Mainstreaming Hate

Geert Wilders is slowly but surely making Islamophobia an accepted element of political rhetoric in the Netherlands -- and he's got his eyes on the United States, next.

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.

Wilders's success rests almost entirely on such strident rhetoric. To give an idea of the tone of his discourse in the Netherlands, he has called for a "head rag tax" on women wearing headscarves. He favors banning the Quran, wants to close Muslim schools but not equivalent Christian or Jewish ones, wants to force immigrants to sign "assimilation contracts," and wants to include the "Judeo-Christian character" of the state in the constitution.

But some Dutch analysts warn that it is a mistake to "blacken" Wilders's name too much or lump him with fascism or Nazism. "For one, he's not anti-Semitic," says Alfred Pijpers of the Clingendael Institute of International Relations in The Hague. Israeli officials have indeed privately commended him as "a friend of Israel." Pijpers says that Wilders has more in common with the Tea Party activists in the United States than with any old-style European right-wing party, because he can't really be classified as either right-wing or left-wing. His party has also embraced a left-wing populist defense of the Netherlands' besieged welfare system, and he scores points with his tough stance against crime, which he often links to immigrants.

His outspokenness has made him a hated figure for some Muslims, and he lives under constant police protection. Recently, an Australian imam called for his beheading, the last in a long line of threats. Wilders himself argued in July on the website muslimsdebate.com that he does not hate Muslims -- he just opposes Islam and wants Muslims to liberate themselves from its shackles. Strikingly, he seems to have formed his low opinion of Arab and Muslim societies at a young age when he visited both Israel and Egypt and contracted a stomach bug in the latter.

If his intention is to make the Netherlands a less attractive place to Muslims, he may be succeeding. In the months since the elections, unrest in the community has increased, and more are reportedly considering leaving the country. "I hear from many people that they don't feel comfortable. They don't feel that this is their country anymore," says Farhad Golyardi, an Iranian-born Dutch intellectual who heads an intercultural institute in Amsterdam.

Wilders's ambitions go beyond either Dutch or European borders. In July, Wilders announced that he was setting up a Geert Wilders International Freedom Alliance aimed at stopping Muslim immigration to the West. He designated the United States as one of five countries that were "ripe" for his alliance, and he may have had this confirmed at the 9/11 rally in New York. Says Golyardi, "He sees that there are people who agree with him all over the world, and he wants to provide an umbrella for them, to found an anti-Islam international."

High-profile international sallies appear to be part of Wilders' strategy. During a June 2009 visit to Denmark, he said on Danish television that "deporting millions of European Muslims may be necessary." Earlier he had caused international concern over a possible repeat of the Danish cartoon riots in the run-up to the release of his widely hyped anti-Islam film Fitna in 2008. In the end the video compilation of familiar anti-Islam snippets was a dud. Wilders also gained some notoriety when he was banned from entering Britain, where he had been invited to show Fitna in the House of Lords. The ban was later reversed.

So Dutch politicians across the political spectrum breathed a sigh of relief after Wilders's New York speech. His most notable one-liner was a warning that "New York, rooted in Dutch tolerance, will never become New Mecca." Earlier, Wilders had even appealed to mainstream opinion in the United States and Europe by opposing the planned burning of the Quran in Florida, even though he has compared the Quran to Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.

Such newfound mildness plays into assertions by some Dutch politicians and analysts that once Wilders has been co-opted into the system, as he now is, his sharp edges will be blunted. It may also indicate that above all else, Wilders is a wily politician who is gunning for more influence, both internationally and in the Netherlands. The mildness detected in his New York speech was at the time taken as a green light for the other parties to proceed with the talks and eventually reach an agreement with him.

Of course, both left and right fear serious damage to the Netherlands' reputation abroad now that Wilders is somehow involved in the government. "I abhor the image that the Netherlands will get internationally," Peters, the GreenLeft MP, told The National. Even the Christian Democrat leader and outgoing foreign minister, Maxime Verhagen, was worried ahead of Wilders' speech in New York, cautioning him to be "responsible" while at the same time begging for his support in parliament.

But now Verhagen says that his Christian Democrats and the Liberals, the two parties that are forming the government, have "sharp differences of opinion" with Wilders on the subject of Islam, but that this not an obstacle to their effective cooperation.

It is indeed the willingness of Dutch mainstream parties to be pulled into Wilders's orbit that most appalls his opponents. "I'm not just upset with Wilders; I'm much more upset with the established parties," says Brahim Bourzik, a Muslim politician who is the former city councilor of Rotterdam. And Peters calls on Arab and Muslim countries to raise the issue of Wilders's role in government with Dutch representatives to "shake them awake." Judging by Wilders's smooth rise thus far, a whole lot of shaking may have to be done.

*This sentence has been updated to clarify that the funds were given to support Wilders's legal defense, and not to support his political campaign.



Becoming Lula

Brazil looks set to elect its first female president, a former Marxist guerrilla fighter turned grandmother and cancer survivor. But she has big shoes to fill.

