It was always going to be an awkward night. The arrival of Geert Wilders in Australia had been met with widespread condemnation in the media. Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, roundly denounced the Dutch parliamentarian’s fierce anti-Islamic views but chose not to deny him a visa. Tony Abbott was more cautious, stating simply that Wilders was “substantially” wrong. A small few were willing to publically defend Wilders. Controversial Liberal Senator, Cory Bernardi, broke party ranks to support his right to be here. Conservative commentator Andrew Bolt spoke in his defence and Alan Jones’ 2GB radio gave the Q Society (who organised the visit) airtime. For my part, I wanted to hear him for myself and make up my own mind. What was he actually proposing?
As soon as I parked my car I could hear the loud chants, “Muslims are welcome, racists are not”. Getting closer, I could see around 50 protesters separated from the delegates by a line of police officers. I was temporarily afraid to walk through the protesters who were screaming abuse at delegates as they arrived. As I write regularly for the online political journal Independent Australia, I decided to stand with the other members of the press and compose myself. As the journalists took turns interviewing protesters with their expensive cameras and voice recorders, I pulled out my mobile phone and decided to do the same.
The first protester I spoke to was a friendly young man named Abdul-Salaam. He was wearing traditional Islamic clothing and handing out pamphlets. I asked him what his motivation was. He replied that he wanted to address the misconceptions about Islam propagated by people like Wilders. I then spoke to another young man named Patrick who proudly announced he was a member of the Socialist Alliance. He commented on the ethnic and racial diversity in Sydney and insisted that Wilders’ racist views were harmful. He also had pamphlets that explained why anti-Islamic sentiments are racist.
I spoke with the protesters for over half an hour, partly to understand their point of view and partly to avoid having to cross the police line. I hoped that they would see me as a reporter, a genuine observer rather than a Wilders sympathiser. I eventually gathered my courage and approached the line. I was stopped by the police and could feel the protesters’ eyes on me as I produced a receipt from my registration and explained I was a paid delegate. I was allowed past but the end of the line was only five or so meters from the protesters. I was not spared their wrath. “Nazi skinhead scum,” one woman screamed at me. I wanted to run over to her and explain my short hair was purely a result of my balding head, not a sign of any extreme political ideology. I wanted to tell her that I abhor racism, that I support refugee rights, that I have done charity work in Africa but I knew it would do no good. Instead I looked shamefully at my feet and accepted the jeers and taunts, wishing desperately the line would move faster.
Security was extremely tight as delegates were required to produce their receipt, photo identification, pass through a metal detector and a bag search before entering the conference room. As I waited in line I began to chat with the delegate next to me. He commented on the hypocrisy of the protesters, claiming tolerance while being intolerant. When he mentioned he had flown down from Brisbane, the large gentleman standing behind us introduced himself. He explained that he was keeping a low profile but was in fact the Liberal National Party member for Dawson, George Christensen. As the two Queenslanders spoke I noticed the Reverend Fred Nile was being ushered to the front of the line. Although I oppose most of what he says, I did feel a moment of sadness observing his dignified and defiant presence. I could only imagine what was screamed as he and his wife braved the protest line.
Inside the venue, a stage was adorned with the flags of Australian, Holland, the United States and Britain. A speaker from the Q Society explained that they had been denied the use of over 30 venues. Freedom of speech was under attack we were told. It felt like we were a group of underground freedom fighters. The rhetoric of the speaker made you temporarily forget we were already living in a free and tolerant society. Wrapped up in the cheers of the enthusiastic crowd, it was easy to believe we were part of a noble struggle for rights.
The first speaker was a Muslim convert to Christianity named Sam Solomon. Articulate and charismatic, he made a clear distinction between Islam as an idea and Muslims as people. It is not racist to be against an idea he assured us. Coming from an Arab and former Muslim, the argument certainly carried more weight than it would have from Wilders. The problem with Islam was that it was not just a religion but an entire political ideology as well. In the West, religion is a small and private part of a person’s life whereas Islamic ethics cover every aspect of an adherent’s life.
I knew from my own experience that what he was saying was wrong. I thought of my friends from Hillsong Church. Their religion absolutely does consume their life. In the Evangelical/Pentecostal vernacular, a Christian would be called a “backslider” if they fitted Solomon’s description. I thought then of my Muslim friends for whom the religion is but a small part of their identity. Nonetheless, I had a lot of sympathy for Solomon. As an active supporter of Open Doors, I knew the terrible persecution Christians, especially converts, did face in some Islamic countries.
