Dutch anti-Islam maverick Geert Wilders took his cinematic assault on the Quran to Britain’s House of Lords on Friday, sparking heated debate inside the building and angry protests outside.
The invitation to Parliament, and Wilders’ stunning political gains in the Netherlands this week, highlight a growing dichotomy in Europe: concern at the increasing number of Muslims who reject long-cherished liberal values, against the liberal tradition of welcoming the world’s unfortunates and embracing multiculturalism.
Wilders screened his 15-minute film “Fitna” to about 60 people, including a half-dozen peers, in a wood-paneled committee room in Parliament. The film associates the Quran with terrorism, homophobia and repression of women.
Outside, about 200 protesters jeered and chanted “Fascist thugs off our streets.” Police scuffled with several demonstrators who tried to block a street to prevent a demonstration of pro-Wilders activists from the English Defense League from approaching Parliament.
The bleach-blond politician later held court for the British media, replete with quotes from Thomas Jefferson, George Orwell and references to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
My gut reaction to “Fitna” and to Wilders is to recoil. I can’t help but be reminded of bigotry against Jews, against “the other.” How can one not recoil at an ideology that “defends” Western culture by assuming an anti-immigration posture, by adopting what appears to be un-liberal positions against people who are different? How can a tolerant, open society assume such a radical position?
I’m reminded also of the people who denied entrance to “Orientals,” i.e. Jews, even as we were in danger of being murdered en masse during WWII.
In Europe this followed centuries of exclusion, isolation and abuse. In America, Jews were vilified as a threat– American industrialist Henry Ford created an anti-Semitic newspaper and widely disseminated “The International Jew,” which is undiluted anti-Semitism of the worst kind.
Of course this wasn’t purely a Western reaction. There was and is more antisemitism in the East than people want to admit.
Regardless, the Jews were trapped during WWII and millions died. Propaganda against Jews– including “The Protocols” (which was also distributed in the Middle East), American anti-Semitism and Nazi films like “The Jew Suss,” which was a huge commercial hit in Nazi Germany– reinforced existing prejudice against Jews.
The lesson is simple: when people are convincingly, repetitively portrayed as evil it should come as no surprise that society turns against them– especially if they are “other,” an exotic minority, different in custom, dress and appearance.
In times that stress the fabric of civility– economic hard times, war, disease, famine– ordinarily decent people can become mobs. Lynchings, even mass murders can and have resulted. Usually it is “the other” who is targeted.
I think it can be argued that post-colonial guilt and guilt over the Shoah helped drive the acceptance of mass immigration into Europe.
America is based on immigration and has to a large extent succeeded in creating a “melting pot” that yet maintains a considerable multicultural, international flavor, particularly in the big cities.
We are admittedly still struggling with racism– it’s a factor driving the far right’s reaction against President Obama. We try to ignore the third world nation within– the reservations where remnants of the First Nations live, often in poverty and under terrific stress.
There are anti-immigration voices galore in the US today, mostly directed at Mexicans; some of this stems from fear that jobs and benefits are being “stolen” and some of it is bigotry– particularly I think in the Southwest where I grew up. This is in spite of the strongly Spanish and Mexican heritage of the region; as a young person I found anti-Mexican bigotry shocking. But there it is.
In spite of all that I think America– because we are a nation of immigrants, because we’ve deliberately stressed integration– has escaped some of what’s confronting Europe today.
Rather than accepting floods of immigrants, particularly the poor and people who were markedly different, Europe flowed outward, into empires. Wealth flowed in from colonies around the world, though the people did not.
The “natives” were not exactly regarded as equals. As recently at the early 1970’s my well-educated, highly intelligent British professor who’d come to the US from Kenya referred to the Africans as “wogs.” In fact I think the department head continued using the term until finally in the early 1990s it cost him his chairmanship.
After WWII, though, mass immigration flowed into Europe, beyond economic need and with some striking results. There doesn’t seem to have been the kind of integration we’ve generally seen in America. This piece discusses the Muslim immigration particularly and reflects disquiet that has resulted in the resurgence of far right, all-white political parties, anti-Muslim bigotry, hate speech from some Muslims against the West from within the West, resurgent anti-Semitism– and “Fitna.”
Here comes the hard part, one that challenges the liberal desire to accept “the other,” one that challenges the desire to embrace multiculturalism which after all has brought so much richness to the West.
Harry’s Place isn’t alone in publishing report after report of radical immigrants to Europe, or the radicalized children of immigrants who haven’t assimilated, who haven’t adopted Western, liberal culture, but who seem to be using democratic means to work against liberal democracy. This has resulted in terrorism in Europe, in segregation; it’s creating stress within communities; there are pockets of poverty and neighborhoods, for example in France, where even the police don’t go.
There are examples aplenty of politicians seeking election who, at worst, like Galloway, exploit Muslim communities and themselves have adopted the Hamas platform; at best one sees Labour politicians eager for votes apparently signaling their acceptance of certain aspects of anti-liberal culture. Media, even the formerly liberal/left Guardian, seem to have become platforms for the most radical interpretations of anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Semitic writers.
The impact on women’s rights alone could be significant. Freedom of speech is challenged even within the university.
Art is challenged. People have been murdered or threatened with death for making films, writing novels, for drawing cartoons.
It’s impossible not to see this attack on art alone, on creativity, as a real threat to sacred pillars of Western civilization– the right to create, the right to stand up to religious hierarchy, the right to be secular, even the right to be outrageous. Stifling those rights represent real threats to Western and post-Enlightenment values that we hold dear.
So, I hate to admit it but my feelings about Geert Wilders are becoming more mixed than I would wish.
I do think there is a real danger of an anti-Muslim backlash, that anti-Muslim, anti-Islam propaganda can be as dangerous as anti-Semitism. I think there’s a big danger of neo-fascism emerging as a powerful element of Western politics, not only in Europe but possibly in America as well.
But, I also think that certain cultural aspects coming from Africa, the Middle East and Asia are antithetical to Western culture.
How do we reassert our cultural and political values without crossing the line into bigotry and xenophobia?