In a small room in Washington's National Press Club, a tall man with bright blond hair stands flanked by grim-faced security guards. He is here to screen a short documentary movie--a movie that has caused him to be charged with three counts of hate speech in his native Netherlands and to be forbidden entry into the United Kingdom only two weeks ago.
Here in the United States, the reception is a little different. On Thursday, Geert Wilders showed his movie to members of the U. S. Congress. He has been interviewed on CNN and Fox, and on popular radio programs. He opened his remarks at the Press Club by ironically thanking U. S. immigration authorities for allowing him to visit the country.
Wilders is a member of the Dutch parliament and leader of the small Party for Freedom. Small until now anyway: The hate-charge against Wilders has elevated the Party for Freedom to third place in Dutch polls.
Wilders' movie, Fitna (from the Arabic word for violent strife) presents graphic images of the violence done by Islamic terrorists, intercut with quotations from the more bloodthirsty passages of the Koran. The movie never had theatrical release, but can be seen on the Internet at for example, fitnamovie.net.
Even before the film's release, Wilders had become famous as a ferocious critic of Islam and of the Netherlands' large and growing Muslim minority: almost one million of the country's 16 million population. He has compared the Koran to Mein Kampf and urged a halt to all migration from Muslim countries.
Left-wing Dutch groups have for years urged the prosecution of Wilders under the Netherlands' hate-speech laws. Dutch prosecutors ignored them. But at last, in January, the prosecutors got their way: a panel of Dutch judges ordered prosecutors to act. Charges were filed, and a case begun.
The prosecution was a bizarre one. At the same time as one branch of the Dutch government was working to send Wilders to prison, the security services were providing him with round-the-clock protection. The Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn and the Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh had both paid with their lives for their criticism of Islam, and the Dutch government was desperate to avoid a third murder.
If there is any irony in the alleged hater being the person in lethal danger, and the supposed victims of hatred being the ones ready to murder, it goes unremarked by the Dutch legal system.
If the prosecution made Wilders famous, his ejection from the United Kingdom elevated him to full celebrity. Two days before Wilders' press conference, I happened to be in Providence, R. I., and boarded a Southwest Airlines flight back to D. C. at the same time as Wilders himself. He was travelling with an entourage as impressive as a movie star's. I was chatting with a couple of them as we entered the otherwise almost empty plane--and was suddenly halted by a Transportation Security Administration employee, who scrutinized me as fiercely as an enforcer at a Hollywood nightclub. "It's OK--he's with us," said one of the Wilders group, and I was whisked inside.
At the press conference I asked Wilders: "The polls show your party might finish second if an election were held today. You might someday be prime minister of the Netherlands. If elected--what would you actually do about the extremism problem?"
He didn't offer much of an answer. He pledged to stand up for traditional Dutch values of liberty and tolerance and to toughen punishment of lawbreakers. His party platform offers few more details. It proposes to suppress Islamic schools, deport criminals who hold dual citizenship back to their countries of origin and ban the burqa in public places. But Wilders himself acknowledges that the Muslims of the Netherlands are not leaving. How will they be assimilated to a society whose tolerant, liberal values so many of them apparently reject?
Wilders is a controversialist, not a legislator or an executive. His speciality is raising an alarm about problems others would ignore--not devising solutions to those problems. European governments have responded to Wilders' alarm by denying the existence of any problem at all--and using the silence to impugn anyone who dared say otherwise. That response was always doomed to fail. If it fails at a time when banks are failing too, when unemployment is rising and crime is worsening, a man like Wilders may find himself more than a celebrity. He may find himself the elected leader of a bitterly divided country on an angry and unstable continent.
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.