Dutch MP Geert Wilders claims to be all about freedom of expression – but is he about to engulf Britain in a holy war?
From the Netherlands drift the first sparks of a firestorm that threatens to engulf Britain and the rest of Europe.At its centre stands one man, a 44-year-old by the name of Geert Wilders.
He is a Dutch MP who likes sharp suits and has a shock of blond hair.
It’s a look not dissimilar to that of car salesman “Swiss Toni” from classic comedy series The Fast Show – but mention the name of Geert Wilders in Holland and it won’t raise a laugh.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
His actions, the Dutch government is warning, have put countless lives at risk. Plans are being drawn up to evacuate Dutch embassies around the world, riot police are on standby in Amsterdam and ordinary citizens are cancelling foreign holidays as they prepare for trouble.
There are already protests on the streets and by the goverments of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
Wilders, you see, has spoken out against the Muslim faith. He’s attacked the “tsunami of Islamisation” that he says is engulfing traditional Dutch society.
He’s attacked the prophet Mohammed, saying that were he alive today he should be “tarred and feathered” and deported as an extremist.
He’s attacked the culture of political correctness that has seen immigrants given housing and benefits without even having to try to assimilate into Western culture.
And he’s attacked the Koran, a book he likens to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, describing it as the cornerstone of a “fascist ideology” that aims to destroy all who oppose it.
Wilders has also made a 15-minute movie. Called Fitna (Arabic for “strife”), it was broadcast on the internet for the first time on Thursday afternoon, prompting fears of a backlash against Dutch citizens of unprecedented proportions.
Wilders remains unrepentant. Over the past few years the Right-wing MP has received many death threats and knows his life is in danger.
Even so, he says: “If I were to moderate my voice, if I stop saying what I think, then the people who use undemocratic arguments like death threats would have won.
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“So I will never stop, because if I moderate my voice, if I do not tell the truth according to me, then the people who use threats will win. I believe that in a democracy those people should never win.”
Opinions of Wilders are mixed. The Establishment seeks to discredit him as an over-ambitious, Right-wing, pro-Israeli politician who will do anything to gain popularity.
It says his comments are so inflammatory that they have no place in a civilised society.
But others insist he should be free to express his opinions and that those who seek to silence him are the real threat.
Surveys show that many people agree with him. Where others have been cowed into silence, Wilders has given voice to the concerns of the masses (or so the argument goes).
And, as Wilders has noted, those concerns are not unique to the Dutch – but are also boiling close to the surface in Britain.
When a Danish newspaper published caricatures of the prophet Mohammed in 2005, more than 100 people died during ensuing protests across the Muslim world.
So it is hardly surprising that mainstream TV companies haven’t been keen to broadcast Wilders’s video.
The sensitivities surrounding the film mean that even making it available on the web hasn’t proved straightforward.
When an early clip from Fitna was placed on YouTube, the internet moviesharing site, the authorities in Pakistan took the unprecedented step of blocking access to it.
Then, earlier this week, the website on which Wilders had proposed showing the film was closed down by its internet service provider amid concerns over its content.
Undeterred, Wilders vowed that, if necessary, he would personally hand out copies of it on DVD in Amsterdam.
In the end, he didn’t have to, as he posted the footage on LiveLeak.com, a Britishbased video-sharing website.
It is that connection which yesterday dragged the UK into the controversy.
“This heinous measure by a Dutch lawmaker and a British establishment. . . is indicative of the continuation of the evilness and deep vengeance such Western nationals have against Muslims,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said.
The documentary juxtaposes Koran extracts against footage of terrorist atrocities, of Sharia law in action and of jihad.
These include graphic scenes of Americans throwing themselves from the Twin Towers in the 9/11 attacks, beheadings and hangings.
Ten minutes into the film, Wilders turns to the Netherlands.
Statistics showing the growing Muslim population in Holland (nearly one million Muslims make up 5.5 per cent of the population but in the main cities it is around a third and growing) are followed by images of female genital mutilation, a hanging of gay men, and bloodied children.
This is succeeded by the question: “The Netherlands of the future?”
The film concludes with someone leafing through the Koran and a tearing sound. “The sound you heard was a page being torn out of the phone book. It is not up to me, but up to the Muslims to tear the spiteful verses from the Koran,” reads the text on the screen.
“In 1945, Nazism was defeated in Europe. In 1989, Communism was defeated in Europe. Now, the Islamic ideology has to be defeated. Stop Islamisation. Defend our freedom.”
The final image is the Danish cartoon of the prophet Mohammed with a bomb as a turban. The fuse coming from the bomb is lit and as the screen turns black there is the sound of thunder.
Overall, it’s quite a slick production but its content, while stomach-churning and offensive in places, is no more extreme than other packages on the web.
What distinguishes it is that Wilders is prepared to claim authorship and makes no bones about his motivations for making it.
His aim is to illustrate his dislike for the Koran. “The main issue is the fascist book of the Koran,” he says.
“What I want to show. . . is that many verses (in it) are very bad indeed and, even today, are inspiring people to do the worst things not just in the Middle East but in Europe and the United States.”
