Geert Wilders needed to get away, and he finally did -- though he regrets he didn't get to do any sightseeing. The controversial 41-year-old member of the Dutch Parliament spent two weeks in January 2005 touring Israel and the United States in search of international support for his fledgling but increasingly popular political movement back home.
Traveling with only two bodyguards was a welcome break for Wilders. In Holland he has a security detail of six and travels everywhere in a motorcade of armored cars. His life is literally under lockdown. He sleeps in army bases and safehouses and sees his wife just once or twice a week. He hasn't been home since Nov. 2, 2004, when the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, a gregarious Dutch icon, was murdered by an Islamic extremist.
Van Gogh's murder helped catapult Wilders to national -- and now international -- prominence. He's become known for openly questioning Islam's compatibility with democracy -- provocative remarks in Holland, a country whose culture has been politically correct, and is currently politically charged. As Wilders' star rises, so does the level of anger he inspires in his political and cultural foes.
Among those foes are many Dutch Muslims, among them 29-year-old writer and editor Mohammed Jabri. He has written articles critical of Wilders, whose notoriety, he says, is based on lies about Islam. He says that Islam and democracy are perfectly compatible and references Chapter 42, verse 38 of the Quran, which praises people who, "[conduct] their affairs by mutual consultation."
Jabri admits that there are some extremist Muslims who use religion to justify their acts of violence, but he says that certain "twisted" cultures that are to blame for this phenomenon. "There's a big difference between Islamic culture and Islamic religion," says Jabri.
+ Wilders' Ascendancy
Wilders began making headlines in Holland in September 2004, when he split from his former political party, the conservative People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, known by its acronym VVD, and started his own party -- a party of one called Group Wilders.
Among the issues that drove Wilders to leave the VVD and go it alone were his opposition to Turkey's entry in the European Union and his proposal to halt all non-Western immigration into Holland for five years. These positions and other remarks, apart from alienating members of his former party, have also sparked the ire of many of Holland's 1 million Muslims.
But Wilders holds fast, arguing that his beef is with a minority of radical Muslims in Holland. He says he wants to halt immigration so the Muslims currently living in the Netherlands can be better integrated. "If you're tough on the radicals," he says, "The first to benefit will be the moderates."
Nevertheless, he has been the recipient of numerous death threats. They come every other day, he says. One man, 30-year-old Farid Achahboun, was recently sentenced to 120 hours of community service for posting a message on the Internet calling for Wilders' death because of his statements about Islam.
"It's ridiculous," says Wilders. "The guy said I should be killed, that he would kill me, and all he has to do is work in a [nursing home] for a few weeks."
The death threats to Wilders increased after Van Gogh's murder. The filmmaker, who directed a movie that was critical of Islam's perceived treatment of women, had also been threatened frequently. Mohammed Bouyeri is accused of making good on those threats. The 26-year-old Moroccan-born Dutchman was arrested for Van Gogh's grisly murder. The filmmaker was shot multiple times, his throat was slit, and a note denouncing his and other like-minded views of Islam was stabbed to his chest.
After the murder, Wilders was immediately placed under protective guard, as was Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, another member of Parliament and a former Muslim who wrote "Submission," the offending film directed by Van Gogh. After the murder, she disappeared from public view entirely for months, reappearing in Holland in mid-January. It was revealed recently that she spent at least part of her time away on a US military base in Maine.
With the outspoken Hirsi Ali in hiding, Wilders was left as the dominant voice critical of Islam in the Dutch Parliament and media. His popularity soared, though some argue that it will not necessarily last
"He's not very charismatic and he's not a terribly good speaker," says Kay Van De Linde, who is described by one of Holland's political insiders as "the Dutch James Carville." He believes that Wilders is benefiting from a political climate that is drawn to his blunt message.
Van De Linde is a veteran of political campaigns in both Holland and the United States, and for two years served as campaign manager for another Dutch politician who took a hard line against Islam, Pim Fortuyn.
According to Van De Linde, Wilders and Fortuyn -- who became wildly popular in Holland before he was murdered in 2002 by an animal rights activist -- share an appeal to a large portion of voters who feel alienated by mainstream Dutch politics.
"Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders are tapping into the same emotion," he says. "They both represent dissatisfaction with the government. From a campaign perspective, [people won't be] voting for Wilders or his ideas -- it's anti-establishment."
Wilders is very openly anti-establishment. He is critical of European governments' counterterrorism efforts in the wake of 9/11 and the March 11, 2004 train bombings at Madrid's Atocha Station.
