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In the 17th century, Dutch settlers flocked to the southern half of what is now Manhattan to establish New Amsterdam, a fur-trading post that would welcome Lutherans and Catholics from Europe; Anglicans, Puritans, and Quakers from New England; and Sephardic Jews who were, at the time, discouraged from settling in America’s other nascent regions.

Though its English conquerors would rename the city New York, the values of diversity and tolerance that the Dutch introduced would remain the region’s hallmark for centuries to come.

In modern-day Netherlands, however, the Dutch Republic’s founding pledge in 1581, that “everyone shall remain free in religion” has collided with the ambitions of one of the country’s most popular politicians.

That man is Geert Wilders, the anti-establishment politician and rabble-rouser who founded his Party for Freedom (PVV) in 2006, by declaring independence from the “elite in The Hague”.

He is renowned mostly for his divisive and scathing anti-Islam rhetoric, but also for his flamboyant blond hair. He has been branded as “Captain Peroxide” and “Mozart” by the Dutch press and has even been described by Radio Netherlands as “the most famous bleach-blond since Marilyn Monroe”.

Wilders is often dubbed the Dutch Donald Trump, even by the American press. This of course has much to do with his hair, as well as his use of social media for communicating his thoughts, but this far-right populist is both more ideological and less impulsive than the American president.

© Peter van der Sluijs

He has called for making the “Netherlands ours again,” banning the Quran, putting a tax on wearing the hijab, shutting down all mosques, sealing off Dutch borders to Muslim newcomers, and pulling the Netherlands out of the European Union.

“All the values Europe stands for — freedom, democracy, human rights — are incompatible with Islam,” he said in a 2015 video. It was shocking but hardly the most controversial thing he’s said.

He is at the forefront of a wave of anti-immigrant populism sweeping Europe.

In the 2017 general election, initial Dutch exit polls had incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s party in the lead, with Wilders’ Freedom Party coming in second and exceeding its vote totals from the 2012 election, but falling well short of earlier projections.

Because of the fractured nature of Dutch parliamentary politics which require coalition building between parties, Wilders had been unlikely to ascend to the prime minister’s office regardless of the final results.

That doesn’t mean he’s been marginalized: Wilders had already successfully dragged the political conversation in the Netherlands to the right — and may have helped to do the same for the rest of Europe.

Here, then, is a primer on Geert Wilders, the man who put parliamentary elections squarely at the centre of the world’s stage in a country that rarely makes the news.


A nationalist trailblazer

Wilders was born on September 6, 1963 in Venlo, a largely Catholic town in the southeastern Limburgregion of the Netherlands, near the German border. He is the youngest of his parents’ four children.

In 1991, Wilders married Krisztina Marfai Arib, a former Hungarian diplomat in Budapest.

His mother was half Indonesian, a fact he does not much discuss, while his father was a manager in a printing and photocopy machine manufacturing firm.

Wilders completed his secondary education in Venlo and at 18, he resolved to travel and see the world. But he did not have enough money to travel to Australia which was his preferred destination. So, he headed to Israel instead and worked on a moshav — a cooperative agricultural community of individual farms.

He lived there for two years and fell in love with Zionism and the idea of Israel as a bulwark against the Arab world. With the money he had saved, he also travelled to the neighbouring Arab countries and was moved by the lack of democracy in the region, due to the conflicts at the time. Wilders later took a course in health insurance in Amsterdam and earned several law degrees at the Dutch Open University. He has reportedly visited Israel over 40 times since then.

Unlike other European far-rightists, his outreach to Jews is not about covering up ancient anti-Semitism — Marine Le Pen’s father, in France, for example, was a known Holocaust minimizer, a fact Le Pen has scrambled to make up for after taking over the Front National and later changing the party’s name to Rassemblement National.

He first lived and worked in Utrecht in the health and social insurance sector. His interest in the subject led him into politics as speechwriter and parliamentary assistant to Frits Bolkestein, the leader of the conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie or VVD). He held this job from 1990 to 1998.

© André P. Meyer-Vitali

Frits Bolkestein is often considered his political mentor, but another strong political influence on him was fellow VVD parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born Dutch politician who had denounced her Islamic faith. Together, Wilders and Hirsi Ali developed a so-called ‘critique of the Islamic religion’ that saw the behaviour of Muslims as determined by their religion and that blamed the social-economic misery and lack of democracy in many Islamic countries, as well as sexism and racism inside Muslim communities on their ‘backward’ culture.

