Dutch far-right Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders looks on as he officially launches his parliamentary election campaign in Spijkenisse, Holland, on Feb. 18.(Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
THE HAGUE, Netherlands — This country's version of Donald Trump — but with more extreme anti-immigration and anti-Islam views — is counting on voters to give his right-wing party a chance next month to implement its controversial vision.
"Dutch values are based on Christianity, on Judaism, on humanism. Islam and freedom are not compatible," populist politician Geert Wilders, 53, said in an interview with USA TODAY. "You see it in almost every country where it dominates. There is a total lack of freedom, civil society, rule of law, middle class; journalists, gays, apostates — they are all in trouble in those places. And we import it."
Wilders wants to close all mosques, ban the Quran, the Muslim holy book, and seal the nation's borders to asylum seekers and immigrants from Islamic countries to prevent the spread of Islam.
President Trump wants a temporary halt in immigration from seven majority-Muslim nations, but he says his goal is to prevent terrorists from entering the United States.
Many Dutch voters find Wilders’ views repugnant, and he was convicted in December of inciting discrimination through hate speech. Yet his Party for Freedom is projected by polls to come in first in the March 15 national election, a closely watched test of populism’s growing spread in Europe after Trump’s upset victory in the United States and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union last year.
Under the Netherlands’ multi-party system, coming in first doesn’t guarantee that Wilders will get to wield power. He would be forced to form a governing coalition with other parties, most of which have ruled out doing that. Plus his lead is narrowing as incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte has wooed the Dutch nationalist vote by shifting rightward.
Still, Wilders predicts a populist wave against free-flowing immigration and rules set by the European Union will continue to wash over Europe whether he prevails or not.
"Even if I lose this election, the genie will not go back in the bottle again," he said. "People are fed up with the combination of mass immigration, Islamization and austerity measures that require us to cut pensions and support for health care and the elderly while giving (debt bailout) money to Greece and the euro zone."
"People are not satisfied. They feel misrepresented," he continued. "The process of a ‘patriotic spring’ won’t be stopped."
Wilders believes his nation of 17 million — more than a fifth with a foreign background — has for too long tolerated high levels of immigration without demanding cultural assimilation. He calls Islam an ideology that poses an existential threat to core European values.
"For a long time, our society has been afraid to say, ‘No, this is our Dutch culture, we don’t treat women like that,’ and anyone who did was labelled a racist or bigot or hate-monger, and they are not," Wilders said. They just believe we should be more proud of who we are."
Wilders recently described Moroccan immigrants as "scum" who make the streets of the Netherlands unsafe. His conviction for hate speech was for leading a chant of "fewer, fewer" against Moroccans. Wilders has also compared the Quran to Mein Kampf, Hitler’s autobiography.
"On Islam, it is true that I am tough. Perhaps tougher than I should be if my only aim was to get votes," Wilders said. "But I really believe in what I say, that the Islamic ideology is this huge threat."
Wilders' harsh views on Islam have placed him on al-Qaeda, Taliban and Islamic State assassination lists for more than a decade. He wears a bulletproof vest in public, has an elaborate security detail and moves with his wife between safe houses.
In 2002, Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn was murdered for his outspoken anti-Islam views. Two years later, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was killed by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim for a short film he made that was critical of Islam’s treatment of women.
"I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. I can’t even go on a spontaneous walk or to a restaurant without armored cars and police, but there is no alternative," Wilders said. "If I stop or moderate my voice, people who use or threaten violence against democracies would win. I will never let them win."
Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, a conservative think tank that has helped fund some of Wilders’ legal fees, said he is the most important politician in Europe. "If he wins this election he will take his ideas even further," said Pipes, who criticized Wilders for a "superficial" understanding of Islam. "He sees all of Islam as the problem, I see an extreme variant of Islam as the problem."
Pamela Geller, a conservative commentator and political activist who shares Wilders' anti-Islamic views, said he "will make one of the best prime ministers the Netherlands has ever had."
Geller invited Wilders two years ago to an exhibit in Garland, Texas, featuring cartoons of the Muslim Prophet Mohammad. While they were there, the exhibit was attacked by two gunmen with links to the Islamic State. The gunmen were killed by police.
Other European populist politicians who share Wilders' enmity for the 28-nation EU are critical of his anti-Islam rhetoric. "I believe in religious tolerance and I don’t think that going to war with Islam is the right approach," said Nigel Farage, the former leader of a British anti-immigration party that helped engineer Brexit.
Lars Rensmann, a professor of European politics at the University of Groningen said many Wilders backers here are highly educated and successful, and not just poor, rural or disenfranchised groups associated with "globalization’s losers."
"Wilders has set himself up as the defender of liberalism from Islamic immigrants who he claims want take away the Netherlands’ tolerant approach" to same-sex marriage, civil rights, euthanasia and other liberal policies, Rensmann said.