A Career Built on Controversy How 'Fitna' Catapulted Wilders into the Limelight

Fitna, the short film by Dutch politician Geert Wilders, may have thrust its creator into the international limelight even before its release, but in the Netherlands, Wilders has long built up a reputation for being a controversial and outspoken member of parliament.

By Emilie van Outeren and Derk Stokmans

Geert Wilders, the leader of the anti-immigration PVV party, has compared the Koran to Hitler's Mein Kampf, has claimed his country is flooded by a tsunami of Muslims and has proposed ‘sending them back where they came from’ if Muslim immigrants are unwilling to denounce their religion.

By creating Fitna, Wilders has reached another milestone on his crusade against what he calls ‘the Islamisation of the Netherlands’. His remarks have earned him both death threats and a growing electoral base.

His unconventional approach to politics has distanced him from political rivals in parliament but also put him at the centre of constant media attention. How does Wilders manage to attract so many voters and so much press coverage, and what does he actually accomplish?

The Dutch have seen their reputation as one of the most liberal and tolerant societies in Europe crumble in recent years, as populist politicians gained mass support for their anti-immigration and anti-Muslim agendas. The rise of the contentious right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn was brutally halted in 2002 when he was assassinated days before national parliamentary elections by a white, native Dutch animal rights activist.

Dissatisfied Voters

But it was the murder of film-maker and professional provocateur Theo van Gogh in 2004 by the son of Moroccan immigrants that revealed how the Netherlands, a country with a population of 16 million, is struggling with its ethnic minority residents.

Dissatisfied voters blame established political parties of having glossed over the cultural and religious differences between native Dutch people and ‘the newcomers’. This polarisation has created fertile ground for Wilders' movement to flourish.

The eccentric 44-year-old Wilders, with his trademark peroxide blond hair, started his political career with the right-wing Liberal party VVD. He broke away from the VVD in August 2004 but refused to give up his seat in parliament. Today, the Party for Freedom (PVV), which he founded and leads, has nine representatives in the 150-member parliament. And polls predict this number would be higher if elections were held now.

Despite the risk to his life – he has spent the past few years living in safe houses and is heavily guarded round-the-clock following numerous threats from Muslim fundamentalists – he has made offending, shocking and provoking his opponents the centrepiece of his political repertoire.

He has called fellow members of parliament ‘cowards’, the prime minister a ‘professional coward’, people from the Dutch Antilles ‘thieves’ and refers to Moroccan kids as ‘street terrorists’. He seems to have violated every unwritten rule of political behaviour – a strategy that has earned him voter support and media exposure and left his political adversaries frustrated but impressed.

False appeal

Various members of the Dutch parliament interviewed for this story say that although Wilders claims to have the answers to immigrant issues, his way of conducting politics cannot even begin to solve the problems he addresses.

His hard line position does not allow for any political debate, let alone any kind of compromise. Wilders lures voters with the false appeal of simple solutions, says Jan Schinkelshoek, a member of the Christian Democrats, the largest party in the multi-party Dutch parliament and senior partner in the coalition government.

Wilders has nothing to offer his voters, say his opponents. By distancing himself from the 'political elite' and alienating members of parliament from other parties he hardly ever wins parliamentary support for his proposals. This annoys his colleagues who point out that a functioning democracy should be more than political theatre. ‘In the end, we have been elected to run the country’, says the Liberal member of parliament Halbe Zijlstra.

Wilders' ability to dominate the news on an almost daily basis can only be partly attributed to his personal merits, fellow lawmakers say, adding that their own inabilities make him stronger. According to Femke Halsema, leader of the left-wing Green party GroenLinks, Wilders is allowed to dominate proceedings: “Many politicians are scared. They won’t say anything until they know what the public mood is.” This lets him continue uncontested in the political debate. “And the coalition government is equally scared,” says Halsema.

