The odd jogger plods along a long, flat beach at the end of the 30-minute bus route from the centre of The Hague. Other distant figures, huddled against the winter chill, walk dogs. Far to the south, Rotterdam’s oil refineries are just visible through the mist, and to the north is a Ferris wheel in the seaside resort of Scheveningen. The sea itself is placid and grey – a bit like Dutch politics before Geert Wilders began preaching hatred of Islam, the European Union and his country’s political elite.
I wander back over the dunes to the tight-knit, overwhelmingly white, working-class community of Duindorp, a stronghold of Wilders’s highly unorthodox Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) or Party for Freedom, which is leading most opinion polls in the run-up to the Dutch general election on 15 March. There are pot plants and plaster figurines in the front windows of its small, pre-war terraced homes, and bicycles on the pavements outside. The streets are clean, the people friendly.
“We believe in the values we had in the 1970s and 1980s,” Jack Pasutto, a retired construction worker, tells me as he tinkers with his motor scooter. “We’re tired of criminal people who rob and come to Holland and see it as Candyland.”
Pasutto says he lived in an area of The Hague called Schilderswijk until it was overrun by Muslim immigrants from Turkey, Morocco and elsewhere. They threw their rubbish out of their windows, he complains. They robbed you in the street at night. They called white girls hookers. “Because we rebel against that, we’re called racists,” he says.
Other Duindorpers echo his views on Muslim immigrants. “They come here for the money, for the benefits. They don’t integrate. They don’t learn the language. They come here and do nothing and try to make our girls into prostitutes,” says Willem van Vliet, who runs a fish shop and also invoked Schilderswijk, calling it a no-go area.
“If they’re like the Holland people then there’s no problem. If they pay taxes and live by the rules of Holland it’s OK, but a lot of them don’t,” Marian von Ack, a retired nurse, tells me as she smokes a cigarette on the balcony of her flat.
“It’s their way of life. We don’t want it happening to Duindorp,” says Christine van Beelen, who is out taking a walk with her grandchild.
Wilders does not just give voice to the concerns of such people. He exploits and inflames them. Although he is sometimes called “the Dutch Donald Trump”, his one-page, 11-point manifesto goes far beyond anything that America’s new president has yet proposed. Headlined Netherlands Ours Again, it proclaims: “Millions of Dutch are fed up with the Islamisation of our country. No more mass immigration and asylum, terror, violence and insecurity.”
His first pledge is the “de-Islamisation of the Netherlands”. A PVV government would end all immigration from Muslim countries and shut down asylum centres. It would ban the Quran, close all mosques and Islamic schools, and forbid the wearing of the hijab in public places. Muslims with dual nationalities who have committed crimes would be deported. Suspected radicals would be put in preventive detention.
“Nexit” – the departure of the Netherlands from the European Union – comes second on his programme, yet even Nigel Farage, a robust opponent of unfettered immigration and champion of Brexit, considers Wilders’s programme to be beyond the pale. “His position goes way, way, way beyond ours. It’s a completely different place . . . We need to be much more muscular in our defence of our Christian culture but I have no desire to go to war against Islam,” the former Ukip leader told me. “We have to do everything we can to get moderate, sensible Muslims on our side in every way, and you can’t do that if you ban the Quran.”
Nonetheless, Wilders’s extreme proposals and blunt speaking do appeal to a remarkable number of Dutch voters who feel bewildered by globalisation and ignored by their more orthodox politicians.
Tall and mildly charismatic, with a mane of peroxide-blond hair even more distinctive than Trump’s, Wilders is attracting roughly a fifth of the electorate in a country that was once synonymous with tolerance, consensus and progressive liberalism: a country that used to consider itself the gidsland, or model, for the rest of Europe.
Although Wilders was convicted last year of inciting racial hatred, was once banned from Britain as a threat to public security and is still spurned by several European ambassadors to The Hague, his party has led almost every opinion poll since November. As a result, the Dutch elections could well provide the next big shock to the established order in the West, the next popular revolt in what he calls a “Patriotic Spring”, following the Brexit vote last June and Trump’s presidential victory in November. The PVV will struggle to form a government, because the other main parties insist they would never join it in a coalition, but a victory for his party would still represent another body blow to the EU, of which the Netherlands is a founding member.
