A worrisome convergence- a European's Anti-Islamist appearance in New York
BERLIN -- On September 11, Geert Wilders, the controversial Dutch politician who likened the Koran to Mein Kampf, will speak in New York on the anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, warning about the supposed dangers of Islam and the building of a “ground-zero mega-mosque.” That the proposed structure is neither a mosque — it is a community center with a prayer room — nor at ground zero — it would be two blocks away — does not matter much to Wilders. His goal is to convince the American public that Islam — not just extremist political groups using Islamic rhetoric — intends to become the dominant religion in the United States as well as Europe. He will warn that the building of new mosques and all immigration of Muslims should be stopped immediately because Muslim immigrants’ main aim is to establish the rule of Islam, using the mosques as the beachhead for their invasion. Although Wilders has often been lampooned in the press, he can no longer be ignored — not in Europe, and now not in the United States.
In the Dutch elections in June, Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) was swept into parliament on an anti-Islam, anti-immigrant agenda, coming in third in the election. While the main parties have refused to include him in a new government, his electoral support is undeniable. Wilders plays on public fears of the erosion of Western values and the use and misuse of Islamic rhetoric by violent extremist groups. He portrays himself as a fearless knight opposing an army of Muslim migrants. And he fends off criticism by also defending rights for women and gays and by being a staunch defender of the state of Israel. Wilders’ planned New York visit has, so far, gone largely unnoticed in the United States. But there might be reasons for Americans to be concerned. Wilders carries in his European backpack — along with a strong, cultural anti-Islamic sentiment that is tied to his anti-immigrant views — plans for a “Geert Wilders International Freedom Alliance,” a proposed grouping of anti-Islam activists initially from five countries: the United States, Canada, Britain, France, and Germany. In Europe, he draws followers from those who believe Islam threatens Western culture and secular norms, concerns that have already fueled minaret and burqa bans in Switzerland and France. In New York, Wilders hopes to find similar support among those who oppose the Islamic community center near ground zero, a debate that has confused facts and myths about Islam and the U.S. Muslim population with fears of terrorism. Moreover, Wilders enters a fragmenting political landscape in the United States that is now dominated by the rise of popular conservative movements with opportunistic leaders fighting to prevail in the November Congressional elections. President Barack Obama’s wobbly stance on the community center and mosque, aptly described by the American comedian Jon Stewart as “Yes, we can! But should we?”, has only complicated matters.
To attract American followers for this anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant transatlantic alliance, Wilders must bring together moderate conservatives and far-right-wing groups. His most effective tool may be his populist style, honed in the rough-and-tumble of Dutch politics, which plays off of us-versus-them public sentiments, reinforcing existing black-and-white American thinking about Islam. Such rhetoric would only reinforce alienation of moderate Muslims and Muslim immigrant groups living in the United States, poisoning constructive dialogue about immigration. This, in turn, could leverage local and state governments in the United States to enact a more right-wing and anti-immigrant agenda. Of course, Wilders’ anti-Islamic screeds may fall on deaf ears in America. In Europe, Wilders’ support has been fueled by integration debates, or rather debates about failed integration of Muslim immigrants. However, the situation of Muslim immigrants in the United States could not be more different than that in Europe. While in most European countries there is a sizeable and very visible Muslim population — not all of whom are immigrants — the Muslim share of the population in the United States is relatively small. Only about 2.35 million American Muslims are part of the general U.S. population of about 310 million in 2007, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center on Muslim Americans. About two-thirds of those are immigrants and are, Pew asserts, “middle class and mostly mainstream.” In Europe, in contrast, the socioeconomic background and educational level of Muslim immigrants and their offspring largely differs from mainstream society.
Fierce debates abound about cultural-versus-structural reasons for the difficulties Muslim immigrants have in integrating into European society. The United States has not, and most likely will not, see these debates in the future, simply because of the small size and socioeconomic makeup of the American Muslim community For years, press commentators have labeled Geert Wilders a one-man show and predicted that the “phenomenon Wilders” would soon flame out. But, in just a few years, the fiery anti-Islam activist has gained an important and unexpected role within Dutch society thanks to his rhetorical skills and immigrant- and Muslim-skeptic sentiment in the Netherlands. If he proves similarly effective in New York and is able to forge a transatlantic alliance of anti-Islamic activists, then the chances for a real constructive dialogue about immigration, Islam, and Islamic extremism will be seriously endangered.
Astrid Ziebarth is a Program Officer, Immigration and Integration, with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.