Boyish, topped with a bouffant mane of bleached blond hair, cheerful and cherubic, Geert Wilders is the unlikely new face of the far Right in Europe. But appearances are deceptive. The leader of the Dutch anti-immigration Freedom Party has emerged as one of the most divisive politicians in Europe, the purveyor of a virulent brand of anti-Islamic rhetoric that calls for a tax on Islamic headscarves and a ban on the Koran, which he likens to Mein Kampf.
Mr Wilders is facing trial in a Dutch court for “inciting hatred”. Last year he was banned from Britain and turned away at Heathrow when he arrived here planning to show his short film, an incendiary anti-Islamic diatribe that the Dutch Prime Minister described as serving “no purpose other than to offend”.
On Friday, after successfully appealing against the Home Office ban, Mr Wilders will return to Britain at the invitation of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) to show his controversial film to an invited audience at the House of Lords. The English Defence League is expected to demonstrate in his support and Muslim groups are all but certain to mount protests.
To his enemies, the 46-year-old Dutchman is an old-fashioned racist demagogue in a new suit; a bottle-blond bigot. To his growing ranks of supporters he is a champion of free speech, a bulwark against what he calls “the Islamic invasion of Holland”. He may be dismissed by some as a crank but he is an increasingly powerful and popular one. On February 20 the Dutch centrist coalition Government collapsed, deeply divided over keeping troops in Afghanistan, paving the way for a general election in June in which the Freedom Party is expected to do extremely well. Polls suggest that the party will triple its tally of seats, becoming at least the second-biggest parliamentary party and quite possibly the overall winner. Mr Wilders is likely to be a key player in any coalition, with a profound impact on the political agenda.
Nicknamed “Mozart” on account of a platinum hairdo that looks strikingly like an 18th-century wig, Mr Wilders has played on the discords in Dutch society with virtuoso skill. As in Britain, many Dutch voters are alarmed by the scale of immigration, battered by the global economic crisis, culturally anxious and increasingly receptive to his grim warnings about a “tsunami of Islamification”.
The political heir to Pim Fortuyn, the Dutch populist politician who called for a halt to Muslim immigration and who was murdered in the 2002 election campaign, Mr Wilders has portrayed himself as the only politician in his country brave enough to stand up to militant Islam, a threat that he has compared to Nazism. “A century ago there were approximately 50 Muslims in the Netherlands. Today there are about one million. Where will it end? We are heading for the end of European civilisation,” he predicts. Promising strict limits on immigration, he has also called for a “head-rag tax” of €1,000 (£922) a year on Muslim women wearing headscarves.
In 2008 he released a 15-minute film entitled Fitna (the Arabic word for “strife”) which provoked outrage across the Muslim world: it opens with an image of the Koran, followed by footage of terrorist attacks and a litany of stonings, beheadings, honour killings, homophobia and child marriages. It ends, predictably, with the Danish cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad that sparked fury in 2006. Al-Qaeda is believed to have ordered the killing of Mr Wilders after the film was released. Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, has described the Dutch politician as “offensively anti-Islamic”. His most incendiary remarks are aimed at the Koran, which he calls a fascist book. “The Koran incites to hatred and calls for murder and mayhem,” Mr Wilders told the Dutch Parliament. “It is an absolute necessity that the Koran be banned for the defence and reinforcement of our civilisation and our constitutional state.”
In January a Dutch court ordered the public prosecutor to try Mr Wilders on charges of fomenting hatred and discrimination. Mr Wilders indicated that he would call witnesses in order to prove Koran-inspired violence, including Mohammed Bouyeri, the man convicted of murdering the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh in 2004.
Although he faces 16 months in prison if convicted, the trial represents a political goldmine for Mr Wilders and helps to explain his recent rise in opinion polls. If he is convicted he will paint himself as martyr to political correctness; if he is acquitted he will claim vindication. The trial has been suspended until after the election.
Inadvertently, Britain also did much to boost his standing in February last year by banning him from entering the country as an “undesirable person”, citing EU laws enabling member states to exclude someone whose presence could threaten public security. Mr Wilders loudly condemned Gordon Brown as “the biggest coward in Europe” and some 84 per cent of Dutch voters objected to the way that Mr Wilders had been ejected by Britain. The ban was later overturned by an asylum and immigration tribunal. On Friday, at the invitation of the UKIP leader Lord Pearson of Rannoch and Baroness Cox of Queensbury, he will show Fitna to MPs, peers and guests before giving a press conference at Westminster.
“The issue of militant Islam is the greatest issue facing our Judeo-Christian culture,” Lord Pearson said. “I don’t agree that the Koran should be banned but we want it discussed … mild Muslims should stand up and debate their militant co-religionists.”
Mr Wilders has sought to distance himself and his party from the traditional standard-bearers of the extreme Right in Europe, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front in France and the late Jörg Haider of the Freedom Party in Austria. He has made no contact with the BNP. “My allies are not Le Pen and Haider,” he says. “I’m very afraid of being linked with the wrong rightist fascist groups.” His prime political role models are said to be Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill.
The son of a printer, Mr Wilders was raised Roman Catholic but is now an atheist. He worked in a Dutch social insurance agency before becoming a speechwriter and then MP for the liberal People’s Party, which he left in 2004 to form his own party. As a prime terrorist target he lives under 24-hour police guard, changing his location nightly. He is seldom seen in public and gives few interviews. Even contact with his wife, a Dutch-Hungarian former diplomat, is limited by security concerns, This way of life, under constant threat, is “a situation I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy”, he once remarked.
“They are trying to shoot him all the time,” says Lord Pearson, noting that Mr Wilders will be coming to Britain with five state-hired Dutch bodyguards. “He has a really, really tough existence.”
Mr Wilders opposes expansion of the EU, most particularly Turkish membership, and Dutch military deployment in Afghanistan, but the core of his message lies in an appeal to defend traditional Dutch culture against perceived encroachment by Islam. “Islam is the Trojan Horse in Europe,” he told the Dutch Parliament. “Stop all immigration from Muslim countries, ban all building of new mosques, close all Islamic schools, ban burkas and the Koran … Stop Islamification. Enough is enough!”
Some polls suggest that after the June elections Mr Wilders may lead the biggest single parliamentary party, raising the prospect that a former fringe provincial politician with extreme views and peculiar hair could end up leading the country. “At some point it’s going to happen and then it will be a big honour to fulfil the post of prime minister,” he says. If that comes to pass it will mark both the triumph of a new, more subtle brand of right-wing politics in Europe, and the final demise of the stereotyped image of the Netherlands as a nation of bland liberal views and easygoing tolerance.
9am Geert Wilders will arrive at Heathrow, his second visit to Britain since overturning a ban by the former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. He declared his trip in October last year “a victory for free speech”
11am Screening of his film Fitna in a committee room of the House of Lords. The 17-minute film, which has been shown in the US Capitol, presents verses from the Koran alongside footage of terrorist attacks. The screening has been organised by Lord Pearson of Rannoch, leader of UKIP, and Baroness Cox, a former Conservative peer
12.30pm Press conference near Parliament. UKIP organisers are expecting protests
1pm The far-Right group the English Defence League plans a demonstration to welcome Mr Wilders to Britain. A UKIP source said: “That is what horrifies me more than anything else. Bring protective clothing.”