A couple of years ago, a billboard appeared outside Columbia, S.C., looming above Interstate 26. Beady eyes stared out from a black balaclava emblazoned with an inscription from the Quran—clearly the eyes were meant to be those of a terrorist—and next to them were these words: “ISLAM RISING ... BE WARNED.”
Erected by the Virginia-based Christian Action Network, the sign advertised the group’s documentary about a charismatic Dutch politician with dyed-blond hair, a mysterious past, and a platform of paranoid hate. South Carolina seemed to offer a ready audience for Geert Wilders’s dire warnings against the Muslim religion. Today, with the Republican road show encamped in the state for the Jan. 21 presidential primary, the 48-year-old Dutchman is more than ever a man who needs to be watched and listened to carefully. At home in the Netherlands, his explosive theme of unrelenting hostility to Islam has built his xenophobic Party for Freedom, founded in 2005, into the country’s third-largest political party; across the Atlantic his message packs serious resonance in an American heartland still shaken by the 9/11 attacks. Wilders’s name and message have been invoked repeatedly in South Carolina and at least a dozen other state legislatures as they debate measures to ban an imagined threat: Islamic law.
So does he worry about the violence his rants could inspire? Wilders is a master at capitalizing on real fears and conjuring false ones—and then dodging responsibility if people’s lives are ruined or lost. “I am responsible for my own actions and for nobody else’s actions,” he says. In a wide-ranging interview at the offices of the Dutch Parliament in The Hague, Wilders complained to Newsweek that the “naive” Obama administration wasn’t doing nearly enough to combat what Wilders regards as the Islamic threat. Expanding on his claims that the Quran should be banned, just as Mein Kampf has been in some countries, he said the United States should be “getting rid of Islamic symbols—no more mosques—and closing down Islamic schools.”
There’s no such thing as moderate Islam, Wilders insists, and he’s tired of hearing that radical Islam is something different from the mainstream faith. It means nothing to him that among Muslim believers there are many different sects and currents. “He makes no distinctions whatsoever,” says Robert Leiken, author of the just-published study Europe’s Angry Muslims. “He wants to throw out the whole Quran because of some things that are objectionable—but you could say the same thing about the Book of Joshua.” Wilders refuses to concede the point. In his view, those who follow the Quran are deluded or worse. “Totalitarian fascist ideology,” he calls it. “I have nothing against the people,” he says. “I have something against Islam.”
You start to wonder if Wilders really believes what he says or if he’s just staked out a position that suits him politically. The fight against Islam, he once told a protégé, is “our core business”—and Wilders has developed it for all it’s worth. His extremist stance often smells of cynicism and self-indulgence. “His weakness is that he plays the renegade, he still wants to position himself as being outside the establishment,” says Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an author and former Dutch parliamentarian whose critiques of Islam have been ferocious in their own right. “Once upon a time it was necessary for him to distinguish himself by saying, ‘I take a stand, and I am a man of clarity.’”
That was then. These days the country’s ruling coalition stands or falls at Wilders’s discretion. And his antipathy toward Islam goes so far that when Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands wore a headscarf during a royal visit to the Gulf monarchies last week, Wilders complained that the Dutch government should have stopped her. “He has to move to the middle,” urges Hirsi Ali. “He has to distinguish between violent Islamists and nonviolent Muslims. You know, there are so many shades of Muslims right now, and he could use some of them as his allies.” But it’s as if the rhetoric has taken control of the speaker. “He has always loved attention and power,” says his largely estranged brother, Paul Wilders. “He has ruled out any sense of doubt.”
Like many politicians who boast of their own candor, Wilders keeps much of his life and work in the shadows. Apart from the boilerplate official biography that says he was raised a Roman Catholic in the town of Venlo, there’s little on the record from him about his family background, and he flatly refuses to talk about it now. According to his brother, some of the family’s roots extend deep into Indonesia, an outpost of the Dutch colonialist empire for nearly three and a half centuries. Long-ago intermarriage between European settlers and native “inlanders” might possibly account for the slightly almond shape of Wilders’s dull-blue eyes.
As a teenager, Geert was almost out of control, his brother says. Much younger than his siblings (there are also two sisters), Geert was the spoiled baby of the family, and not much of a student. He quit school and went traveling, eventually finding himself in a Jewish farming settlement on the West Bank. After returning to the Netherlands he worked briefly for the state-run insurance system until he got bored and decided to try politics instead, starting out as a junior staffer with the country’s leading conservative party. Along the way, he visited Iran three times in the 1990s, once even finding it necessary to flee the country in fear for his life, according to his brother, who calls it “a true scare story.” Nevertheless, Paul says, nothing shaped the young man’s hostility toward Islam more than populist politicians in his home country.
