Less than 24 hours after the recent terror attacks in Paris, I caught a train in Amsterdam bound for the Binnenhof, the elaborate lakefront complex at The Hague and home of the Dutch Parliament. I was there for a hastily arranged meeting with Geert Wilders, a veteran member of the House of Representatives and Islam’s arch-nemesis in Europe.
Security was tight that afternoon. Twice on the labyrinthian route to his office, I emptied my pockets, walked through metal detectors and watched as guards dug through my camera bag. Behind the key card-controlled door to his office, I was a little surprised to find Wilders, alone and standing behind his desk.
No fan of understatement, Wilders wore a shiny black Armani suit and a bright green tie. But it was his trademark platinum-blond pompadour that stood out, a haircut that many in the Netherlands compare to Donald Trump’s rat’s nest. Wilders may look just as cartoonish as The Donald. But unlike Trump, he’s a legitimate force in politics. For nearly a decade, he’s served as the leader of Holland’s anti-Islamic political party, and he regularly uses his platform to denounce not only violent jihadists but all of Islam.
This stance has made Wilders a target for Muslim radicals. Death threats regularly arrive at his office, so seeing him sitting in a leather chair without armed guards, even behind so many checkpoints, is a bit unsettling. When I ask him how he’s doing, he raises his eyebrows and answers: “Surviving.”
It’s an understandable response for a guy who has spent the better part of a decade wearing a bulletproof vest and being shuttled between safe houses to avoid assassination. “I’m not in prison,” he says. “But I’m not free, either. You don’t have to pity me, but I haven’t had personal freedom now for 10 years. I can’t set one foot out of my house or anywhere in the world without security.”
Wilders’s name is on the same Al-Qaeda hit list as Stéphane Charbonnier, an editor who was shot and killed during the jihadist assault on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, that left 12 dead earlier this month. The massacre, along with the subsequent killings at a kosher supermarket in Paris, was a tragic day for the France. But for Wilders, it only added to his appeal. Since the attack, his Freedom Party has surged in national polls. It was already the most popular party in Holland, but if the 2016 parliamentary elections were held today, he’d pick up 31 seats out of 150, more than double his current figure.
If he found the right coalition partner, Wilders could even become Holland’s prime minister, a once unthinkable prospect. Ten years ago, his proposal to ban the construction of new mosques in the Netherlands was mostly seen as the ravings of a fearmongering extremist who compares the Koran to Mein Kampf. Now reporters call Wilders a “populist,” and they no longer dismiss his xenophobic rants as rubbish.
His consolidation of power here isn’t a foregone conclusion, but Wilders’s growing popularity in Holland is emblematic of a larger trend: Europeans are becoming increasingly hostile to both native-born Muslims and the recent wave of immigrants flooding across their borders. Islamophobes are burning mosques in Sweden, marching by the tens of thousands in Germany and ceding more and more control to those politicians who speak the loudest against the Muslim faith.
And who is Wilders? Born in the southeastern Holland town of Venlo 100 miles from Amsterdam in 1963, he’s the youngest of four children. He was raised Roman Catholic but has since left the Church and calls himself agnostic. The son of a printing company director, Wilders studied at the Netherlands’s Open University and traveled extensively in Israel and throughout the Arab world during and after his compulsory military service in the Dutch Army.
At 17, he lived in the Jordan Valley, a few miles above Jericho, and while he was “a teenager, more interested in Israeli girls and beers,” he decided that Islamic countries were dysfunctional and violent, and began to see Muslim immigrants as a destructive force in Europe. “I’m not against immigration because I believe all the people who immigrate are bad people,” he says. “But they bring along a culture that is not ours. Islam is not there to integrate; it’s there to dominate.”
As Wilders grew older, he found new reasons to hate Islam. In the 1990s, he ventured into politics as a speechwriter for the center-right Dutch Liberal Party, under the tutelage of Frits Bolkestein, the party’s leader and an outspoken opponent of mass immigration. Wilders was elected to the Utrecht City Council in 1997 and joined the parliament a year later. In Utrecht, he could afford to live only in the city’s poorest–and majority-Muslim–neighborhood, Canal Islands.
