Charles Krauthammer caused grave unhappiness among some of his admirers last month when, speaking on Fox News, he attacked the Dutch politician Geert Wilders. At issue was Wilders’s campaign against the “Islamization” of Europe, particularly in the Netherlands. “What he says,” Dr. Krauthammer charged, “is extreme, radical, and wrong”:
Dr. Krauthammer’s was not the only voice on Fox News condemning Wilders last month. Glenn Beck hauled out the “F-word,” describing Wilders as “fascist,” while William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, warned that Wilders was a “demagogue.”
So: Geert Wilders is a fascist demagogue who is extreme, radical, and (what’s more) wrong. Strong words. Are they justified?
A little background. As we write, Wilders, the founder and head of the Dutch Party for Freedom, is being prosecuted by the Dutch government for “hate speech,” “discrimination,” and similar outrages against political correctness. (He has also been indicted by Jordan for “inciting hatred.”) If he loses in Holland, he could face a two-year jail sentence. In the meantime, he lives with round-the-clock security in the face of numerous death threats. This is, remember, the country where the filmmaker Theo van Gogh was brutally murdered by jihadists in broad daylight.
What is the exact nature of Wilders’s tort? Well, in 2008 he wrote and sponsored a short film called Fitna, which juxtaposes verses from the Koran with contemporary images of violence perpetrated in the name of Islam. In its opening minutes, for example, the film flashes the text of Sura 8, Verse 60: “Prepare for them [i.e., for us] whatever force and cavalry ye are capable of gathering to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies.” The cavalry in question was United Airlines Flight 175, which is shown plowing into the South Tower of the World Trade Center as crowds of terrified people scramble to escape the carnage. Other verses are accompanied by images of Islamic violence against Jews, women, and apostates from Islam (“seize them and kill them wherever ye may find them,” Sura 4, Verse 89).
Wilders has also been vocal in his opposition to Islamic immigration and the institutionalization of Islamic law (Sharia) in the Netherlands. At the same time, he has campaigned vigorously for free speech, especially the freedom to criticize ideologies whose spread would stifle freedom. The New York Times sniffed that Wilders’s demand for free speech was a “bit rich” since he has also called for restrictions on the circulation of the Koran. A contradiction? Not necessarily. In the first place, defending free speech includes guarding against those who would deploy free speech only in order to abolish it. (“There is,” said Chesterton, “a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped.”) Secondly, as Wilders has explained, his call to restrict the circulation of the Koran mirrors the official Dutch restrictions on Mein Kampf, the sale of which is illegal in Holland. The whole idea of “banning” books is anathema to most Americans. But Wilders’s point is that if Hitler’s incitement to hatred is restricted in Holland (as it is in some other parts of Europe), why not the Koran?
Two points about Dr. Krauthammer’s charge that Wilders fails to distinguish between “Islam” (the faith of 1.4 billion to which we are not supposed to object) and “Islamism” (the bad or perverted form of Islam to which only “a minority” subscribes). First, it is worth stressing that Wilders has repeatedly acknowledged that most Muslims are peaceful. Speaking in London recently, for example, he noted that
The majority of Muslims are law-abiding citizens and want to live a peaceful life as you and I do. I know that. That is why I always make a clear distinction between the people, the Muslims, and the ideology, between Islam and Muslims. There are many moderate Muslims, but there is no such thing as a moderate Islam.
Is Wilders right? If so (and this is our second point), then we have to question whether Dr. Krauthammer’s contrast between “Islam” and “Islamism” is the relevant distinction. Andrew C. McCarthy got to the nub of the issue last month in a column for National Review Online. “Personally,” Mr. McCarthy wrote, “I don’t think there is much difference, if any, between Islam and Islamism.”