In 1997, Wilders was also elected to the municipal council of Utrecht for the VVD and at this time, he was living in a suburb where a high proportion of immigrants occupied cheap social housing in high rise apartment blocks.

It was while he was a city councilor that Wilders was mugged in his own neighbourhood; it has been speculated that this may have been the catalyst for his later political transformation.

In 2002 he was made a party spokesperson for the VVD. However, tensions developed over his opposition to Islam, and he was eventually expelled from the party for his refusal to endorse the party’s position for EU accession talks to be started with Turkey.

But it was a far more ideological, and far more flamboyant party leader named Pim Fortuyn who truly paved the way for Wilders’ eventual rise to prominence.

In Fortuyn’s footsteps

The nation’s peculiar path from “live and let live” to “Make the Netherlands Ours Again” – as Wilders has said – has as its guidelines a changing definition of tolerance, some instances of political opportunism and two grisly assassinations.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was growing discontent of Muslim communities, because the decline in decent job prospects for the Turkish and Moroccan migrants only aggravated tensions. The parties, however, worked on the assumption that it was not appropriate to have political infighting about the presence of immigrants. They didn’t want to use minorities to make a political point.

But by September 2001, that principle had all but eroded.

For many Dutch, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 turned a latent unease towards Turkish and Moroccan communities into an open distrust of Islam. Lost on them was a bit of historical irony: The Twin Towers stood just north of where the Dutch had once erected a 12-foot-tall barrier—Wall Street, they called it—to demarcate the borders of tolerant New Amsterdam.

As the country turned a suspicious gaze on its Muslim communities, two of the most vocal peddlers of anti-Islam sentiment in the Netherlands—Pim Fortuyn and Theo Van Gogh—gained an increasingly receptive audience.

Fortuyn was a charismatic man and openly gay. He was a former university professor and political columnist

He became the leader of the right-wing “Livable Netherlands” party but, rather like Wilders, was dismissed after giving an interview in which he promised to keep out Muslim immigrants — “As far as I am concerned, no Muslim will ever come in,” he said. 

Such statements accompanied his rapid ascent towards the top of Dutch politics, culminating with the formation of his own party, Lijst (List)Pim Fortuyn (LPF) in 2002.

Theo Van Gogh—the great-grandson of Vincent Van Gogh’s brother—was a film director and fierce advocate of free speech. Together with the Somali-born parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Van Gogh produced a 10-minute film, titled Submission that depicted verses from the Quran projected onto women’s bare bodies. The purpose, they said, was to highlight the issue of violence against women in many Islamic communities.

Through their respective paths, Fortuyn and Van Gogh actively hyped up a tension between the new brand of Dutch tolerance—one forged on socially progressive values—and the supposed backwardness of traditionalist Islam. Many in the Muslim community were quick to point out that the contrasts that the two were drawing did not square with their own embrace of the openness of Dutch society.

Nonetheless, the gruesome deaths of the two men would give their messages a new sense of resonance among the Dutch.

In positioning his out gay identity against migrants, Fortuyn attempted to appeal to the way many Dutch liked to see themselves — as exemplars of a very Western, very tolerant, post–sexual revolution society. Indeed, the Netherlands was the first European country to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2001.

Fortuyn arrived at a form of xenophobia ideally suited to a nation that prides itself on its tolerance. The problem with immigrants is that they are intolerant. In this context, his flamboyant gayness probably was an asset. After all, if you’re willing to back a man who brags about sleeping with Arab boys, how much of a bigot can you really be?

But Fortuyn’s outspoken positions won him enemies as well.

Volkert van der Graaf, a 33 year-old environmental and animal rights activist, fed up with Fortuyn’s exploitations of “the weak parts of society” as he called them, fired five bullets into the politician’s head and back, just days before the 2002 general elections. This was the country’s first prominent political assassination since the 17th century.

In August 1672, following the outbreak of the Franco-Dutch and Anglo-Dutch Wars, the republican key figures of Prime Minister Johan De Witt and his elder brother, Cornelis De Witt were lynched and brutally killed by civic militia and an angry mob in The Hague.

Van Gogh’s death in 2004 was even more startling. He was cycling to his Amsterdam office to finish a film on the life of Fortuyn when Mohammed Bouyeri, a 26-year-old Dutch-Moroccan, also on a bicycle, shot him.

As Van Gogh pleaded for his life, the attacker fired several more bullets, then stabbed him to death and slit his throat. He then attached the names of future victims to the knife…among these names were those of Geert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

The murder of Theo Van Gogh was a crucial turning point. He represented this new anti-religion, leftish ideology that was part of the 1960s and 1970s.

