Ahmad Elbaghdadi, the imam of the El Mouahidin mosque in The Hague, Netherlands.(Photo: Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY)
THE HAGUE, Netherlands — For the first time in nearly 40 years, Ahmad Elbaghdadi is wondering whether he should return to his native Morocco.
As the anti-Islam leader of the far-right Party for Freedom seeks to win the March 15 national election, Elbaghdadi, an imam at a local mosque, worries that Holland's progressive society is threatened and life here could become unpalatable for Muslims.
"There's no way I could have known all those years ago that Holland would get to a moment like this," he said. "It's very hard to constantly hear from a major politician that you are not a Dutch person. However, I have children here and I can't just go. We have to hope that one person can't just change everything."
The election is drawing international interest because it is the first of three major tests of the strength of populist revolts in Europe in the wake of President Trump's upset victory and Britain's referendum vote in June to leave the European Union. The French go to the polls in April and Germans in September, and all three elections include anti-immigration, anti-EU candidates vowing to overturn political systems they claim are run by out-of-touch elites.
Dutch candidate Geert Wilders wants to close all the country's mosques, ban the Quran and shut the borders to immigrants from Muslim countries. A manifesto published on his party's website discusses making the Netherlands "ours again (by) de-Islamizing" it.
"We need to stop being tolerant to the people who are intolerant to us," Wilders said in an interview. Last year, he was convicted of inciting discrimination against Moroccans.
Elbaghdadi said his sermons stress that "we all need to live together, eat together, work together." But if Wilders becomes prime minister "and starts closing mosques and all the other things he wants to do, then I think we'll have reached a moment when many people like me may need to leave."
He added that he is confident Holland's democratic constitution would safeguard religious freedoms. And even if Wilders' party comes in first, the Netherlands' multiparty system could exclude him from taking part in a new government.
Other members of Holland's Muslim community, which makes up 6% of the country's population, also are feeling unease about the political climate in a society known for its liberal views on issues ranging from same-sex marriage and euthanasia to drug use. Forty percent of Dutch nationals of Antillean, Moroccan, Surinamese and Turkish origin don't feel at home in the country, according to a recent survey by the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP), a government agency.
"My mother always said to me: 'You are not Dutch,'" said Arzu Aslan, a teacher and activist from Amsterdam who is of Turkish-Kurdish descent .
"This was partly because as a Turkish Muslim teenager my family wanted to make me comfortable with my identity. They said: 'You already have an identity, religion, ethnicity. You are just a citizen in the Netherlands. You have a Dutch passport, but that's it,'" Aslan said.
"Now, as a grown-up, I am very thankful they did this because I see a lot of people who have the idea that if you were born here and you just cooperate and study and work and don't take benefits from the state and don't do criminal things then you are just like Dutch people, but it's not true. You will never be one of them."
About a fifth of Holland's 17 million people have a foreign background, and Islam is the second-largest religion after Christianity. These non-natives suffer discrimination in jobs and education, according to studies by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights and the SCP, the Dutch government's social research institute.
"None of the mainstream parties have done a good enough job addressing issues of integration and support for immigrants and finding good policies that are a benefit to everyone in society," said Lars Rensmann, a professor of European politics and society at the University of Groningen.
"Wilders always says he's for the little man, but at the same time he treats Dutch people with immigrant backgrounds as if they are not citizens," said Jerry Afriyie, 35, a poet and activist who was born in Ghana and grew up in the Netherlands.
Said Bouharrou, vice chairman of the Council of Moroccan Mosques in the Netherlands, said he has extended several invitations to Wilders to visit Muslim communities to better understand life in Holland from their perspective. He has received no reply.
"This is my country. I am Dutch," said Bouharrou, 37, who holds Dutch and Moroccan passports. "Sometimes I go on vacation to Morocco, but I always feel like a foreigner there."