He is a politician who claims to have nothing against Muslims, and that he only hates Islam. He is a charismatic man with peroxide-blonde hair, elegant, eloquent and precisely the type of politician that has put fear into the hearts of Germany's mainstream political parties in recent weeks.
He is Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician of a stripe that doesn't yet exist in Germany: a populist who stirs up hatred against Islam and the establishment, and who has taken away many votes from the traditional parties in his native Netherlands. So many, in fact, that they now can hardly form a government without giving him a share of power.
Wilders is the central figure of a movement that has been expanding its following in Europe for years, entering parliaments and governments, and ensuring that minarets were banned in Switzerland and burqas in Belgium. It is a sort of popular uprising against Islam, spearheaded by right-wing politicians and journalists throughout Europe. They portray themselves as people who are willing to express a sentiment they claim no one else dares to express: that Muslims are undermining Europe and that the West must be saved. And the approach has been successful.
'An Ideology that Opposes Everything that Matters to Us'
The man who invited Wilders to speak in the German capital Berlin this coming Saturday would like to emulate the Dutch politician. René Stadtkewitz, 45, a well-dressed man with a short haircut, was recently ejected from the Berlin branch of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which he represented for years as a backbencher in the Berlin city-state parliament. He has now founded a new party called "Die Freiheit" ("Freedom"), named after Wilders' Freedom Party.
Wilders is traveling to Berlin to help Stadtkewitz inaugurate the new party. Anyone who hopes to catch a glimpse of the prominent guest must register online and pay an admission fee in advance. For security reasons, only registered attendees who have paid the admission fee are told where the event will take place.
Stadkewitz, eating Moroccan couscous in the cafeteria of the Berlin city-state parliament, says that "Geert's" call for the institution of a headscarf tax in the Netherlands is really a great idea. Wilders' visit has cost him €12,000 ($16,200). Stadkewitz sees it as a worthwhile investment. "Islam may also be a religion," he says. "But mainly it's an ideology that opposes everything that matters to us."
Stadkewitz is in a hurry. He is about to give a Dutch television team a tour of Berlin in his BMW. He wants to show them the Muslim parallel society that is supposedly being kept under wraps in the German media.
A Lightning Rod for Popular Anger
A debate has been triggered in Germany by a new book by Thilo Sarrazin, a controversial politician with the center-left Social Democrats, in which he describes Muslim immigrants as an existential threat for Germany. Ever since the book was published and met with popular approval, many columnists, academics and politicians have been asking themselves whether Germany will remain an exception in terms of its political landscape. It is still the only country in Western Europe that lacks a right-wing populist party that acts as a lightning rod for popular anger targeted at Islam and the political establishment.
In recent months, right-wing populist parties have thwarted majority governments in three European Union countries: Belgium, the Netherlands and, most recently, Sweden. Although right-wing populists in the latter country only captured 5.7 percent of the vote, it was enough to deprive the incumbent center-right coalition of an absolute majority. All three countries were long known for their liberalism, but now political parties are gaining influence that see Islam as "our biggest foreign threat since World War II," as Jimmie Akesson, the 31-year-old chairman of the Sweden Democrats, puts it.
Right-wing populist parties have been a part of coalition governments in Italy and Switzerland for years, and they hold seats in the parliaments of Denmark, Austria, Norway and Finland. Jean-Marie Le Pens' National Front captured 9 percent of the vote in last spring's French regional elections with a targeted anti-Islamic campaign. In March, Italy's Northern League gained control of the regions of Venice and Piedmont. During the election campaign, party supporters handed out soap samples, to be used, as they said, "after having touched an immigrant."
Parties Discover the Power of Islamophobia
Right-wing populism itself isn't anything new. It has been a fixed entity for about 30 years in many European countries, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. What is new, however, is that the right-wing populists have discovered an issue that is much more appealing to voters than the usual anger against foreigners and the political class. They have found a powerful new issue in resistance against the growing visibility of Islam in Europe. They portray themselves as the defenders of European values, and yet both they and their voters seem to care very little that some of those values, such as freedom of religion, are being trampled on in the struggle.
