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A Pall over Amsterdam By: Keith B. Richburg
The Washington Post | Wednesday, February 16, 2005


THE HAGUE - Sometimes the threats come by e-mail. Other times, warnings show up on Internet chat sites. Occasionally they are short video clips. The latest has a soundtrack of Arabic song and automatic-weapons fire, and a photograph of the intended target  - a Dutch lawmaker, Geert Wilders.

"He is an enemy of Islam and he should be beheaded," the narrator of one video clip posted on the Internet says in Arabic, against the crackle of gunfire. Behead him, "and you will earn a place in paradise."

Wilders, 41, grimaces as he plays the video for a reporter on his office computer. "I've been threatened many times," he says. "We've never experienced this before. It's something that nobody wants to live with."

Wilders is among the more provocative critics of radical Islam and immigrants in the Netherlands. He wants the preemptive arrest of suspected terrorists, whom he calls "Islamo-fascist thugs."  And he wants immigrants expelled from the country for even minor infractions.

Since the execution-style killing last November of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, and the discovery of an Islamic extremist cell in the Netherlands with a "death list" that included Wilders, police are taking seriously the threats against him and other people whose names have appeared on the list, often for far more moderate statements.

Wilders now travels everywhere with six bodyguards. He cannot sleep in his own home, but is moved around between various undisclosed safe houses. He sees his wife twice a week, at a safe house. Visitors to his parliament office must be cleared in advance and are thoroughly searched;  even ballpoint pens  are carefully examined.

"It's like being caught in a bad B movie," Wilders said. The guards are always there: "If I go to the toilet, they are standing behind the door." The irony, he said, is that the people who are threatening him  walk the streets freely, while "the people who are threatened are more or less in prison."

Other Dutch politicians who are under similar protection include Job Cohen, the mayor of Amsterdam; Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born member of parliament who is Muslim and collaborated with van Gogh on a controversial film about Islam's treatment of women; and Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Moroccan-born alderman in Amsterdam who has talked about tolerance and the need for Muslims to adapt to the Dutch way of life.

"We simply don't know if people are walking around targeting me or not," Aboutaleb said in an interview at Amsterdam's city hall. "I show up in meetings and give speeches - unfortunately always surrounded by people armed to the teeth."
This kind of security  is something entirely new for politicians in the Netherlands, where until recently even the prime minister had minimal protection  compared to senior officials in the United States. The change illustrates how some European cities have become fronts in a war of ideas between extremist intolerance and freedom of expression.

"We truly lost our innocence  with Theo van Gogh," said Kay van de Linde,  a political consultant with long experience in New York and Pennsylvania politics. "We used to think that if we got along with everybody, we'd be okay. That approach does not work in the war on terror."
 
"We have to draw a line, not between Muslims and non-Muslims, but between the good people and the bad people," said Aboutaleb. "This group of bad people is not that big, but one or two can put the place on fire."

Wilders is more blunt. "We are in an undeclared war," he said in his parliament office.  "These people are motivated by one thing: to kill everything that we stand for."

Wilders's transgression, according to the extremists demanding his death, is his insulting of Muslims in the Netherlands, with frequent denunciations of Islam. "Islam and democracy are fully incompatible," he said in the interview. "They will never be compatible -- not today, and not in a million years."

Wilders  has also called the concept of multiculturalism a failure in the Netherlands. He is advocating a complete five-year ban on immigration. He says Turkey does not belong in the European Union, which has agreed to open negotiations toward the country's membership.

Those positions were once politically taboo  in the Netherlands.  But that ended in 2002, when Pim Fortuyn, the flamboyant populist,  entered the political scene and upended the Dutch tradition of consensus politics with an anti-immigrant stance summed up with his phrase "Holland is full."

Fortuyn was assassinated by [a leftist lowlife]  in May 2002 while campaigning in national elections, but his impact remains as more and more politicians angle for political mileage by directly confronting topics  long considered unmentionable here.

Wilders, who sports dyed blond hair,  is positioning himself to inherit Fortuyn's constituency.  After splitting with his old political party, the VVD Liberals, over Turkey and immigration, Wilders announced that he was forming his own party, the Wilders Group, to run in the next elections, due by 2007.

One public opinion poll, taken just after the van Gogh killing, found that Wilders's party might have won 26 seats out of 150 in parliament if the election were held then. Later polls have been mixed, with some showing him slipping.

So far, Wilders's main problem is translating his personal popularity into a political party and recruiting candidates. Aligning with Wilders would almost certainly mean being added to the "death list" and having to live under the same 24-hour guard.

Another problem, Wilders concedes, is keeping his profile high for the next two years, before another election is held. He recently returned from a trip to the United States to try to gain attention, meeting with groups such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute and with Republican members of Congress.

Other Dutch politicians say Wilders will have to broaden his agenda beyond Islam and integration if the public is to consider him as a future prime minister.

Still, veteran political operatives said Wilders could have an impact on politics in the same way that Fortuyn did,  reflecting continued public disenchantment with the established parties.
 
"He is tapping into this general dissatisfaction people still have with the status quo," said van de Linde, the political consultant. "It's the Ross Perot factor."

Keith B. Richburg writes for the Washington Post Foreign Service.


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