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Bruce Bawer is wrong

I think it is OK for anyone to write an op-ed about anything, and have that person say whatever he or she wants. Freedom of speech, and all. However, I do take exception when that opinion is based not on true facts, but assumptions and baseless generalizations. Bruce Bawer’s latest op-ed piece was also published in The Wall Street Journal. It is about Europe, of course, and the problems Europeans have with Muslim minorities. An interesting subject, but Bawer gets his facts wrong. That wouldn’t be such a problem, if only those wrong facts weren’t the basis for Bawer’s assumptions.

The gist of Bawer’s op-ed article is that there is a huge, leftist, socialdemocratic conspiracy, aided and abetted by an elitist left-wing media, that is helping to stage a Muslim takeover of Western Europe. In response, Bawer opines, voters in Western European nations are massively crossing over to right-wing parties such as that of Dutch politician Geert Wilders, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National, the Progress Party in Norway, the late Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria, the British National Party in Great-Britain, and so on.

Bawer basically states that it is the fault of the left-wing’s appeasement of Muslims that ‘their’ voters are now defecting. To support his position, Bawer offers a myriad of examples from recent Western European political history. But there are problems with his list of examples.

He states, for instance, that French socialdemocratic governments were responsible for allowing hundreds of thousands of Muslims into France. Here Bawer is wrong. Not left-wing, but right-wing parties allowed those immigrants in. A simple look at which parties were leading France in the 1960s and 1970s, when by far most Muslim immigrants came to France, shows that France was then led by right-wing presidents (Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, Giscard D’Estaing).

Yes, pseudo-socialist Francois Mitterand led France between 1981 and 1995, but after that France was led again by right-wing presidents (Jaqcues Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy). But again, the vast majority of Muslim immigrants were taken in under right-wing governments. In the case of France, by the way, that is not very surprising; a vast majority of Muslims came from Algeria in the 1960s, after France cut loose its colonial mastery of that nation and had to allow in those Algerians who supported French colonialist oppression.

Then, Bawer asserts that in the first round of French presidential elections of 2002, right-wing extremist Jean-Marie le Pen came in on top. Not true. Yes, he trumped the Socialist Party’s candidate, and that was indeed a big upset, but it was Jacques Chirac who came in on top. Many Socialist voters had stayed at home on election day. In the second round, Chirac beat Le Pen by a landslide — hardly a sign of massive French support for Le Pen’s extremist views (“the holocaust was just a detail of World War II”, Le Pen once famously said).

After this, Bawer goes on to make a mess out of Spain’s recent political history. He asserts that the Socialist Party of José Luiz Zapatero appeases Muslims. In fact, Bawer accuses a vast majority of the entire Spanish population of appeasement because they ousted the right-wing Partido Popular of José Maria Aznar in 2004, right after Muslim fundamentalists infamously bombed trains and train stations in and around Madrid.

Bawer conveniently(?) fails to mention in his op-ed piece that a vast majority of the Spanish population was against Aznar’s support of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although Spain did not actively participate in that invasion (as far as we know), Spain’s government did support it politically and sent in occupation / peacekeeping forces after the succesful invasion.

The Spanish were not against fighting Muslim fundamentalists – on the contrary, like the French and much of the world, they strongly supported America’s war against Al-Qaeda after 9/11. They were, however, against the invasion of Iraq. But when terrorists who claimed allegiance to Al-Qaeda bombed those trains, José Maria Aznar tried to put the blame on ETA separatists, as he remembered the threat from Al-Qaeda: the organisation had threatened to hit Spain because of its support for the US-led invasion. They hit Spain, and the Spanish punished José Aznar in a mass “we told you so!”-protest.

Was this appeasement of Muslims? People like Bawer and possibly Osama bin-Laden may think so, because it fits into their world view and set of opinions. But the Spanish voters who ousted Aznar’s government certainly didn’t think so. Aznar stubbornly supported the US, while close to 80% of all Spaniards didn’t support it, Al-Qaeda made good on its threat, Aznar wasn’t able to protect Spain – and so the Spaniards punished him for it. Plain and simple.

As for Bawer’s implicit argument that it is only the Partido Popular that doesn’t appease Muslims in Spanish politics: that’s wrong too. If Bawer’s argument had held up, the Spanish would have ousted Zapatero’s Socialist Party last year. But they didn’t; Zapatero got another mandate. So perhaps it isn’t just the leftist nomenclature in Spain that ‘appeases’, as Bawer states; it might well be that a majority of the Spanish population, of whom by far most are staunch Catholics who know their own Reconquista-history very well, simply doesn’t share Bruce Bawer’s fears of Islam.

A sidenote on another subjective observation by Bawer: he states that due to Zapatero’s ‘appeasement’ of Muslims and a ‘lurch to the left’ in government policies, the hardcore nationalist-Catholic wing of the Partido Popular is gaining support. I’m afraid that this is only partially true. Much of what Bawer sees happening inside the Partido Popular is not so much a direct result of Zapatero’s popular policies, but rather the result of a party that is in disarray after having lost two consecutive elections. The hardcore wing of the PP is not really getting bigger, or even getting more support, but rather it is the most vocal opinion du jour at this moment, as the party searches to re-establish itself, much like the Republican Party in the US after the disastrous elections.

Yes, Zapatero is also reopening some old wounds from the Spanish Civil War, as he wants to lay to rest the ghosts of that era that are still haunting Spanish politics and society as a whole. During his reign, caudillo Franco didn’t do much to assuage the differences between Left and Right in Spain. If anything, he simply tried to stamp out any sympathies for left-wing causes by means of the iron boot.