It would also give a further boost to the extreme-right-wing organisations – Marine Le Pen’s Front National and Alternative für Deutschland – that are contesting the looming French and German elections, as well as the populist parties that are rising in almost every other EU member state. Above all, it would accelerate the increasingly ugly racial polarisation of the Netherlands, where several mosques have been attacked recently and many of the country’s one million Muslims are now living in fear.
Rasit Bal, a soft-spoken and sober-minded teacher who leads a national Islamic umbrella organisation called the Contactorgaan Moslims en Overheid, goes so far as to assert that Muslims are being targeted and scapegoated like the Jews were in Germany in the 1930s. The indigenous Dutch people are being fed “the same messages, the same way of thinking, the same arguments”, he tells me, as we sit in an empty classroom in his school in a suburb of Amsterdam – the city where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis during the Second World War. “It feels the same. I have many Jewish friends and that’s the way we’re talking about it.
“I am very afraid.”
Wilders was born in 1963, the youngest of four children. His father, a printing company executive, was so traumatised by the wartime occupation of the Netherlands that for 40 years after it ended he refused to enter Germany. His mother was Dutch-Indonesian, and her mixed race has given amateur psychologists much to ponder over, given her son’s robust views about Dutch culture and identity. Sneered at by Dutch colonialists, the Eurasians would stress their Dutch identity. They were also expelled from Muslim Indonesia after the Second World War.
Wilders was raised in Venlo, a staunchly Roman Catholic town in the disadvantaged southern province of Limburg, but he never embraced religion. Instead of university, he went to work on a moshav, or communal farm, in Israel. That is where his aversion to Islam first took shape: he was shocked by the backwardness of the country’s Arab neighbours and blamed the repressive nature of their religion. He came to regard Israel as a second home, and still visits regularly.
Back in the Netherlands, Wilders worked in a junior capacity for the health-care and social security advisory boards in Utrecht and lived in a suburb called Kanaleneiland. He likes to relate how immigrants from Morocco and Turkey – imported to work for the then booming Dutch economy – transformed Kanaleneiland from a white, middle-class neighbourhood to a mini-Casablanca or Istanbul, where the shop signs were in Arabic and the women wore headscarves. It became “a very dangerous neighbourhood for non-Muslims”, he has claimed. “I have been robbed. On several occasions I had to run for safety.”
In 1988 Wilders joined the centre-right Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD) or People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. Soon after that he became an assistant to its leader, Frits Bolkestein, who was beginning to ruffle feathers in the staid world of Dutch politics – which relied on the so-called polder model of consensual decision-making – with his opposition to immigration, multiculturalism and accelerating European integration.
Bolkestein’s views resonated in a country that had experienced a huge influx of immigrants from Turkey, Morocco and the former Dutch colonies of Indonesia, Suriname and the Antilles since the 1960s (Muslims now account for 6 per cent of the 17 million population and Islam is the second-biggest religion, with more than 400 mosques). In 1998 the VVD won so many seats that Wilders was elected to the House of Representatives despite being only 46th on the party’s list of candidates.
Almost immediately he started warning the Dutch parliament of the dangers that Islamic extremism posed to Europe. Then came a series of events that lent those warnings credence.
On 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York. Eight months later, Pim Fortuyn, the flamboyant political outsider whose opposition to Islam and immigration was attracting considerable support, was murdered outside a radio studio near Amsterdam – albeit by an animal rights activist.
Then, in November 2004, the film-maker Theo van Gogh was shot and stabbed to death as he cycled to work along a street in Amsterdam. He had recently produced a short film called Submission, highlighting Islam’s repression of women. His killer, a Dutch-born Moroccan named Mohammed Bouyeri, used a knife to pin a note to van Gogh’s chest warning of a similar fate for anyone who criticised Islam. Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an MP of Somali origin who had helped van Gogh make Submission, immediately went into hiding. Ali later moved to the United States, but Wilders chose to stay despite frequent death threats and several appearances on jihadi hit lists.
Even today he receives round-the-clock protection from half a dozen armed bodyguards provided by the Netherlands Royal and Diplomatic Protection Service. He lives in one or more government safe houses with bulletproof windows and panic rooms that are, he says, “safer than the national bank”. He travels to work in an armoured police vehicle.
