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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The first French presidential debate shows Emmanuel Macron has a lot to learn

Could the centrist's uneven performance spell the possibility of a François Fillon comeback?

For the first debate of the campaign for the French presidential election, the five main candidates discussed domestic and international issues on live French TV last night.

François Fillon, Benoît Hamon, Marine Le Pen, Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon made their case for an astounding three hours and a half - a debate so long it lost its participants almost as much as its audience.

If you are unsure who’s who among the candidates, here is the NS’ guide to the French election.

The debate was the first to bring together the main candidates on one common platform - French presidential candidates have historically debated only in pairs, and most previous debates had only seen the candidates who made it to the election’s run-off face each other between the two rounds.

Polls currently put hard-right candidate Le Pen and centrist maverick Macron tied in the first place, both with 26 per cent of the vote. After weeks of mutual criticism via the media and their campaign teams, this was their first direct confrontation.

Marine Le Pen stayed true to her core policies, advocating for a return to a national currency, a referendum on France’s EU membership, increased security and border controls and an end to immigration: “I want to stop legal and illegal immigration,” she declared, before adding that legal immigration should be capped at “tens of thousands". Le Pen looked tense as she focuses her attacks on Macron, the only candidate who has only recently caught up with her (and taken over) in the polls.

François Fillon, the Conservative candidate whose campaign has been derailed by a “fake jobs” scandal for which he is under investigation, appeared measured, thanks to a “presidential stature” he developed during his years as Nicolas Sarkozy’s Prime Minister. His fraud scandal, just like Le Pen’s own “fake” parliamentary assistant jobs case, was only vaguely mentioned. This negligence from both journalists and his political rivals allowed Fillon to avoid the topic.

Le Pen copied Fillon’s silence strategy to her advantage in the second part of the debate: she kept silent for almost half an hour, while the other candidates went into petty disputes. Once she had secured ten full minutes to make for the time she had “lost” listening to the others, she was free to go full-on Trump mode, promising an “economic patriotism” and addressing the jobless, the old, the handicapped and everyone else who feels forgotten by the globalised elite. To Fillon who warned her that ditching the euro would have devastating consequences, she replied that this was just “Project Fear” (“Projet Peur”, as she translated it from the Brexiteers’ campaign trail.) “Brexit is delivering formidable results for the UK economy,” she added.

But she was not left unchallenged. Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon, whose main policies include introducing a universal basic income and a tax on robots, accused her of being “addicted to tabloid news” as she complained about dangerous immigrants, while hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon reminded everyone about Le Pen’s troubles with justice.

It is worth noting that both left-wingers have contemplated an alliance, but their differences on Europe and the role of Russia have led them to rule it out, splitting the vote and therefore banning the left from the run-up. During the debate, they only came to disagree as the topic turned towards international policy.

They could have been the left’s warring brothers, at least until Mélenchon, whose sharp humour, just like his tone of voice, seems to reflect a permanent state of anger, joked about a lively exchange between Hamon and Macron. “Let them talk,” he said, “we need a debate within the Socialist party.” Macron, who is running as an independent, was previously a minister in President Hollande’s Socialist government. He did not seem to enjoy the banter.

The current favourite to win the race, Macron knew he would be attacked from all sides, and yet his defence was quite weak. He fell in the trap Hamon had laid for him by mentioning the bank lobby, acknowledging that this “was probably for him” without offering a shot back. He fought back against Marine Le Pen when she provoked him on the burkini debacle, but his inexperience (he has never run a campaign before this one), for which he has been criticised before, showed in most of his lines - proudly delivered but obviously pre-written words, or obscure wanderings that Le Pen mocked as a “cosmic void.”

Fillon’s hard work to make voters forget about his scandal (and his presence at the debate) may well gain him a few percentage points, at least until another streak of revelations in his never ending scandal are published. Marine Le Pen once again painted herself as the herald of the people - a title she can hope to keep, as her faithful rarely read fact checks of the figures she quotes. As the left seems too divided to rule, it’s Macron whose debate performance matters. Whether or not he can maintain his claim to face Le Pen depends on his shaky rhetoric, and what he will choose to fill its void with.