He was an outspoken opponent of Islam then, too, and his neighbors knew it. After work each day, he says, he parked two blocks from his flat and walked home, hoping to avoid having his car vandalized. Often, he says, that walk turned into a frantic run, as Muslims recognized and chased after him. Once, in Utrecht’s center, Muslim “street terrorists,” he says, pepper-sprayed him, spit in his eyes and stole both his money and passport.
“I’m an elected politician,” he says. “If you don’t agree with me, vote for somebody else. What did I do, except for expressing my views?”
Since then [the murder of Theo van Gogh], Wilders and his Hungarian-born wife, a former diplomat to the Netherlands, have lived under constant guard, sheltered in a safe house with a panic room and driven to and from home in an armored police vehicle. When I met him at the Binnenhof, I couldn’t tell if he was still wearing a bulletproof vest. But his office is strategically positioned deep in the parliament building so would-be attackers can approach it only from one corridor. Beyond that, Wilders wouldn’t comment on what his security measures include. “That would make me only more vulnerable,” he says. “Sometimes [the security is] more, sometimes it’s less. Now it’s certainly not less.”
It’s hard to know to what extent that attack affected Wilders’s politics, but it clearly was a factor. From 2000 to 2006, he moved increasingly to the right, calling for a ban on head scarves in public and the sale of the Koran in general. A year later, he left his more mainstream party over its support for Turkish entry into the European Union and formed the Freedom Party, which surprised the country by winning nine of the 150 seats in the parliament.
Wilders’s rise has continued over the past nine years, and as he shored up political power, he also mastered the art of media manipulation. In 2008, he posted online a 17-minute film called Fitna, using excerpts from the Koran and statements of radical Muslims to paint a dark picture of Islam. The next year, the British government banned Wilders from visiting the United Kingdom to show his film, and prosecutors in Holland charged him with inciting hatred and discrimination (a Dutch court later dismissed the charges). Both the film and the ban generated headlines across the globe. In 2010, in perhaps his most well-known publicity stunt, Wilders visited Ground Zero in New York on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, then spoke at a rally against the construction of an Islamic community center near the site.
For all the stunts, Wilders also owes his success to a nuanced, Tea-Party brand of Islamophobia. He’s the first anti-Islam politician in Europe who doesn’t come from an extreme right, nationalist background, says Fennema. He’s liberal on issues like gay rights, which makes him appealing to a wider cross section of Europeans and helps him ally with a budding legion of politicians bashing Islam.
In the past, Wilders tried to distance himself from Europe’s nativist movement and instead focused his anger on Islam, says Matthijs Rooduijn, a political science professor at the University of Amsterdam. But in 2013, he decided to form an alliance with [Marine] Le Pen in an attempt to cobble together a coalition to influence the European Parliament.
Wilder says he’s convinced that if something isn’t done to stop the spread of Islam across the West, our whole way of life will vanish and we’ll all live in Muslim-ridden slums, assaulted for our Christianity and love of free speech. To make his case, Wilders regularly takes politicians from around the world on tours of majority-Muslim neighborhoods in the Netherlands, offering them a glimpse of their future if they don’t beat back Islam.
Despite his antipathy toward Muslims, Wilders is clear that he doesn’t advocate any kind of violence, and he insists he isn’t responsible for attacks on peaceful and law-abiding followers of Islam. “If you set fire to a mosque, you’re a criminal and I hope you go to jail for years,” he says. “We should be tolerant to people who are tolerant to us. We should be intolerant to people who are intolerant to us.”
How to stop the intolerance? Wilders has some ideas: immediately halt all emigration from Islamic countries, allow anyone who wants to leave the Netherlands to wage jihad overseas to leave, and pull out of the agreement with 25 other European countries that allows travelers to pass freely from one nation to the next. It’s hard to say if these proposals are more likely to gain traction in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack. His party has performed well in opinion polls over the past 10 years, but that hasn’t always translated to gains in the parliament. Even if his party does lock down the largest blocs of seats in the next election, he would have to convince another group to form a coalition in order to acquire any real sway. And because his views are so extreme, most political observers here find that unlikely.
“Other parties have said, ‘We don’t touch him, even if he is the biggest,’” Wilders acknowledges. “But I think anything is possible.”