Geert Wilders - racist or not?

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Is Geert Wilders a racist? Many people, including respected Dutch opposition leader Alexander Pechtold, think so. So far national political figures have been reluctant to express themselves so bluntly about the far-right Freedom Party leader.

Mr Pechtold's comments came after anti-immigrant politician Wilders had once again used shock tactics during a major political debate in the Dutch parliament.

Tax the scarf
Geert Wilders proposed to tax women who wear the Muslim headscarf. