Interviewing the leader of the far right in the Netherlands and one of the most provocative politicians in Europe presents a journalistic dilemma. Geert Wilders has been accused of promoting racism for years, mostly against Muslims, and has called on Europe to ban all immigration from Muslim-majority countries.
But Wilders is also the leader of the second largest party in the Dutch parliament and has right-wing fans the world over – including in the most important address in Israel: Balfour Street, Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s eldest son, Yair, has called Wilders a “true friend” of the Jewish people, and wished him success ahead of the 2019 European parliamentary elections. Netanyahu Sr. didn’t distance himself from his son’s endorsement.
A decade ago, Israeli officials had reservations about contacts with far-right, nationalist parties like the one led by Wilders – the Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid in Dutch). Today, though, he’s considered a natural ally by influential right-wing Israeli politicians.
Wilders, 57, finds himself in an unusual position these days: Praising the policies of French President Emmanuel Macron, a centrist leader who defeated Wilders’ ally and ideological political partner Marine Le Pen in the 2017 French elections. Wilders views Macron’s recent crackdown on Islamist extremism in France, following the murder of a schoolteacher who was beheaded for showing a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed to his students, as vindication of his long-standing fight against Muslim immigration to Europe.
“To be honest, I don’t think Mr. Macron is very enthusiastic about the idea of having me and Marine Le Pen supporting him,” Wilders told Haaretz in a phone interview last week. “I’m sure he would like to have support from other heads of state. I’m not a fan of Mr. Macron, but I have to admit: at least he is acting. Unfortunately, we see this pattern every time there is a terror attack – whether it be in London, Madrid, Israel or even 9/11. People are upset in the days after, but then we go back to a normal routine and nothing changes. Europe simply hasn’t learned her lesson so far,” Wilders says.
Rewriting the Constitution?
The Dutch elections are in March, and Wilders is counting on events in France and elsewhere on the Continent to bolster his messaging and help his party increase its representation in the Dutch House of Representatives (it claimed 20 of the 150 seats in 2017 after receiving 13 percent of the vote).
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The debate over illustrations of Mohammed is something of a ‘‘blast from the past’ for Wilders, who has previously ridden similar incidents to gain more political power. It’s also a reminder of why the far-right leader has round-the-clock police protection: Just last year, a Pakistani man was sentenced to 10 years in prison for plotting a terror attack against him after Wilders organized a provocative “Mohammed drawing contest” in 2018.
For most Muslims, any images depicting the prophet are prohibited, but Wilders (along with other European lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle) refuses to accept their belief. “I think it’s very sad that countries are considering banning our freedom of speech by not allowing Mohammed drawings to be shown – this is what differs us from countries where you don’t have freedom of speech,” Wilders says. “After the [recent] terror attacks in France and Austria, I proposed to our prime minister that all Dutch TV channels, newspapers and schools show the drawings. Because if everyone is doing it, the threats against us will be ineffective. Freedom of expression is probably our most important right, and we won’t give it up,” he argues.
The Netherlands is widely seen as one of the most tolerant and liberal countries in the world, including when it comes to immigration. Wilders, however, claims that “waves” of immigration from Muslim countries – most notably from Turkey, Morocco and Syria – over recent decades have created an “identity crisis.”
His radical views on the Netherlands’ Muslim citizens, who make up less than 7 percent of the country’s total population, aren’t shared by the majority of Dutch voters. Indeed, after the 2017 Dutch election, leaders of most center-right and liberal parties declared that they would not enter a coalition government if his party was in it.
Revisiting some of his previous statements, such as his description of Islam as “a violent and dangerous religion, and even a retarded culture,” it’s not hard to understand why his party remains isolated in the Dutch parliament. But Wilders is continuing to push his agenda from outside the government, and is now offering to rewrite the country’s Constitution.
“We should have a new article in our Constitution that says our culture is based on Christianity, Judaism and humanism – the three pillars of our society,” he says. “But we’ve gone in the total opposite direction: look at Islam and immigration. We have an identity problem in Europe. Many people don’t know who they are, where they belong and what the dominant culture is. And if you don’t know who you are, then you don’t know what you are not.”
Hana Luden, director of the Center for Information and Documentation Israel, a leading pro-Israeli organization in the country, told Haaretz that Wilders’ inclusion of Judaism as one of his “pillars” is another attempt to hurt the Dutch Muslim community. “I see Wilders’ comments about Judeo-Christian values as a way of excluding Muslims in the Netherlands,” she says. “It’s his way of saying that Jews and Christians belong in Europe, and Muslims don’t. But it’s not only Wilders who is saying this. It’s become more mainstream to hold these views, all over Europe.”
More broadly, she notes that “the Jewish community in the country is divided when it comes to Wilders: some really like him, while others despise him. But his popularity [in general] is growing.”
Jaap Hamburger, of the left-wing organization A Different Jewish Voice, told Haaretz that Wilders’ terminology is “plain, simple, coded and demagogic language: Judeo-Christian culture is nothing but another way to exclude Islam and Muslims from current-day Europe.” Hamburger said that most Dutch Jews won’t vote for Wilders under any circumstance, but added that for some members of the community, “being pro-Israel is now more important than before. The Netherlands is no exception to a European trend, I fear.”
Return to ‘Christian values’
Wilders’ embrace of Christianity is part of a broader trend among far-right leaders in Europe, regardless of whether they actually live a religious life themselves. The effort is led by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (whom Yair Netanyahu has also praised). The Danish far-right People’s Party is also advocating that Christianity play a more central role in politics, while British Brexiteer Nigel Farage wrote in October: “We are a Christian country and our culture is under attack.”
