One late-winter evening three years ago, Lt. Col. Mostafa Hilali switched off the light at his office in the Dutch defense department, drove home to his townhouse near the banks of the North Sea, and flipped on the TV.
On the news was footage of a political rally where the leader of Holland’s far-right Freedom Party, Geert Wilders, stepped up to the microphone and asked his supporters: “Do you want more or fewer Moroccans in this country?”
The mostly white, Christian crowd chanted with fervor: “Fewer, fewer, fewer!”
“Well I’ll arrange for that then,” Wilders retorted with a smirk. The crowd cheered.
Hilali’s heart sank.
“That’s when it hit home for me,” Hilali, a Dutchman of Moroccan descent who immigrated to the Netherlands with his parents when he was a toddler, said at his home in The Hague. “I mean, a politician, somebody in our House of Representatives, is actually on television saying out loud there need to be less people of your kind. It’s pretty brutal to say, and pretty brutal to hear."
Hilali and his native Dutch wife were among more than 5,000 plaintiffs who brought a class-action lawsuit against Wilders for discrimination, for his comments at that March 2014 rally. Last December, they won. A Dutch court found Wilders guilty of inciting discrimination and insulting an ethnic group, but issued no punishment.
Wilders has since surged to the top of the polls ahead of the nation’s parliamentary elections March 15. He appears unlikely to become prime minister because most rival parties have ruled out joining a government coalition with him as its head, but he could become a kingmaker.
The 53-year-old politician, whose mother’s family is originally from Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country and a former Dutch colony, promises to restore Holland to its white, Christian roots.
He wants to ban the Koran, which he has likened to Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” shut all mosques, and pull the Netherlands out of the European Union. He’s an isolationist. He wants to halt all foreign aid.
He’s been a fixture in the Dutch parliament, with his signature platinum blond streaked hair and far-right views, since first elected to the body in 1998. But Wilders’ message has resonated in recent years with a growing number of voters in a country where a perceived loss of national identity due to immigration is a much greater concern than unemployment.
Since 2010, Wilders has won “politician of the year” four times, in a poll conducted by a popular Dutch TV program.
Wilders compares himself to “Arab Spring” activists whose grass-roots protest movement ousted leaders from power in the Middle East in recent years.
“I’m a patriot, and I believe there’s a ‘Patriotic Spring’ going on in the world today, in the Western world. Donald Trump did the job in America, and I hope that here in Europe, we will see a patriotic spring in Holland but also in Germany, France — many other countries where parties like mine are getting stronger every day,” Wilders said in a recent interview in the halls of the Dutch parliament.
The Netherlands sought workers from places like Morocco and Turkey when it faced a labor shortage in the 1960s and 1970s. The workers and their descendants, along with other immigrants from outside Europe, make up about 10% of the nation’s 17 million people. They have helped transform and diversify urban centers where they are concentrated, like gritty Rotterdam, home to Europe’s largest port.
Hilali’s wife, Linda van Noorde, said her family has had ties to Rotterdam for generations.
“You know, suddenly there’s this huge mosque in front of your home. I get that people have a problem with that. They’re not racist. They’re coping with what to them is an extreme change,” she said. “Some Dutch people feel a genuine loss of identity. They yearn for simpler times.”
Like the Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage in Britain, and the far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in France, Wilders has sought to capitalize on that sentiment.
Wilders, whose wife is from Hungary, blames German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her open-door policy in particular, for allowing millions of migrants and refugees fleeing war and poverty to enter Europe over the last two years. After a truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, for which Islamic State extremists claimed responsibility, Wilders tweeted a photoshopped image of Merkel with blood on her hands.
“In the asylum stream, there were terrorists among them!” Wilders said angrily in an interview. “A lot of people from Islamic backgrounds don’t have much in common with our freedom and Western values. So, you see, you get these terror attacks."
Wilders differs from other far-right leaders in Europe in that he supports gay marriage and legalized drugs and prostitution. He vows to protect liberal values that have come to be known as quintessentially Dutch, from an enemy that he says is Islam.
In the Netherlands, anti-Muslim sentiment reached a climax years before the current migration crisis prompted it elsewhere in Europe. In November 2004, the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who’d made a film critical of Islam, was killed on an Amsterdam street by a Muslim extremist. The attacker, now serving a life sentence, pinned a note to Van Gogh’s body with a knife, threatening to kill others who dared offend Islam.
Van Gogh’s killing sent millions of Dutch out into the streets to rally for freedom of speech. At demonstrations nationwide, free speech advocates found themselves marching alongside critics of Islam, and even anti-Muslim politicians like Wilders. An unlikely alliance was formed.
Today, many Dutch who might not agree with Wilders’ harsh words against immigrants and Muslims nevertheless defend his right to say them.
“I think the [discrimination] trial against Wilders was completely wrong. They shouldn’t have done it. If anybody has a right to free speech, it’s him,” said Gijs van de Westelaken, a Dutch filmmaker and colleague of the late Van Gogh. “On the other hand, well, he’s a politician! He exaggerates. And all of Europe is trying to mobilize the populist vote."
In 2008, Wilders made his own controversial film about Islam titled “Fitna,” an Arabic word for strife or sedition. The 17-minute short shows excerpts of the Koran, interspersed with footage of acts of violence by Muslims. No Dutch broadcaster would air it, and fellow Dutch politicians tried to ban it, before Wilders posted it online.
His anti-Muslim stance has earned him death threats, and Wilders is believed to live in safe houses. He’s surrounded by bodyguards even inside the Dutch parliament, where his office is on a separate, security-restricted floor away from other Dutch lawmakers.
“His world obviously is a world of constant threat and fear, surrounded by bodyguards,” said Van de Westelaken, who also briefly used a bodyguard after Van Gogh’s murder. “It does strange things to you."
Born into a Catholic family in Venlo, near the German border, Wilders says he is no longer religious. He fell in love with Israel when he first traveled there as a young backpacker, and has returned dozens of times since then, praising the Jewish state and criticizing its Arab neighbors.
In early February, Wilders tweeted a photo of people with signs reading “Islam will conquer Europe” and supporting sharia, or Islamic law, for the Netherlands. Photoshopped into the image was the face of a rival politician, Alexander Pechtold, who leads the pro-European left-wing D66 party. Wilders’ tweet included a caption accusing Pechtold of demonstrating with terrorists.
“Every day, every tweet is something you can’t compare with other politicians or normal points of view,” Pechtold said in an interview. “He’s high in the polls, but in the coming weeks, I hope we can convince voters in the Netherlands that fear and lies and lack of facts come to a kind of mixture that’s very aggressive, and very dangerous."
Frayer is a special correspondent.