Over the course of the last couple of days I have been trying to read as many articles on 9/11 as possible. This Sunday will mark the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda on the United States that killed 3,000 people.
In the run-up to that day, the American and European media are filled with articles and essays that try to explain the impact of 9/11 on the world in general and the position of the US in particular. It seems there is an undeclared contest going on between analysts who claim that the world has profoundly changed since the day hijacked airplanes flew into the Word Trade Center and the Pentagon, and others who are of the opinion that we should not exaggerate the influence of one single event on developments that would have occurred anyway.
I guess I would position myself close to the first group without overlooking structural changes that had already started before 9/11. Let me explain my point by focusing on the rise of a new form of extreme right-wing populism in many Western countries. Let’s be clear: Without 9/11 there would not be a small but very influential Islamophobic network in the US that has managed to negatively influence the debate on Islam and Muslims across the Atlantic via anti-Islam grassroots organizations, right-wing media and high-profile politicians affiliated with the Tea Party. Without 9/11, American states would not be considering outlawing Shariah law, simply because nobody would take the claim serious that “Shariah is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the US and in the world as we know it,” as the Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich put it.
But does the denunciation of Islam by opportunist politicians mean that without 9/11 we would not have seen a resurgence of the populist right in the US? I don’t think so. The rise of the Tea Party and its influence on the Republican Party is closely connected to a strong anti-government, anti-taxation and anti-liberal establishment undercurrent in American society that has always been there. It rears its ugly head almost every decade. My impression is that white frustration with the first-ever black presidency of Barack Obama is more important in explaining the blatant racism that we witness among some of the Tea Party rank and file than the presence of a small and rather invisible Muslim community on American soil. Fear mongering about Islam is popular because of 9/11. But it plays only a marginal role in explaining the popularity of Tea Party candidates.
To a certain extent one could make the same analysis with regard to the rise of the populist, anti-Islam extreme right in Europe. The difference is the presence of substantial and quite visible Muslim communities in many West European countries.
The Islamization of politics that I described in my last column is apparent in the discourse on migrants in Europe. After 9/11, from one day to the other, migrants came to be considered as Muslims. Many of the problems related to the presence of newcomers in an unprepared society like the Netherlands were already well known on Sept. 10, 2001. Only few explanations made a link with the majority religion among those migrants. Most focused on discrimination and failed policies of integration. That changed drastically after 9/11.
All of a sudden Islam was seen as the best explanation for the ongoing problems. Populist politicians, looking for scapegoats, realized that blaming their religion was an easy way to hold migrants responsible for their own problems and those of the Dutch society in general. But the popularity of Geert Wilders cannot be understood by only looking at his anti-Islam rhetoric. The rise of the new populism in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe is a much more complicated phenomenon. Structural changes in the labor market, the loss of many simple and low paid jobs, the growing influence of the European Union, the loss of a clear identity, to name only a few factors, have caused an alarming feeling of insecurity among many Europeans, who feel that they are losing out in the 21st century. But globalization does not have a face. Muslims do, and populists have realized that very well.
As in the US, without 9/11 bashing Islam could not have been used in the Netherlands to attract angry and insecure undecided voters to the new populist cause. But winning 15 percent of the votes was only possible because Wilders echoes the frustrations of many Dutch, who fear an unknown future that does not bode well for them. With or without Islam.