Despite his call for a return to so-called Christian values, Wilders also stresses the importance of keeping the separation of church and state in the Netherlands. It’s an issue he has highlighted in his attacks against immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, warning that increased immigration could lead to “Islamization” of the law in the Netherlands.
To support these warnings, Wilders quotes a survey by Dutch sociologist Prof. Ruud Koopmans from the Humboldt University of Berlin, which, Wilders says, “revealed that 70 percent of Muslims in the Netherlands believe that their own religious laws are more important than the country’s laws. I’m not suggesting that these people are violent or terrorists in any way. But we have an enormous problem. And immigration only adds to the problem.”
In response to Wilders’ reference of his research, Koopmans told Haaretz: “My survey wording did not refer to ‘sharia’ [Islamic law] as Wilders in some past instances has quoted me wrongly, but to ‘the rules of my religion.’” He adds that “a 2010 study in the Netherlands found that 31 percent of Dutch Muslims (of all ethnicities) said they would ‘certainly’ or ‘perhaps’ support a movement to introduce sharia in the Netherlands.”
Wilders’ calls to ban Muslim immigration into Europe used to be easier to dismiss – until the 2017 adoption of a “Muslim ban” by U.S. President Donald Trump, who decided to restrict all travel into the United States by citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. This policy, which was later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, highlighted that extreme ideas that were once limited to the political fringe are gaining wider support – and in some cases even turning into actual policy.
Wilders still supports Trump, and echoes some of his ideas on immigration ahead of the upcoming Dutch election on March 17.
“First, we should stop the immigration from Islamic countries. And second, if you live in our country, and you abide by our laws and respect our values, you are of course more than welcome to stay. But if you fight against our democratic society and start acting according to sharia law, then we should be as tough as possible. We should start closing down mosques and send people away,” he charges. “And the first to benefit from such a tough stand would be the Muslims who are actually respecting our values and norms. So by not dealing with this problem, we are not only hurting our own country but also those 30 percent of Muslims who respect our democracy.”
Like in most European countries, freedom of religion is a cornerstone of Dutch society and protected by the Constitution, making Wilders’ calls to close mosques highly unlikely to succeed.
Ironically, the very same laws that protect Dutch Muslims’ freedom of religion also protect anti-Islam people like Wilders. In 2016, the Party for Freedom leader was convicted of inciting hatred and discrimination after calling for “fewer Moroccans” in the Netherlands. But in 2020, an Amsterdam court overturned the conviction, arguing that while Wilders’ comments were indeed insulting, he was being provocative for political gain so therefore enjoyed freedom of speech protections.
The far-right leader faced the same charges in 2009 after a series of anti-Muslim statements, such as calling Islam “fascist” and comparing the Koran to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” But while a court in Amsterdam found Wilders’ comments “gross and denigrating,” it cleared him of the charges since they were “acceptable within the context of public debate.”
Wilders, in other words, wants to strip others of the protections that he himself enjoys in the public sphere.
‘Erdogan is a terrorist’
When Europe saw a wave of mass migration from Syria in 2015, far-right leaders across Europe rallied against Turkey for allowing refugees to cross the border into Greece. The problem, according to Wilders, remains the same today – mostly, he says, because Europe’s leaders still haven’t figured out how to deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Turkey is the worst example of the problem with mass migration into Europe,” Wilders alleges. “President Erdogan filed a complaint against me after I said he acts like a terrorist – which he does, not only to his own people, but to Armenia and Syria, and by allowing jihadists to freely enter Europe through Turkey.
He continues: “He is the worst kind of person. And how do we deal with that? Well, we don’t. In the past, we used to give him money to try to convince him to stop immigration from Turkey to Greece. He held us hostage. Everytime there is something he doesn’t like, he opens the borders. And that’s not the way to deal with him,” Wilders says.
How should Europe deal with Erdogan? To answer this question, Wilders brings Israel into the mix, referring to the year he spent living in the country and working on a settlement in the West Bank.
“I lived in Israel for some time, and traveled all across the Middle East. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you want to have some kind of leverage,” he explains. “You need to be willing to act the way your enemy does – because if you don’t, they won’t take you seriously. And to try and reason with someone like Erdogan is seen as a total weakness. In our culture, it’s seen as strength if you’re willing to compromise and talk. But it doesn’t work like that with people like Erdogan – or ayatollahs from Iran, for that matter,” he adds.
Wilders has been mentioning Israel in his political speeches for years, calling on Europe to “learn” from the Jewish state and adopt some of its strict anti-terrorism measures.
Late last year, he won praise from Israeli right-wingers, again including Yair Netanyahu, for calling on the Dutch government to expel International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda (who is based in The Hague) for seeking to prosecute Israel for war crimes against Palestinians.
Wilders said at the time that the ICC “behaves as a biased pro-Palestinian institution and an antisemitic kangaroo court,” and that Bensouda should be declared persona non grata and kicked out of the Netherlands.
He reiterates to Haaretz that the Netherlands “should learn from Israel when it comes to dealing with radical Islamism. We should adopt administrative detention – especially when we have this problem with jihadists from Syria in our country. We have hundreds of those, according to our intelligence agency, and thousands who sympathize with them.”
The practice is widely criticized by human rights organizations, though Israel says it uses it to prevent future terror attacks by arresting and holding suspects without trial for up to six months.
“I would rather have a few people jailed, even if later proven to be innocent, if it means our streets and families are safe,” Wilders sums up. “Administrative detention should of course be decided by security services and not politicians. And Europe should have done that a long time ago.”