His steel-doored office is at the end of a labyrinthine corridor on the third floor in an isolated wing of the Binnenhof, the complex of ancient buildings in The Hague that houses the Dutch parliament. It is protected by multiple layers of security and access is severely restricted. “He lives in a safe,” Ronald Sørensen, a former PVV senator, told me. He added that it was forbidden even to take photographs showing the interior of the office, lest they reveal its whereabouts.
Wilders, who titled his 2012 autobiography Marked for Death, cannot go out to a restaurant or the cinema, and reportedly sees his wife, a Hungarian-born former diplomat called Krisztina, only once or twice a week. It is “a situation I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy”, he has said, though in some ways the ever-present bodyguards play to his advantage. They lend him a certain aura, and they serve as a constant reminder of his central contention: that Islam is murderous.
In 2004 Wilders broke with the VVD over its support for opening EU membership negotiations with Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country. He formed his own party, Groep Wilders, which later became the PVV. It won nine of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives in 2006, and 24 in 2010 when it agreed to support a minority government formed by the two biggest parties, the VVD and the Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA), or Labour Party. Two years later it withdrew that backing over proposed austerity measures, forcing another general election. It was reduced to 15 seats after campaigning for “Nexit” and the return of the Dutch guilder, support for leaving the EU being far lower in the Netherlands than in the UK.
More than a decade after its formation, the PVV remains as strange and secretive a party as any in Europe: a party that is dominated by a single man and has been likened to a sect. Wilders is its only member. Its MPs, senators, MEPs and councillors are merely adherents, supporters or followers – call them what you will. “He has seen before how other right-wing parties split and dissolved due to internal problems and rows,” Tom Louwerse, a political scientist at Leiden University, told me. “He says, ‘I don’t want all these problems so I try to keep the party in my control to the largest extent possible.’”
Though the PVV routinely denounces the Dutch political establishment and claims to be the party of ordinary people, often evoking a fictional average, white Dutch couple called “Henk and Ingrid”, it has no offices anywhere in the Netherlands except Wilders’s eyrie in the Binnenhof – where he is now one of the longest-serving MPs. The party has no national organisation to speak of, no think tank, no youth wing, none of the attributes of a normal political party. It does not hold rallies or party conferences.
Wilders, who appears to trust no one, has only a tiny inner circle of people that he sometimes consults. Otherwise, he takes all the decisions himself. He determines the party’s policies, famously neglecting even to inform his MPs when he ended the PVV’s support for the government in 2012. He also selects its candidates for all elections and decides their position on electoral lists, which gives him enormous power over their careers.
He can “make or break you. People are constantly afraid of the consequences if they make a mistake. This creates a pervasive culture of fear,” Joram van Klaveren, a former PVV MP who left the party in 2014, told Koen Vossen, a political scientist who recently published a book about the PVV called The Power of Populism. “Wilders acts as if he were some kind of sun god, around whom a small system of planets has formed,” Vossen himself observed.
Wilders is the party’s only public face. Seldom if ever do the PVV’s other elected representatives speak to the media or appear at public events – not even during election campaigns.
“There’s no doubt Mr Wilders is omnipotent and the only member of the party, and actually decides on pretty much everything,” Wouter de Winther, the parliamentary editor of the conservative daily newspaper De Telegraaf, told me over a beer in a bar outside the Binnenhof.
Who funds the party is a mystery. Because officially it has only one member, it does not qualify for the substantial state subsidies given to other parties. Vossen says right-wing American organisations such as the David Horowitz Freedom Centre and the neoconservative historian Daniel Pipes’s Middle East Forum have held several fundraising dinners for Wilders, and other wealthy American Jews are thought to have supported him financially, “but all attempts at following the flow of money remain highly speculative”. And the PVV has robustly opposed legislative efforts to impose financial transparency on Dutch political parties.
As for Wilders the man – he, too, is a bit of a mystery. De Winther, one of the very few journalists who know him, told me he has a good sense of humour, likes to travel abroad and watches Netflix. In the days when he could, he used to love driving around in his Audi TT sports car.
