As the world focuses on Florida pastor Terry Jones, a September 11 event in New York City will include a surprisingly successful European politician who has spent his career defaming Islam, and who has produced a film that features a Quran in flames.
Geert Wilders, head of The Netherlands “Freedom Party,” will speak Saturday at a “rally of remembrance” that includes congressional candidates from New York and North Carolina, a taped message from former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, and support from radio talk host Rush Limbaugh.
Mr. Wilders is widely known in Europe for a platform to ban the Quran, along with new mosques, and Muslim immigrants – and for his incendiary speeches. He calls Islam “the ideology of a retarded culture” and likens the Quran to “Mein Kampf.”
In New York, along with his rally appearance, he will explore the creation of a transatlantic “Freedom Alliance” of anti-Islam fellow travelers from the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
While Mr. Jones is dismissed as a small-time extremist, analysts say, Wilders has a sophisticated message against Islam that attracts sections of the European mainstream. While Jones is a traditional right-winger, Wilders is an amalgam. He supports gay and women’s causes, argues Enlightenment values, and wants a cosmopolitan society – just one free of Islam. Wilders is part of a globalizing anti-Islamic creed that seeks to portray itself as a reasonable emerging voice, his critics say.
“Wilders plays on public fears of the erosion of Western values and the use and misuse of Islamic rhetoric by violent extremist groups,” argues Astrid Ziebarth, a program officer at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “He portrays himself as a fearless knight opposing an army of Muslim migrants. And he fends off criticism by also defending rights for women and gays and by being a staunch defender of the state of Israel.”
Only a few years ago Wilders was seen as something of a flamboyant crank – after trying to broadcast a virulently anti-Islamic film on Dutch public TV – a version of which showed pages of the Quran swathed in flames. (Wilders eventually backed off after warnings the film, “Fitna,” could harm Dutch troops in Afghanistan; a “Fitna” showing was banned in Britain.)
Yet this June Wilders shocked many Europeans by placing third in Dutch national elections; his party jumped from 9 to 24 seats. He spent the summer negotiating a place in the ruling coalition before backing out several days ago. His New York appearance comes courtesy of Stop Islamization in America, a group headed by the anti-Islam blogger Pamela Geller, a leading opponent of the Cordoba Initiative's propose Islamic center near ground zero.
The New York rally will offer prayers by a rabbi and a minister for the victims of 9/11, and it will oppose the building of the center on the site of a former Burlington Coat factory two blocks from the old World Trade Center.
Ms. Geller describes the plan as an effort to “establish a beachhead for political Islam and Islamic [supremacy] in New York;” she is a blistering critic of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, arguing recently on her website that, “He is now widening his ayatollah-like power grab to imposing [sic] blasphemy laws (Islamic sharia laws) on the secular marketplace.”
The Anti-Defamation League, which was an early opponent of the Islamic center but has reversed its position, issued a statement against both the rally and Wilders. Former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich has also declined to participate.
Wilders, who lives under 24 hour protection, and was recently the subject of a call by a radical Australian imam for beheading, has praised Geller’s recent book, “The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s war on America.” Wilders described it as a “chilling analysis,” of a policy by President Obama to erode America’s role in the world: "America is the last man standing and it is vital that the people of Europe adopt the attitude of proud American citizens and learn that it is not shameful to be proud of ones heritage," Wilders writes.
Wilders emerged from “rough-and-tumble” Dutch politics, says Ms. Ziebart, at a time when Europe has become more openly questioning of Muslim populations. Greater ambiguities between free speech and hate speech are emerging.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel waded into the issue this week. She defended the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who parodied the prophet Mohammad, as representing a continent where free speech is a sacred right – in the same speech in which she denounced as “repugnant” the planned Quran burning by Jones.
On Friday, the German central banker Thilo Sarrazin left his post following outcry over a book published last week in Berlin titled “Germany Does Away with Itself.” Mr. Sarrazin, whose political career is on the German left, warns of a nation that will soon be unrecognizable as Muslim immigrants with “lower IQs” out-populate Germans.
While Wilders and Jones appear politically and geographically far apart, analysts note that until 2009, Jones was the pastor of a fundamentalist church in Cologne, Germany, close to the Netherlands – at a time when Wilders’s message and the film “Fitna” were beginning to kick up controversy in the region. Jones was kicked out by his congregation, German, according to media reports, after a strident anti-Islamic message began to frighten worshippers, and after he urged parents to severely strike misbehaving children.
Karim Emile Bitar, a fellow at the Paris-based International Institute for Strategic Research, says, “Europeans are having a field day poking fun at Terry Jones the unsophisticated mustachioed crackpot pastor from Florida … but Europe should be confronting its own demons. Dutch populist leader Geert Wilders and [other European writers] are perhaps more articulate than Jones but this only makes their responsibility bigger and their rhetoric more poisonous.”