Geert Wilders is slowly but surely making Islamophobia an accepted element of political rhetoric in the Netherlands -- and he's got his eyes on the United States, next.
AMSTERDAM — A handful of people holding umbrellas and white balloons defied the driving rain in the center of Amsterdam one Thursday in September to protest the imminent formation of a government with the support of the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam far right. They listened to a few less-than-rousing speeches and some Muslim-friendly poetry, then they popped the white balloons, "to make some noise," as one speaker put it, and quietly dispersed. But otherwise, the rise of the far right has hardly caused a ripple in the Netherlands, where the response has been a mixture of equanimity and stunned silence. In Sweden, by comparison, thousands of people took to the streets when the first far-right MPs were elected that same month.
The Dutch coalition deal was done before the end of September, marking the political whitewashing of the previously unacceptable Geert Wilders, the brash, provocative, and peroxide-blond political wunderkind MP, and his right-wing Party for Freedom. He has agreed to lend his support in parliament to a minority government of conservative Liberals and the smaller Christian Democrats. In return Wilders has been given freedom to pursue many of his favorite policy projects, including anti-immigrant measures and several openly anti-Muslim initiatives, including a burqa ban and closer monitoring of Islamic schools.
The government deal was forged even though Wilders was this week pulled into Dutch court for hate speech, a charge that left him nonplussed and unrepentant. Still, regardless of what happens in Wilders’s court case, the new government represents a watershed in Dutch politics, demolishing in one fell swoop what is left of the country’s once vaunted reputation for tolerance and progressive liberalism. Even though Wilders and his party will not take ministerial responsibility, the coalition does depend on his support for its survival and has signed a formal agreement to that extent. Denmark has had a similar construction in place since 2001, but its right-wing People’s Party is almost moderate compared with Wilders’ Party for Freedom. The party’s platform calls Islam "mostly a political ideology" and wishes to deny it any of the considerations afforded a religion in the Netherlands. Wilders is even more insulting in his personal statements, for example calling the Prophet Mohammed a "barbarian and a pedophile."
The mechanism is widely seen as allowing the two mainstream center-right parties finally to form a government after more than three months of deadlock following elections in June while avoiding the taint of Wilders’ direct participation. But the left-of-center opposition is vowing to hold the new government, led by the conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) leader Mark Rutte, accountable for Wilders’s statements and behavior. "They are trying to hide his role, but it is clear that he is part of this government, whether he has a seat in it or not," says Mariko Peters, member of parliament and foreign-affairs spokeswoman for the GreenLeft, one of the left-wing opposition parties. "I will see it as my duty in parliament to keep reminding people of that."
The meteoric success of Wilders and his harsh anti-Islam rhetoric is perplexing in a stable, relatively well-off Western European country like the Netherlands. His party almost tripled its representation in the June elections and is now the third largest in parliament, with 24 of a total 150 seats. It is a stunning turnaround in a country where the progressive label seemed once part of its national DNA.
Like many other European countries, the Netherlands has its problems with immigration and integration, often of Muslims, and the events of 9/11 helped polarize opinions. It then suffered two political murders, which some here call the most shocking since the 16th-century assassination of the Netherlands’ founding father, William of Orange. First, in 2002, Pim Fortuyn, a fierce critic of immigration and Islam who seemed on the verge of emerging as a political powerhouse, was killed by an animal rights activist who later claimed to have acted in defense of Muslims. Then in 2004 Theo van Gogh, a descendent of the brother of the famous painter and a provocative writer and filmmaker, was gunned down and then knifed to death by an Islamic fundamentalist of Moroccan immigrant descent. Wilders thus found fertile ground when he broke with the VVD in 2004 and started steering a more radical course.
Not that long ago, both American Democrats and Republicans were considered rightwing by Dutch, and indeed European, standards. No longer. Wilders sometimes makes the likes of Fox News host Glenn Beck, anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller, and even the most extreme fringes of the Tea Party crowd look like moderates — and the comparison is not a random one. Several Dutch media outlets have delved into ideological and financial ties between Wilders and American archconservatives such as David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, and Jim DeMint. In an article this May, the respected Dutch NRC newspaper reported that Horowitz had brought Wilders over for a "conservative conference in California" at the end of 2009, attended by DeMint and Liz Cheney, among others. It also quotes Pipes as saying that he had gathered a "six-figure sum" to defray Wilders’s legal costs*.
Wilders’s American connection caught the international public’s eye at the height of the controversy over the Park51 project in New York, the so-called Ground Zero mosque. He was the keynote speaker, invited by Geller and her Stop Islamization of America campaign, at a much-hyped rally against the project held on Sept. 11.
Increasingly, it’s not just ideology that American and European anti-Muslim activists have in common; their tactics are growing similar, too. Just as opponents of the Park51 project have accused its imam, Faisal Abdul Rauf, of radicalism, Wilders has tried to link the people behind a mosque that he opposes, Rotterdam’s Essalam mosque, to Islamic extremism. He suggested in parliamentary questions this January that the main donor for the mosque’s construction, Dubai’s Crown Prince Hamdan bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, could have ties to Afghanistan’s Taliban.
