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Mar 07,2017 - Last updated at Mar 07,2017
If polls are to be trusted — especially after missing their target in the US presidential elections and the Brexit vote last year — the party of the most controversial politician in the Netherlands is projected to win most seats in the March 15 parliamentary elections.
Geert Wilders, the 53-year-old founder and leader of the populist Party for Freedom (PVV), is running on a platform that promises to “de-Islamise” the Netherlands, close mosques and ban the Koran, limit immigration and take his country out of the EU.
The PVV has come to represent the growing ultra-nationalist, anti-multiculturalism and anti-immigration movement that is gripping most European countries today.
While Wilders’ party will not be able to govern alone, it can be expected to also fail to find partners to form a ruling coalition.
But its mark on Dutch and European politics will be felt for a long time to come.
His contentious stands on Islam and Muslims, immigration and globalisation are a manifestation of the rise of illiberal democracy in Europe and America.
His movement shares common goals with Britain’s UK Independence Party (UKIP), which championed the Brexit path, France’s National Front, whose leader Marine Le Pen is projected to win the first round of the country’s presidential elections in April, and Italy’s Northern League.
A string of far-right ultra-nationalist parties is making its mark in Germany, Austria and even Scandinavian countries.
At the heart of this populist wave is the drive to preserve the identity of majority white, Christian and monocultural European societies.
It represents a backlash against globalisation, multiculturalism and immigration especially from Muslim countries.
What is particularly dangerous about this phenomenon is that its advocates are willing to sacrifice post-World War II European values of inclusion and liberal democracy in order to safeguard the nation’s cultural identity from a perceived Muslim threat.
The trend can be found in East European countries as well, such as Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary.
The EU has become the main target of these populist movements, blamed, sometimes falsely, for allowing the inflow of mainly Muslim immigrants and adopting economic policies that threaten the middle class, the welfare system and local industries.
Like Wilders, Le Pen promised to take France out of the EU, a move that while unlikely in the near future could spell the end of this troubled union.
Outrage against what is perceived as corrupt and scandal-ridden ruling establishments has given traction to populist movements that play on ultra-nationalistic, racist and religious sentiments.
Unlike America, European millennials are becoming more conservative today as they search for a national identity.
The emergence of neo-Nazi groups in Germany, where Adolf Hitler’s autobiographical work, “Mein Kampf”, was a best seller in 2016, is especially worrying.
Many European cities are witnessing a spike in anti-Semitic attacks, while Muslim immigrants are complaining of discrimination and hate speech.
Similar rise in hate crimes targeting Jews and Muslims are being reported in the US following Donald Trump’s victory last year.
But how serious is the so-called Muslim problem for Europe?
Muslims make up only 5 per cent of the population of the Netherlands, but Wilders has made them the central target of his populist campaign.
It is true that for various socio-economic reasons European Muslims tend to live in closed communities and are frequently accused of failing to integrate in society.
Furthermore, there are radical Muslim figures in some European countries that reject European values and ideals, and adopt extremist views that call for the ultimate Islamisation of Europe.
They represent a minority and do not speak for Europe’s Muslims.
The fact that second generation European Muslims have carried out terrorist attacks in Europe or have joined jihadist militant organisations in Syria gives the far-right much needed ammunition to spread Islamophobic beliefs among a weary and confused electorate.
Muslims make up between 6 and 7 per cent of Europe’s population today, with the highest percentages in Germany and France (about 5 and 8 per cent respectively).
The far-right claim that Muslims will eventually take over Europe or Islamise the continent in few decades is false.
Reliable studies suggest that Muslims will make up 8 per cent of Europe’s population by 2030, or 58 million.
The same studies project that less than 3 per cent of the world’s Muslims are expected to be living in Europe in 2030, about the same percentage as in 2010 (2.7 per cent).
Still, failure to integrate into European society represents a real and alarming challenge. It is one that requires deeper investigation of the socioeconomic reality of Muslim communities in Europe today.
Even more worrying is the tide of radicalisation that is influencing young European Muslims.
While Western policies towards Muslim countries may present part of the explanation, one has to look at the state of the Muslim world today and the struggle that is going on between various doctrinal schools within Islam and its spillovers.
Dealing with radicalism and extremism is something that has to start right here, in the heart of the Muslim world. That process will be long and arduous.
Meanwhile, the question for Europe is how to contain the current populist wave.
Last December, Austrian voters rejected the far-right presidential candidate in favour of a left-leaning moderate option.
The message was heartening for those who believe that at the end of the day, Europeans will choose wisely and will not allow far-right politics to rule the day.
The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
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