In recent years Wilders has become something of a dabbler in U.S. politics, and he’s eager now to expand the market for Islamophobia. “I am working on an international kind of organization,” he told Newsweek. “The U.S. is so important to me, Europe is important. Canada—I was in Canada a few months ago. Australia. New Zealand.” His aim is to build an international organization, an “International Freedom Alliance,” as he calls it. Even so, he declines to name the U.S. politicians he likes—or those who favor him. He knows how toxic his reputation is. “If they were to be my friends, I probably would not help them by acknowledging it,” he admits.
As it is, Wilders-style anti-Islam rhetoric, only slightly modified, has long been echoed by the U.S. presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who have found it useful to paint previous opponents as weak on “radical Islam.” Back in 2010, Gingrich publicly issued a fatwa of his own against Islamic law: “I believe Sharia is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States.” Wilders says he has no contact with Gingrich. The two of them were scheduled to speak on the same platform on Sept. 10, 2010, to denounce the so-called Ground Zero mosque, but Gingrich didn’t show.
Wilders delivered the keynote address. He was in rare form as he denounced the purported evils of what had, in fact, been planned as a benign cultural center. “A tolerant society is not a suicidal society,” he warned. “It must defend itself against the powers of darkness, the force of hatred, and the blight of ignorance. It cannot tolerate the intolerant—and survive. This means that we must not give a free hand to those who want to subjugate us.”
Gingrich aside, Wilders has no shortage of influential and outspoken allies in America. When he was brought to trial last year in the Netherlands under the country’s hate-speech laws, he beat the charge with the help of American contributions to his defense fund. Conservative columnist and scholar Daniel Pipes assisted him, and has written of Wilders as “the most important European alive today.” The Atlas Shrugs blogger Pamela Geller positively gushes over Wilders in print, and posted a YouTube conversation with him she calls “the interview of the century.” And Wilders’s incendiary documentary film Fitna, attacking the Quran as a manifesto for violence, was given a special screening on Capitol Hill in 2008, hosted by Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). Wilders’s new book, Marked for Death: Islam’s War Against the West and Me, is due out in April from Regnery, publisher of books by Gingrich, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, and other right-wing provocateurs. Company president Marji Ross says she knows Wilders’s views are seen as extreme, but “that’s what makes the book exciting and bold and newsworthy.” The author says only, “It is written for the American market.”
Europe, however, is where Wilders continues to have the most influence—and where he raises the worst fears. Among the large and growing number of fire-breathing European politicians riding to prominence on waves of hostility toward mostly Muslim immigrants, Wilders has emerged as the most important—and some critics would say most dangerous—voice on the continent. This xenophobic movement is often characterized as “radical right-wing,” but the actual situation is much more complicated than that. “These parties do not fit easily into the traditional political divides,” says a recent report from Demos, a British think tank that conducted an innovative study of 10,000 Facebook supporters of various European movements. “Formerly on the political fringes, these parties now command significant political weight in the parliaments of Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands, Sweden, Latvia and Slovakia, as well as the European Parliament.” In addition to the formal political parties, there are protest groups like the English Defence League in Britain and CasaPound in Italy, known for their ugly street fights.
Wilders himself is a mass of contradictions. He says he abhors violence, even though his diatribes undoubtedly have fired up many others who are out for blood. One admirer he’s at particular pains to disavow is Anders Breivik (“the lunatic,” Wilders calls him), the self-styled Crusader who went on a killing spree in Norway last summer, slaughtering 76 people before he quietly surrendered. In a 1,500-page anti-immigrant manifesto written before the rampage, Breivik referred to Wilders more than 30 times. Another example: although much of the relatively liberal European press depicts Wilders as promoting all sorts of racism and bigotry, the fact is he’s very particular about whom he hates. Whereas many of Europe’s anti-immigrant groups have long histories of anti-Semitism, Wilders refuses to be classed with crypto-Nazis, denouncing the British National Party, for instance, as “a blunt, racist, bigoted party—a terrible party.”
In fact, Wilders’s pro-Israel sympathies are so open, and his trips there have been so frequent, that some political enemies claim he’s backed by the Mossad. “It is all nonsense. I never worked for any secret service, certainly not the Israeli secret service,” he says. “It is too ridiculous to believe.” As for other sources of funding for his party, Dutch law does not require him to make the records public, so he doesn’t. “We are very poor,” he insists.
Wilders gets plenty of death threats. To him, they only prove how right he is. “Geert doesn’t seem to take responsibility for the potential consequences,” says his brother. “But I would add that with his growing support and popularity, he’s starting to believe his message.” Perhaps it’s time for another billboard: “WILDERS RISING ... BE WARNED.”
With Nadette de Visser in The Hague