Wilders’s success rests almost entirely on such strident rhetoric. To give an idea of the tone of his discourse in the Netherlands, he has called for a "head rag tax" on women wearing headscarves. He favors banning the Quran, wants to close Muslim schools but not equivalent Christian or Jewish ones, wants to force immigrants to sign "assimilation contracts," and wants to include the "Judeo-Christian character" of the state in the constitution.
But some Dutch analysts warn that it is a mistake to "blacken" Wilders’s name too much or lump him with fascism or Nazism. "For one, he’s not anti-Semitic," says Alfred Pijpers of the Clingendael Institute of International Relations in The Hague. Israeli officials have indeed privately commended him as "a friend of Israel." Pijpers says that Wilders has more in common with the Tea Party activists in the United States than with any old-style European right-wing party, because he can’t really be classified as either right-wing or left-wing. His party has also embraced a left-wing populist defense of the Netherlands’ besieged welfare system, and he scores points with his tough stance against crime, which he often links to immigrants.
His outspokenness has made him a hated figure for some Muslims, and he lives under constant police protection. Recently, an Aus
tralian imam called for his beheading, the last in a long line of threats. Wilders himself argued in July on the website muslimsdebate.com that he does not hate Muslims — he just opposes Islam and wants Muslims to liberate themselves from its shackles. Strikingly, he seems to have formed his low opinion of Arab and Muslim societies at a young age when he visited both Israel and Egypt and contracted a stomach bug in the latter.
If his intention is to make the Netherlands a less attractive place to Muslims, he may be succeeding. In the months since the elections, unrest in the community has increased, and more are reportedly considering leaving the country. "I hear from many people that they don’t feel comfortable. They don’t feel that this is their country anymore," says Farhad Golyardi, an Iranian-born Dutch intellectual who heads an intercultural institute in Amsterdam.
Wilders’s ambitions go beyond either Dutch or European borders. In July, Wilders announced that he was setting up a Geert Wilders International Freedom Alliance aimed at stopping Muslim immigration to the West. He designated the United States as one of five countries that were "ripe" for his alliance, and he may have had this confirmed at the 9/11 rally in New York. Says Golyardi, "He sees that there are people who agree with him all over the world, and he wants to provide an umbrella for them, to found an anti-Islam international."
High-profile international sallies appear to be part of Wilders’ strategy. During a June 2009 visit to Denmark, he said on Danish television that "deporting millions of European Muslims may be necessary." Earlier he had caused international concern over a possible repeat of the Danish cartoon riots in the run-up to the release of his widely hyped anti-Islam film Fitna in 2008. In the end the video compilation of familiar anti-Islam snippets was a dud. Wilders also gained some notoriety when he was banned from entering Britain, where he had been invited to show Fitna in the House of Lords. The ban was later reversed.
So Dutch politicians across the political spectrum breathed a sigh of relief after Wilders’s New York speech. His most notable one-liner was a warning that "New York, rooted in Dutch tolerance, will never become New Mecca." Earlier, Wilders had even appealed to mainstream opinion in the United States and Europe by opposing the planned burning of the Quran in Florida, even though he has compared the Quran to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
Such newfound mildness plays into assertions by some Dutch politicians and analysts that once Wilders has been co-opted into the system, as he now is, his sharp edges will be blunted. It may also indicate that above all else, Wilders is a wily politician who is gunning for more influence, both internationally and in the Netherlands. The mildness detected in his New York speech was at the time taken as a green light for the other parties to proceed with the talks and eventually reach an agreement with him.
Of course, both left and right fear serious damage to the Netherlands’ reputation abroad now that Wilders is somehow involved in the government. "I abhor the image that the Netherlands will get internationally," Peters, the GreenLeft MP, told The National. Even the Christian Democrat leader and outgoing foreign minister, Maxime Verhagen, was worried ahead of Wilders’ speech in New York, cautioning him to be "responsible" while at the same time begging for his support in parliament.
But now Verhagen says that his Christian Democrats and the Liberals, the two parties that are forming the government, have "sharp differences of opinion" with Wilders on the subject of Islam, but that this not an obstacle to their effective cooperation.
It is indeed the willingness of Dutch mainstream parties to be pulled into Wilders’s orbit that most appalls his opponents. "I’m not just upset with Wilders; I’m much more upset with the established parties," says Brahim Bourzik, a Muslim politician who is the former city councilor of Rotterdam. And Peters calls on Arab and Muslim countries to raise the issue of Wilders’s role in government with Dutch representatives to "shake them awake." Judging by Wilders’s smooth rise thus far, a whole lot of shaking may have to be done.
*This sentence has been updated to clarify that the funds were given to support Wilders’s legal defense, and not to support his political campaign.