In a tweet, Leo Lucassen, a Dutch historian specializing in global labor and immigration history, compared the planned visit of two far-right leaders, Geert Wilders (of the Dutch PVV) and Filip Dewinter (of the Belgian Vlaams Belang), to the Brussels municipality of Molenbeek, which has a considerable Muslim population, with the parade of the British Union of Fascists, lead by Oswald Mosley, through London’s East End, home to many Jews who had emigrated from Easter Europe, in October 1936. A few days later, another Dutch historian, Geerten Waling, who is also a vocal commentator of current affairs (he has written, for example, on American politics and on “The danger named Antifa”), criticized Lucassen in his column in Elsevier, saying that this was not a pertinent comparison. Lucassen replied, elaborating on what he meant by this comparison and why, in his view, it is pertinent. This lead to a debate between the two.
Waling was very critical of Lucassen, implying that his choice of comparison was not becoming of an academic of the freedom-loving Leiden university. During the debate, Waling said that Lucassen reacted as a polemicist and not as a scientist. As to the essence of the matter, Waling argued that a comparison between the 1930’s and today, and between Wilders and British fascists, is not appropriate. In Waling’s view, you cannot compare Wilders and Dewinter, both democratically elected politicians, with a fascist. He further argued that being Jewish is first and foremost an ethnic identity, and being part of an ethnic group is something that cannot constitute grounds for criticism or discrimination; being Muslim, on the other hand, is an “idea”, and ideas can be criticized. In addition, according to Waling, Wilders’ visit to Molenbeek does aim to be sensational, but it is nothing like the conspiracy theories promoted against Jews in the 1930’s: there is a “valid”, a “concrete political issue” at hand, given that some radical Islamists have grown up in Molenbeek. In any case, the Holocaust’s uniqueness means that any comparison with it is dangerous. “With our retrospective knowledge, who wouldn’t have wanted to protect those poor Jews from the horrible power of fascism? But the Second World War is way behind us, and we live in different times. Muslims can very well be victims of racism and discrimination, but at the same time a bloody jihad is carried out against Western liberties out of enclaves like Molenbeek.”
Lucassen, both in his column and during the debate, pointed out that historians regularly proceed to comparisons; of course, to compare two things does not mean that they are identical. Lucassen argued that, just like Mosley, Wilders, with his regular rant against Islam and Muslims in general, stigmatizes a whole group of people because of their religious beliefs, and that is dangerous, given that hundreds of thousands of Muslims – the vast majority of whom are as afraid of terrorism as anyone – live in the Netherlands. “Contrary to Waling, I think that the 1930’s constitute an especially interesting and instructive period if we want to understand today’s populism. With this, I am not saying that history repeats itself or that the PVV is a fascist party, but certain exclusion mechanisms do indeed show solid, striking similarities. It is the historian’s task to trace them.” According to Lucassen, Wilders and Dewinter are radical-right leaders with a clear program, who systematically marginalize a “vague” group. This is, says Lucassen, very similar to conspiracy theories that stigmatized Jews as a threat to the community in the 1930’s: what Wilders does is not to critique specific parts or forms of Islam; in a climate of Islamophobia, all people with Moroccan-sounding names feel marginalized in the Netherlands.
(Featured image: El-Ouma mosque, Amsterdam Source: Wikimedia Commons.)