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 wildfire victims of forestry neglect – and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.