It's a lurking provocation in Europe's sometimes rocky encounter with its burgeoning Muslim population: For months, a popular, flamboyant far-right Dutch party leader has been preparing an incendiary film about Islam rumored to contain lurid scenes of execution and a flaming Koran. With his flashy dyed platinum hair and his 24-hour security protection, Geert Wilders routinely compares the Koran to Hitler's "Mein Kampf," says almost all terrorists are Muslims, and advocates deporting Islamic clerics.
So it isn't surprising that the short film – which has yet to secure an outlet that will air it – is being compared to Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that sparked global Muslim riots two years ago. Iran and Pakistan have condemned the video, titled "Fitna" – Arabic for strife. The Taliban has threatened retaliation against Dutch troops in Afghanistan.
"Fitna" has so far been the biggest show never seen, but the buildup has given Mr. Wilders growing publicity, and civic leaders time to respond.
Unlike Denmark, which held to a free speech position on the cartoons, the Dutch government has been telling Muslim nations and Islamic organizations that it doesn't agree with Wilders's views. The main question that has emerged in the debate is whether it is acceptable for an elected official to use free speech to attack the identity of other groups, even if he or she feels they are causing harm to the Netherlands.
"I don't care if someone hates Islam," says Tafiq Ali, a young Muslim from Morocco who works in a construction firm in Amsterdam. "But is it responsible for a leader to use words that can bring hate and negative consequences?"
Since January, Wilders has tried – and failed – to air "Fitna" on Dutch TV and then at The Hague's foreign press center. This week Wilders's backup, a US-based website, was shut down by the hosting service Network Solutions, pending an investigation of its acceptable use policy. Tuesday, the right-wing Czech National Party proposed broadcasting "Fitna," citing the "cowardice" of Dutch and EU politicians. Wilders said he might resort to handing out DVDs in central Amsterdam.
But despite the setbacks, the Sturm und Drang surrounding "Fitna" has been a colossal publicity boon for the controversial politician.
"He doesn't care [about negative consequences]; I think he loves this," says a Hague-based journalist who covers Wilders's party.
Much publicity – for him and Muslims
Dutch security alerts have gone from "limited" to "substantial" this month. In the Netherlands, the unseen video brings daily press coverage, as well as seminars, TV debates, lectures by the mayor of Amsterdam, and a recent decrying of it as an "unnecessary provocation" by the eminent philosopher Jürgen Habermas, in what he calls the modern condition of a "post-secular Europe."
Last week Harry de Winter, a prominent Dutch citizen who is Jewish, took out a large ad in the daily de Volkskrant arguing that if Wilders were to say about Jews what he is saying about Muslims – in other words, if he advocated that temples be closed and rabbis deported – the entire country would rise in retaliation over such an anti-Semitic act.
The Islamic community announced in February it would open its doors to the public after the video airs, to show "we have nothing to hide." A joint ecumenical statement by Protestant and Muslim groups said last week that they "forcefully reject [Fitna] if the Koran and the Prophet Mohammed are treated with contempt."
Heleen Terwijn, who runs weekend schools in inner-city Amsterdam, says, "The good side of this whole thing is that many Muslims who were unknown will become known as normal people with a normal point of view. Too many Dutch see Muslims as scary relatives of Osama bin Laden."
Still, some of the Dutch worry that the popular fears that Wilders represents are growing faster than Holland's ability to integrate its rising minorities. Mainstream talk about crime and indifference to Dutch traditions and decorum by Muslims is increasing.
"The Dutch see kids of color tearing up public trash cans or dumpsters, and they want them thrown in jail," says a researcher at an "Islam in Europe" program at Amsterdam University who was not authorized to speak on the record. "That moves quickly – way too quickly – to a hatred of all of Islam."
While some Dutch writers like the assassinated politician Pim Fortuyn started attacking Islam as a backward idea in the 1990s, Wilders has conflated the message further and has focused on Muslims as people, experts say.
"Fortyn was simply going after Islamic theology, but Wilders is going further," says Gerard van der Ree, a Dutch political scientist in Leiden. "He's equating Islam and Muslims together and causing people to fear and hate them, on the grounds that they are fascist. It's an eliminationist model, ironically."
In recent months, Wilders has shifted his rhetoric to focus more on Islam than its adherents.
In an interview with the New York Times, one of few Wilders has given, he said, "I believe the Islamic theology is a retarded, dangerous one, but I make a distinction," Wilders said. "I don't hate people. I don't hate Muslims…. I am not saying all Muslims are wrong or are terrorists or criminals. You will never hear me say that."
Wilders is often laughed off as a crank in the Netherlands, popularly referred to as Holland, even while most of the Dutch defend his right to speak.
"It's Holland and I'm proud to live in a country where you can say anything, even if I don't agree," says Jeremy, a café owner in The Hague.
Why Wilders's popularity is rising
Wilders, who has warned of a "tsunami of Islamization coming to Europe," has built his career on fears over an immigrant influx – including those of the nearly 1 million Muslims in this country of 16 million residents. His message has resonated with a growing percentage of Dutch voters who feel he is telling truths that elite politicians are too polite or tolerant to voice.
His popularity rose after the shocking 2004 street killing by a Dutch-Moroccan of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who with a Dutch parliamentarian had produced a film criticizing Islam's oppression of women. Two years later, his Freedom Party surprised the elites by scoring nine out of 150 members of parliament in 2006 elections.
Some residents here described conflicted feelings about politicians like Wilders that they detest, and a public discourse that seems not to capture the extent of social divisions in Holland.
"I hear Muslims making very hard statements about their situation," says Woter Mertens, a shop manager and PhD candidate in Amsterdam. "The cultures in Holland are separating further; you can feel it. Our tolerance is being destroyed. We used to be able to have reasonable discussions about things like the burqa or scarf. People did and didn't like it, said so, and did it with some tolerance and certainly openly. Now, no."
There's little outward tension along the famed canals here, or among the diffident and pragmatic Dutch. Some are tiring of Wilders and the film build-up. "It could come out any time – right now, in two weeks, no one knows," says Hans Ulrich, a retired history teacher in Leiden. "Now we joke that "Fitna" doesn't exist, but is an April fool's trick."
'He represents the fear we feel'
One Rotterdam business consultant, Rhys Jansen, who spent years working for a Dutch oil firm in the Arab world, says Wilders has rightly grasped the uncertainty and worry over losing a good standard of living in a country that traditional Dutch people feel is different from the one they were born in – and he is playing on this fear.
"He represents fear, the fear we feel, it's all about fear," says Mr. Jansen. "He exacerbates our feelings. We don't know each other anymore. There's less time in our lives, less time to cook, to talk, to socialize. We live in houses with walls two meters high separating our gardens. When I grew up we talked across our gardens. Now if you meet you neighbors, it is pretty much by accident. This is what Wilders understands."
Even many Muslims say they don't like the hidden tensions and new pressures in Holland brought by culture wars. Mehmet, who works in a Leiden falafel and kebab cafe, says he came from Egypt 20 years ago to escape religion. "No one here would bother you about anything," he says. "That's what I like about Holland, but I am worried this is changing."