In the past few weeks, a debate on the alleged conflict of interest presented by the dual nationality held by two deputy ministers in the Dutch government has demonstrated the ability of right-wing Freedom Party (PVV) leader Geert Wilders to set the political agenda.
But opposition to Mr Wilders is growing among fellow politicians and journalists, and even well-known Islam critics such as Afshin Ellian and Sylvain Ephimenco are now publicly distancing themselves from the PVV leader. Their opponents, in turn, are jeering at them, saying they must be scared of the monster they helped create. These developments appear to mark a new episode in the Dutch Islam debate.
An open letter to Geert Wilders published in the 12 March edition of the magazine Opinio states: “You are using pseudo-theological one-liners about the Koran and the Prophet to intentionally create as much resentment as possible among offended Muslims.”
The letter would not have created much of a stir had it been written by anyone other than columnist Sylvain Ephimenco, who in the past years has manifested himself as a sharp-tongued critic of Islam. He is one of a group of intellectuals known as The Friends of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who give their unconditional support to the former Somali-Dutch MP in her campaign against the “excesses of Islam.”
Geert Wilders has never made a secret of the fact that his objections against immigrants mainly concern Muslims. But he has outdone himself with his recent diatribes against Islam. He has called the Prophet Muhammad a barbarian, an aggressive warlord and says that Muslims who want to stay in the Netherlands had better tear out and throw away half the Koran.
His broadsides against Islam are guaranteed to curry favour with a certain segment of the Dutch electorate, but create only increasing aversion among fellow politicians and leading commentators. Now Dutch Islam critics such as “The Friends of Ayaan Hirsi Ali” are turning against him, too.
Early this month, columnist Afshin Ellian dealt the first blow: Mr Wilders, Afshin Ellian wrote in his column in the NRC Handelsblad newspaper of 3 March, is radicalising and rapidly developing into an extreme right-wing politician. Notably, Afshin Ellian backed his criticism with a reference to former conservative VVD politician Frits Bolkestein who, in the early 1990s, opened the attack on Islam but has been saying for some time now that people like Geert Wilders have taken things too far. Others, including author Leon de Winter, philosopher Bart Jan Spruijt and Labour ideologist Paul Scheffer have made similar comments.
Sylvain Ephimenco’s open letter reads as something of a manifesto for this group of critics. In it, Geert Wilders is blamed for “taking the debate hostage and polluting it by sponging off the words and thoughts of others, turning them into caricatures. It will come as no surprise that publicists who until recently took part in the debate are now leaving the space you occupy, probably in fear of being associated with you.”
Sylvain Ephimenco says Geert Wilders is not just turning against extremists but against Muslims as a group, and that his statements about the Prophet and the Koran appear only serve to insult as many Muslims as possible. And this, in the full knowledge that: “To a Muslim, every page in the Koran is sacred.”
Sylvain Ephimenco says Geert Wilders is going too far, which is why The Friends of Ayaan Hirsi Ali have turned their backs on him. However, Professor Emeritus of Sociology J.A.A. van Doorn rejects their criticisms. He is an old-fashioned left-wing intellectual who has for years rejected the criticisms of Islam as propounded by Afshin Ellian and others which, he says, only serve to drive Dutch Muslims and non-Muslims further apart. He denies that Geert Wilders is turning the words of others into caricatures.
In Trouw newspaper of 17 March he argues that: “Geert Wilders’ actions and statements follow on naturally from what Ayaan Hirsi Ali en her admirers have been saying for years.” Professor Van Doorn writes that Sylvain Ephimenco’s indignation over Geert Wilder’s attacks on Islam does not ring true. Didn’t his much admired Ayaan Hirsi Ali call the Prophet a paedophile? Didn’t his ally Afshin Ellian recently wonder aloud whether the Koran should be banned as being a source of inspiration for terrorism?
According to Professor Van Doorn, commentators like Afshin Ellian and Sylvain Ephimenco have for years been ‘prompting’ Geert Wilders. He is their disciple. But now that Geert Wilders is putting their words into action, they are taking fright and turning their backs on him. However, Professor Van Doorn argues it is now too late to pull back: “The aforementioned commentators would do better to ask themselves whether they are not complicit in Geert Wilders’ crusade.”
Even left-wing magazine De Groene Amsterdammer has devoted a sarcastic commentary to the ‘change of heart’ on the part of the Dutch Islam critics. The item’s author, Hubert Smeets, says that Ayaan Hirsi Ali and her friends appreciated the outspokenness of the late populist politician Pim Fortuin who was killed in 2002. But Geert Wilders actually puts his money where his mouth is, and that’s giving The Friends of Ayaan Hirsi Ali a bad case of cold feet. Fortunately they are honest enough to admit it squarely, which is much to be admired.
De Groene Amsterdammer has created an award to express its admiration: the Woollen Sock. De Groene Amsterdammer says: “The first to be awarded the Woollen Sock will be columnists Afshin Ellian and Sylvain Ephimenco. At the end of the year, we will hand out a final award on the basis of a shortlist of Woollen Sock winners: the Green Wellington Boot.”