Geert Wilders, visiting Australia this week to launch a new political party, is a Dutch politician who has made a name for himself by fearmongering about Islam and Muslims. He came to fame in Holland as one of Europe’s recently emergent chorus of anti-immigration and anti-multicultural voices.
While Wilders claims not to hate Muslims, he presents a very negative picture of Islam. So who is he, and how might he affect Australia’s political discourse?
Wilders and Islam
Wilders is the parliamentary leader of the Party for Freedom. This is a populist right-wing minor party that attracted 10% of the vote in the 2012 Dutch parliamentary elections and plays a minor role in the European Parliament.
Recently, the party’s popularity has increased in response to the wave of refugees entering Europe. How this will play out in an election is not clear. But being very much a contentious individualist, Wilders has found it hard to work with others.
Wilders cites the Qur’an by singling out passages without examining their context and their history of interpretation. In this he imitates those who use the Qur’an to legitimate violence. Both demonstrate ignorance of the Qur’an’s rich history of interpretation.
Many European leaders have declared multiculturalism to be a failure, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It is into this context that Wilders speaks. However, Australian is not Europe, and he did not find much of an audience when he last came here in 2013.
So, what about Australia?
In this context, we need to be aware that when Europeans refer to multicultural policies they are not referring to the kind of approach and programs in place in Australia.
The aim of Australian multicultural policies has been to develop social cohesion through social integration based on mutual respect. This is quite different to European countries, which largely aimed for separate development of communities while insisting on assimilation. But separate development fails to produce inclusion, social cohesion and mutual respect.
Repeated Scanlon social cohesion surveys show that more than 80% of Australians interviewed declare that they support multicultural policies and that these policies have been good for Australia. There is general support for multiculturalism to the extent that the acceptance of diversity is part of Australia’s national identity.
Multicultural policies and programs of social inclusion have been actively pursued on a bipartisan basis in Australia. A great deal of effort at all levels from all groups has made this a reality. Senior religious and political leaders have been supportive from the very beginning of the implementation of these policies.
While John Howard did not like the “M-word”, he did not stall programs designed to include diversity. He drove the multicultural energy down to the grassroots, where a plethora of organisations promote respectful interaction among diverse communities.
Australia is further different from Holland and other European countries in that it is a settler society. 25% of Australia’s population were born overseas. 43% have at least one overseas-born parent.
Australia’s experience of diversity is much greater given that its society is comprised of people from a hugely diverse array of nations and cultures. In Holland, Muslims (6%) are the only religious minority group that makes up more than 1% of the population. In Australia, Buddhists make up 2.7%, Muslims 2.4%, and Hindus 1.4%.
In Europe, there tends to be only one religious minority group – Muslims. This makes a single “them” to be vilified and dehumanised as unacceptably different.
Holland is an interesting case study of managing diversity by separate community development. Religious diversity was, for more than a century, managed by a policy of verzuilling (pillarisation) where each religious group had its own political party, labour unions, insurance brokers, schools and the like.
This system began to break down in the 1960s. Had it remained, Muslims might have formed another verzuil and through it related to others and the society.
Like many Hollanders, Wilders is fluent in several languages – including English. This has helped him build his notoriety outside Holland.
Major politicians ignored Wilders when he last came to Australia. There is a small percentage of Australians who have fears about Islam, but whether they will provide much of an audience is in doubt. That the party he will launch here will be anything more than a minor irritant is unlikely.