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Guest Column
A War on Tolerance


AMSTERDAM - When 'tolerance' becomes a term of abuse in a place like the Netherlands, you know that something has gone seriously wrong. The Dutch always took pride in being the most tolerant people on earth. In less feverish times than these, no one could possibly have taken exception to Queen Beatrix's speech last Christmas, when she pleaded for tolerance and "respect for minorities." But Geert Wilders, leader of the right-wing, anti-Muslim Freedom Party, was so disgusted by the Dutch queen's "multi-cultural rubbish" that he wanted her to be stripped of her constitutional role in the government.

Wilders, a popular rabble-rouser whose party occupies nine seats in the Dutch parliament, compares the Koran to Hitler's Mein Kampf, wants to stop Muslims from moving to the Netherlands, and thunders that those who are already in the country should tear up half the Koran if they wish to stay. Tolerance towards Islam is cowardly appeasement in his eyes. He thinks that Europe is in peril of being 'Islamized'. "There will soon be more mosques than churches," he says, if true Europeans don't have the guts to stand up and save Western civilisation.

Some commentators suggest that Wilders, born and raised as a Catholic in a provincial Dutch town, is, like his Muslim enemies, a true believer, driven by the goal of keeping Europe 'Judeo-Christian'. Perhaps, but this is probably a red herring. His war on Islam is also, and perhaps even mainly, a war on the cultural and political elites, the Dutch intellectual establishment, the Eurocrats of Brussels, and the liberal-minded queen. Indeed, his speeches are studded with references to arrogant elites who are out of touch with the feelings of the common man. 'Tolerance' is seen as weak and elitist, typical of people who live far removed from the harsh realities of the street.

This notion of the elitist appeaser is not confined to the Netherlands. In Israel, the educated Jewish activists who criticise Israeli abuses against Palestinians, the peaceniks who believe that negotiation is better than violence and that even Arabs have rights, are called, with a knowing sneer, 'beautiful souls'. The common man, rooted in the real world, supposedly knows better: uncompromising toughness, the hard line, is the only way to get results.

The association of elites with foreignness, tolerance, and metropolitan cities is nothing new. Elites often can speak foreign languages, and big cities are traditionally more tolerant and open to mixed populations. Modern populism is invariably hostile to capital cities. Brussels, the capital of the European Union, stands for everything that populists, whether left or right, hate. And Muslim immigrants live in Amsterdam, London, or Marseilles, not in the kind of small towns where right-wing populists find most of their support.

Still, the politics of resentment works best when it can tap into real fears. There are reasons for people to feel anxious about economic globalisation, pan-European bureaucracy, the huge and not always effectively controlled influx of immigrants, and the aggression of radical political Islam. These anxieties have too often been ignored. There is a sense among many Europeans that they have been abandoned in a fast-changing world, that multi-national corporations are more powerful than nation-states, that the urban rich and highly educated do fine and ordinary folks in the provinces languish, while democratically elected politicians are not only powerless, but have abjectly surrendered to these larger forces that threaten the common man.

Wilders, and others like him, are not just attacking Islamic extremists. His success is based on that sense of tolerance as betrayal. And, as so often happens, the loathing of elites has found an outlet in the loathing of outsiders, who look different and whose ways are strange. We must fight Islamic extremism, but not by tapping into the darkest gut feelings of the unthinking mob. Nothing good ever came from that. (Project Syndicate)

Ian Buruma is professor of human rights at Bard College.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)