The fear that Muslim immigrants could change the character of European society penetrates deeply into the middle of society. In German opinion polls, about three-quarters of respondents say they are concerned about the influence of Islam. Similar sentiments are voiced in other countries, even though immigration to Europe has been in decline for years.
Barbaric practices in some Islamic countries -- when women are forced to wear burqas, gays and lesbians are persecuted and adulterers are stoned, all under the pretext of religion -- are undoubtedly deeply contrary to modern European values. And there is no question that many countries face severe problems with integrating immigrants into society. But these things alone do not explain the discomfort. Rather, it stems from the fact that the established parties have failed to give their voters the feeling that they are addressing these issues. The economic crisis of the past couple of years has also unnerved the middle class. Europe is aging, and other, younger regions of the world are catching up. Many people are worried about the future in a globalized world, one in which the balance of power is shifting.
Decline of Traditional Center-Left Parties
In the northern European countries, in particular, the rise of the populists goes hand-in-hand with a decline in support for the traditional center-left social democratic parties. This is partly because immigrants are as likely as anyone to abuse the system in the kind of social welfare states promoted by social democratic parties. But it is also because the traditional parties have become bogged down in the details of integration policy.
They have created integration specialists, immigration offices and integration conferences, but they have lost sight of citizens' concerns. And because they are also in favor of free speech, feminism and secularism, they are incapable of defending themselves against right-wing populists, who cite the same values of free speech, feminism and secularism in defending their battles against headscarves, minarets and mosques. The only difference is that the right-wing populists are more vocal and simplify the issues to the point that their position seems logical.
The Sweden Democrats, which have their origins within the extreme right, have learned from modern right-wing populists like Wilders as well as the Danish People's Party (DF) and its chairwoman, Pia Kjaersgaard. During the recent election campaign, the Sweden Democrats had a television ad showing an elderly woman who, as she is struggling along with her wheeled walker, is almost run over by women in burqas pushing their strollers. The women in burqas are hurrying toward a desk labeled "Government Budget." "On Sept. 19, you can pull the immigration brake -- and not the pension brake," says a voice.
Conservativism Meets Left-Wing Policies
Pitting immigrants against pensioners is one of Wilders' tactics. He brings together right-wing and left-wing policies, Islamophobia and the fear of exploitation of the social welfare state. "It is one of our biggest successes, this combination of being culturally conservative, on the one hand, and leftist on other issues," says Wilders, who characterizes himself as someone who is against immigration but has "a warm heart for the weak and the elderly."
Wilders was one of the first politicians to consistently use Islam as an issue, and many have followed his example. It is telling that the anti-Islam movement did not get underway directly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, even though they were the main trigger of the current uncertainty and fear of Islamist terror. Instead, it has only reached its climax today, years later.
On the surface, this new right wing has little in common with the old right wing, even though the first far-right European politician began inveighing against Muslims as long ago as the 1970s and 80s. That was Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of France's National Front, who targeted immigrants from the former French colonies in North Africa. Le Pen made a career for himself as an angry outsider. He was primitive and old-fashioned, often racist and anti-Semitic, and yet he managed to upend the political landscape. In the first round of the 2002 presidential elections, he even captured more votes than the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin. It was a shock for the French elite.
What happened in France has happened in many other countries since then, countries in which the traditional parties have sought to sideline the far right: The centrist politicians have moved to the right. This was the case in Denmark, where the Danish People's Party has given its parliamentary support to a right-liberal minority government since 2001. And even though the populists are not part of the government, Denmark has tightened its immigration laws considerably.
France's New National Front
When the current French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, began his campaign in 2007, it was difficult to distinguish some of his rhetoric from Le Pen's. For example, he suggested that people who "slaughter sheep in their bathtubs" were unwelcome in France, and he won the election because he brought together votes from the right. Now Sarkozy will probably soon be confronted with a new National Front, a toned-down -- but perhaps more dangerous -- version of its former self. Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the party's founder, will campaign for the party's chairmanship in January and intends to create a party that could also appeal to the political center.