Inconventiently for Bawer, many Muslims also came to Spain when this not very socialdemocratic dictator was in power. From 1939 – the year the Nationalist won the Civil War – until very recently, what happened to leftists Spaniards was disregarded or ignored, as Spaniards feared that revisiting the horrors of that era would open too many old wounds. Zapatero’s somber way of dealing with Spain’s past is however supported by a majority of Spaniards.

Another subject broached by Bawer in his article is that Western Europeans are, in his view, turning away from leftist, socialdemocratic parties as their policies are economically unsound. Europeans are in massive numbers discovering that these policies are responsible for high taxes, for which they get nothing in return, and so are defecting to right-wing parties that promise lower taxes and fewer public services.

Or are they? Perhaps a bit of Dutch recent political history is wise at this point, especially since in the Netherlands today, the party of Geert Wilders — a Bawer-fan — is drawing many votes in the polls.

In 2002, the party of Pim Fortuyn swept to power right after he was killed by a lunatic who didn’t think much of Fortuyn’s views on Muslims, but who was solely interested in the well-being of animals. His party, the LPF, went from zero seats in Parliament to 26 on a platform of action against immigrants who did not assimilate in Dutch culture. During the entire election campaign, social-economic issues were hardly discussed; much of the discourse was solely about Muslims and their integration into Western society.

Many of the LPF-voters, it turned out, had come from the VVD, the conservative liberals, and the PvdA, the country’s main socialdemocratic party that had been responsible for the establishment of much of the social-economic infrastructure ever since the 1950s.

A coalition government was formed and for a while, the right-wing CDA-VVD-LPF-government was very popular, with many voters expecting much on immigration and integration policies. But their hopes turned to despair when the coalition agreement, the government’s plans, were layed out.

They promised deep cuts in the social-economic infrastructure. Government-supported pre-pension and early retirement schemes were cut completely, and the relatively cheap government-supported health care insurance system reformed and replaced by a new system which turned out to be much more expensive for premium payers.

This was not what most LPF-voters, and indeed CDA-voters had wanted. With all these reforms, taxes must come down, many voters thought. But they didn’t. They remained high, and will remain high, because of demographics; almost half the Dutch population will be on retirement benefits in the coming 20 years, and to pay for that, the government needs to get money and save it, not spend it. Especially now that the Netherlands is running out of its natural gas reserves, the sales of which have been propping up the Dutch state’s finances by around 30 billion euro each year.

Thus, the tax burden remains high, while not much is being done to curb spending. Conventional wisdom holds that proposing even the most minute changes to the pension system, or the mortgage interest deduction scheme, means committing political suicide.

Within 3 months, the polls had changed drastically. The socialdemocratic PvdA was once again riding high in the polls, as former LPF-defectors flocked back, drawn by promises that the PvdA would roll back some of the drastic reforms once they were back in power. The CDA-VVD-LPF-government collapsed 9 months after its installation, also due to several civil wars within the LPF itself which was being torn apart by a number of different factions.

New elections were held and the LPF crashed, going down to 8 seats. The PvdA won back most of the seats it had lost to the LPF the previous year. Stubbornly, the CDA formed a new right-wing government after sabotaging coalition talks with the PvdA. It replaced the LPF by another party, D66, and basically pushed through the same coalition agreement it had signed with the LPF and the VVD. As a result, the leftist opposition parties made strong gains, while the VVD and D66 especially lost many seats while Geert Wilders, formerly a Member of Parliament for the VVD, won 9 seats with his newly formed Freedom Party.

During those elections, it was the PvdA that constantly wanted to debate immigration and integration, but as private polling told the other parties that most voters were interested only in social-economic issues, they refused.

At the moment, Wilders is riding high in the polls, which show him getting as many as 25 to 32 seats in Parliament. He has learned from the LPF’s fate. He is in favour of freedom of speech and claims it when he needs it, but refuses to open up his party for membership. In his party, there is freedom of opinion — but only the opinion of Wilders, or so it appears.

And even though he was an active member of the conservative VVD, a party which would rather abolish the entire social-economic infrastructure of the Netherlands out of principle, Wilders suddenly advocates rolling back reforms, and wants to uphold the infrastructure of priviledge the PvdA set up in the 1960s and 1970s.

The freedom of speech he advocates apparently stops with freedom of religion, as he wants to prohibit the Koran, thereby basically advocating the prohibition of Islam itself. This is probably all to Bawer’s liking — but perhaps surprisingly, not to many Wilders-voters.

Recently, a TV news programme organised a poll among self-identified Wilders-supporters. A majority of them think of Wilders’ opinions of islam as “too extremist”, according to the poll. Many of them agree with him that small bands of low-life criminals from Moroccan descent are wreaking havoc in some suburbs of Dutch cities, but they do not agree that these criminals are guided by islam, as Wilders often states.

Many of his supporters want him in government to come down hard on petty criminals who rob old ladies, deal drugs and engage in shoplifting. They also want tighter immigration laws. But organising Koran-burnings, shredding the Koran, prohibiting it? No. All that, to the dismay of Wilders (and probably Bawer) is considered too extremist by even many Wilders-voters.

Bawer also wonders who will win the hearts and minds of Western European voters. “The Islamofascists and their multiculturalist appeasers, many of whom seem to believe that their job is not to defend democracy but to help make the transition to Shariah as smooth as possible? The nativist cryptofascists? Or Pim Fortuyn’s freedom-loving heirs? “, Bawer asks.

Well, it appears that so far, many Western European voters — not even Wilders-fans — want to support neither Islamofascists nor appeasers nor Koran-burners.

But that’s not something Bawer wants to hear.