Europe has long had a tradition of Islam-bashing conservatism, but the Ground Zero mosque flare up shows Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich now in lockstep with the continent's worst.
On September 11, Geert Wilders, the ultranationalist Dutch politician who has suggested banning the Koran as hate speech, is speaking at Ground Zero, part of a rally against the Islamic community center being built nearby. He’ll be joined by Newt Gingrich, and in all likelihood other significant conservatives as well. Not long ago, the American right resisted the kind of overt Islamophobia that animates reactionary parties in Europe. The embrace of Wilders shows that this is no longer the case. A new type of religious bigotry has entered American politics, one more blatant than anything we’ve seen since the Twin Towers fell.
Even during the most terrifying days after September 11, or in the crazed and febrile period preceding the invasion of Iraq, the spokespeople for the American right mostly refrained from the outright demonization of Muslims. Some of the credit goes to George W. Bush, who, despite the odd slip of the tongue about America’s “crusade,” was usually careful to emphasize that American Muslims are not an internal enemy.
Recently, conservatives, including conservative politicians, have indulged in the sort of full-throated, shameless anti-Muslim prejudice more typical of the European far right.
In 2002, for example, he criticized the anti-Islam comments of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, saying, “Some of the comments that have been uttered about Islam do not reflect the sentiments of my government or the sentiments of most Americans. Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion…[W]e’re not going to let the War on Terror or terrorists cause us to change our values.”
Most conservatives paid lip service to the same idea. After all, the neoconservative fantasy of democratizing Muslim countries, destructive as it was, was premised on the idea that their citizens share some of our underlying values and aspirations. Even Sarah Palin, speaking in Hong Kong last year, went out of her way to sound tolerant. “This war—and that is what it is, a war—is not, as some have said, a clash of civilizations,” she said. “We are not at war with Islam. This is a war within Islam, where a small minority of violent killers seeks to impose their view on the vast majority of Muslims who want the same things all of us want: economic opportunity, education, and the chance to build a better life for themselves and their families.”
But the hysteria over the Cordoba Initiative has marked a tipping point. Recently, conservatives, including conservative politicians, have indulged in the sort of full-throated, shameless anti-Muslim prejudice more typical of the European far right. And so suddenly, Wilders finds himself with an expanding American audience.
The leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, Wilders has built his career on his hatred of Islam. In the peroration of a 2008 speech to the Dutch parliament, he demanded, “Do what the country needs. Stop all immigration from Muslim countries, ban all building of new mosques, close all Islamic schools, ban burqas and the Koran. Expel all criminal Muslims from the country… Accept your responsibility! Stop Islamification!” This wasn’t just hyperbole; elsewhere, he cited the precise provisions under Dutch law that would allow the government to make the Koran illegal. He’s also called on the government to issue what he calls a “head-rag tax” of €1,000 ($1,325) on women who wear a hijab. His message has resonated with enough Dutch people to give his party 24 seats in this summer’s elections, making it the third-largest in parliament.
American conservatives have usually avoided the kind of Muslim-baiting common among the European right. During the Bush administration, the responsibilities of power forced a measure of rhetorical restraint on the Republican Party. Besides, Muslims make up a much smaller percentage of the immigrant population in the United States than in most European countries, so they aren’t the main targets of anti-immigrant sentiment.
Finally, while Dutch conservatives attack Muslims for their hostility to homosexuals, sections of the American right once saw common cause between anti-gay Christians and Muslims. In his bestselling book The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, Dinesh D’Souza signaled his agreement with large swaths of the Islamist critique of American decadence. “Admittedly some of the right may feel uncomfortable about teaming up with Muslims,” he wrote. “Yes, I would rather go to a baseball game or have a drink with Michael Moore than with the grand mufti of Egypt. But when it comes to core beliefs, I’d have to confess that I’m closer to the dignified fellow in the long robe and prayer beads than to the slovenly fellow with the baseball cap.”
Some in the last administration evidently agreed, because Bush officials routinely worked with countries like Iran, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia to thwart women’s rights and gay rights initiatives at the United Nations. In a 2002 story, “Islamic Bloc, Christian Right Team Up to Lobby the U.N.,” The Washington Post quoted a Bush official saying, "We have tried to point out there are some areas of agreement between [us] and a lot of Islamic countries on these social issues.”
None of this is to say that there wasn’t plenty of hostility toward Muslims during the Bush years—of course there was. But it was never as strident and unapologetic as it is today, fueled by resurgent white Christian-identity politics and the enduring wingnut conviction that President Obama is a Muslim Manchurian Candidate.
Just in the last few weeks, Ron Ramsey, the lieutenant government of Tennessee, has said that Islam is a cult, not a religion, and thus America’s guarantee of freedom of religion may not apply to it. Sarah Palin, of course, has become a major voice against the Cordoba Initiative, and Newt Gingrich is trying to use the controversy to resurrect his political career, warning, “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.” Oklahoma’s legislature is putting an initiative on the fall ballot to bar the imposition of Sharia in the state, as if that were an actual danger. ABC News quoted the measure’s architect, Republican State Rep. Rex Duncan, saying, “I see this”—Sharia law—“in the future somewhere in America.” And as The New York Times reported Sunday, all over the country, attempts to build mosques have been met with furious protests, no matter how far they are from Lower Manhattan.
Wilders, meanwhile, seems to have ambitions beyond Dutch politics. He’s launching something called the Geert Wilders International Freedom Alliance, which is meant to foment grassroots anti-Islam organizing worldwide, starting in the United States, Canada, England, France, and Germany. He’ll probably do well here, as long as he doesn’t mind all the competition.
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.