Islamists are Muslims who would like to see sharia (Islamic law) installed. That is the necessary precondition to Islamicizing a society. It is the purpose of jihad. The terrorists are willing to force sharia’s installation by violent jihad; other Islamists have varying views about the usefulness of violence, but they also want sharia, and their jihadist methods include tactics other than violence. I reluctantly use the term “Islamist” rather than “Islam” because I believe there are hundreds of millions of Muslims … who do not want to live under sharia, and who want religion to be a private matter, separated from public life. It is baffling to me why these people are Muslims since, as I understand Islam, (a) sharia is a basic element, and (b) Islam rejects the separation of mosque and state. But I’m not a Muslim, so that is not for me to say. I think we have to encourage the non-sharia Muslims and give them space to try to reform their religion, so I believe it’s worth labeling the sharia seekers “Islamists” in order to sort them out. But I admit being very conflicted about it because I also concede that the Islamists have the more coherent (and scary) construction of Islam. We wouldn’t be encouraging reform if we really thought Islam was fine as is.
Indeed. And given Wilders’s experience, it’s easy to sympathize with Mark Steyn’s tart rejoinder to Charles Krauthammer:
Wilders does not need to be lectured condescendingly about distinctions within Islam, because he lives with them every day. And he has concluded, notwithstanding Dr. Krauthammer’s views on the precise “minority” that identifies as “Islamist,” that Islam itself is the issue—and that, therefore, regardless of the “moderation” of the “overwhelming majority” of Muslims, the more Islam the less Netherlands in any recognizable sense.
The point is that “Islamism” is a term that has been seized upon by anxious Westerners eager to cordon off the toxic appendage of Islamic ideology from the (we are assured) benign host. Both the anxiety and the eagerness are understandable. We saw them in operation in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when President Bush stood astride the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center and told the world that “Islam” meant “peace” (really, it means “submission” as in “submission to the will of Allah,” but perhaps it would have been impolitic to point that out). At that time, policy makers had yet to settle on “Islamism” as a preferred linguistic repository for this political feint, but the President was appealing to the same vertiginous compact of nervousness, fear, good will, and hope.
The problem wasn’t, it couldn’t be (could it?) Islam itself, “one of the world’s major religions.” It had to be (didn’t it?) a perversion of Islam that was the culprit. The suffix “-ism” was deployed to mark the perversion. Not science, but “scientism,” not sex but sexism, not Islam but Islamism. You see the logic. The distinction has a familiar linguistic pedigree. Unfortunately, as the commentator Andrew Bostom pointed out in The American Thinker last November, until recently “Islamism” was just another name for Islam. The “ism” denoted not the sabotage but the substance of the phenomenon. The religion of Buddhists is Buddhism. Ditto for Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism—and Islamism. Mr. Bostom reproduces a report from Sir Henry Layard, a British diplomat, who in 1843 witnessed the punishment prescribed by Sharia for apostasy:
An Armenian who had embraced Islamism [emphasis added] had returned to his former faith. For his apostasy he was condemned to death according to the Mohammedan [Islamic] law. His execution took place, accompanied by details of studied insult and indignity directed against Christianity and Europeans in general. The corpse was exposed in one of the most public and frequented places in Stamboul [Istanbul], and the head, which had been severed from the body, was placed upon it, covered by a European hat.
Similarly, as Mr. Bostom points out, until recently, scholars who studied Islam were referred to as “Islamists.” The point is that while it may be consoling to us Westerners to posit a distinction between everyday Islam which is as antiseptic as (say) Methodism and the behavior of jihadis, ayatollahs, etc., it is not at all clear that the distinction thrives within Islam itself. Mr. Bostom quotes Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogùan of Turkey who in 2007 commented on the common Western description of his political party as an example of “moderate Islam.” “These descriptions are very ugly,” he said. “It is offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it.”
“Islam is Islam and that’s it.” Is the Turkish Prime Minister wrong? Maybe. But when it comes to Geert Wilders, we think of the cataract of criticism Winston Churchill endured in the mid-1930s when he was almost a lone voice warning against the rise of Nazism. He was extreme. He was radical. But he was also right. We suspect history will say the same of Geert Wilders.