You don’t have to go there to know that Holland is gripped by growing
fear of Islamic extremism. More surprising was what I learned on a
recent visit to this famously easy-going city: the Dutch response to
the Islamists increasingly is tied up in a larger critique of European
Like most moderately well informed Americans, I followed developments in Holland only sporadically. In the ’90s there was Wim Kok the DLC-like prime minister associated with the Dutch economic “miracle,” which kept unemployment rates low even as they were soaring in France, Germany, and Belgium. Kok presided genially over a center-left coalition that gave Holland lower taxes and the most flexible labor market on the continent.
But by 2002, Kok’s Labor government, hard hit by rising crime rates associated with unintegrated Islamic immigrants and a weakening economy, was handed a stunning defeat. That election marked the dramatic rise of the gay activist and former Marxist Pim Fortuyn. It was the beginning of what promises to be an unsettling period in Holland’s usually placid politics.
In the first political killing in the Netherlands since the 17th century, Fortuyn was assassinated by an animal rights activist. Then came the murder of anti-Muslim iconoclast Theo van Gogh by an Islamist who was offended by one of van Gogh’s movies. These events clearly shook the normally calm and consensus-driven Dutch. Fortuyn’s political heir, Geert Wilders, who rose to political prominence in the wake of the Van Gogh killing, was depicted by the American and British press as a one-issue politician. His sole aim, it seemed, was to expel radical Islamists from Holland. That was a misunderstanding of both Wilders and the Dutch situation.
Wilders, who lives under 24-hour guard and sleeps in a prison cell for his own protection, is indeed a strong critic of Islam, which he argues is “incompatible with democracy.” But it quickly became clear that he was far more than a one-issue candidate. Moreover, his arguments about Islamic extremism and immigrant crime had already been laid out a decade earlier by the prominent Dutch politician Frits Bolkstein, who is now giving the French fits as a member of the European parliament by pushing for increased E.U. competition in business services.
As luck would have it, on the second day of my visit, Wilders, a tall man by American but not Dutch standards, with a huge shock of gray-blond hair, gave a major address, which he billed as a Dutch “Declaration of Independence.”
Far from a one-issue politician, it was clear that Wilders attacks on Islamic extremism were tied into a larger critique of economic statism as practiced by the European Union and the elite-driven Dutch political system. The Dutch, he insisted, face “interconnected crises” in which the growing number of civil servants in both Brussels and the Hague extract unsustainable sums of money even as Europe is unprepared for the coming onslaught of Chinese competition and as rising crime rates send skilled Dutch professionals fleeing for New Zealand and Canada. If the European political class has its way, he went on, Turkey would be admitted to the E.U. and because of its population “will have more influence on Dutch legislation than the Dutch themselves.” He concluded: “It can’t become crazier than this.” His talk about a topsy-turvy world in which criminals are coddled with conjugal visits while the middle class live in fear sounded like the kind of “backlash” rhetoric that brought Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to power in the United States.
After the speech, I quickly enlisted a bartender and fellow hotel guests in an impromptu focus group. What did they think of Wilders? Of his speech? Their reactions were mixed. Being typically Dutch, they objected most to the negative tone of his statements. “He shouldn’t be so critical,” I was told. But there was wide agreement with the substance of his speech and a subsequent poll found that 65 percent of the Dutch agreed totally or partially with the speech while 25 percent disagreed totally or partially. By contrast, the established parties, which all face declining support, responded with either silence or hostility.
In the days that followed, I heard similar things from Amsterdamers from all across the socio-political spectrum. A restaurant owner complained about how Moroccan immigrants can go on welfare from literally the day they arrive in the Netherlands. He asked me if I knew that some of the new arrivals on welfare “earn more after taxes than some of my waiters?” When I asked him about the famed Dutch reputation for tolerance, he replied mockingly “we’re not so much tolerant as indifferent to our neighbors.” Like Wilders, he wanted the radical mosques shut down and their imams expelled so he wouldn’t have to continue paying for them even as he feared their worshippers.
A museum guide, a charming cosmopolitan woman, wanted to expose Muslim children to the history of the Holocaust so they could learn to be more tolerant. She was hostile to Wilders, but even she mocked Holland’s unwillingness to require the immigrants to learn Dutch. And she thought the parliamentary proposal to eliminate Christmas celebrations in the schools, so as not to upset Muslim children, was “simply stupid.” An artist who considers herself unaffiliated and thus open to Wilders’ approach, told me, “People no longer vote as they were born.” That’s Wilders’ opening as he tries to create a new party of the disaffected and unaffiliated. An intellectual I spoke with corrected me when I described Wilders as a “populist.” He pointed out that Wilders’ call to eliminate a wide range of subsidies, including those that allow one in 16 Netherlanders to claim that they’re disabled, was “more bitter medicine” than populism. For the first time, he told me, “people want a more direct say in politics.” To make his case, he pointed to the angry response when the Labor Party in parliament blocked the direct election of mayors. They are currently chosen for the localities by the national government.
To my ears, Wilders sounded, well, like an American when he told the Dutch that the core of his message was “freedom” — freedom, as he saw it, from the fear of crime, from the oppressive costs and weak economy administered by bloated bureaucracies, and from a corporatist politics that blocks popular participation. That message won’t be directly tested until the 2007 elections. But it will get a preliminary hearing in May when the Dutch, a few days after the French, vote in a non-binding referendum on the proposed E.U. constitution. If the Dutch vote no, and Wilders is given credit for the outcome, expect him to become a major player on the European stage.