Geert Wilders: Rise of an anti-Islam opportunist

Who is Geert Wilders?
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  • Ex-U.S. ambassador to Netherlands remembers Geert Wilders as responsible legislator
  • Cynthia Schneider: Dutch politician has found a path that exploited seeds of intolerance in usually tolerant Netherlands

Cynthia P. Schneider is a professor in the practice of diplomacy and co-director of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University, co-director of Muslims on Screen and Television and a senior nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. She is also a former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch politician who keynoted Sunday's Texas event attacked by two gunmen claiming allegiance to ISIS, did not always espouse the xenophobic views that have made him famous.

When I knew Wilders during my tenure as U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands (1998-2001), he appeared to be a competent, knowledgeable member of Parliament, strong on defense issues, basically indistinguishable from his colleagues -- except for his signature bleached blond bouffant. Today the hairdo is the only thing I recognize in Wilders.
Following the 2002 murder of flamboyant anti-immigrant Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, Wilders emerged as the chief spokesman for the anti-immigration, anti-Muslim sentiment that had been growing steadily among the population since the late 1990s, but which mainstream politicians underestimated.
    Cynthia P. Schneider
    Wilders filled the political void and answered the public sentiment. He became an opportunistic Islamophobe, appealing to the growing fear of immigrants -- particularly the growing number from Muslim majority countries -- and the "Islamicization" of the West. At the same time official government policies stoked the resentment by promoting multiculturalism, as opposed to integration, and liberal immigration policies.
    The Netherlands hosts a variety of immigrants from Muslim majority countries. The majority comes from Turkey and Morocco, but earlier waves of people emigrated from former colonies Indonesia and Suriname following independence. Since the 1980s and 1990s, liberal Dutch policies also allowed asylum seekers from countries such as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Somalia to settle there.
    Wilders is not the only Dutch politician to leverage anti-immigrant sentiment to gain popular support. But for former Minister of Immigration and Integration Rita Verdonk, the strategy backfired.
    In a botched attempt to solidify support for her candidacy as prime minister, Verdonk snatched defeat from victory by expelling the Netherlands' poster child for tolerance and equal opportunity, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who rose from a refugee escaping a forced marriage to a member of the Dutch Parliament.
    Claiming she was just following the law, Verdonk annulled Hirsi Ali's citizenship on a technicality involving different names Hirsi Ali had used on asylum applications -- something Hirsi Ali, who like most Somalis has many names, already had stated publicly. By the time Verdonk retracted her position, following attacks from all sides of the political spectrum, Hirsi Ali had announced plans to move to the United States.
    Verdonk and Wilders expose fault lines in Dutch society. Counting on riding a rising tide of xenophobia to become prime minister, Verdonk instead triggered the Dutch sense of tolerance, fairness and equal opportunity. Wilders, on the other hand, now leads the fourth-largest party in the Netherlands, and the ruling coalition in 2010-2012 required his support to gain power.
    Sure, far-right parties are gaining currency all over Europe, but how is it possible that the leading European spokesman for the anti-immigration perspective comes from the Netherlands, renowned for its tolerance? In the 17th century, Holland's Golden Age of art and commerce, Amsterdam hosted Jews as well as Muslims from all over the world. One of Amsterdam's most famous Jewish citizens, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, described the "thriving and favoured city state" he called home as a place where "people from all nations and with all possible beliefs live together harmoniously."
    The undeniable fact is that Wilders is renowned today because his cynical calculation paid off: He became famous and powerful on the back of his Islamophobic ideology. While some decry his blatantly anti-Muslim policies -- he has called for a ban on immigration from Muslim countries and for a ban on the Koran in the Netherlands -- Wilders maintains sufficient support at home to influence the public debate and, at strategic points, the government.
    Wilders' rise to fame has not come without costs. Facing constant threats on his life, Wilders lives an isolated existence in a safe house with 24/7 security. Mutual friends have told me Wilders sometimes laments the changes in lifestyle his extremist positions have necessitated. But evidently not enough to recant them.
    Wilders' latest position is "warn-er in chief," alerting the United States to the "dangers" posed by Islam. "Islam wants to kill or subjugate us," he recently told Fox News. He found a perfect partner in Pamela Geller, his host in Texas, who has fanned anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States in the post 9/11 period to gain support for herself, her organization -- the American Freedom Defense Initiative -- and her anti-Muslim agenda.
    Undaunted by the attacks on Geller's Texas meeting, which featured a Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest, Wilders now proposes that the Dutch Parliament host an exhibition of cartoons depicting the prophet -- all in the name of free speech. This is characteristic Wilders the provocateur -- fanning the flames of prejudice and division. While this approach appeals to Wilders' loyal following in his Freedom Party, or PVV, it is unlikely to hold sway in the Parliament, where his influence has waned.
    Will this Islamophobic opportunist continue to gain popular ground in the country historically known for tolerance and plurality? Muslims now make up 5% of the Dutch population, and are represented in 5% of parliamentary seats. Since 2005, the second-largest city, Rotterdam, with a 13% Muslim population, has had a Moroccan-born mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb. A few months ago, Aboutaleb went on live TV to tell Muslims who do not appreciate freedoms in the West to leave (to f**k off, to be precise).
    Globally, the Netherlands continues to be an international leader in its support for human rights, social and economic justice, and freedom of expression, whether through government actions and funding, or private support through vehicles such as the Prince Claus Fund or the Dutch Postcode Lottery.
    But national and personal narratives diverge. Somehow Geert Wilders knew that this country that had for centuries represented tolerance also contained the seeds of intolerance. And he bet his political future on it.