But Wilders has no children, just a cat called Lola. He has a brother, Paul, whose tweets suggest that he vigorously dislikes and disagrees with his sibling. He does not socialise or mix with party workers, and appears to have few – if any – close friends. He works in his office late into the evenings, with a 24-hour news channel broadcasting in the background, and demands that his staff work almost as hard.
“He can really only talk about politics, as he doesn’t have any other interests or hobbies,” Johan Driessen, a former PVV MP, said in an interview for Vossen’s book. “On Twitter he sometimes pretends to be into football or darts, but it’s all for show. As soon as people start to talk about something other than politics, he doesn’t know what to say any more.”
Why Wilders sports such a flamboyant hairdo is also a mystery, but Tom-Jan Meeus, a leading political columnist with the left-leaning NRC Handelsblad newspaper, reckons that it’s “the smartest thing he’s ever done. It’s an obvious sign he’s not one of the political class.”
Rather naively, I spent two weeks diligently seeking an interview with Wilders, or another PVV MP, or even a PVV MEP in Brussels. My many emails and telephone calls went unanswered. Third parties with links to the PVV submitted requests on my behalf, but to no avail. I even went to the Binnenhof in person, hoping at least to meet some party employee, but I got no further than the reception area.
In time, I came to understand Wilders’s well-honed media strategy. While most politicians assiduously court the media, Wilders does the opposite. That way, he can determine whom he speaks to and on what terms, and retain the greatest possible control of his message. When he does give interviews, domestic or foreign, it is usually to supportive right-wing or alt-right outlets: Breitbart News, Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, the ultra-conservative US broadcasters Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck or – more recently – Britain’s Daily Telegraph.
He will participate in one or two televised debates before an election, but if he appears on Dutch TV at any other time it is on his terms: sympathetic shows, and with no other politicians or experts. “He selects situations where only he speaks,” Sarah de Lange, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Amsterdam, told me. The only chance papers other than De Telegraaf have to collar him is when, once a week, he has to walk across the antechamber to the House of Representatives for the Dutch equivalent of Prime Minister’s Questions.
Wilders often speaks in the House, where he is a procedural expert, a star performer who has many times been named “politician of the year” and is almost invariably controversial. He stages attention-grabbing stunts outside parliament. The PVV recently applied to cover Rotterdam’s trams with posters proclaiming “Stop Islam”, knowing well that the application would be refused. After the fatal attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in 2015, Wilders used a party broadcast to display cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on Dutch television. In 2012 he launched a website for complaints about antisocial behaviour by eastern European immigrants, and in 2010 he addressed a rally in New York against the proposed erection of a Muslim community centre near the site of the 9/11 attacks. “This is where we have to draw the line,” he declared.
Before that, in 2008, he made a short documentary, Fitna, which juxtaposed threatening quotes from the Quran with scenes from Islamist attacks. Jacqui Smith, the then Labour home secretary, banned him from entering Britain to attend a screening at the Palace of Westminster in 2009, organised by Lord Pearson of Rannoch, a Ukip supporter, and the crossbencher Baroness (Caroline) Cox. Wilders defiantly flew to London and was turned back, only for the ban to be overturned in what he called a “triumph for freedom of speech”. For Wilders, it was a publicity bonanza.
For security reasons, he seldom attends public events in the Netherlands, but when he does, his appearances are carefully staged for the cameras. Ringed by bodyguards, he might, for instance, make a fleeting appearance at a market in some PVV stronghold to hand out pepper sprays (to deter aggressive Muslim men) to adoring supporters. But mostly – like Trump – he communicates by posting statements and videos on social media: primarily Twitter, where he has more than 760,000 followers. That allows him to bypass the mainstream media and spread his message without any questioning or demands for accountability.
“He sends one carefully crafted tweet and it generates an enormous amount of media attention and public debate,” Sarah de Lange said. Moreover, she noted: “Journalists can’t call him and say, ‘What do you mean by that? How do you make it work?’ It’s just a statement, and the statement is all you have to work with as a journalist. He never engages in a discussion on Twitter. He blocks opponents from his Twitter feed so they can’t retweet his tweets with critical comments attached. He can control his message in every detail.”