"Europe is a bureaucratic and technocratic machine. So the solutions are bureaucratic and technocratic," says Wilders, adding that European politicians, particularly those in Holland, are more concerned with maintaining power and not offending than being proactive in dealing with potential threats.
"The policymakers in Holland are involved with their own power struggle. This is one of the reasons for my own popularity," he says. "Only another terrible attack in Holland will make the political elite, the sleeping politicians, wake up and do something."
He believes that Europe as a whole is not adequately addressing the threat of fundamentalist Islam within its borders, but he does believe that some governments are getting tougher than others. He mentions France's Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, who has begun expelling Muslims who advocate stoning adulterous women and other radical positions, and German Interior Minister Otto Schily, who recently took steps to prevent an Islamic conference from being held in Berlin for fear that it would draw Islamic extremists to the capital.
"Schily was tough. Villepin was tough," says Wilders. "We haven't had any debate!"
Van De Linde agrees with Wilders regarding the non-responsiveness of Dutch government. "The system is designed to prevent drastic change," he says. "And for a long time in Holland there was a political correctness such that you couldn't even discuss these things."
Wilder's eagerness to speak his mind is what may have helped make a name for him, both at home and abroad. On his recent trip to Israel, he met with government officials involved in security matters, and in the United States, he had a meeting at the White House and with Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Pete Hoekstra (whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Holland).
"I'm a very transatlantic guy," sys Wilders. "I believe in shared values and strong power."
According to Van De Linde, in Dutch politics meetings like the ones Wilders had in Washington are much sought after and rarely realized.
"To be taken seriously in the States is a Dutch politician's wet dream," he said.
Wilders' comments on the political shortcomings of Islam, in particular, have been widely covered in the Dutch and foreign press.
"Democracy is incompatible with Islam," he says confidently, adding. "But not Muslims. They have to reject the Quran in that the constitution must be held above the Quran."
+ "You Should Have Slapped Him in the Face"
This is the kind of comment that angers Jabri, the spokesman for a new Dutch political group called the Muslim Democratic Party, announced in the wake of Van Gogh's murder. The party leadership is composed of doctors, lawyers, and some politicians, Jabri says.
"There are no religious leaders involved," he says. "Just normal people participating in society."
Jabri believes Wilders is misleading the Dutch public about Islam in an attempt to capitalize on the confusion and chaos in the aftermath of Van Gogh's murder and boost his own popularity. When a reporter told Jabri about a recent conversation with Wilders, his jocular response was "You met that son of a bitch? You should have slapped him in the face. That's where I'm coming from."
Jabri says Wilders is one among many politicians who lump all Muslims together, who assume that all Muslims are extremists or ultra-violent, like Bouyeri. Although he acknowledges that there are some violent Muslim extremists who may be motivated by the global jihad, Jabri insists they are a tiny minority. He says Theo van Gogh's killer wasn't an Islamic fundamentalist; rather he was just someone who was enraged by Van Gogh and went "crazy."
"The guy who killed Van Gogh -- his belief is the same as mine, but I speak out and he looks to violence. I look to dialogue," Jabri says. "I can't say I'm sorry Van Gogh died because I didn't like the bastard, but I wouldn't have killed him. I wanted to do something worse. I wanted to publicly humiliate him."
Wilders says that people like Bouyeri, Achahboun and perhaps to a lesser extent Jabri, should have a thicker skin when it comes to people criticizing their religion.
"Islamic people in my country cannot bear criticism. They should learn to deal with [it]," he says, though he admits that he has not made a serious attempt at dialogue with Holland's Muslim community. "They are not interested in me."
But the Dutch public is gaining interest in Wilders -- in recent months, polls have estimated that his party of one would win 20 percent of the electorate, meaning 20 percent of the seats in Parliament. That would make his the second biggest party in government.
Wilders hopes that these numbers carry through to Holland's next elections, which aren't scheduled for another two years. Jabri hopes that his party will become the political voice of Muslims in Holland, though there are no polling numbers on them yet. Van De Linde, meanwhile, is surprised that Wilders has become as popular as he has, but admits that he has started a bona fide political movement -- and that his recent trip to Israel and the U.S. indicates that he'd like to expand that movement.
"He has said that he's trying to broaden his message," says Van De Linde. "He's got a tough road."
Michael R. Schreiber is an associate producer at New York Times Television, a writer and producer of independent documentaries, and a screenwriter.