Throughout Western Europe, populists on the right have espoused anti-Islam rhetoric for many years. Banning the construction of mosques as well as the wearing of the burqa is now, in some countries, part of mainstream conservative thought. America’s political right is only just discovering the windfall to be gained from Islam bashing however.
Even in the wake of 9/11, Republicans took care not to demonize the Arab world at large. President George W. Bush could be very explicit in stressing that Muslims were not the enemy. In November 2002, for instance, he criticized evangelical Christians who rallied against Islam, noting that, “Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion.” The president promised that America would not “let the War on Terror or terrorists cause us to change our values.”
But it has, as evidenced by the recent controversy over the planned construction of a Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan, mere blocks away from the site where once stood the towers of the World Trade Center. A “not in our own backyard” sentiment has exploded even in America’s greatest of melting pots; a metropolis once renowned for its open mindedness and cultural diversity.
Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, now believes framing the War of Terror as such was a mistake. “This is not a war on terrorism,” he told an audience of two hundred at the American Enterprise Institute last month; “this is a struggle with radical Islamists.”
Sarah Palin, former vice presidential candidate and until July of last year governor of Alaska, has called the construction of the “Ground Zero mosque,” as the project has been dubbed by its opponents, an “unnecessary provocation.” Just one year earlier, in Hong Kong, she was careful to note that the War on Terror “is not, as some have said, a clash of civilizations.” At the time, she believed that America was “not at war with Islam.”
Europe has had its fair share of such hypocrisy for several years. Hypocrisy, because instead of undermining the intellectual foundation of an ideology that preaches violence and destruction, Europe’s anti-Islamic rabble rousers have, in the guise of contesting radicalism, focused almost entirely on the symbolic.
In November of last year, Switzerland imposed a ban on the construction of minarets throughout the country, the only natural effect of which will be a further estrangement of Muslims who merely seek to practice their religion in peace. France, last January, decided to ban the burqa, the full facial veil worn by no more than a tiny fraction of conservative Muslim women living in the West. In France, a mere 2,000 women are estimated to wear a burqa or similar garment but as a result of its ban, all Muslims see their religious freedoms slowly evaporate.
Perhaps Europe’s most infamous of Islamic critics is Geert Wilders from the Netherlands whose Freedom Party will likely become part of the next Dutch government. Wilders has campaigned against what he describes as the Islamification of the Netherlands for many years, proposing to ban the burqa, the Quran and closing Islamic schools. He has consistently criticized the political establishment for allowing Islam to gain a foothold in the 1990s, blissfully ignoring its supposed incompatibility with Western tradition in the name of cultural relativism. His popularity has only increased as a result.
Wilders is scheduled to speak at Ground Zero on September 11 as part of a rally against the Islamic community center being built nearby. American conservatives, including Newt Gingrich, will join him.
Europe’s and America’s newfound backlash against Islam have similar reasons and are fueled by similar factions.
Both in Europe and in the United States, there is a crisis of confidence among intellectuals and representatives of traditional power structures about the superiority of their culture and values.
In Europe, this lack of confidence is older and harkens back to the post-colonial guilt and cultural relativism of the 1960s which led a whole generation of political leaders, mostly on the left, to turn a blind eye on the mounting frustration experienced particularly among the lower classes with a seemingly endless influx of migrants. These people, who traditionally voted for social-democratic or Labor parties, saw their neighborhoods change, sometimes deteriorate; their worlds literally turned upside down because of urban renewal projects; low-incomes jobs being shipped overseas, all the while their political representatives reveled in the wonders of globalization. It seemed to them as though the politicians who claimed to defend their interests simply didn’t know, let alone understand their problems.
Since the turn of the century, this constituency of largely working-class voters has turned to more radical solutions. They supported Jörg Haider in Austria, Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, People’s Parties in Denmark and Switzerland, and more recently, Geert Wilders. What these political leaders and parties shared were blunt anti-immigration policies, a nationalistic tone and a fierce agitation against the establishment. Although readily identified as “far right,” most actually maintained fairly socialistic economic positions, opposing, for instance, raising the retirement age and favoring a certain measure of protectionism to secure jobs.
In most Western European countries, these anti-immigration platforms are in the process of being institutionalized as part of the political landscape. With the exception of France, all aforementioned parties either have been or are expected to become part of governing coalitions. They subsequently temper their rhetoric while working to enact real solutions, not banning the Quran or deporting criminals whose parents hail from Arab countries but imposing immigration controls and tougher prison sentencing for what is otherwise low level crime.
In the United States, a similar crisis of confidence is developing though it is both more recent and more defined. The Tea Party phenomenon is the most noticeable expression of a mounting discontent among a majority of Americans with what Newt Gingrich calls the secular-socialist machine that is the Obama Administration. Many Americans fear that their country’s traditions are being squandered by the current government in favor of European-style socialism.
In reality, America has been a welfare state for many decades and even most Tea Partiers supports its most pervasive of programs: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Like the European anti-immigration parties, Republicans in the United States today may strike a nationalistic tone, denouncing the Democrats’ policies as “European” (i.e., foreign) but they usually won’t propose to curb on entitlements. They understand that what’s driving their base is what’s driving disenfranchised voters in Europe: fear, of the future and the unknown, and, perhaps even more so, anger. Politically, it’s much more expedient to try to capitalize on such emotions than offer sound policy alternatives.
In fairness, there have been several Republican legislators who dare to voice bold, libertarian solutions to America’s pressing budget woes and evermore expansive government. They are urging Democrats as well as their own party to discover anew the virtues of austerity and fiscal balance in government and letting the free market reign. But overwhelmingly, Americans, like their counterparts across the Atlantic, agree that there is a place for government in nearly every sector of the economy, no matter the rhetoric.
In essence, the differences between the major parties in the United States are still slim. So when health care reform came to Congress, most opposition members retorted to scare tactics, warning of “death panels” and denouncing their pro-choice colleagues as “baby killers.” With immigration reform looming, Republicans, again, rather simplify reality than face the inevitable necessity of changing America’s current immigration structure.
By framing the War on Terror as a clash of civilizations and by warning that immigration reform will “open the floodgates” to admit a stream of malevolent, job stealing Mexicans into the country, Republicans are thriving on a nationalistic, increasingly isolationist current of populist fury that is also fiercely anti-establishment. Within a few years, no matter their popularity today and likely electoral successes in the near future, that could easily come back to haunt them, as it did in 2006 and 2008.
For almost thirty years now, the Republican Party has understood that preaching family values and talking of America as a shining beacon of Christendom is more likely to attract voters than volunteering solutions that either slightly or starkly differ from the left’s. Newt Gingrich stills describes the United States as “an intensely religious country that believes our rights come from God” while simultaneously trying to appeal to the small-government conservatives and libertarians in the Tea Party. Perhaps the November midterms and remaining years of Barack Obama’s presidency will determine whether those two, seemingly opposite, sentiments can be mixed to revitalize the Republican base.