Unlike in Ukip and Europe’s other populist parties, Wilder’s number-one target is not the European Union, though he sees Brussels as a den of elite, left-wing multiculturalists who are preventing the Netherlands from closing its borders. Since Brexit, he has been cheerily predicting the EU’s imminent collapse. Instead, his biggest issue is the “Islamisation” of the Netherlands through immigration, and on that score his rhetoric is nothing if not inflammatory.
The Dutch people, he told parliament, “have had enough of burqas, headscarves, blaring minarets, female circumcision, hymen restoration operations, abuse of homosexuals, Turkish and Arabic on the buses and trains as well as on town-hall leaflets, halal meat in grocery shops and department stores, sharia exams, the finance minister’s sharia mortgages, and the enormous over-representation of Muslims in the area of crime, including Moroccan street terrorists”.
He calls mosques “hate palaces”. He calls young Muslim men “street terrorists” and “testosterone bombs” who endanger Dutch women. He calls hijabs “head rags” and has proposed a tax on those who wear them in public places, with the proceeds to go towards women’s emancipation. He claims that Muslims beat up homosexuals, and that blonde women in the Netherlands have become afraid to show their hair in the street lest they be abused.
He applauded Donald Trump’s recent attempt to ban visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries, regretting only that he had not added Saudi Arabia to the list. And he abhors “cultural relativism”, insisting that Western culture, based on Judaeo-Christian and humanist values of freedom, democracy and tolerance, is far superior to Muslim cultures. Curiously for a supposedly right-wing politician, he supports gay, women’s and animal rights, perhaps because Islam does not.
But Wilders’s opposition to Muslim immigration goes far beyond that of most PVV supporters. He believes that Islam is a violent, totalitarian ideology bent on world domination. He likens the Quran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, warns of “the creeping tyranny of Islamisation” that will turn Europe into “Eurabia”, and describes Israel as the West’s “first line of defence”.
Marcial Hernandez, another former PVV MP who fell out with him, wrote in his memoirs: “Wilders really wants to become a historic figure, someone who saw impending danger in good time, a bit like Churchill, his great model.” A life-size portrait of the British wartime leader hangs in Wilders’s office.
He is always careful to stress that he hates Islam, not Muslims, yet he has twice been prosecuted for breaching race-hate laws. He was acquitted in 2011, but prosecuted again after asking a rally in The Hague during the 2014 local elections: “Do you want in this city, and in the Netherlands, more or less Moroccans?” When his supporters chanted, “Less! Less!” he told them: “Then we’ll arrange that.”
More than 5,000 Dutch citizens filed complaints. After a trial that was held on a military base to protect him, he was convicted early last December of inciting discrimination. He was given no penalty, however, and his popularity surged in a country that values free speech.
The Netherlands is hardly a country in crisis, though Wilders sometimes suggests otherwise. It suffered badly in the financial crash of the late 2000s but its economy is now growing strongly, with the central bank forecasting GDP growth of 2.3 per cent in 2017. Unemployment has fallen to 5.4 per cent, the lowest level in five years. Crime rates are dropping, leaving Dutch prisons with so many empty cells that they are renting space to Belgium and Norway. Numbers of immigrants and asylum-seekers entering the country have also peaked.
But the 2015 migrant crisis, the euro’s travails, Islamist attacks elsewhere in Europe, an exodus of young Dutch Muslims to fight in Syria and Trump’s presidential victory in November have boosted support for Wilders, and he now sounds like a man on a roll. “The world is changing. America is changing. Europe is changing,” he declared at a meeting with Marine Le Pen and other European populist leaders in Koblenz, Germany, the day after Trump’s inauguration in January.
“It started last year with Brexit, yesterday there was Trump and today the freedom-loving parties gathered in Koblenz are making a stand,” he continued. “The people of the West are awakening. They are throwing off the yoke of political correctness. This will be the year of the people, the year of liberation, the year of the Patriotic Spring.”
In reality, the chances of the PVV entering government this month are extremely slim, though it may well become the biggest party in parliament. It would need to win 75 of the 150 seats to govern alone, but with 28 parties contesting the elections and more than a dozen expected to win seats, that will not happen – the polls suggest the PVV will win 30 seats at most.
