The official, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, is the son of a Jordanian prince and his Swedish wife. He is now the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, though his service at the United Nations dates to when he was a peacekeeper during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
His blistering comments were delivered in the Netherlands and were provoked by Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician whose Party for Freedom heavily employs anti-Islam messages during its campaigns. The party has led in recent opinion polls. Wilders has promised to close mosques and ban the Koran. He also attended the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July and endorsed Donald Trump's candidacy for U.S. president.
Hussein addressed his speech to Wilders and "the populists, demagogues and political fantasists" like him.
"To them, I must be a sort of nightmare. I am the global voice on human rights, universal rights," he started off. "… I am a Muslim who is, confusingly to racists, also white-skinned, whose mother is European and father, Arab. And I am angry, too. Because of Mr. Wilder’s lies and half-truths, manipulations and peddling of fear. You see, 20 years ago, I served in the U.N. peacekeeping force during the Balkan wars — wars so cruel, so devastating, which flowed from this same factory of deceit, bigotry and ethnic nationalism."
His warning reached a rhetorical peak when he suggested that anti-Islam politics simply represent the opposite side of the propaganda coin that the Islamic State militant group — also known as ISIS and ISIL — uses.
"What Mr. Wilders shares in common with Mr. Trump, Mr. Orban, Mr. Zeman, Mr. Hofer, Mr. Fico, Madame Le Pen, Mr. Farage, he also shares with Daesh," said Hussein, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State and referring to populist political leaders across Europe. "… Both sides of this equation benefit from each other — indeed would not expand in influence without each other's actions."
Still, he asserted, many have ignored the way these movements feed off each other — as well as lessons from demagoguery's dark history — and instead have succumbed to a "banalization of bigotry."
He offered a succinct portrayal of what he sees as the cynical populist game plan: "Make your target audience feel good by offering up what is a fantasy to them but a horrendous injustice to others. Inflame and quench, repeat many times over, until anxiety has been hardened into hatred."
"Communities will barricade themselves into fearful, hostile camps, with populists like them, and the extremists, as the commandants," he said. "The atmosphere will become thick with hate; at this point, it can descend rapidly into colossal violence."
Agence France-Presse reported that Wilders reacted to the speech by text message, saying Hussein was “an utter fool.”
“Another good reason to get rid of the UN,” Wilders said.
Hussein argued that respect for human rights law, as developed by collaboration among U.N. member nations, is ultimately what will safeguard societies. Human rights law, he said, "is the distillation of human experience, of generations of human suffering, the screams of the victims of past crimes and hate."
Above all, Hussein seemed to be saying that the rise of anti-Islam rhetoric mirrors past populist movements that have spawned devastating conflict. As he sees it, Wilders, Trump and their ideological peers represent a repetition of that history.
And perhaps that is because their movements so brazenly ignore or, more accurately, reinvent history.
"All seek in varying degrees to recover a past, halcyon and so pure in form, where sunlit fields are settled by peoples united by ethnicity or religion — living peacefully in isolation, pilots of their fate, free of crime, foreign influence and war. A past that most certainly, in reality, did not exist anywhere, ever. Europe’s past, as we all know, was for centuries anything but that," Hussein said.
"The proposition of recovering a supposedly perfect past is fiction; its merchants are cheats," he said.
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