Marine Le Pen portrays herself as non-dogmatic and intellectual. She wears business suits and distributes kisses during her campaign appearances at markets in the Paris metropolitan area. "I want to unite all the French," she says. At the same time, like Wilders, she raves against the burqa and Islamization. She too has recognized that targeted Islamophobia is more promising than traditional xenophobia.
Le Pen poses a threat to Sarkozy, whose own shift to the right this year reveals how seriously he takes that threat. The debate he has launched in France over "national identity" is clearly directed against Muslims, and he has also embarked on a campaign to deport the Roma. So far, these tactics have done nothing for Sarkozy in the polls.
The transformation of the National Front is only one example of the new anti-Islamic mainstream among Western Europe's right-wing populist parties. This is the issue that unites all of these parties throughout Europe, which have even taken to borrowing each other's marketing ideas. For example, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) copied a game from the website of Swiss People's Party (SVP), in which players shoot at minarets popping up in their familiar landscape. The only difference was that the Austrian version also included the option of shooting at the muezzins.
This is a new phenomenon, and it cannot hide the fact that there are still many differences among the parties that are being lumped together under the heading of right-wing populism. It is certainly true that most of them have always been anti-immigration, have positioned themselves against the political elite, have had charismatic leaders and have done particularly well in countries in which the established parties cultivate a culture of consensus. But a neoliberal with rural roots like Swiss politician Christoph Blocher of the SVP has very little in common with the French demagogue Le Pen. Their origins are too different, as are many of the details of their policies.
It is the shared concept of Islam as the enemy that now makes them ideological allies. Still, it is unlikely that these parties will continue to cooperate across borders in the future, despite Wilders' dream of spearheading such a movement throughout Europe. The "International Freedom Alliance" he established in July has two goals: to "defend freedom" and "stop Islam." In a video which is currently the only content on the alliance's website, Wilders says that he wants to pool the existing forces against Islam, in Germany, France, Britain, Canada and the United States.
When asked about Wilders' initiative, Marine Le Pen told SPIEGEL: "Without a concerted revolution, our civilization is ultimately doomed." This may be an acknowledgement of common goals, but it doesn't sound like she necessarily wants to join Wilders' organization.
Handsome Speaking Fees
So far, Wilders has only been successful abroad with right-wing Islamophobic groups in the United States. At the invitation of these groups, he has traveled around the United States for years, collecting awards for his supposed battle to uphold freedom of speech and giving talks to enthusiastic fans -- and collecting handsome speaking fees in the process.
David Horowitz, a millionaire conservative online journalist with anti-Islamic views, told the Dutch television station Avro that he pays Wilders a $20,000 speaking fee. Horowitz describes Wilders as the "Winston Churchill" of the war against Islam. On the ninth anniversary of 9/11, Wilders attended a rally at Ground Zero, where he spoke out against the planned construction of an Islamic community center two blocks away from the site.
American audiences are more enthusiastic about Wilders, who tells them horror stories about how Muslims have infiltrated Europe, than his fans in any other country. Muslims make up only 1 percent of the US population, and while the anger of voters of right-wing populists in Europe is directed against actual immigrants in their countries, conservative American groups cultivate an Islamophobia without Muslims. Some 50 percent of Americans now say that they have a negative impression of Islam, a higher percentage than after the 9/11 attacks.
'Thank You, Thilo Sarrazin!'
This weekend, Wilders will appear in Berlin as the representative of a political movement for which a market also seems to exist in Germany, even if it currently lack an effective salesman or saleswoman.
There will undoubtedly be an audience when former CDU politician René Stadtkewitz greets Wilders in Berlin. The German polemical website Politically Incorrect, a gathering place for the sharpest critics of Islam for years, is heavily promoting the appearance. The website is even selling T-shirts, for €19.90 apiece, imprinted with the words "Geert Wilders - Berlin - October 2, 2010" -- available in 19 different colors.
There are no Stadtkewitz T-shirts for sale, although the website does sell T-shirts imprinted with the words "Thank You, Thilo Sarrazin!"
MARKUS DEGGERICH, MANFRED ERTEL, JULIANE VON MITTELSTAEDT, MATHIEU VON ROHR, HANS-JÜRGEN SCHLAMP, STEFAN SIMONS
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