Many people, even those from the left, would go on to argue that Muslims constitute a problem and a danger to the open society that the Netherlands is.

Despite instant renunciation from Islamic leaders across the country, dozens of retaliatory arson attacks were attempted on Dutch mosques over the following weeks.

The “live and let live ideal”, was dead, along with Pim Fortuyn and Theo Van Gogh.


The right-wing drift

At the time of Van Gogh’s murder, Geert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, both known targets of religious extremists, were granted round-the-clock police protection. Hirsi Ali eventually left The Netherlands; Wilders has lived under police surveillance ever since.

While he was in Rome to receive the Oriana Fallaci Free Speech Award in 2009, a colleague counted 35 policemen guarding the door when Wilders went to the restroom.

He joked that it was “the best-protected pee” of his life, but the routine he endures because so many Islamists want to kill him is hardly a laughing matter as far as he is concerned.

Fortuyn, Van Gogh, and Wilders were all, in some way, responding to an increasing discomfort with the presence of Muslim immigrants in Dutch society.

A number of political analysts in the Netherlands have expressed the opinion that if it hadn’t been for Fortuyn, there wouldn’t be a Wilders phenomenon. They note that in the 1990s, there was growing frustration over immigration issues and Fortuyn was the first to frame the issue as “protecting Dutchness” which, he believed, was threatened by Islam and immigrants.

After the collapse of the List Pim Fortuyn in 2003, there was a large gap in the market for far-right populism in the Netherlands. Several figures vied for the support of this market but it was Geert Wilders who won this battle through the formation of the Party for Freedom,(PVV).

Whatever else Wilders is, he is a very clever organizer and party manager. He correctly noted that all prior right-wing populist parties in the Netherlands, especially the LPF, had fallen apart due to a lack of unity and party infighting.

His new Party for Freedom was thus created with a unique structure, both in the Netherlands and internationally. Under Dutch law a political party must have at least two members.

Hence, the PVV has exactly two members: Geert Wilders, and the Geert Wilders Foundation. The party and Wilders are essentially one and the same. PVV policy is set by Wilders and all the party’s candidates for office are only accepted onto its lists after heavy vetting by Wilders personally.

This has downsides; the party is only ever capable of running in two municipalities, The Hague and Almere, but it remains tightly under Wilders’ control.

Wilders claims to be the heir of Pim Fortuyn and like Fortuyn before him, he is an especially harsh critic of Islam. Wilders has compared the Quran to Mein Kampf and claimed it should be outlawed just as Hitler’s book is in the Netherlands.

He has referred to Muhammed as ‘the devil’ and suggests that Islam is not a religion, but a totalitarian political ideology which he compares to Communism and Fascism. His proposed solutions to the ‘Islamic problem’ include €1,000 licences to wear a hijab, and to pay Muslims to leave the country.

He was acquitted of a hate speech charge in 2011, though the court stated that his speech was ‘borderline’.

In 2009, Wilders produced his own short Islamophobic film, “Fitna”, which was a mishmash of images from 9/11, the Madrid bombings, and words from the Quran.

It was seen as incitement; he was temporarily banned from entering Britain after it aired. The entire episode served, in fact, as publicity and provocation.

In 2012, he wrote a book, Marked for Dead: Islam’s War Against the West and Me.

One distinctive characteristic of Wilders’ ideology, and of the new right-wing in general in the Netherlands, is its ambiguous attitude to the heritage of the post-’68 social movements. They are vehemently opposed to the ecological movement, and of course to anti-racism. But (verbal) support for women’s rights and those of LGBTs as well as opposition to antisemitism have been made into markers of ‘Dutchness’ and modernity.

Emancipation in Dutch society is supposedly completed: emancipation movements are ‘out-dated’, except among ‘backward’ minorities. The fight against sexism, homophobia and antisemitism is redefined as one against ‘non-integrated minorities’, especially Muslims who are considered to be inherently misogynist, homophobic and antisemitic.

In the words of Fleur Agema, a prominent, young PVV parliamentarian : “Antisemitism and homophobia are not Dutch phenomena. They have been imported, for a deplorable part, from Morocco.”

Racism in the Netherlands is not limited to the PVV, but Wilders, and Fortuyn before him, do more than just reflect existing sentiments: they mobilize and shape a social base for their politics.

In addition to Islam, Wilders has more recently branched out into attacking Eastern European migrants. In 2012 the party launched a website named ‘Reporting Centre on Central and East Europeans’ which solicits complaints about East and Central European immigrants.

