“Join us for an evening with an exceptional politician, author, and very brave man.” That’s the message on the Q society flyer, although another way of putting it would be “Pay $66 to a shadowy fringe organisation for the dubious privilege of listening to a visiting racist hate-monger”. Next week, Dutch MP and far-right figurehead Geert Wilders will commence the Australian speaking tour which was postponed last year after delays in processing his visa.
Wilders’ Australian tour will presumably help fulfil his New Year’s resolution for 2013, which as he told the Dutch TV channel NOS is that “Next to all things about Europe and the economic situation, the people will hear from our resistance against the Islamization of the Netherlands. I will intensify this battle, both in the Netherlands, but also internationally from Australia to America to Switzerland, or anywhere else.”
As outlined in an op-ed by Paul Sheehan, the Q society is highlighting the controversial nature of their event – the elaborate security measures, the cancelled venue bookings, the failure of most politicians to accept their invitation to meet their guest. Even Cory Bernardi, who met with Wilders last year during a visit to the Netherlands and promised him a warm welcome Down Under, has found himself otherwise engaged. This, Sheehan claims, underlines Wilders point by “illustrat[ing] the double-speak, double-standards and fear that exists when it comes to the subject for which Wilders is notorious – confronting Muslim extremism.”
However, the consensus response from Muslim community leaders in Australia has been muted by a reluctance to grant the attention-seeking Wilders the kinds of alarmist publicity on which he so clearly thrives. The Australian reports that while Muslim community leaders expect a some “hotheads” to speak out against Wilders’ visit, no formal protests are planned. The report quotes prominent educator and community leader Silma Ihram as saying “The general line from our community is ‘no response’…the guy’s a nutcase, he’s losing popularity, so why give him something to respond to?” Non-Muslim politicians and commentators have also attempted to calm apprehension with reassuring remarks about how Wilders’s racism is unlikely to generate a receptive response in Australia. Australian multiculturalism has been far more successful than its European counterparts, enjoying support across the social and political spectrum. All Australians (well, most of them) loves multiculturalism – even if some of them (yes, I’m looking at you, Scott Morrison) add “but”.
I agree both with the tactics of the major Muslim community groups and with the assessments stating that the Australian far-right holds far less support than its European counterpart – yet I find myself adding some “buts” of my own. The centre of Australian politics has shifted so far to the right that the tiniest step further has you rubbing shoulders with Genghis Khan. With a rising death-toll of asylum-seekers en route to Australia, the stop-the-boats slogan has been reconfigured as a humanitarian rather than a security issue. However, reports emerging from Manus Island and Nauru are making it more and more difficult to see the Pacific Solution #2 as a compassionate policy. And while the anguish of some of those who now advocate the removal of the incentive to make such a dangerous voyage is undoubted, for many others the concern for the safety of asylum-seekers provides only a thin veneer for the type of invasion-fear mongering on which Wilders has built his career. “Beastly Bernardi” may have been shifted to the backbench in the wake of one too many embarrassing remarks, but it serves his party’s interests to keep him on board to mop up the demographic that might otherwise find itself another Pauline Hanson as an outlet for their disaffection.
As for the current sentiment among Muslims in Australia, it’s difficult to assess whether we are really experiencing a lower level of discrimination and harassment or whether we’ve become so inured to it that it’s just become background noise. Anti-Muslim racism has become the acceptable form of racism because (as we are endlessly informed) Islam is a religion, not a race. According to Geert Wilders, it isn’t even a religion – it’s a dangerous political ideology whose holy book is on par with Mein Kampf.
The resilience to withstand sensationalist media coverage and opportunist political vilification is a necessary survival skill, but there is a price to be paid. The level-headed response from community leaders is the type of advice given to children in the face of schoolyard bullying. “They’re only doing it for attention. Just ignore them until they get bored and go away.”
It’s often sound advice. Certainly, physical threats and attacks on Wilders and his ilk have only added to their credibility. But Muslims are caught between a rock and a hard place. It is difficult to urge restraint without contributing to the marginalisation of “hotheads” who for the most part are only exercising the free speech that Wilders proclaims to be a prime virtue. There are limits to the benefits of quietude. The challenge lies in challenging Wilders’ toxic views without providing him with further ammunition.