Wilders drags up outdated colonial rhetoric
Guest author: Michel Hoebink
‘Why did you become anti-Islamic and what is your message to Muslims? These questions were asked by Muslimsdebate.com to the Dutch politician Geert Wilders. In his reply, Mr Wilders describes Islam as fatalist, tyrannical, violent and irrational and as such as the cause of the lack of democracy and development in the Muslim World. All this in sharp contrast to Christianity and Judaism, which religions according to Mr Wilders encourage their followers to be rational and free. Only by liberating themselves from their religion, he says, Muslims will be able to develop their real potential.
Wilders’ argument is a perfect sample of 19th century ‘orientalist’ rhetoric. Apparently, the leader of the Dutch Freedom Party is unaware of the fact that this type of reasoning was effectively defeated in the 1970s by critics such as the Palestinian Edward Said. Such critics rightfully argued that world religions such as Islam do not have an unchanging essence which is either violent or peaceful or what ever. Throughout the ages, these religions have given rise to a great variety of currents and interpretations. Sure, there are violent currents in Islam, but there have also been plenty of believers who preached pacifism in the name of the same religion. And positive, there are fatalistic tendencies in Islam but there are also currents that preach individual freedom and responsibility, basing themselves on the very same sources. The Koran and the Prophetic traditions are so rich that anybody can always find something to support his case. In short, you can’t limit Islam to one of its historical appearances.
In the academic world, essentialist arguments such as those of Wilders and his 19th century predecessors are out. Individuals who have been following this academic debate since the 1970s, are perplexed when Wilders and his fellow contemporary Islam critics start to bring up these arguments again, as if nothing ever happened.
You can say it even more simple: History decisively proves that Wilders is wrong. If Islam would necessarily lead to fatalism, tyranny and underdevelopment, how is it possible that, from the 8th to the 14th centuries, powerful empires emerged under Islam where science, philosophy, art and architecture flourished on a level that left Europe far behind? And if Judaism and Christianity necessarily produce free and rational individuals, how to explain the Crusades and Inquisition in Medieval times and Nazism and Stalinism in the modern era?
What Wilders does in his argument is applying a classical but rather cheap rhetorical trick: Comparing one’s own virtues to the vices of the other. Following the same formula, rancid islamist authors in the Middle East write books about a despicable religion called Christianity which calls for murder and bloodshed in its sacred texts and whose followers practised these calls during the Crusades and in the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wilders attributes economic and social failures in the Muslim World to Islam, which he views as a religion but also as a culture. In itself there is nothing wrong with such cultural explanations. Culture and religion may very well be forwarded as causes of economic and social failures, but the discussion should always be about a particular historical appearance of the culture of religion in question, not about a culture or religion as an unchangeable essence. That is where Wilders is wrong.
Interestingly, many Muslim reformers agree with Geert Wilders when he says that Islam is a ‘backward religion’. However, they speak about the present appearance of traditional Islam and not about an a-historical essence. They believe that the dominant form of traditional Islam, as it is followed by millions of contemporary Muslims, is in need of reform and modernisation. According to Wilders this is not possible. Islam, in his view, can never be reconciled with modernity. If Muslims want to modernise, if they want to embrace democracy and human rights, they will have to give up Islam.
The irony is that Wilders in this sense completely agrees with the fundamentalists, who just like him believe that Muslims have to choose between their religion and the modern world. And indeed: for Wilders, fundamentalist Islam is the only true Islam. ‘Pure Islam’, he calls it, following his mentor the controversial Dutch arabist Hans Jansen, who in turn shamelessly took it from the fundamentalists themselves. All other currents in Islam, in particular the more moderate and modern ones, are considered by Wilders and his mentor as ‘impure’ forms of Islam they prefer not to associate with. The late Egyptian Muslim reformer Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, who pleaded for a historical reading of the Koran, was abhorrent to them.
In fact Wilders behaves like a believer. He takes side in a religious debate that as an unbeliever he could only describe. The Dutch arabist Robbert Woltering once made fun of this attitude in an ironic commentary in the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad. It was about the Somali born Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who also frequently used the term ‘pure Islam’, just like Wilders following Hans Jansen.
Woltering is obviously amused. Ever since the coming of Islam, he writes, Muslims have been quarrelling about the question as to what is the correct interpretation of Koran and the Prophetic Traditions. Now, at a time that the answer seems further away than ever, this historical quest has come to an unexpected apotheosis in – of all possible places – the Dutch parliament, where Ms Hirsi Ali recently revealed that she herself has discovered the True Doctrine of Pure Islam!
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s discovery, Mr Woltering continues, will most probably please Mohammed Bouyeri, the man who murdered film maker Theo van Gogh in the name of Islam. But it will be a disappointment for all those Muslims who mistakenly thought that Islam respects the rights of women and tells them to live in peace with their non-Muslim neighbours.
Mr Woltering, we like to hear more from you.
A well-known prophetic Tradition about fatalism versus the taking charge of one’s own fate: The prophet Mohammed was asked: ‘Should I tie my camel or should I trust God?’ The prophet answered: ‘Tie your camel and trust God.’
Michel Hoebink works for the Arabic department of Radio Netherlands World (RNW).