The website had a headline which declared ‘Do you have problems with people from Central and Eastern Europe? Have you lost your job to a Pole, a Bulgarian, a Romanian or other Eastern European?’

It also said ‘Wouldn’t it be better if they just went home?’ and accused Eastern Europeans of criminality.

The European Commission promptly condemned the website.

Additionally, Wilders predictably, takes tough positions on law and order, is climate-sceptic and has populist views towards the political elite.

Wilders was originally very classically right-wing on economics, even amongst the VVD, but as the PVV’s base is fairly mixed socially, and because of competition with the left-populist Socialist Party, the PVV’s platform has become rather oddball and mixed in this area.

It is often described as economically centrist, but a better word might be syncretic. The PVV does not adopt centrist economic positions but rather has a set of positions which are either very left wing or very right wing.

He supports tax cuts, and welfare chauvinist positions tightening up the welfare system, but he also supports keeping the retirement age at 65, a position also supported only by the most left-wing party, the Socialists.

That said, Wilders does not much concern himself with economics and this is simply not a major part of the PVV’s programme.


Riding the wave of institutionalized populism

The Dutch far-right has evolved into one of the most successful national movements in Europe and Geert Wilders has become something of a major political figure, boasting international support.  With 1.3 million votes, his party became the second largest in the last Dutch elections in March 2017.

For Wilders and the far-right, populism is the idea that society is divided into two camps; the ‘good people’ versus a ‘corrupt elite’. The ‘people’ are not the whole of society, but the part of the society that is considered pure and whose political will is considered legitimate: it is a partial object that stands in for the whole.

Who is part of the ‘people’ is not really defined, and the borders of this category are contested.

Selecting those considered part of it and those who are not, is a political act.

In national-populism, the ‘people’ and the nation tend to overlap: the nation is not equal to the citizenry but to the ‘people’, a term with an historical, ethnic connotation. The national-populism of Wilders calls for the disappearance of an ‘alien’ minority culture to preserve a mythical, homogeneous ‘Dutchness’.

As much as Geert Wilders may want power,  he may, more than anything, want to exert influence — especially on the international stage. In that respect, he has already succeeded.

Political ideas such as his are prevalent in the European Union, where national-populist parties have made spectacular gains in parliamentary and general elections in a number of member states. Hungary, Poland, Belgium, Austria, Germany and Italy are among the more prominent nations where right-wing populist parties have garnered a significant following.

As far back as 2005, he was one of the leading campaigners for a Dutch No vote against the European Constitution, arguing that it limited national sovereignty.

And in a speech in 2017, Wilders spoke explicitly on Europe. He explained his view that the EU is characterized by cultural relativism and enmity towards patriotism. But that patriotism is not a dangerous threat…it is something to be proud of.
It means defending a nations sovereignty and independence, and not selling it out in shabby compromises to the EU and its bureaucrats.

He also quoted his close political ally, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán: “Europe is a community of Christian, free and independent nations. The main danger to Europe’s future comes from the fanatics of internationalism in Brussels. We shall not allow them to force upon us the bitter fruit of their cosmopolitan immigration policy.”

He then continued in the same vein, taking up historical considerations.

He affirmed that European civilization, based on the legacy of Jerusalem. Athens and Rome, is the best civilization on earth and that it gave us democracy, freedom, equality before the law, the separation of church and state, and the notion of sovereign states to protect it all.

Finally, he launched a scathing attack on the European Union : Instead of stopping it, the EU is facilitating the process of population replacement. The open border policies imposed by the EU on its member states prevent these countries controlling their own borders.

The EU Court of Justice dismisses sovereign laws of member states and tramples on their rights to approve who enters their countries.

The EU is forcing countries to take in quotas of mostly Islamic immigrants. EU Frontex ships pick immigrants up at sea and transport them to the EU instead of sending them back. Everything the EU does makes matters worse.

Wilders was asked by a reporter if he thought that Europe could be saved.

This is his answer : Yes, but only if we get rid of the EU, restore national sovereignty and de-Islamise our societies. And that is exactly what we intend to do.”

The rise of Wilders and others like him points to a radical shift in politics across all of Europe. The entire political spectrum is shifting to the right. This shift certainly addresses real problems that Europe faces. But the less savory elements of this movement point to the dangers here.

The foreshocks in the Netherlands, followed by the refugee crisis may be the beginnings of a political earthquake that will restructure governments across the Continent and precipitate a transformative identity crisis in Europe.

Click below to read August’s edition of Europe Diplomatic Magazine 

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