that President Zuma’s son, Duduzane, who is in business with the Guptas, was involved in brokering the Bell Pottinger deal, reportedly worth £100,000 a month, to help defend the family brand.

The brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta arrived in South Africa from India when apartheid ended in the early 1990s and started building a business empire. They operated inconspicuously until 2013, when stories about how their private wedding guests were allowed to land at an air force base revealed their deep political connections.

Since then, the scandals have multiplied, with the brothers accused of directing Zuma’s decisions for their own benefit. The family has always denied wrongdoing, but the evidence against it includes a claim by the former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas that the Guptas offered him the top job in the ministry, which he declined. By last year, the family’s reputation was so stained that South Africa’s four major banks closed accounts connected to it. By the time the Guptas engaged Bell Pottinger to handle their public relations, they were under heavy media scrutiny.

A large email leak in May from inside the Gupta empire enabled the South African media to expose the nature of the family’s alleged efforts to distract attention from its businesses and dealings with the state, which, among other things, reportedly involved the targeting of journalists, rent-a-crowd protests and the “capturing” of political leaders. Twitter users, the emails suggest, were paid to troll journalists or spread propaganda; digital bots were used to amplify fake stories; Wikipedia pages were allegedly altered. The website WMC Leaks was set up and proceeded to smear some of South Africa’s top editors. (The allegations against Bell Pottinger are limited to its communications work.)

Meanwhile, journalists were also subjected to sexual slurs, or had their homes vandalised. “I have never in my life encountered a situation where I have clearly been surveilled and then accused of cheating on my wife by faceless people,” says Peter Bruce, a columnist and former editor of Business Day, a leading broadsheet.

Central to the campaign was the promotion of the idea of “white monopoly capital” – that white-owned business is the true enemy standing in the way of South Africa’s progress. The term was spread online and used in political speeches and in media outlets linked with the Guptas. Critics of the family and Zuma were accused of colluding with or being in the pocket of wealthy whites.

“Running a campaign that stokes racial tensions and the anger of the poor and others who feel the bite of poverty and inequality was bound to and did exacerbate racial polarisation,” says Madonsela.

Jonathan Jansen, the former vice-chancellor at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, says that Bell Pottinger should donate the money it earned from the Guptas to civil society organisations in South Africa. He accuses the company of having “played the colluding role of the neo-colonial paymaster with a stunning lack of self-reflection”.

After the emails were leaked, South Africans sent thousands of tweets to Bell Pottinger, forcing the firm to make its Twitter account private. In April, the company finally parted ways with the Guptas, and this month the Bell Pottinger chief executive, James Henderson, felt compelled to issue an “unequivocal and absolute” apology to anyone impacted by the “economic emancipation” campaign on social media.

“Much of what has been alleged about our work is, we believe, not true. But enough of it is to be of deep concern,” said Henderson.

Bell Pottinger has hired the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills to investigate its work with the Guptas and says that it will publish the findings. Besides firing the lead partner on the Gupta project, Bell Pottinger also suspended three other employees. The UK’s Public Relations and Communications Association is conducting a separate investigation.

In his statement, Henderson admitted that the social media campaign was “inappropriate and offensive”. “For it to be done in South Africa, a country which has become an international beacon of hope… is a matter of profound regret… These activities should never have been undertaken.”

This has not quelled the anger in South Africa, where there are growing calls for Bell Pottinger to appear before the country’s parliament and for criminal prosecutions.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder