Geert Wilders may be more popular than ever. His Party for Freedom (PVV) is in the running to become the largest in the Dutch parliament after elections on March 15. His ideas about the threat posed by Islam, long on the fringes of debate, are gaining traction in both Europe and the United States.
Yet, in his day-to-day life, Wilders is isolated. Because of threats against his life, the controversial far-right leader has lived under strict police protection since 2004. He is guarded round-the-clock by armed police. He lives in a government-provided safe house and sees his wife once or twice a week. When he appears in public, his escort must first “clear” the area before he can enter.
The PVV did not respond to requests for comment on the security detail. A representative of the Ministry of Security and Justice told WorldViews that the ministry could not answer questions about Wilders’s police protection or the threats against him because “it may jeopardize the person who’s under protection.” But there are some accounts that offer a glimpse into Wilders’s cloistered world.
Perhaps the most revealing is “Marked for Death: Islam’s War Against the West and Me,” a book written by Wilders and published in 2012.
“When I go to a movie theater, the last rows of seats are cleared for me and my guards,” Wilders wrote. “We come in after the movie has begun and leave before it ends — the last time I saw the beginning or the end of a movie in a Dutch theater, George W. Bush was still serving his first term as U.S. president.” Wilders’s safe house has a panic room he can run to in case, as he puts it, “one of the adherents of the ‘religion of peace’ makes it past my permanent security detail and into my home.”
The protection makes for some strange moments. A team of police officers accompanied him to his father’s funeral in 2005. Wilders says he broke down sobbing in front of them on the drive back to his safe house, prompting awkward reactions from the near-strangers. Even when traveling abroad, arrangements need to be made. According to Reuters, several safe houses have to be prepared for Wilders when he travels to Hungary to visit his wife’s family.
Believe it or not, the current security regime is a far cry from the early days of Wilders’s police protection, when he and his wife were sometimes required to sleep in a different location every night — including some period spent in a prison. When he did venture out into the real world, Wilders was forced to disguise himself in a “brown wig, a hat and an ill-fitting fake mustache.”
There’s little debate that such protection was needed. Wilders, who had been involved in politics since the early 1990s, first received a personal security detail in 2004. That is when extremists posted a video online threatening to decapitate him.
Later that year, Dutch filmmaker and provocateur Theo van Gogh was fatally shot while walking down a busy street in Amsterdam. Van Gogh’s killer, a Dutch man of Moroccan descent, pinned a five-page note to his body that said he and other Dutch politicians deserved to die for insulting Islam. With that killing, Wilders’s life changed forever.
Dutch critics of Islam, including Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then a member of parliament, had their police protection increased after their names were found on an extremist group’s list of politicians to kill. The scale of the problem took Dutch authorities by surprise. “We haven’t seen this in the Netherlands since the 17th century, where a politician was murdered,” Vincent van Steen, then a spokesman for the Dutch intelligence agency, told The Washington Post in 2005.
Despite police protection, the threats didn’t subside. In 2008, Der Spiegel reported that Wilders had received almost 303 threats to his physical safety, making up about three-quarters of all threats against Dutch politicians that year. He also became a target for extremists around the globe. A popular Australian imam told his online followers to behead Wilders in 2010, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula included his name on a list of public figures to attack in a magazine published in 2013.
Wilders’s security apparatus could be seen as controversial in the Netherlands. If nothing else, it comes at a hefty financial cost for the government. The cost of protecting the PVV leader has never been revealed, but millions of euros are thought to have been spent over the past 13 years — and there is no end in sight.
Some question whether Wilders’s political views have been influenced by his isolation. A man who once relished his freedom, traveling widely in Israel and the Arab world on a shoestring budget, now lives confined. Critics say his views on Islam have become harsher since threats against him were made.
“I think it is impossible to maintain, as Wilders does, that living under 24/7 protection and safe houses for 13 years has not affected him,” Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist at the University of Georgia who studies the European populist right, told WorldViews in an email. “He has hardened on Islam and on those ‘defending’ Islam. His struggle with ‘Global Islam’ has a clear personal aspect, which further polarizes him.”
Hans de Bruijn, an academic who has studied Wilders’s rhetoric, says that if Wilders’s arguments haven’t changed because of his isolation, his medium — in particular, his early and successful adoption of social media — had. “Twitter of course fits Wilders’s style, but there is also a practical reason for using Twitter — due to his police protection, the opportunities for Wilders to organize town-hall-like meetings with his supporters are very limited,” de Bruijn said.
Despite this, de Bruijn said, Wilders’s need for police protection is not widely discussed in Dutch politics. “They do not exploit the issue,” de Bruijn said, suggesting that the PVV leader “benefits from this political correctness.”
And if isolation is Wilders’s cross to bear, he claims to be proud of it. In October, he tweeted that he had lost his “freedom” 12 years ago. But though he missed it, he said, that very freedom is something that “has to be defended every day.”