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I’ve written before about Geert Wilders, the right-wing firebrand (and ex-Catholic agnostic) Dutch politician who infuriated Muslim governments worldwide with his anti-Islam film Fitna. The kingdom of Jordan demanded that the Netherlands extradite him so he could stand trial under their blasphemy law. While the Netherlands rightfully refused this chilling request, they also charged him under the country’s own anti-hate-speech law, which I opposed for the same reasons. (He was later acquitted.)

This month, there was a critical election in the Netherlands in which Wilders’ political party, the PVV, had seemed poised to come in first place. But while the PVV did pick up seats, they underperformed the polls and fell short:

In the Netherlands, the results betrayed a lingering distrust of turning over the reins of power to the far right, even as its message dominated the campaign and was likely to influence policies in the new government.

…[A]n earlier populist movement led by the right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn had won 26 seats in 2002, and that Mr. Wilders’s won 24 seats in 2010. If Mr. Wilders’s party rises to 20 seats, as the early returns seemed to indicate, it will still be lower than the previous high-water marks.

In another sign of Dutch voters’ repudiation of Wilders, other parties made bigger gains in the final tally – including the new Green Left party, which explicitly rejected his rhetoric. Given that other parties have vowed not to work with Wilders, it’s unlikely that he’ll be part of any coalition government. And to that, I say, good! Geert Wilders doesn’t deserve to be making law in the Netherlands or in any other democratic state.

It’s not that I’ve reversed myself when it comes to Wilders. I stand by everything I’ve previously said about the absurdity and injustice of prosecuting a person for his opinions. However, my previous posts about him didn’t give sufficient emphasis to the other side of the story: the man himself is a bigot and a hypocrite, little better than the radical Muslim extremists he attacks.

Wilders has made anti-Muslim bigotry the centerpiece of his political platform. He wants to ban the Qur’an, outlaw the burqa, forbid the teaching of Islam, and enact an anti-refugee travel ban with more than coincidental similarities to Donald Trump’s:

“All mosques and Islamic schools closed, a ban on the Quran,” said the document outlining the electoral program of the Freedom Party (PVV) ahead of March 2017 legislative elections, which was posted on Wilders’ Twitter feed Thursday.

The PVV says it will reverse the “Islamization” of the country with a range of measures including closing the borders, shutting asylum seeker centers, banning migrants from Islamic countries and stopping Muslim women from wearing the headscarf in public. (source)

Then there was this campaign promise from 2015 that can’t be described as anything other than flagrant racism:

Wilders will tell you that it’s about the religion, not the people; that he hates Islam, not Muslims. But as he addressed a crowd in The Hague last March after a successful showing by his party in local elections, he got a little more personal. Flanked by two bodyguards, he walked to a small podium as “Eye of the Tiger” played on a cheap PA system, to scattered cheers. “I ask all of you,” he said, waving his finger at the crowd, “do you want in this city, and in the Netherlands, more or less Moroccans?” His audience gleefully chanted, “Less! Less! Less!,” to which Wilders replied with a smile, “Then we will arrange that.” (source)

Just like the mullahs, Wilders wants to use state power to censor opinions contrary to his own. He wants to ban books, close schools, and restrict how women dress. How is this any different from the theocracies he decries? If we stand against prosecuting people for their ideas, we have to be consistent in how we apply that principle.

It’s not clear to me what “a ban on the Quran” would entail. Would it be illegal to possess or read the book? Would police search people’s homes to make sure they didn’t own any copies of the forbidden text? Would websites that posted the text of the Qur’an be blacklisted? And if you ban the Qur’an, why wouldn’t you also ban other related works that comment on it, excerpt it, expand on it, or teach similar ideas? Would the Netherlands have to establish its own Index of Forbidden Books?

When you give this proposal any serious thought, it’s easy to see how quickly it would lead us down a dark path. The same holds true for Wilders’ other policy positions. I’ve always opposed violence and oppression carried out in the name of Islam, or any religion, and I always will be – but unleashing violence and oppression from the other side is categorically the wrong answer for freedom-loving societies.

We have to bear this in mind in the future, because we can’t assume that the wave of right-wing populism has crested in Europe. While I reject the argument that that racism can be defeated just by strengthening the safety net, the Netherlands’ supposedly liberal parties, including the victorious prime minister Mark Rutte, didn’t do themselves any favors with pro-austerity policies like this:

Mr Rutte had cut social spending, raised the retirement age and reduced mortgage tax deductions. Populists and moderates alike accused the government of neglecting the elderly and making health care unaffordable. In a debate this week, the only time Mr Rutte looked uncomfortable was when Mr Wilders savaged him over conditions in care homes, and claimed that prisoners were cared for better than the elderly.

With everything that’s at stake, we can’t allow bigots to claim the high ground when it comes to preserving the safety net or caring for society’s needy. We liberals need to make a principled argument for why empathy is necessary – but we also need to make the case that empathy necessarily covers all people, including those of different races and religions. We can reject religious extremism without enshrining bigotry in its place.

Image credit: Guido van Nispen, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...