Although Wilders’s stated goal has been to campaign for free speech, his trip has been sponsored and promoted by an unlikely coalition of groups united primarily by their hostility towards Islam. His backers include neoconservative and right-wing Jewish groups on the one hand and figures with ties to the European far right on the other.
Since he was charged with incitement to hate and discrimination in the Netherlands in January and denied entry to Britain earlier this month on public safety grounds, Wilders has become something of a cause celebre for the U.S. right.
This week, he gave a private viewing of his 17-minute anti-Islam film in the U.S. Senate, where he was hosted by Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican. He also appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s and Glenn Beck’s popular right-wing TV shows, met privately with the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and hobnobbed with former U.N. ambassador John Bolton at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
On Friday, he capped his busy week with an appearance at the National Press Club. At the event, he reiterated his calls for a halt to immigration from Muslim countries and pronounced, to raucous applause from the audience, that "our Western culture based on Christianity, Judaism, and humanism is in every aspect better than Islamic culture".
Wilders is also known for campaigning to ban the Koran, Islamic attire, and Islamic schools from the Netherlands, and for proclaiming that "moderate Islam does not exist."
His chief sponsors during the trip have primarily been neoconservative organisations such as Frank Gaffney’s Centre for Security Policy, David Horowitz’s Freedom Centre, and Daniel Pipes’s Middle East Forum, which is also helping to raise money for Wilders’s legal defence.
An event he held at a Boston-area synagogue was sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition, an influential group whose board members include casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, and neoconservative writer David Frum, who attended Wilders’s Friday event in Washington.
His trip has also been heavily promoted by conservative blogger Pamela Geller, who sponsored a reception for him in Washington on Friday. Geller is perhaps best known for alleging during the 2008 presidential campaign that now-President Barack Obama is the illegitimate child of the late Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X; she also continues to argue that Obama is a secret Muslim.
A less well-known but key backer of Wilders’s trip has been the newly-formed International Free Press Society (IFPS), which is headed by Danish journalist Lars Hedegaard and upon whose advisory board Wilders sits. The IFPS has been instrumental in promoting Wilders’ case as a free-speech issue, joining him in calling for an "International First Amendment", and it was a co-sponsor of Friday’s event at the National Press Club.
Wilders might seem to be an unlikely free-speech martyr - he famously called for the Netherlands to ban the Koran in an August 2007 op-ed, on the grounds that it was hate speech no different from Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf.’ Wilders and his defenders now claim that he is actually in favour of the repeal of all hate speech laws, although he made no mention of this issue in the original op-ed.
While the IFPS has strong ties to neoconservatives - its staff includes members of Pipes’s and Gaffney’s organisations - it also has ties to the European far right, and specifically the Belgian rightist party Vlaams Belang (VB), or Flemish Interest.
The IFPS’s vice president Paul Belien is married to Vlaams Belang MP Alexandra Colen, and has been a fierce defender of the party against its critics.
And in 2007, Hedegaard and Belien - along with IFPS board members Bat Ye’or, Andrew Bostom, Robert Spencer, and Sam Solomon - appeared with VB leader Filip Dewinter at the CounterJihad conference in Brussels. Although "the VB did not organise the conference, it provided an important part of the logistics and the security of those attending," according to Belien.
These VB ties among some of Wilders’s most important backers may raise difficulties for the politician, who has taken care to differentiate himself from far-right leaders such as Jean-Marie Le Pen of France and the late Joerg Haider of Austria. In particular, they may complicate his efforts to market himself to mainstream Jewish groups, which have traditionally been suspicious of the European far right due to its reputation for anti-Semitism and fascist tendencies.
"My allies are not Le Pen or Haider," Wilders told the Guardian in 2008. "I’m very afraid of being linked with the wrong rightist fascist groups". However, this past December he told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that he would consider an alliance with the VB.
The VB is the successor to the Vlaams Blok, the Flemish secessionist party that was banned by Belgian authorities in 2004 for violating the country’s racism and xenophobia laws.
The party’s defenders reject the characterisation of the VB as far right or neo-fascist. "The implication that Vlaams Belang is somehow neo-Nazi or racist is salacious," Geller told IPS. "They are the only party in Belgium that is staunchly pro-Israel."
VB leaders have insisted that their party is philo-Semitic and free of neo-Nazi elements, but Belgian Jewish groups have criticised the party for failing to sufficiently dissociate itself from Nazi sympathisers and other extremists.
The party’s outreach to Jews has also been hindered by the December 2008 conviction of senior VB leader Roeland Raes on charges of Holocaust denial.
The party has drawn a great deal of criticism even from figures known for being outspoken critics of Islam. Former Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali, now a fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, has called for the VB to be banned, saying that "it hardly differs from the Hofstad [terrorist] group" and that its "way of thinking will lead straight to genocide."
Charles Johnson of the widely-read conservative blog Little Green Footballs has been a particularly harsh critic of the VB, which he calls "neo-fascist." He has also warned of "the incredible amount of support for the Vlaams Belang among U.S. white power and neo-Nazi groups."
While no one is accusing Wilders or his backers of anti-Semitism, the VB connection illustrates the difficulties involved in forging a transatlantic coalition against Islam. Many of the most influential critics of Islam in the U.S. are neoconservatives, such as Pipes and Gaffney, who are also strongly pro-Israel; by contrast, anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe is often manifested in far-right parties whose views are anathema to much of the U.S. population, particularly Jews.
Wilders’s success and influence will likely depend on how well he can straddle the two camps, retaining his popular base of support in Europe while cultivating right-wing elites in the U.S.
Thursday’s event at the Senate was an important step for Wilders, and may have helped legitimise him in the eyes of U.S. conservatives. Sen. Kyl, who hosted the event, shares with Wilders a hard-line stance on immigration issues; he is also an honorary co-chairman of the neoconservative organisation Committee on the Present Danger.
Aside from Kyl, the list of congressmen attending the Wilders event was not released, but sources present at the event told IPS that attendees included Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, and possibly Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican.
Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota and the only Muslim member of Congress, criticised Kyl for bringing Wilders to the Senate.
"At a time when President Obama has said to the Muslim world, ‘We are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest,' the showing of a film that denigrates the faith of 1.4 billion of the world's citizens does not foster mutual respect or mutual interest," Ellison said in a statement.
*With additional reporting by Ali Gharib.