For years, Geert Wilders, the blond-haired Dutch radical right populist, was known for his extremely negative views on Islam and Muslims.
According to Wilders, Islam was not a religion but the most dangerous ideology around that threatened to overthrow, in the long run, the liberal society and the values that he cherished. Most of his speeches, in the Netherlands and abroad, focused on the danger of Islam and a few years ago he made an amateurish but widely publicized short movie, “Fatwa,” in which he inextricably linked Islam to terrorism. For most friends and foes, Wilders was the textbook representative of the new Islamophobia in Europe and the US, building on the fear of Islam after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to label all Muslims as potential violent challengers to the West. In circles of European and American right-wing extremists, Wilders became a cult figure who bravely defied all the threats against him. It was no coincidence that Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, referred to Wilders several times in his anti-Islamic manifesto.
In the Netherlands, Wilders did well in the 2010 parliamentary elections. He got 15 percent of the vote and his party, the Freedom Party, decided to support the minority government of Liberals and Christian Democrats. Within a few years, Wilders had managed to escape the political margins and position himself as a power broker in Dutch politics. That all came to an abrupt end in April of this year when he refused to support the budget cuts necessary for the Netherlands to meet eurozone deficit targets. Elections for a new parliament are set for Sept. 12, but it seems that Wilders has overplayed his hand because none of the other parties are keen on involving his party in a new coalition government. Furthermore, the center-right parties are fed up with his inflammatory rhetoric and his unwillingness to take responsibility for unpopular austerity measures.
In a surprising move Wilders recently announced that for him the key issue in the election campaign will not be the danger of Islam but the future of the EU.
Already over the last couple of months one could see this change of strategy coming. Even his biggest opponents agree that Wilders is a smart tactician and there were two main reasons why this populist at heart realized that the time had come to select a new enemy. In all the opinion polls and according to a growing number of research data, there was a growing gap between Wilders' obsession with Islam and the preoccupations of his electorate. For most of his voters, Islam and Muslims are simply not a political priority. Many of his followers even think Wilders is overdoing his Islam-bashing. They support him because they hate all the other politicians and have the impression that only Wilders is voicing their concerns against a political elite that is perceived as too soft on immigration, crime and the loss of national identity.
That last argument is linked to the second motive behind Wilders' change of mind: the growing resistance against European interference with the way the Dutch economy and welfare state are organized. In order to solve the euro crisis, European leaders have decided to give EU institutions a bigger say on issues that many Dutch people consider should be decided by their nationally elected politicians. A substantial part of the Dutch electorate is reluctant to give “Brussels,” presented by euro critics as an anonymous bureaucracy, more power although many realize deep down that most probably there is no other option available. It is this doubt and skepticism about the EU that populists from the right (Wilders) and the left (the booming Socialist Party) want to exploit at the next elections.
Does his goodbye, at least temporarily, to Islam-bashing make Geert Wilders a more acceptable politician? Of course not. He remains a clever opportunist who will do anything to gather the votes of dissatisfied voters, whatever it takes.
It is a signal though to all those in Turkey who thought that in the last couple of years a majority of Europeans were infected by an incurable disease called Islamophobia. It is true that hate and violence against Muslims in Europe has been on the rise. All democrats should continue to fight this trend among a fanatical minority. But it would be a big mistake to think that most Europeans condone this negative development. Wilders' turn to Europhobia also shows that even among populist voters, Islamophobia seems to be a passing tendency and not the deeply rooted conviction many in this country feared it was.