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Geert Wilders and the future of European populism

Apr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Wilders is often cast, along with Marine Le Pen in France, as a hangdog reactionary, a voice of the aging white working classes of the immigration-swamped welfare states of northwestern Europe, a tribune of the losers of globalization. He is actually not typical of much. Wilders stopped school at age 18. He sports a wild peroxide-blond pompadour. Much of his family comes from “India,” as the Dutch called the much-lamented Indonesian colony they abandoned in 1949. He traveled as a young man to Israel and worked on a kibbutz. That experience became a lodestar of his political thinking, reinforced by his twin obsessions: sovereignty (which he likes) and Islam (which he does not). Islam is the one issue on which Wilders is unambiguously radical. He has suggested taxing headscarves, has attacked fellow legislators of Turkish and Moroccan background who hold two passports, and considers the Koran a “fascistic” book, an utterance for which he had to defend himself in a celebrated court case.

Wilders, 50, comes from Venlo, in Catholic Limburg, but his conservatism, if conservatism it is, is not at all of a traditionalist kind. Wilders cares a lot about fighting homophobia and protecting the Dutch welfare state. In this he is one of many Dutch politicians shaped by the example of Pim Fortuyn. A flamboyant gay academic, Fortuyn rose out of nowhere in the months after September 11, 2001, arguing that immigrant violence and Muslim piety were incompatible with the freewheeling Dutch lifestyle that he considered the country’s proudest achievement. Fortuyn might have become prime minister had he not been assassinated on the eve of the 2002 elections by an animal-rights activist, Volkert van der Graaf, who felt Fortuyn was using Muslims as “scapegoats.” Two years later, the filmmaker and anti-Muslim cracker of jokes Theo van Gogh was knocked off his bicycle and stabbed to death by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch Islamist of Moroccan background. After multiple death threats the Somali-born feminist politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali left the country. 

Wilders has lived under heavy police protection for more than a decade. Credible threats have been made against him on many occasions, and plots broken up to take his life with bombs and guns. The spokesman for a group called Sharia4Holland called for giving “this dog of the Romans” the same treatment van Gogh got. More recently, hundreds of jihadists have left the Netherlands to fight in Syria, including one—“Khalid from Almere”—who can be seen on right-wing websites posing with heads he has separated from infidel bodies. (Wilders’s party is the top vote-getter in Almere.) All this immigration-related violence has changed the country from top to bottom. It was announced the week of Obama’s visit that van der Graaf will be released in May after serving 12 years of an 18-year term. The usual reaction among the Dutch has been incredulity that they once lived in a country that sentenced people so leniently. 


The Netherlands is the country in Europe in which a negative assessment of Muslim immigration is most openly voiced. The liberal VVD party’s posters for March’s elections in Rotterdam read: “In Rotterdam we speak Dutch.” Even before Wilders’s outburst, worries about the country’s 400,000 or so first- and second-generation Moroccans were freely expressed. Moroccans commit a wildly dis-proportionate percentage of street crime—40 percent have been arrested by age 24, according to a notorious 2011 report from the Erasmus University of Rotterdam. Somalis and Antilleans may commit more crimes per capita, but there are more Moroccans. On the true-crime series Opsporing Verzocht, the perp the policemen run down at the end of the show is almost always some Moroccan kid, or a “Mocro,” to use the street slang. The tabloids are full of stories about Moroccan gangs robbing nursing homes. “These places are defended as if they’re Fort Knox,” one of Wilders’s candidates told me. An anti-Wilders march held in Amsterdam and attended by the mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, was supposed to be dedicated to the proposition that “We are all Moroccans,” but wound up marred by signs reading: “Wilders—Dog of Israel.” 

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