AMSTERDAM -- A handful of people holding umbrellas and white balloons defied the driving rain in the center of Amsterdam one Thursday in September to protest the imminent formation of a government with the support of the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam far right. They listened to a few less-than-rousing speeches and some Muslim-friendly poetry, then they popped the white balloons, "to make some noise," as one speaker put it, and quietly dispersed. But otherwise, the rise of the far right has hardly caused a ripple in the Netherlands, where the response has been a mixture of equanimity and stunned silence. In Sweden, by comparison, thousands of people took to the streets when the first far-right MPs were elected that same month.
The Dutch coalition deal was done before the end of September, marking the political whitewashing of the previously unacceptable Geert Wilders, the brash, provocative, and peroxide-blond political wunderkind MP, and his right-wing Party for Freedom. He has agreed to lend his support in parliament to a minority government of conservative Liberals and the smaller Christian Democrats. In return Wilders has been given freedom to pursue many of his favorite policy projects, including anti-immigrant measures and several openly anti-Muslim initiatives, including a burqa ban and closer monitoring of Islamic schools.
The government deal was forged even though Wilders was this week pulled into Dutch court for hate speech, a charge that left him nonplussed and unrepentant. Still, regardless of what happens in Wilders's court case, the new government represents a watershed in Dutch politics, demolishing in one fell swoop what is left of the country's once vaunted reputation for tolerance and progressive liberalism. Even though Wilders and his party will not take ministerial responsibility, the coalition does depend on his support for its survival and has signed a formal agreement to that extent. Denmark has had a similar construction in place since 2001, but its right-wing People's Party is almost moderate compared with Wilders' Party for Freedom. The party's platform calls Islam "mostly a political ideology" and wishes to deny it any of the considerations afforded a religion in the Netherlands. Wilders is even more insulting in his personal statements, for example calling the Prophet Mohammed a "barbarian and a pedophile."
The mechanism is widely seen as allowing the two mainstream center-right parties finally to form a government after more than three months of deadlock following elections in June while avoiding the taint of Wilders' direct participation. But the left-of-center opposition is vowing to hold the new government, led by the conservative People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) leader Mark Rutte, accountable for Wilders's statements and behavior. "They are trying to hide his role, but it is clear that he is part of this government, whether he has a seat in it or not," says Mariko Peters, member of parliament and foreign-affairs spokeswoman for the GreenLeft, one of the left-wing opposition parties. "I will see it as my duty in parliament to keep reminding people of that."
The meteoric success of Wilders and his harsh anti-Islam rhetoric is perplexing in a stable, relatively well-off Western European country like the Netherlands. His party almost tripled its representation in the June elections and is now the third largest in parliament, with 24 of a total 150 seats. It is a stunning turnaround in a country where the progressive label seemed once part of its national DNA.
Like many other European countries, the Netherlands has its problems with immigration and integration, often of Muslims, and the events of 9/11 helped polarize opinions. It then suffered two political murders, which some here call the most shocking since the 16th-century assassination of the Netherlands' founding father, William of Orange. First, in 2002, Pim Fortuyn, a fierce critic of immigration and Islam who seemed on the verge of emerging as a political powerhouse, was killed by an animal rights activist who later claimed to have acted in defense of Muslims. Then in 2004 Theo van Gogh, a descendent of the brother of the famous painter and a provocative writer and filmmaker, was gunned down and then knifed to death by an Islamic fundamentalist of Moroccan immigrant descent. Wilders thus found fertile ground when he broke with the VVD in 2004 and started steering a more radical course.
Not that long ago, both American Democrats and Republicans were considered rightwing by Dutch, and indeed European, standards. No longer. Wilders sometimes makes the likes of Fox News host Glenn Beck, anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller, and even the most extreme fringes of the Tea Party crowd look like moderates -- and the comparison is not a random one. Several Dutch media outlets have delved into ideological and financial ties between Wilders and American archconservatives such as David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, and Jim DeMint. In an article this May, the respected Dutch NRC newspaper reported that Horowitz had brought Wilders over for a "conservative conference in California" at the end of 2009, attended by DeMint and Liz Cheney, among others. It also quotes Pipes as saying that he had gathered a "six-figure sum" to defray Wilders's legal costs*.
Wilders's American connection caught the international public's eye at the height of the controversy over the Park51 project in New York, the so-called Ground Zero mosque. He was the keynote speaker, invited by Geller and her Stop Islamization of America campaign, at a much-hyped rally against the project held on Sept. 11.
Increasingly, it's not just ideology that American and European anti-Muslim activists have in common; their tactics are growing similar, too. Just as opponents of the Park51 project have accused its imam, Faisal Abdul Rauf, of radicalism, Wilders has tried to link the people behind a mosque that he opposes, Rotterdam's Essalam mosque, to Islamic extremism. He suggested in parliamentary questions this January that the main donor for the mosque's construction, Dubai's Crown Prince Hamdan bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, could have ties to Afghanistan's Taliban.