As an editor at the National Post, I often rely on three letters to protect my columnists from human-rights tribunals: I-S-M — these being the difference between spelling Islam and Islamism.
The former is a religion — like Christianity or Judaism. The latter is an ideology, which seeks to impose an intolerant fundamentalist version of Islam on all Muslims, and spread the faith throughout the world. Declaring Islamism a menace isn't controversial. Declaring Islam a menace is considered hate speech.
Geert Wilders' refusal to deploy those three letters is the reason that the 47-year-old Dutch politician travels with bodyguards, and cannot sleep in the same house two nights in a row. For Mr. Wilders, the problem plaguing Western societies is Islam, full stop. Terrorism, tyranny, the subjugation of women — these are not perversions of Islam, as he sees it, but rather its very essence.
"The word 'Islamism' suggests that there is a moderate Islam and a non-moderate Islam," he told me during an interview in Toronto on Sunday. "And I believe that this is a distinction that doesn't exist. It's like the Prime Minister of Turkey [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, said 'There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam, and that's it.' This is the Islam of the Koran."
"Now, you can certainly make a distinction among the people," he adds. "There are moderate Muslims — who are the majority in our Western societies — and non-moderate Muslims."
"But Islam itself has only one form. The totalitarian ideology contained in the Koran has no room for moderation. If you really look at what the Koran says, in fact, you could argue that 'moderate' Muslims are not Muslims at all. It tells us that if you do not act on even one verse, then you are an apostate."
Unlike most critics of Islam, who tend to shy away from the explosive subject of Mohammed himself, Mr. Wilders forthrightly describes the Muslim Prophet as a dictator, a pedophile and a warmonger. "If you study the life of Mohammed," Mr.Wilders told me, "you can see that he was a worse terrorist than Osama bin Laden ever was."
It is an understatement to call Mr. Wilders a divisive figure in the Netherlands. On the one hand, he is the leader of the PVV, the country's third most popular political party — which currently is propping up the ruling minority government. And Mr. Wilders has been declared "politician of the year" by a popular Dutch radio station, and come in second in a variety of other mainstream polls.
On the other hand, the Muslim Council of Britain has called him "an open and relentless preacher of hate." For a time, Mr. Wilders, even was banned from entering the U.K. A popular Dutch rapper wrote a song about killing Mr. Wilders ("This is no joke. Last night I dreamed I chopped your head off.")
Before meeting Mr. Wilders on Sunday, I knew him mostly from his most inflammatory slogans — such as his comparison of the Koran to Mein Kampf — which his detractors fling around as proof of his narrow-minded bigotry.
Yet the real Geert Wilders speaks softly and thoughtfully. It turns out that he's travelled to dozens of Muslim nations. He knows more about the Islamic faith and what it means to ordinary people than do most of Islam's most ardent Western defenders.
Nor do I believe that Mr. Wilders is a bigot — a least, not in the sense that the word usually is understood.
"I don't hate Muslims. I hate their book and their ideology," is what he told Britain's Guardian newspaper in 2008. Mr. Wilders sees Islam as akin to communism or fascism, a cage that traps its suffering adherents in a hateful, phobic frame of mind.
Mr. Wilders describes Muslim as victims of bad ideas, in other words. In this way, his attitude is entirely different from classic anti-Semites and racists, who treat Jews and blacks as debased on the level of biology.
Of course, in the modern, politically correct Western tradition, hatred expressed toward a religion typically is held on the same level of human-rights opprobrium as hatred expressed toward a race or an ethnicity. But Islam is not really a religion at all, as Mr. Wilders sees it, but rather a retrograde political ideology with religious trappings.
He notes that while other religions draw a distinction between God and Caesar, between the secular and the spiritual, Islam demands submission in every aspect of human existence, both through the wording of the Koran itself and the Shariah law that has developed in its shadow. The faith also supplies a justification for aggressive war; vilifies non-believers; and pronounces death upon its enemies. In short, Mr. Wilders argues, it has all the ingredients of what students of 20th century history would recognize as a fully formed totalitarian ideology.
"I see Islam as 95% ideology, 5% religion — the 5% being the temples and the imams," he tells me. "If you would strip the Koran of all the negative, hateful, anti-Semitic material, you would wind up with a tiny [booklet]."
It's easy to see why many Europeans casually jump to the conclusion that Mr. Wilders is a hatemonger. He wants to halt non-Western immigration to the Netherlands until existing immigrants can be integrated, and he wants to deport any foreigner who commits a crime — the same sort of policies as those advocated by genuine xenophobes.
But even so, his insistence on the proper distinction between faith and ideology is an idea that deserves to be taken seriously. For it invites the question: If we permit the excoriation of totalitarian cults created by modern dictators, why do we stigmatize (and even criminalize) the excoriation of arguably similar notions when they happen to be attributed to a 7th-century prophet?
It's a good question. And as far as I know, Geert Wilders is the only Western politician taking it seriously.
This article was originally posted in the National Post May 8, 2011