Anti-Islamic Party Gains Popularity In Netherlands

The global economic crisis is fueling another surge in support for far-right candidates in some European countries. Parties running campaigns against immigrants and other ethnic groups made gains in recent European Parliamentary elections. In the Netherlands, the anti-Islamic, nationalist Freedom Party did better than expected.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The global economic crisis is feeling a surge in support for far-right politicians in some European countries. Parties running campaigns against immigrants, gypsies and Jews made gains in recent European parliamentary elections. In the Netherlands, the anti-Islamic nationalist Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders also did better than expected.

NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from The Hague.

ERIC WESTERVELT: The death threats against Geert Wilders are routine, as evidenced by the armed Dutch secret service officers posted permanently in his office in The Hague. It's one of several layers of tight security you go through before reaching the controversial Dutch politician with a shaggy mane of platinum blond hair.

You've called for the Muslim holy book, the "Quran," to be banned?

Mr. GEERT WILDERS (Chairman, Party for Freedom): Yeah.

WESTERVELT: You've said there shouldn't be Islamic schools in Europe. You'd like to stop Muslim immigration. And your critics pointed out and say that's just discrimination straight up.

Mr. WILDERS: No, I don't think so. It's not discrimination because I believe that Islam is an ideology not a religion. And it's a very dangerous, violent and fascist ideology.

WESTERVELT: Wilders then goes on to call Muhammad a so-called prophet and the "Quran" worse than Adolf Hitler's book "Mein Kampf." It's exactly such talk that prompted the British Government to ban Wilders from entering the U.K., citing hate speech. He faces a hate speech trial here in the Netherlands, charges Wilders calls political correctness run amok.

Mr. WILDERS: I don't hate anybody. I have nothing against Muslims. I fear the Islamic ideology, the totalitarian ideology. I believe that Islam is not willing to integrate or to assimilate in a society, but at the end of the day wants to dominate.

WESTERVELT: For years, critics here dismissed Wilders as a racist clown, an ultranationalist whose fiercely anti-Islam rhetoric played only to the margins. But Wilders is fringed no more.

His Freedom Party, today, is one of the most popular in the Netherlands. It got 17 percent of the vote here in the European elections. The Freedom Party is now sending five new politicians to Brussels to sit in a body Wilders has long dismissed as meddling and ineffectual. He's now vowing to undermine the European Parliament from within.

WESTERVELT: Wilders' rising popularity has sent a jolt of fear through Muslim and immigrant communities across the Netherlands, including the port city of Rotterdam, where almost half of the 600,000 residents are of immigrant origin.

Mr. SAID CASTRO(ph) (Activist): They are really afraid and they are scared, especially now because his popularity is growing and people really vote on him.

WESTERVELT: Said Castro, a 33-year-old Moroccan-Dutch activist, sees the diversity of the shoppers in this sprawling outdoor marketplace as one example of the peaceful racial coexistence in Rotterdam. But he says too many immigrants here are scared to speak out against Wilders. Castro says Wilders' rise has prompted many first generation Moroccan-Dutch citizens to think about moving to North Africa.

Mr. CASTRO: Lots of people really say that to me that they don't feel at ease, they don't feel at home, they don't have this sense of belonging in Holland anymore because of this person, because of - Wilders' always saying bad things about their religion and their values.

WESTERVELT: Wilders' Freedom Party was hardly the only far-right party to do well in the European Parliament voting. The racist British National Party won two seats in the EU Parliament and 8 percent of the vote.

In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party got two seats and 12 percent, running what Amnesty International called a clearly racist, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic(ph) campaign. Campaign posters warned against rising Turkish and Israeli influence. In Hungary and elsewhere, hard-right parties made gains denouncing what they called gypsy crime. One party called for a final solution to the gypsy problem.

Professor Simon Usherwood at the U.K.'s University of Surrey believes the resurgence of the hard-right largely represents a temporary protest. White, largely working-class voters are venting, he says, during an economic crisis. Nonetheless, he says there is evidence the far-right gains are changing the debate.

Professor SIMON USHERWOOD (Arts & Human Sciences, University of Surrey): We have seen an opening up of a discussion about immigration, about identity, about sovereignty, all of these classic far-right concerns that have become more and more mainstream as public concern in many countries has risen about how we deal with these particular issues.

WESTERVELT: Already there's some evidence center-right parties in Europe are adopting tougher lines. Just days ago, French President Nicolas Sarkozy denounced the burqa, the head-to-toe body garments some Muslim women wear as a sign of abasement and repression. One columnist called Sarkozy's speech a welcome attempt to draw the boundaries of a European Islam.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, the Netherlands.

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