BRASILIA, Brazil — The only question that seems to be left hanging in Brazil's presidential race is the date of Dilma Rousseff's victory party: Oct. 3 or Oct. 31? The polls have consistently reported that Rousseff, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's preferred successor, is hovering around the threshold that she needs to secure a victory Sunday, Oct. 3, in the first round of the country's presidential election. The most recent numbers -- published on Sept. 29 -- put her at 47 percent of the popular vote, right on the boundary of what is required to avoid a runoff. But even if the contest goes to a second round, there seems to be little doubt that Rousseff will eventually prevail.

Rousseff's election would mark a series of firsts for Brazil. Unlike her main rivals for the presidency, the former guerrilla fighter is vying for her first elected office -- a fact that would also set her apart from every one of Brazil's other recent presidents. She would also become the first female head of state of a country whose women have long played a major role in society but are still emerging as a force in politics.

Rousseff would bring a lot to the table. An efficient administrator with an inflammable temper, she has a degree in economics and a wealth of experience in the energy sector, serving as energy minister before becoming Lula's chief of staff. As a new grandmother and a survivor of lymphatic cancer, from which she was recovering during the first months of the campaign, she garners a humane respect among Brazilians that transcends party politics. This biography adds a softness to her hard edges: During the 1960s, Rousseff commanded a cadre of Marxist guerrillas fighting against the military dictatorship of the time and edited a left-wing newspaper -- activities that led to her imprisonment and torture by the ruling regime.

But it's Lula's extraordinary popularity, which has hovered around 80 percent during the past two years, that offers the best explanation for Rousseff's front-runner status. Droves of Brazilian voters have told pollsters that they would elect whomever Lula thought best. Rousseff's standing with the public was in the doldrums in late 2009, when polls had her receiving only 28 percent of the vote. Her star rose, however, as more voters linked her with the president, and Rousseff's campaign adopted a strategy of sunning herself in Lula's glow.

There's more to Lula's current popularity than his avuncular magnetism. Brazil's outgoing president has still lost more presidential elections than he has won -- proving that, under certain conditions, Brazilians are able to resist his charms. But several important socio-economic trends have buoyed Lula's reputation among the electorate. The primary factor has been the country's impressive reduction in poverty, which began before Lula took office and accelerated under his charge. Brazil is now far ahead of the rest of the world in meeting the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals.

As for Brazilian women, they have long enjoyed better opportunities than women in the rest of Latin America, and they have a higher average level of schooling than Brazilian men. But so far, women's engagement in national politics has been marginal. Fewer than 10 percent of members of the lower house of Brazil's Congress are female, despite a law requiring women to make up at least 25 percent of the candidates. Political parties say that few women seem to want to run for office.

Rousseff, along with Marina Silva, the third-place candidate, looks set to change all that, and rather than being hampered by her gender, she might even be helped by it. In a survey published last week, the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of Brazilians think it would generally be a good idea to have a female president, compared with 33 percent of U.S. citizens who were asked this question in 2007.

On the campaign trail, however, Rousseff's gender has generally been referenced only obliquely, for reasons that have more to do with ideology than with any deep-seated suspicion of women in politics. "Women voters in Brazil tend to be more conservative. This was a fact for President Lula," says Amaury de Souza, a Rio de Janeiro-based senior researcher at the Institute for Economic, Social, and Political Studies in Sao Paulo.

Still, Rousseff has made inroads. Her rise in the polls was accompanied by a decline in women's support for her main rival, Sao Paulo Governor José Serra. In May, 33 percent of women said they would vote for Rousseff, compared with 38 percent who supported Serra. But by the end of July, the two candidates were even, with 35 percent of female votes each.

Assuming Rousseff does eventually win the election, the vagaries of Brazil's political system will force her to deviate from Lula's playbook. Since 1994, Brazil's largest party, the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) has refrained from nominating a presidential candidate from within its own ranks, preferring instead to wield power as a kingmaker. It has backed Lula's Worker's Party (PT) since 2002, and in 2007 it entered into a more formal alliance with the ruling party.

Rousseff, should she win, will probably find that an increasingly unified PMDB expects a greater say in policymaking. Its more market-friendly outlook appears set to grate against her economic instincts, which some analysts say place her to the left of Lula. De Souza, for one, reckons that the resulting tension could lead to the PMDB fielding its own candidate in the next presidential election. "In the past, the PMDB's negotiation with the other parties was pork and patronage. But now it sees that it can have a much enlarged role in Brazilian politics," he explains.

And that's not the only field where Lula's successor will have to chart her own path. Lula's forays into international affairs left much to be desired: He loved the international limelight, but picked his allies, and often his words, poorly. The president's casual likenings of the losers in Iran's fraudulent 2009 election to soccer fans who cannot accept their team's defeat, and of hunger-striking Cuban dissidents to common criminals, stand out as gaffes that might have sunk the more earnest Rousseff. (Lula has also called Hugo Chávez "the best president of Venezuela in the last 100 years.")

The more important question remains whether Lula's ecumenical approach to foreign policy can survive his departure from office. "This friends-with-all approach was achievable with Lula at the helm because his charisma could shoulder the criticisms that came with it," says João Augusto de Castro Neves, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Perhaps a victorious Rousseff will use foreign affairs to strike out on her own -- by, for instance, taking a harder line on Iran or distancing herself from Latin America's more radical leftist leaders. She has said little about the world beyond Brazil's borders, however. Most likely, she'd have to focus on her greatest challenge: filling Lula's giant shoes at home.