Moreover, all but two small parties have categorically ruled out a coalition with the PVV even if it does have the most seats. “The probability is not 0.1 per cent, but zero, that the VVD will govern with the PVV,” Mark Rutte, the prime minister and VVD leader, declared in January. Wilders says that to exclude the PVV from power in such circumstances would be “undemocratic and an insult to millions of voters”, and warns that “the public will rebel”. But continued opposition might in fact suit his purposes much better than the responsibilities and compromises of governing.
The other mainstream parties are already moving sharply rightwards to counter the rise of the PVV. The government has tightened immigration and asylum controls and introduced integration requirements. In November MPs approved a partial ban on wearing the burqa (which involves full face-covering) and the niqab (which leaves only the eyes exposed) in public places, though the number of women who wear burqas in the Netherlands is reckoned to be fewer than 100. The Labour PvdA, whose support has collapsed during four years as the VVD’s junior coalition partner, is campaigning on a platform of “progressive patriotism”.
Although Rutte believes in immigration and integration, and quietly teaches immigrant teenagers history and citizenship at a school in The Hague each Thursday morning, he published an open letter in all leading Dutch newspapers in January saying that immigrants who “refuse to adapt and criticise our values” should “act normally or go”. He told those who harass gay people, whistle at women wearing short skirts, dump rubbish in the streets or who spit in public that “if you reject our country so fundamentally I’d prefer you to leave”.
Amnesty International accused the prime minister of undermining the Dutch constitution. The centrist newspaper De Volkskrant declared: “He has let Wilders drag him down to his level.”
Over a coffee in The Hague, Peter Cluskey, a seasoned observer of Dutch politics who is the Netherlands correspondent of the Irish Times, told me that politicians were now “afraid to put their heads above the parapet. Liberalism is out of the door. There is no liberal line that says we need immigrants and they can come. That’s really sad, and the best Rutte can do is steal Geert Wilders’s clothes and say, ‘I can be tough, too.’
“The whole liberal agenda of why countries are open and have open borders and accept people from other countries, and why that’s a good thing and enriches cultures, and how when times are good everyone wants immigrants because we don’t want to do some jobs ourselves – you never hear that said.”
That is now true not only in the Netherlands, but also in Britain, Germany and France – where Marine Le Pen is expected to win the first round of voting next month in this year’s presidential election. It is true of most other European countries, too.
On my last day in the Netherlands I visited Schilderswijk, the Muslim “ghetto” and “no-go area” invoked with such horror by the residents of Duindorp. The district is indeed predominantly Muslim: 85 per cent of Schilderswijk’s people are first- or second-generation immigrants. There are Turkish restaurants, Moroccan bakeries and Surinamese grocery shops, kebab sellers, money transfer businesses and two mosques (neither of which, contrary to Wilders’s claims, has a minaret). Many of the women, but by no means all, wear headscarves. White faces are rare.
But in other ways Schilderswijk is not so different from Duindorp. The modest terraced homes and flats look cared for; many have the same knick-knacks and plants in the windows. The streets and play areas are reasonably clean. There is little graffiti. Women were out pushing prams, taking their children to school or going to work.
It is true that riots erupted here after a Caribbean man died in police custody in 2015, but the people were friendly and I felt no sense of menace. I noticed that the El Islam Mosque stood next to an off-licence and a wall bearing several pictures of bare-headed, bare-legged Western models.
“People think this is a problem area, but we’ve been here for 25 years and I’ve not heard anything bad about it. We’ve never even had a window broken,” Ahmet Bingol, 25, told me as he served customers at his family’s Turkish restaurant. “There’s always crime, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything to do with the Muslim population. If one person’s bad, it doesn’t mean everyone is bad. They call Schilderswijk this and that, but I don’t see it.”
At a nearby bakery, Amar, a young woman in a black hijab, told me: “It’s a lot of fun here. There’s a lot of problems, but the media exaggerate them. I feel safer here than I do if I go somewhere where there’s a lot of people of other races. If I go where there’s only white people I feel I don’t belong.” Pressed, she admitted that some white people abuse her. “They say, ‘Go back to your own country’ and ‘What are you wearing?’”