Solomon was a polished speaker. He quoted the Qur’an in Arabic and made a convincing case that Islam was not a religion but an intolerant, expansionist ideology. The crowd was cordial but gave only half-hearted, awkward support. Solomon was an evangelist at heart. When he passionately declared that he could be put to death in his home country for boldly declaring that “Jesus is Lord”, the many atheists in the room could only muster a polite clap of approval. When he proudly asserted that the morality of the West was based on Judeo-Christian values, he again clearly isolated himself from many. Having said his piece, the stage was surrendered for the main event.
The crowd leapt to their feet as Geert Wilders took the stage and I felt highly conspicuous as I remained seated. The Dutchman was quick to assert he was not part of the “extreme right” but simply someone who stood for “commonsense” and “liberty”. He explained that he was “marked for death because [he] criticised Islam”. He then unleashed the torrent of invective that has made him infamous. Islam was called, “evil”, “intolerant” and a “mental prison”. The prophet Muhammad was called a “war-lord”, “terrorist” and ‘paedophile”. The crowd roared their approval.
Calling for a “spirit of resistance”, Wilders asked the audience to support the only democratic country in the Middle East, Israel. He then passionately declared that “we all are Israel”. As with Solomon’s Christian apologia, Wilders’ support for the Jewish state only received modest support. I wondered how Christensen was reacting. In the lead-up to the 2010 election he was dogged by anti-Semitic remarks he had made at university. Was he now supporting the idea that we are all Israel? Two rows in front of me I noticed a heavily tattooed skinhead with his arms crossed as others clapped. What a conflicted message this must have been for him. Did he dislike Jews or Muslims more?
Like Solomon, Wilders made “a distinction between the people and the ideology”. Also like Solomon, he insisted “Islam and freedom are incompatible … even when the majority are moderates”. Moderate Muslims, he insisted, “are not preaching Islam at all”. Again, I knew this was plainly wrong. Who was he to define Islam? Who was he to say the Abdul-Salaam, peacefully protesting outside, was not a real Muslim?
Having spent the majority of his speech outlining the “Islamic threat” and highlighting its incompatibility with Western values, Wilders needed just a minute to give his solution. There should be “no more immigration from Islamic countries” he flatly declared. He did not expand, except to say, “no more mosques” either. The crowd were rapturous. I was completely disappointed. That was it? For all his rhetoric and grand standing, that was his serious suggestion!
The problem with Wilders and Solomon is that they do, at times, touch on the very real problem of Islamofascism. The death threats both men receive are real. The misogyny and anti-Semitism openly espoused by some Islamic scholars is real. The terrorism committed by al-Qaeda and other militant Islamic groups is real. But is that really the best solution Wilders could come up with? I wished there was a question and answer time at the end. I desperately wanted to ask, what about the persecuted Christians in Islamic countries? Does he not realise that under his extreme and unworkable solution his support speaker, coming from an Islamic country, would not be allowed in Australia?
The streets where dark and quiet as I walked back to my car. The protesters were gone but the police remained. Driving home, Sigur Rós were playing on the radio which only added to my reflective mood. I thought of my Iraqi barber who is always so friendly and kind to me. He sends his daughter to an Islamic school for the same reason my parents sent me to a Baptist school. There is no evil or indoctrinating intent, he simply believes the standards are better and he wants her to have some grounding in the family faith. I thought also of the many Muslim students I have taught over the years. Thinking of their smiling faces in class, so respectful, so eager to learn, I felt intensely sad for the crude pantomime presented by people like Wilders. Send them all back? What a horrible thought! It is the logic of a person unwilling or unable to look past cultural differences and see potential friends and fellow citizens.
I attended my evening with Geert Wilders with a genuinely open mind but I conclude he is a man with no answers. I openly oppose misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism and religious intolerance wherever I see it but it is wrong to stereotype the whole religion this way. A philosophy cannot be judged by its abuses and it is grossly unfair to use the attitudes of the extremists to characterise the moderates. Imagine if we did that with everyone. Does the Westboro Baptist Church fairly represent Christianity? Was Stalinist Russia an archetype atheist state? Australia had an isolationist and xenophobic immigration policy for far too long. It is not something we want to ever return to. Muslims can and do live harmoniously in Australia and add a layer of richness to the multicultural fabric that makes up this great land.
I’m glad Mr Wilders was allowed into our country. I’m glad he was allowed to speak and I’m glad I was allowed to attend. Most of all, I am glad that this country overwhelmingly rejects his extreme policy. It is not just and it is not right. I’m sorry Mr Wilders, I don’t agree with you.