"I have a message for all those people who want to rob us from [sic] our freedoms, and my message is, 'Stay in your own country!'"
With those words, Geert Wilders brought his Middle Tennessee audience to its feet last week for one of several standing ovations. If the message was familiar to the audience at Madison's Cornerstone Church, the messenger was more exotic. Tall and slim with luxuriant waves of bleached-blonde hair, Wilders is a flamboyant and controversial Dutch Parliamentarian who has ridden the rising tide of European Islamophobia to international notoriety.
Wilders came to Nashville to headline the inaugural Signature Event of the newly formed Tennessee Freedom Coalition, an organization co-founded by former congressional candidate, Tea Party identifier and noted Murfreesboro mosque opponent Lou Ann Zelenik. The event had to thrill its organizers. The cavernous mega-church was packed May 12 with an appreciative, overwhelmingly white and late-middle-aged crowd.
Dubbed "A Warning to America," Wilders' speech laid out point by point what has become a right-wing catechism. Western Judeo-Christian "civilization" is superior to all others and must be defended; Islam is a force for evil, exempt from First Amendment protections since it is not actually a religion but a jihadist hate-campaign; non-Western immigrants cannot or will not assimilate to Western values; mosques (or as Wilders put it more colorfully, "hate palaces") are breeding grounds for home-grown holy war; and, most incomprehensibly, the imposition of Sharia law is an imminent threat.
The message sounds like good, old-fashioned American bigotry, but it was preached, in this case, by a European politician from a country known for its progressive tolerance. This should no longer be surprising. If you have not been paying close attention over the past decade, and your most recent trip to Amsterdam remained restricted to the Red Light District, the pot cafés, Paradiso and the Melkweg, you may be forgiven for imaging that the Netherlands remains basically the open, tolerant, multicultural capital of sex, drugs and democracy that we all envy and admire. Moreover, if your observations are restricted to Amsterdam's city center, you might further imagine that the country's population remains overwhelmingly comprised of tall, slim, pale, bicycle-riding ethnic Dutch.
In fact, Holland's Muslim population has exploded in recent decades, owing to the influx of Moroccan and Turkish immigrants, at least in the urbanized Randstad (the agglomeration of Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam and The Hague). These immigrants are largely confined to suburban "dish cities," characterized by subsidized apartment complexes on which satellite receivers sprout like mushrooms, beaming in Al Jazeera, and according to critics, providing electronic insulation from Western assimilation.
In the last decade, once super-liberal Holland moved to the vanguard of the European right-wing reaction against these sorts of demographic shifts. Left-wing leaders in the Dutch parliament were blindsided by the rapid ascension of the charismatic populist Pim Fortuyn in 2001, whose faction achieved remarkable electoral success on the strength of single-minded appeals to immigrant exclusion. Fortuyn's assassination in 2002 by a crazy, ethnically Dutch animal rights activist, Volkert van der Graaf, elevated him to the status of martyr.
Even more damaging to the cause of cultural détente, though, was the murder in an Amsterdam park of the film-maker and provocateur Theo van Gogh (great grand-nephew of Vincent) by a Dutch-born Muslim extremist, Mohammed Bouyeri. The underemployed son of Moroccan immigrants, Bouyeri had apparently been radicalized by perusing Jihadist web sites. Van Gogh was killed in November 2004, the day before American voters returned George Bush to the White House.
Wilders has stepped into the space left vacant by the murders of Fortuyn and van Gogh. He mimics their message of intolerance for Islam, which he offers as synonymous with barbarism. (That term littered Wilders' speech in Madison, as did its other, civilization — the thing "we" must defend.) From Fortuyn he borrows a flamboyant dandyism, best exemplified in his case by the peroxide hair, and from van Gogh the tactic of producing obnoxious short films on the alleged Islamic passions for rape, incest, pedophilia, and genital mutilation.
Though still serving in Parliament, Wilders is under indictment in Dutch courts for fomenting hate speech, often by comparing the Koran to Mein Kampf. Mindful of the fates of his Islam-bashing role models, he surrounds himself with bodyguards. They ostentatiously flanked him on the stage at Cornerstone, sternly clocking the audience for potential threats.
None surfaced that Thursday night, even as Wilders insisted that the Koran was actually worse than Mein Kampf, and also that the prophet "Muhammad was a terrorist worse than bin Laden ever was." Wilders' current legal difficulties let him cast himself as a martyr for free speech, even as he repeatedly called for banning the holy book of the world's second largest religion.
In fact, the event's most curious contradiction was the repeated invocation of the First Amendment at an evening dedicated to religious intolerance and the seamless blending of Christian theology with right-wing politics. Cornerstone Pastor Maury Davis blessed the proceedings, making clear that the views expressed in the program absolutely were those of the ministry. Emcee Steve Gill, relating how Revolutionary War church leaders would cap off services by leading the congregants into battle against the Redcoats, assured the crowd that "the founders understood that there was no such thing as the separation of church and state" (another big applause line).
Skating on the razor's edge of tax-exempt status, the church event assured the probably-not-bipartisan audience that "this is not a Democrat (sic) or a Republican issue, but an American issue." Barack Obama's name was never mentioned, though federal tyranny was. At the same time, a repeated motif was that Islam forfeits the right to First Amendment protection since it is a political movement, not a religion — the substance of Zelenik's legal challenge to the Islamic Community Center in Murfreesboro.
Yet there are important differences between right-wing populism in its Dutch and American variants — differences Wilders cannily elided. In the Netherlands, more than a quarter of the population is made up of avowed atheists, and Wilders is a self-identified agnostic. Moreover, like the openly gay Fortuyn, in his own country Wilders frequently casts his opposition to Islam as a defense of feminism and gay rights. These appeals did not find their way into his speech Thursday night.
Instead, the theme was unity against the subversive Other. Warm-up act Bill Warner, founder of the Center for the Study of Political Islam, noted that Wilders and a third speaker, a Muslim apostate who calls himself Sam Solomon, were not native-born Americans. "But Sam and Geert and I are neighbors," Warner insisted. "We live in the same civilization."
Solomon, meanwhile, despite looking and sounding like a Muslim — he even intoned several lines from the Koran in Arabic, likely a first for the Cornerstone pulpit — signaled his willingness to assimilate to Nashville ways with a clownishly large Western belt buckle and a cowboy hat, just like us locals wear.
"We should be proud to proclaim that our culture is better than the Islamic culture," Wilders thundered to yet another standing ovation, adding that "a moderate Islam does not exist and will never exist." Given the extremism of our enemies, we have no choice but to respond in kind. Reminiscent of Barry Goldwater's assertion that "moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue," Wilders insisted that "neutrality in the face of evil is evil itself."
This is how populism works, or more particularly the variant historian David Brion Davis, writing about an earlier era of anti-Catholic and anti-Masonic bigotry, called "countersubversion." In this calculation, if we have to trash our constitution in order to save it, well, they leave us no choice.