Another young man, Kamal Boumhand, also spoke of rising antagonism towards people like himself. “Nowadays I see much more trouble and aggression against Muslims,” he said. “His [Wilders’s] supporters are the ones I worry about. If he comes to power I think in the next five years there will be big problems here.”
But there are problems already. As Wilders whips up Islamophobia and teaches the Dutch to hate, Muslims increasingly find themselves targets of abuse, discrimination and, occasionally, violence.
Dick Schoof, the Dutch national chief of counterterrorism, says mosques were targeted in dozens of incidents last year. In February five men threw Molotov cocktails at a mosque in the city of Enschede while 30 people were inside it. In December in the city of Culemborg, a former public swimming baths was burned to the ground before it could be converted into a mosque.
In other incidents, more than 30 mosques received threatening letters bearing swastikas, and a doctored photograph was posted online of Rotterdam’s Essalam Mosque – the largest in the Netherlands – showing it being blown up by a bomb. The caption read: ‘‘A wet dream!!!’’ Jacob van der Blom, the director of the mosque, told me it is now protected by bodyguards and 28 security cameras.
Refugee and migrant camps have been targeted as well. In November 2015, 14 severed pigs’ heads were found scattered at the entrance to one camp in Eschmarkerveld, near Enschede; clearly the intention was to cause religious offence. A picture was posted on Twitter with the caption: “Welcome to the hell of Eschmarkerveld”. The following month, police fired warning shots to disperse a riotous protest by 2,000 people against plans to build an asylum centre in Geldermalsen, near Utrecht.
I met Marianne Vorthoren, a convert to Islam who runs Spior, an umbrella organisation for Rotterdam’s many Muslim groups, the day after a gunman killed six worshippers at a mosque in Quebec, Canada in January. She was fielding numerous calls from mosques worried about their security. Four of the largest ones in the Netherlands subsequently announced that they would lock their doors during prayer times to prevent similar attacks.
Vorthoren showed me a Spior report that recorded 174 Islamophobic incidents in the Rotterdam area over 15 months. Half involved verbal abuse, 22 per cent discrimination in employment and other fields, 14 per cent threats and physical violence and 12 per cent attacks on mosques and other Islamic buildings.
“It’s getting worse, and with the upcoming elections we’re really worried about what might happen,” said Vorthoren, who believes that many more incidents go unreported because Muslims do not trust the state. “They feel the welfare of Muslims is not as important to politicians as the welfare of other people in the Netherlands.”
Rasit Bal, the teacher who runs the Contactorgaan Moslims en Overheid, described how he had followed his labourer father over from Turkey in 1979, when he was 15, gained a degree, made the Netherlands his home and raised a family.
“I love this country,” he said. But now his three well-educated, grown-up children are all talking of leaving. “I try to tell them, ‘No, you’re wrong. You were born and raised here. This is your country. This is your future.’ But it’s getting much more difficult for me to convince them.”
Vorthoren and Bal agree that Muslim immigrants could have done more to integrate into Dutch society. They accept that Muslim communities have many social problems, including higher-than-average crime and unemployment and lower educational qualifications. But they accuse Wilders of scapegoating Muslims, and of creating what Vorthoren calls a “grotesque cartoon caricature” with his talk of blaring minarets, honour killings and immigrant “tsunamis”.
“He uses the politics of fear, and it frightens me that so many people find his discourse appealing,” she said. Both she and Bal argue that Wilders is polarising Dutch society, and both fear that his implicit portrayal of young Muslim immigrants as potential terrorists could eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“His discourse contributes to young Muslims, especially, feeling like outcasts,” Vorthoren said. “If they don’t feel accepted they are susceptible to more radical or extremist discourse.” Bal concurred: “We’re very afraid of our own radicalised youth . . . An act of jihad would be a disaster.”
Vorthoren remains resolutely optimistic. “I still believe the majority of Dutch people are reasonable people who want to live together,” she insisted. But even though she was reluctant to echo Bal’s invocation of pre-war Germany, she did recall Bosnia’s descent into bloody ethnic warfare in the 1990s. “For generations they lived peacefully together until the politics of fear destroyed that in a matter of years,” she said. “God forbid that that happens here.”
Martin Fletcher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman
This article appears in the 01 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again