Tolerating Fortuyn

Why is Europe so sure that Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn is 'no Le Pen'?

Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics

The killing of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, head of the anti-immigrant party LPF, has presented the UK liberal elite with a dilemma.

Fortuyn said all the wrong things, in the way that French National Front Leader Jean-Marie Le Pen says all the wrong things. Western culture is superior to Islam, Fortuyn had argued: ‘Christianity and Judaism have gone through the laundromat of humanism and enlightenment, but that isn’t the case with Islam.’ He called for a halt on Muslim immigration (‘I think 16 million Dutchmen are about enough’) and the integration of existing immigrants into Western culture (1).

All this goes against the grain of the softly-softly approach Western leaders have been taking towards Islam since 11 September. Perhaps we should have expected Fortuyn to be vilified and exiled like Le Pen – or like Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, after he made his comment about the superiority of Western civilisation (see The Italian gaffe, by Dominic Standish).

So why have the UK liberal press and politicians been so ambivalent about Fortuyn? UK foreign secretary Jack Straw told Radio Four that Fortuyn was not ‘another Le Pen or Haider’, and that he was ‘much more balanced’ (2).

Straw can’t have meant balanced in terms of immigration policy (’16 million Dutchmen are about enough’ is pretty clear). Straw’s partial sympathy for Fortuyn came from the fact that the Dutchman justified his intolerance of Islam in the terms of tolerance.

Fortuyn was gay, and his campaign against Islam and immigration was partly justified on the basis that immigrants did not accept his sexuality. ‘In Holland, homosexuality is treated the same way as heterosexuality. In what Islamic country does that happen?’, Fortuyn had said. As Charles Freund writes in Reason magazine, Fortuyn argued that ‘his identity as a gay man was threatened by gay-bashing Muslims who characterised him as “lower than a pig”, and that the ideal of gender equality was being undermined by Muslim attitudes toward women.’

How can we tolerate immigrants when they don’t accept our liberal values of tolerating everybody, asked Fortuyn. For liberals of today, this presents a dilemma. In multicultural society everybody is encouraged to have their own beliefs, so long as they don’t criticise or exclude anybody else’s. When people’s beliefs do overstep this line, liberal society can get very intolerant. The result is that people are supposed to have neutered beliefs: Muslims are supposed to excise all the intolerant parts of Islam so as not to offend; Fortuyn is supposed to defend his gay identity without criticising Islam head-on.

In a rational, modern society, Islam – like any other religion – should be subject to criticism. And in a democratic society it is perfectly valid for people to assert the superiority of one view over the other – the fact that they tend not to do today raises questions about how much they really believe in their own views. But there is a world of difference between criticising Islam and saying that Muslims should be kept out of Holland. It is Fortuyn’s call for racially profiled closed-borders that is objectionable.

What the ambivalence towards Fortuyn shows is that the vilification and exile of Le Pen has little to do with his immigration policies. The panic about the far right is less an objection to particular policies than a moral distaste for individuals and ideas deemed to be beyond the pale. Le Pen doesn’t soften his racism with appeals to tolerance; Fortuyn did. Le Pen is evil and should be exiled from democratic society; but Fortuyn, well….

The leader article of one UK newspaper argued that: ‘as an academic and writer, as a former Marxist who swung to another extreme, as a proud advocate of gay rights, Mr Fortuyn was no Le Pen, no strutting thug.’ (4) Mr Fortuyn might have been One of Them – but in the end, it seems, he was also One Of Us. Whatever his position on Muslim immigration, he balanced his policies by speaking the right language of liberal tolerance.

Unlike that strutting French thug.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Race

Who’s afraid of the far right?, by Mick Hume

(1) ‘Paradoxes of a far right showman’, Guardian, 7 May 2002

(2) Straw: Fortuyn was no Le Pen, Guardian, 7 May 2002

(3) Fortuyn’s Folly, Reason magazine, 7 May 2002

(4) Right and wrong, Guardian, 7 May 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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