Who is Geert Wilders?

Who is Geert Wilders?

Geert Wilders (left), election debate circa 2006. Sebastiaan ter Burg, Netherlands under a Creative Commons Licence

Dutch rightwing politician Geert Wilders has announced his intention to show cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on television as part of a political broadcast in the Netherlands.

The cartoons are from a Prophet-drawing competition held in Texas, which Wilders attended and which was targeted by armed gunmen. Islamic tradition holds that any physical depiction of the Prophet Muhammad is blasphemous and many have read this as an attempt by Wilders to stir up religious tension in the Netherlands. The muted response here, however, gives an indication of how seriously (or not) Wilders is taken in his home country.

The terror threat to the Netherlands has not changed as a result of Wilders’ announcement, and the Dutch media has given relatively little column space to his latest stunt. Moderate Muslim groups have said that Wilders’ actions are a provocation but that, after over a decade of his political trolling, ‘we are no longer easy to offend.’

Wilders is a man with an image problem. While the rest of the world uneasily watches him attend anti-Islam rallies, form alliances with fascist rightwing groups and attempt to capitalize on European anti-Muslim rhetoric, his Dutch counterparts are still struggling to take him seriously.

As the founder and leader of the Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid or PVV), Wilders is the parliamentary group leader of his party in the Dutch House of Representatives. Following the 2010 Dutch elections, PVV entered into an agreement to support the dominant parties in government but Wilders withdrew that support in 2012 after a disagreement over budget cuts.

This led to another House of Representatives election, in which Wilders and the PVV ran on a platform calling for the withdrawal of the Netherlands from the European Union (EU) and a return to the pre-Euro Dutch currency, the guilder. They won 10.1% of the vote and 15 seats in parliament, a loss of 9 seats from 2010. This loss was followed by another loss in the 2014 European Parliament elections, in which support for the PVV fell from 17% to 13% of the vote.

Wilders’ policies include a bid to record the ethnicity of all Dutch citizens; tracking the ethnicity of criminals; removal of resources from anti-climate change programmes, development aid and immigration services; closure of all Islamic schools; support for LGBT communities and women’s rights where he perceives that they are ‘challenged’ by Islam; withdrawal from the EU; binding assimilation contracts for immigrants; taxes on Islamic headscarves; and prohibition of the Qur’an.

This last, Wilders has been especially vocal about, comparing the holy text to Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf and calling it a ‘terrorist weapon’. This, and other inflammatory statements, have resulted in multiple death threats; since 2004 Wilders has had a 24-hours security detail.

Wilders has long styled himself as a champion of free speech and a fierce warrior against what he terms ‘the Islamification of the Netherlands’, but his reputation within his home country is that of a clown.

The PVV has lost votes in every election since 2010 and Wilders’ fellow politicians have denounced him as a ‘political coward’ and claimed he ‘lacks political will’ when it comes to handling the Dutch economy. Despite his extreme views, Wilders has attempted to cultivate a place in the middle ground, refusing to work with ‘the wrong fascist groups’ and describing himself as a rightwing liberal.

This definition has been largely ignored by the press, who have labelled him an extremist and a populist. Public support for his policies is also split, with 53% of the population dismissing them as ‘implausible’, a reaction similar to that of a parent kindly telling their son that he can’t fly to the moon in his sister’s Wendy House. Popularly known as ‘the most famous bleach blond since Marilyn Monroe’ because of his trademark peroxide haircut, the perception of Wilders is far removed from the image he craves as a crusader for free speech.

The parent/child analogy is a useful one for understanding Wilders’ motivations. Dutch society still retains affection for their blond bombshell. After Wilders’ recent trip to Texas, Dutch historian and highly respected opinion-maker Geert Mak, a member of the Dutch elite, spoke out against the way Dutch society has cosseted Wilders. Mak claimed that politicians and the media had allowed themselves to be bullied by anti-immigration rhetoric and that it was time to speak out against Wilders and the PVV.

As Wilders’ international profile grows, his reputation at home appears to be slipping even more. By showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on television Wilders runs the risk of reprisals from Islamic extremists, but he may also be able to improve his standing in the Netherlands.

For a man with Wilders’ white knight fantasies and victim complex (he has spoken out numerous times at the unfairness of the death threats against him) violent reprisals offer a fantastic opportunity to shore up support from his compatriots.

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