In the March regional elections, a year after it won four seats in the European Parliament, the Party for Freedom (PVV) led by Geert Wilders, which came first in the town of Almere and second in the Hague, caused yet another severe headache for the Dutch political establishment. The prospect of Wilders as a major political player appears increasingly likely — some commentators have even remarked that he may become the Netherlands next prime minister following general elections in June. Dutch journalists and politicians, who have responded with alarm, apportion blame for Wilders' ascension to a variety of phenomena: an overall resurgence of the far right, populism, a new type of fascism etc. But relatively few have had the courage to come to grips with the roots of the problem. The rise of the PVV is the direct result of a climate of fear prompted by state court actions and excessive political correctness, which a growing number of Dutch voters now consider to be intolerable.
As a people, the Dutch have always had a great affection for iconoclastic display. The Netherlands is a country where the population turns out in force to watch extravagant gay parades, and to participate in wild festivities on Queen's Day. No one makes a fuss about nude bicycle races, or caricatures and cartoons of Dutch royals who are depicted in absurd and occasionally sexual postures. No doubt this contributed to the immense public astonishment at the late-night arrest two years ago of a cartoonist who publishes under the pen name Gregorius Nekschot. The arrest had been ordered in response to a series of drawings that poked fun at the Islamisation of the Netherlands: one of the cartoons depicted the socialist mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, disguised as an Islamic terrorist holding a banner marked "Islamsterdam." Although he was later released, Nekschot now lives with a sword of Damocles hanging over his head: a case taken by the public prosecutor for discrimination and inciting hatred of Muslims and immigrants will be heard soon. The absurd affair provided Geert Wilders with a fresh source of ammunition that was almost as powerful as the killing of film director Theo van Gogh, who was assassinated in Amsterdam by a Muslim fanatic in 2004.
Fortuyn a revered figure for many
Wilders' recent political successes have directly resulted from a similar public prosecution for incitement of racial and religious hatred. Preliminary hearings began in February 2010, but the criminal court in Amsterdam has yet to set a date for the trial: the whole story has now become too absurd. There is no doubt that Geert Wilders should be taken to task for his inflammatory declarations — e.g. "The Koran incites hatred like Mein Kampf, and it should be banned like Mein Kampf" — but to prove incitement of racial hatred is another matter. Why should Muslim scripture be protected from criticism that also targets other religions? At one of the court hearings, Geert Wilders proposed that the Netherlands and the EU introduce a constitutional change similar to the first amendment to the constitution of the United States, which guarantees freedom of speech. In the context of suspense created by the court case, this declaration proved to be a surefire vote winner.
Dutch politicians have a knack for relativizing and problematizing ideological categories. Ten years ago, Pim Fortuyn, another opponent of Islam and immigration, broke the mould of the traditional far-right politician. There was a world of difference between Fortuyn — an openly gay and libertine proponent of marxism and feminism, who championed such causes as the legalization of drugs and gay marriage — and the likes of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Fortuyn's political career, which ended when he was assassinated by an extremist in 2002, was built on the unabashed assertion that "Islam is a backward culture," which has no place in the Netherlands. In the wake of his murder, his political party gained control of the Rotterdam municipal council, and he remains a revered figure for many Dutch voters.
Europe's most pro-Jewish politician
Geert Wilders has also redefined the far right. In the European parliament, he has refused to form alliances with nationalist groups, and only collaborates with the spin-off of the British conservative party, the UKIP. When questioned on this policy, he insists, "I have nothing in common with fascists." At the same time, he is probably Europe's most pro-Jewish politician. Born a Catholic and now a declared atheist, Wilders spent two years in Israel and talks about the special feeling of brotherhood it inspires in him: "Israel is an extension of Western civilization in the Middle East. In response to Islam, we are all Israel."
In the Israeli daily Haaretz on 23 March, Karni Eldad wonders about Wilders anti-Islamic stance in an article entitled "Holland is Scared"): "I watched interviews that Wilders gave after a hearing in his trial. He unblinkingly declared that if he is elected prime minister he will outlaw the wearing of burkas, ban the construction of additional mosques and stop immigration from Muslim countries. Would anyone dare to say these things here? Wilders is a prominent figure in Dutch politics, and his views are backed by many. How is it conceivable that in Holland the arguments against Islam are much more extreme than in Israel, which is saturated with Islamic terror?" The delay in the setting of a date for the Wilders trial in Amsterdam may well be politically motivated: the court must be aware that the continued persecution of Wilders is the best way to help him win the general elections in June.
Wilders has made our country "normal"
In the context of the rise of populist Geert Wilders, De Groene Amsterdammer wonders about the image of the Netherlands abroad. The weekly reports that other countries have not been scandalized to the extent that was expected, even though British and French media outlets — unlke their Dutch counterparts — describe Wilders' PVV as a "far-right"and "xenophobic" party, while wondering how the Netherlands could have changed so quickly. Why has the condemnation of Wilders been so limited? Because no one is surprised by him: "nowadays, every European country has major xenophobic and anti-Islamic parties." For this reason, Wilders has not prompted an outcry like Jörg Haider in the Austria of ten years ago.
"His success is also in direct contradiction to the persistent German assumption that the Dutch are tolerant liberals." With Wilders, the Netherlands has become "a normal country. But that is no cause for celebration," remarks the newspaper. No doubt, the small size of the Netherlands and the country's lack of influence in European institutions have led the Dutch "to embrace a hypochondriac discourse about veils and minarets, which channels their sense of powerlessness." De Groene Amsterdammer argues that "under the influence of Wilders, and other parties that have no time for tolerance and discretion, Dutch politics is increasingly marked by an insular outlook typical of Switzerland, where conservative, xenophobic and petit-bourgeois politics are standard issue."