Are Muslims like me really supposed to be celebrating Rutte's victory when he won by aping the rhetoric of Geert Wilders?

Even though the far-right candidate didn't win, he normalised a populist, anti-Islamic sentiment that the election proved many Dutch people agree with

Basit Mahmood
Thursday 16 March 2017 13:00 GMT
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD party appears before his supporters in The Hague
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD party appears before his supporters in The Hague (Reuters)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The defeat of Geert Wilders in the Dutch elections has been hailed by the media, politicians and by some of my own fellow Muslims as a defeat of the "anti-Islam candidate". A welcome result no doubt, but does this really amount to a loss for anti-Muslim forces in the way that so much of the media and political pundits are claiming today?

I fear complacency and a false sense of triumphalism may creep into the minds of many. Wilders may have lost the battle but he – and others like him – are winning the war.

Wilders succeeded in pulling the liberal party of the Netherlands so far to the right that its leader and the current prime minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte, in an open letter to the Dutch people during the election campaign, wrote: "Behave normally, or go away."

These words would never previously been associated with a liberal or progressive cause, and it was pretty clear who they were aimed at.

With rhetoric like that winning today at the ballot box, remind me exactly what I am supposed to be celebrating? A victory for an inclusive and tolerant politics this is certainly not.

Rutte welcomes blow against 'wrong kind of populism' in Dutch election

Fixated by a desire to stop the populist far right, many of us have taken our eye off a race which many liberal politicians are engaged in, not only in order to appeal to lost voters but also to prevent what they see as the increasing lure of the populist parties. Rutte, like many "progressive" politicians, was engaged in a race to the bottom to see who could sound the toughest on immigrants and Islam.

Rather than talking about the issues that matter and tackling the root causes of inequality that have resulted in the insecurity and poverty that many face, liberal and mainstream parties have come to the conclusion that it is best to replicate the narrative of those who threaten the weakest and most vulnerable.

Success doesn't lie simply in chasing the national mood, even if it has been set by the populist right, yet this is what's happening, not just in continental Europe but also here in the UK. With the rise of Ukip, both Labour and Conservative MPs have sought to sound tough on immigration. Nowhere is this shift in the terms of debate seen more vividly than in the reaction to today's result.

Whereas in previous years someone like Wilders coming second would have been viewed as a total shock to the system, today I am being asked to celebrate the fact that a man who openly spoke about banning the Koran and immigration from Muslim countries "only came second". Granted, Rutte didn't advocate any of this, yet he still came to view the Muslim community as suspect at the very least – a community he could afford to sound tough on just for the sake of electoral gain.

If the populist far right has come to influence mainstream political parties to such an extent that they are reacting to an agenda that has already been set, offering more restrictive policies, this amounts to a defeat for the liberal and mainstream parties in itself, irrespective of who wins at the ballot box. I find myself questioning what use it is fighting the populist right, if the alternative is a candidate who has come to believe that success lies in replicating the very rhetoric so many of us are fighting against.

Wilders has indeed lost the battle but he has won in that he has set the agenda. Lest we forget: he increased his party's number of seats. So by all means let's celebrate his defeat at the ballot box, but I won't be celebrating a victory for the alternative, given that it was based on adopting the underlying tones of those whom we have come to oppose.

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