Who’s afraid of Geert Wilders? Populism and the politics of hate

Wilders has a charming brand of right wing intolerance. David Crosling/AAP

Dutch populist politician Geert Wilders sure knows how to attract controversy.

He also really, really hates Islam.

Here in Australia on a speaking tour organised by the anti-Islamic Q Society, Wilders’ Melbourne talk last night was met by protests, while tonight’s Perth talk was cancelled after the venue pulled out at the last minute. He is due to speak in Sydney on Friday night.

What is Wilders here to tell us about? Last night, he said:

I am here to warn Australia about the true nature of Islam. It is not just a religion as many people mistakenly think; it is primarily a dangerous totalitarian ideology.

In apocalyptic terms, he claimed:

If we do not oppose Islam, we will lose everything: our freedom, our identity, our democracy, our rule of law, and all our liberties.

In delivering Australia these warnings, he said “the ANZAC spirit will keep you free” in the fight against Islam.

Who is Geert Wilders?

Wilders is leader of the Netherlands’ third largest political party, the Party for Freedom (PVV), and has been a Member of the House of Representatives since 1998. He is best known for his anti-Islamic stance, having compared the Koran to Mein Kampf, and labelled Muhammad a paedophile.

He has been banned from entering a number of countries such as the United Kingdom, and has been taken to court for incitement of hatred and discrimination.

Due to threats on his life, Wilders lives under constant security protection and is moved to a new location every evening.

Why does he hate Islam?

Although Wilders has called for an end to immigration from Islamic countries, as well as the deportation of Muslim criminals, he claims he does not hate Muslims. Rather he hates the “totalitarian ideology” of Islam.

Wilders argues that Islam threatens freedom and “keeps people trapped in a mental prison”. He uses examples of honour killings, female genital mutilation and the so-called “surge” of Islamic violence in the Netherlands as examples to illustrate his point. He claims Islam wants to “impose Islamic Sharia law on all of us”.

As such, he claims that we should not compare Islam with other religions such as Christianity or Judaism, but instead should think of it as an ideology like Communism or Fascism.

Haven’t we heard it all before?

Readers might detect a hint of familiarity in these kinds of arguments. Wilders is the latest in a line of right-wing European populists who claim to be protecting the people against a dangerous other. Other recent examples include Jean-Marie and Marine Le Pen of France, Jörg Haider of Austria and Umberto Bossi of Italy.

A number of Melburnians have said no to Wilders’ views. David Crosling/AAP

While not all of these figures have explicitly targeted Muslims, each of them has attempted to allegedly take politics back from “the elite” and their tolerance of the other (Jews, Muslims, Roma, immigrants, and so on), and instead return power to the people.

Closer to home, Wilders shares more than just a similar bouffant hair-do with Pauline Hanson. Hanson shared Wilders’ nativism and exclusionary focus, targeting Asian immigration - and later, African and Islamic immigrants - as threats to the economic and social stability of Australia. Like Wilders, Hanson worries about the country “being swamped” by the dangerous other.

A sophisticated populist

What is different about Wilders, however, is that he portrays himself as a defender of liberty and freedom. Drawing on Dutch traditions of openness and tolerance, Wilders has been keen to promote his liberalness - for example, he defends sexual freedoms, stands for the rights of women and the LGBT community and promotes free speech. The problem, he claims, is that “we have been too tolerant of the intolerant”, meaning Islam.

More so, unlike many of his European radical right peers, Wilders is no anti-Semite, but a strong supporter of Israel. Indeed, he lived in Israel for two years when he was a young man, and has visited more than 40 times since then.

So should we be worried about someone like Wilders? The answer is yes. By couching distinctly illiberal policies in a liberal package, Wilders rewrites the rule-book for populist strategy. His hatred of Islam comes along with a spoonful of artificial sugar in talk of freedom and liberties. This moves beyond the black and white populism of Pauline Hanson.

As such, there is cause for concern when mainstream politicians such as South Australian Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi, who initially invited Wilders to visit Australia, echoes his messages almost exactly, by reportedly claiming, “Islam itself is the problem - it’s not Muslims […] Muslims are individuals that practise their faith in their own way, but Islam is a totalitarian, political and religious ideology”.

While Wilders and Bernardi have every right to make their populist arguments, equally, Australians have every right to challenge such false claims made in the name of freedom and tolerance.

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