An incident last year in which Wilders launched an attack on two junior ministers is a case in point, says Halsema. In an interview with NRC Handelsblad in February 2007, Wilders said he would propose a motion of no-confidence against two newly inaugurated members of prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende's cabinet because they had dual citizenship. He expressed doubts about the loyalty of Ahmed Aboutaleb, who has both a Dutch and Moroccan passport, and Nebahat Albayrak, who is a Turkish as well as a Dutch citizen. “If the prime minister had stood up and defended his cabinet members, Wilders wouldn’t have been able to capitalise on the issue,” says Halsema.

Tolerant Politics

Christian Democrat Jan Schinkelshoek admits his party has been unable to take Wilders on. “Like others, we are still surprised and maybe even shocked by the appeal of extremism. I don't know if we can counter it”, he says, guessing that other mainstream parties struggle with the same problem. Diederik Samsom, a prominent member of the government coalition Labour party: “There are no proven methods for fighting Wilders’ bigotry with tolerant politics. Wilders has the same problem: his way of fighting the intolerance of Islam is to be more intolerant himself. But I am convinced this approach leads nowhere.”

Samsom is convinced that the media, “overcome by hysteria”, contribute to Wilders’ success. “They look at politics as if it were some kind of free fight. The media have become addicted to the use of no-holds barred language in the political debate.”

Wilders himself sees the press as his enemy, accusing it of bias, yet journalists are vital to his success. His PVV party is not composed of rank and file members like other political parties and has no regional infrastructure. Wilders communicates with his potential voters through websites, email – and by being in the news.

The controversies he has created so far have developed according to a fixed pattern. They start with extreme statements made to journalists. These comments are guaranteed to kick up a furore. The announcement that he was to propose a motion of no-confidence in two junior ministers with dual nationality is a good example of this tactic.

The next step is to dominate parliamentary debates by diverting discussion towards his latest radical standpoint. So, for example, instead of debating the policy statement issued by the newly installed government, parliament felt forced to focus on Wilders and the issue of dual citizenship. During such a parliamentary confrontation Wilders uses his opponents’ responses to distance himself from the political establishment. No matter what their reactions are, Wilders consistently accuses his opponents of cowardliness, sticking their head in the sand, attempting to silence his voters or setting up a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around his party.

Ban on Koran

The same pattern unfolded when Wilders wrote an article in de Volkskrant newspaper, demanding a ban on the Koran. He described the Muslim holy book as a ‘fascist text’ that preaches violence. A week later he repeated his demand for the ban in a parliamentary debate about Islamic activism – held, by chance, on his birthday. Subsequent attacks by political opponents provided him with the opportunity to hold the floor for hours. During this time, he called the prophet Mohammed ‘a barbarian’ and told the integration minister that she was ‘crazy’. Wilders himself said his own performance was the best birthday present he could have wished for.

The uproar around Wilders’ film Fitna, however, has broken Wilders’ usual pattern. News of the film was leaked to the press against his will, he says. With international criticism from Muslim countries, strong pressure from the Dutch government not to release his film, the refusal of Dutch broadcasters to screen it in its entirety and the difficulty in finding a venue topresent Fitna, the question arises as to whether Wilders is still the director of his creation.

The film may be at the heart of the current turmoil. But concerns about Wilders’ influence in general are more profound. After the initial hesitation, political attacks on Wilders’ PVV party have increased over the last months. Members of parliament are openly accusing him of discrimination and the cabinet is taking a stand against the way Wilders conducts politics.

Christian Democrat politician Schinkelshoek says Wilders’ behaviour is having a ‘destabilising’ influence on Dutch society. “He exacerbates the problems he signals. He thrives on animosity. His vexing, provoking and battering political and parliamentary performance exceed simple name-calling. He undermines the established order.”

Labour politician Samsom disagrees. He feels that if the PVV is in it for the long run and eventually attains governmental responsibility, it will inevitably have to compromise and collaborate. “He [Wilders] can’t keep this up forever. We have to engage in grown-up debates. Democracy is not a game. The principal rule in our system is: if you want to make a point, you have to prove it first. That’s not an elitist leisure, it’s a fundamental pillar of democratic debate.”

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