He adds that it is wrong to see the Koran in the same light as the Bible.
“It is a very vivid book that, unfortunately, is still giving incentives to a lot of people and some countries of the world to do the most terrible terroristic things. Unfortunately, it is not a handful, it is a growing minority who find an inspiration in Islam.”
Wilders, whose Freedom Party (PVV) holds nine seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament, emphasises it is the ideology that he objects to and not Muslims per se.
But he claims that rising numbers of Muslims are taking an extremist stance and he does not believe that a “moderate” or “European” version of Islam will emerge for many thousands of years.
“We cannot afford to wait,” he says.
Wilders does not think that all cultures have a right to be treated equally, even branding Islamic culture “retarded”.
It is his view that the politically correct approach of Governments in Western Europe towards immigrants has failed.
He wants the Dutch constitution rewritten so that the Koran can be outlawed in Holland, all immigration from Muslim countries halted, Muslim immigrants paid to leave and all Muslim “criminals” stripped of Dutch citizenship and sent “back to where they came from”.
“We tried for many decades in Europe, we tried it the other way, to do it with dialogue and by accepting other cultures and by calling them our equal and by saying everything is all right,” he says.
“Dutch politicians allowed it to happen. They never said: ‘Stop, this is our country, our values, we are the bosses, if you want to come here and stay here that is OK but only if you adhere to our values, to our principles and our laws.’ But certainly that is not happening.
“For all our tolerance, unfortunately we are also tolerant to the intolerant. We should learn to start being intolerant to the people who are intolerant to us. That is the best lesson for the Dutch government to learn.”
And, according to Wilders, it’s not just the Dutch government who needs to learn this – other nations, Britain included, are “going in the wrong direction altogether”.
“There is almost no country more politically correct than the UK,” he has said.
“Look at the terrible things that happened in London after Madrid. You have more reason than most to make this debate transparent and public.
“As long as the political elite does not take the questions, the threats, the problems of large parts of their constituents seriously, I am very negative about the future.”
Not as negative, though, as his many critics who say that the posting of the film is likely to provoke such a strong reaction that people will die.
Dutch soldiers in Afghanistan are certainly a target and plans have been drawn up to evacuate Dutch nationals from Muslim countries worldwide.
Wilders acknowledges that some people will be offended by the film but says he can’t be blamed if people react in a way that is outside the law.
“I can never be responsible for that because I am a democratically elected politician.
“I use only democratic means and I believe in a democracy – if you don’t like the message or the movie or the article, you write your own article or you make your own movie or you go into a debate or a discussion, and if people use violence (instead) then they are responsible for it.”
Others say he is being disingenuous and trying to provoke an extreme reaction. For while he condemns Nazism, he is also displaying its worst traits by wanting to get rid of Muslims.
Hans van den Broek is a former Dutch minister for foreign affairs and a government adviser.
“I am well aware of people’s constitutional right regarding freedom of speech, but Wilders’s pronouncements about wanting the Koran forbidden and his likening of Mohammed to Hitler go too far,” he insists.
Meanwhile, Zainab al-Touraihi, secretary-general of the Contact Body for Muslims, the official Muslim advisory body to the Dutch government, says: “I think he’s addicted to the attention of the media. He’s doing it for political reasons, and I’m sure he’s getting more and more votes – and that’s the scary thing.”
Wilders is well aware of this growing support. Most Dutch people wanted the film to be broadcast, andWilders recently topped a poll as the most effective politician in Holland. Support for his party increases, as does the feeling that he has tapped into a deep well of grievances.
Those who know him say it is hardly surprising given his own experiences. The son of a printing company director, Wilders has a Catholic background and went to a Catholic secondary school.
He was a speech-writer for the liberal VVD party, was elected as city councillor in Utrecht in 1997 and made an MP the next year.
Wilders lived with his wife in Utrecht’s Kanal island area – which, once a respectable neighbourhood, became dogged by crime, blamed on rising immigration and unemployment.
Around this time Wilders was beaten up and had his wallet stolen, reportedly by immigrant youths. He needed hospital treatment.
The attack was said to have left him convinced the Netherlands was unsafe and that immigration and unemployment and crime needed to be tackled.
This was reinforced in 2002, following the murder of outspoken anti-immigration MP Pim Fortuyn by a Leftist activist.
Wilders set up the Freedom Party and attracted widespread publicity calling for a ban on the burqa. Friends say he is obsessed with politics, partly due to the extraordinary life he now has to live.
Surrounded by six bodyguards, paid for by the State, he has received 600 death threats. Sometimes he and his wife have been moved into prison cells for their safety.
“It is something you would not wish on your worst enemy,” he says of this. “I lost my freedom and privacy because of my opposition to Islam.”
And though he does not say it, it is clear he would sacrifice his life, too.
Before the film’s release, a statement on an Arabic website with links to Al Qaeda read: “In the name of Allah, we ask you to bring us the head of this infidel who insults Islam and Muslims and ridicules the Prophet Mohammed.”
For Geert Wilders – and for the stability of society in much of Western Europe – the stakes have again been raised.