Geert Wilders is famous for his punchy one-liners. Here’s one: “I don’t believe there is a moderate Islam.” And another: “The more Islam that we get, the less freedom that we get.” Wilders, for all his rhetorical failings, is always to the point—like when he categorically proclaims: “I want to ban the Quran.”
It’s not hard to imagine one of these brash catchphrases serving as a slogan for his possible run at the Dutch prime minister’s office in 2011. Today, Geert Wilders stands at the helm of the Netherlands’ fastest growing political force: the Party for Freedom (PVV), founded by Wilders after his 2004 split with the People’s Party. Wilders, Holland’s most notorious right-wing political rock star, has already managed to win a broad base of support, picking up 17 per cent of the Dutch vote in this year’s European elections.
But the PVV has come to resemble, for many, less of a political unit than a vehicle for Europe’s most brazen and unapologetic crusade against Islam—or, as Wilders is known to say, “that sick ideology of Allah and Muhammad.” That is at the heart of the PVV’s stance on nearly every issue. “Islam,” he insists, “is an ideology, not a religion. And it’s a very dangerous, violent and fascist ideology.” Indeed, Wilders has mobilized the right wing around a shared fear: “the Islamic invasion of Holland.”
Wilders wants to ban Islam’s primary religious text, the Quran, on the basis that it is no different from Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s 1925 articulation of Nazi ideology. He also backs moves to prohibit the headscarf and burka—a policy that is endorsed by the country’s integration and immigration minister. Recently, Wilders has played on economic woes, urging the government to calculate “the cost of multiculturalism.” It’s an approach that has ostensibly met success; polls indicate that were a national vote to be held today, Wilders’s party would walk away with more votes than any other.
Wilders’s rise, some say, can be traced back to the day five years ago when a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim shot and then nearly decapitated Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, allegedly for insulting Islam. The killing spurred a series of mosque burnings, and pitted Dutch nationalists against a growing body of immigrants. As the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel has written, “Nov. 2, 2004 was the Netherlands’ Sept. 11, and after that day many politicians declared that the country was now at war.” Wilders’s war has included his 17-minute film Fitna, which means “diagreement and division among people” in Arabic. It juxtaposes images of Sept. 11 and the 2005 London transit bombings with verses from the Quran, such as: “Prepare for them whatever force and cavalry ye are able of gathering, to strike terror, to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies, of Allah and your enemies.” (Last February, he was denied entry to London to show the film, although that stance was later reversed.)
Wilders’s rise, says Simon Usherwood, a professor at the University of Surrey, is explained in part by “economic downturn, [which] produces swings toward more reactionary politics.” But another factor is his undeniable charisma. Wilders’s nickname, “Mozart,” is a tribute to his striking hair: longish, cut bluntly, and bleached platinum blond—an attempt, say the rumours, to hide his allegedly Jewish ancestry. But the crux of his support stems from a pressing anxiety about immigration. There are now around one million Muslims—many from Morocco and Turkey—in the Netherlands. But while they only make up around six per cent of the population, there are Muslim strongholds, like Rotterdam, where, Usherwood says, you find white citizens worried that a “national minority will become a local majority.” Tensions are ripe, he claims, because the government has stuck to a policy of “benign neglect”: “simply stick[ing] your fingers in your ears and go[ing] ‘bla bla bla, I can’t hear you.’ ” This has allowed Wilders, with his own crude solution, to sweep in.
Ian Buruma, author of Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, points his finger at a more global phenomenon: “It is a sign of a broader shift that is happening in Europe, or even the United States with Sarah Palin, in that there is a strong populist mood.” Wilders has managed to take advantage of an “anti-elite” sentiment, says Buruma, in part by manipulating criticism voiced against him. “Part of exploiting the fears of being victimized by elites is his own position: ‘look at me, the elites are out to get me.’ It helps cement that image of the beleaguered voice of the little man being stifled by the elite.”
For Wilders, the Netherlands—which Usherwood stresses is still “liberal and permissive”—is filled with hidden Islamic threats. But how much longer this Dutch Mozart, who is under heavy police protection, will be able to run his mouth is a topic for debate. A national court has charged Wilders with hate speech, and the trial will begin in January. But Buruma thinks a courtroom show will only fuel Wilders’s following, especially if tensions around immigration are not definitively addressed. “When people get fearful,” he warns,” they are capable of following demagogues anywhere.”