A controversial Dutch lawmaker and fierce critic of Islam received an overwhelming positive response from a largely Jewish audience in Center City, just days after several dozen students protested outside Temple University, the parliamentarian's first local stop. Both events took place under tight security.
Geert Wilders, the leader of the Netherlands Freedom Party, has angered Muslims by claiming that terrorism and violence are central components of Islam, as opposed to products of an extremist, fringe subset.
Wilders is facing charges of incitement to hatred in his native country for producing a short film called "Fitna." The documentary has been widely viewed on the Internet, and essentially argues that the West is under siege from radical Islam.
Wilders, who has called for limiting Muslim immigration to Europe, has portrayed himself as an advocate of free speech. He's even become a darling in certain conservative circles.
"I have nothing against Muslims. I do have a problem with Islam," said Wilders to a burst of applause during an Oct. 22 speech held at the Union League of Philadelphia. "The Koran is an evil book; it calls for murder, terror and war."
Attended by about 200 people, the speech served as the inaugural event for the David Horowitz Freedom Center–Philadelphia. Formed less than a year ago, the local center is meant to serve as the East Coast headquarters of the Los Angeles-based organization run by Horowitz, a one-time liberal turned conservative firebrand. Horowitz is the editor of the right-leaning Web site www.frontpagemagazine.com.
According to its mission statement, the Philadelphia center will focus on campus activity and academic freedom by helping ensure that critics of Islam — as well as pro-Israel speakers — are allowed to offer their viewpoints without being quashed.
Wilders' Temple speech drew a number of protesters, including Jewish students, and created a controversy on campus as to whether or not he should have been permitted to speak at all.
Some of the proceeds from the Union League event will go toward Wilders' legal defense back home, said Horowitz.
The issue of how to relate to Muslims in America — and Islam, in general — has proved a divisive one for the Jewish community. Those on the left have, for the most part, advocated dialogue and engagement, while the right has espoused a more confrontational line. The same can be said for Israeli relationships with Arabs in the Mideast.
Theory Works Both Ways
Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, who directs the Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, did not attend the speech.
But she said later in an interview that it can be highly misleading to highlight individual quotes from the Koran — as Wilders' does — and call it representative of Islam in totality.
Using that same theory, back in the Middle Ages, Christian leaders would pore through the Talmud to pick out passages to be used against Jews.
Said Fuchs-Kreimer: "Judaism is a very diverse, evolving religious civilization. The same is true of Islam."