BERLIN, Sept. 30 (UPI) -- Anti-Islam parties are gaining ground in Europe, establishing themselves as the continent's new populist movement.
"A new wind will blow in the Netherlands," a beaming Geert Wilders, the controversial anti-Islam politician, Thursday told reporters in The Hague, after he had struck a deal to support the Dutch minority government.
The center-right government coalition in return agreed to honor several of Wilders' policy demands, including tighter rules on immigration, a boost of police forces and a ban on the burqa, the full Islamic veil.
Wilders' Freedom Party this summer scored its best parliamentary election result, on the wings of a populist election campaign centered on stopping the "Islamization" of the Netherlands. It's clear that the "new wind" Wilders foresees will blow first and foremost in the face of the country's Muslims.
The political shift in the traditionally tolerant country is worrisome enough. The problem is that Wilders, who last week in New York spoke out against the Islamic Community Center near Ground Zero, is by no means a solitary phenomenon.
All over Europe, far right parties are winning over disgruntled voters by capitalizing on what seems to be deeply rooted fears of Muslim immigration and actual or perceived problems with integration of Muslim minorities into mainstream Western society.
A far right party calling itself the Sweden Democrats this month entered the Swedish parliament for the first time on the back of openly anti-Islamic campaigns. The leader of the party, Jimmie Akesson, warned that Islam is the biggest threat to Sweden since World War II.
Similar parties have had success in Denmark and Norway and in France President Nicolas Sarkozy has been accused of deporting Roma Gypsies to win back lost electoral support.
Far right parties that have campaigned against foreigners sit in the parliaments of Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Latvia -- despite the fact that the number of illegal immigrants entering Europe is declining.
"We have seen on several occasions that the potential for anti-Islam sentiments turning into political support in Europe is very real," Ruud Koopmans, migration expert at the Social Science Research Center in Berlin, this week told the foreign press corps in Germany. "In many countries in Europe, there is a growing discrepancy between political elites in the established parties and a large part of the electoral -- mainly those voters who feel threatened by globalization. In part these might be irrational fears but in other instances it's real problems people see and experience."
In Germany, Thilo Sarrazin, a center-left politician and former Central Bank member, sparked headlines with his book "Germany Does Away with Itself."
Using partly valid, partly questionable statistics, Sarrazin in the book accuses Muslims of being unwilling or incapable of integrating into mainstream society. The tirelessly reproducing Muslim immigrants, he suggests, are taking over Germany.
Because of his book, which often uses derogatory language, and because of crude statements on race, genes and Jews made in a newspaper interview accompanying the book's release, Sarrazin has had to resign from his post at the Bundesbank. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel had called for his head. Sarrazin's statements, Merkel and many experts said, are fueling social conflicts and undermining integration efforts.
However, the success of the book -- it jumped straight to the top of the country's bestseller list -- and the heated debate it still sparks suggests that many Germans are deeply moved by the issues Sarrazin has named. A recent poll by census group Emnid indicated that 18 percent of Germans would vote for a party headed by Sarrazin. (He has vowed not to start one).
One of the problems for the established parties is that the new anti-Islam populists, as inflammatory as their comments are, don't resemble the traditional neo-Nazi leaders of the 1990s.
Wilders is a strong backer of Israel, criticizes the curtailing of the welfare state and fights against handing over more competencies to the European Union. Sarrazin claims he isn't against immigration in general but against the influx of poorly educated Muslims. Both fill the gap right of the political center, making them look and feel to the disgruntled voter more mainstream than they perhaps might be.
In the Netherlands, Wilders has been a major problem for the established parties in the ongoing coalition negotiations: Including him means legitimizing his populist policies. Refusing to do so only boosts Wilders' appeal with protest voters.
So how to counter this development?
Koopmans said the established parties need to "decently take on" the real problems linked to immigration and integration. Ignoring them would only play into the hands of the populists, he added.
"It's dangerous when politicians tell people that these problems don't exist," Koopmans said. "As soon as you're giving these voters the idea that you don't take them seriously, and that criticism of Wilders, or Sarrazin, is a criticism of them, then they're going to support these populists even more."