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Ingeborg van Teeseling met Geert Wilders, and despite her personal opinion of him, she believes the decision regarding his visa was just.
Just before Christmas 2004, I interviewed Geert Wilders, the right-wing parliamentarian who is about to visit Australia. It was a memorable visit. Not so much for what Wilders said, but for the circumstances under which we met. It was a difficult time in Holland. For a country known for its live-and-let-live philosophy, we had just gone through an experience that had tested our instinct for libertarianism.
On the 4th of November of that same year, a writer and filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, had been killed in the center of Amsterdam. He had made a critical film about Islam and because of that, a young Moroccan-Dutch man shot eight bullets through his body and then finished the job by cutting his throat with a machete. The country was in shock. This did not seem real, somehow. Maybe these things happened in Mexico, or even the US, but on our streets?
About a week before Van Gogh died, a video had appeared online, in which a man who said he was protecting Islam, threatened to decapitate Geert Wilders. Wilders was a bit of a wild child back then. He had just left the big political party for which he had been elected to the Dutch parliament, and was toying with the idea of setting up his own faction. His aims were not ridiculously clear. It was obvious he was not a big fan of Islam, but his bigger enemy, as he said, was the ‘Haagse cultuur’; or, as we would say it here: Canberra.
Ironically, after the video and after the Van Gogh murder, the parliamentary system and the Dutch government did everything in their power to protect Wilders. They put bulletproof glass up in front of the MPs and gave Wilders 24-hour protection. And that is when I met him.
The Dutch parliament buildings had always been an easy-going place, where MPs and even the Prime-Minister arrived by bike and ate a sandwich in the coffee-shop next door. This time I was searched by two bulky policemen when I entered, and again three times the nearer I got to Wilders’ office. In front of the door were two guards with guns. Big guns. Wilders looked tired. He hadn’t been able to sleep in his own house for weeks, or in the same place twice, for that matter.
I felt sorry for him, but that changed when we sat down to talk.
We had what politics calls ‘a frank discussion’. As a young man, my father had spent a number of years in a German prisoner-of-war camp and my siblings and I were raised with the idea that hatred of other people and other religions inevitably leads to horrible situations and even war.
To give him his due, Wilders was fine with my criticism. And when the article came out, he didn’t whinge about its unfavourable content either. He even sent me a card afterwards, thanking me for playing my part in Dutch democracy. And that is why I think the Australian government is right in giving Wilders his visa.
First of all, Wilders is not a rapper convicted for assault on his girlfriend. He is a parliamentarian of a friendly nation, who has never been in trouble with the law. He is also not an anti-abortion campaigner who thought he could get away with getting on a plane without a visa. Geert Wilders, whatever you might think of him (and I think he is wrong in most things), plays the parliamentarian game. He is an elected official and he should therefore be allowed in the country.
There is something else we should remember. Yes, Wilders is going great guns in opinion polls at the moment. Australia, of all nations, should know why, because we’ve had Pauline Hanson. Same horse, different jockey. Making political hay on the back of fear for the outsider.
But Wilders and Hanson are similar in other ways too.
Both Wilders’ Party for Freedom and Hanson’s One Nation are populists, who are against the political establishment, while desperately wanting to be part of it. Both are backed by voters who are mostly lower middle class and badly educated. These people feel disenfranchised and angry that they are not being heard by the mainstream in their respective political centers.
Voting for Hanson or Wilders gives them a voice and some way of getting involved with the system. That is not nice, but it is better than having them on the street. What we also know, is that politics is a numbers game.
As soon as the big parties realise that incorporating a little bit of these people’s message is also good for their ratings in the polls, they will do that. Howard did it, Rudd, Gillard and Abbott did it, and Turnbull will probably do it too. The same is happening in Holland, where some of Wilders’ ideas are now, in an only slightly less offensive way, being adopted by the mainstream.
This (and in-fighting) is what cost Hanson her following. And it might be what will be detrimental for Wilders as well, in the end. In the mean time, the best way of dealing with him is to ignore him. We can show him what democracy and multiculturalism look like by being civil and courteous.
Nothing as powerful as pluralism as a weapon against somebody with a one-track mind.