LONDON (AP) – Anti-fascist demonstrators scuffled with police Friday in a protest against Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who brought his film denouncing Islam and the Quran to Britain’s august House of Lords.
Wilders, riding an electoral wave in the Netherlands based on his anti-immigration populism, screened the film to about 60 people, including a half-dozen peers, in a wood-paneled committee room in Parliament. Outside dozens of protesters jeered and chanted “Fascist thugs off our streets!”
The visit, and the controversy surrounding it, added to Wilders’ visibility as he heads into a national election campaign with his popularity soaring and polls predicting that his come-from-nowhere Freedom Party will be among the two largest in the next Dutch parliament. His party scored a stunning success in local elections this week, winning one city outright and placing second in another. But because his party is new and lacks a national organization, it declined to field candidates in nearly 400 other town hall races.
The protest by Unite Against Fascism was countered by a rival demonstration further down the River Thames of more than 100 people from the English Defense League, a self-described “counter-jihad” movement with links to Britain’s far-right.
Police wrestled with anti-fascist protesters trying to block a street in front of the Parliament building, piling many of them into a double decker bus. By early afternoon, police on foot, on horseback and on motorcycles seemed to outnumber the protesters.
Jack Kavanagh, a 21-year-old from Ireland, was one of the people pulled out of the crowd, said he was trying to block the pro-Wilders crowd from approaching Parliament. He expressed scorn for Wilders, calling his movie “racist tripe.”
Wilders had been invited to show his film in Britain a year ago by an ultraconservative member of the upper house, but the Home Office barred his entry into the country as a potential threat to public security. Wilders defied the ban, flew into Heathrow Airport only to be turned back, prompting a minor spat between Britain and the Netherlands. He later successfully challenged the ban in a British court and visited in October, when he was greeted by a small group of Islamists chanting: “Allahu Akbar!”
Wilders, 46, has denounced the Quran as an “evil book” and a fascist work that should be outlawed, just as Hitler’s manifesto “Mein Kampf” cannot be sold in the Netherlands. He has urged the halting of immigration from Muslim countries, and says Muslims already living in Holland must accept its law, its culture and its way of life, or they should leave.
At a London news conference after the screening, Wilders again described Islam as a “totalitarian ideology.” He said he had hopes of becoming prime minister after the June 9 election, although Dutch political analysts say it is unlikely he could garner a majority coalition if his party emerged the largest.
If elected, he said, he would close all Islamic schools, ban construction of new mosques, and expel Dutch Muslim criminals if they held dual citizenship.
Wilders’ untempered language against Islam brought charges against him for “hate speech,” a little-enforced crime subject to a maximum one-year jail sentence and fine. He appealed to have the case dismissed, saying his remarks were not against Muslims but rather against Islam, and were protected by freedom of speech. Last month the court ruled against the objection, but is yet to set a trial date. He has been under permanent police protection since his life was threatened in 2004 by the Muslim radical who killed filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His name was in a note pegged with a knife to van Gogh’s lifeless chest.
Immigration has been a central theme of Dutch politics since 2002, when the maverick political leader Pim Fortuyn raised what had until then been a largely taboo subject. Fortuyn was assassinated by an animal-rights activist before the election.
Wilders describes himself as a libertarian and rejects comparisons with right-wing European politicians such as Jorg Haider in Austria and Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. He began his political career as a speech writer, town councilman and member of parliament for the centrist pro-business Liberal Party, but left in 2004 over its readiness to accept Turkey into the European Union. His new party won nine seats in the 150-member Dutch parliament in 2006, and polls predict he may triple that number in the June elections.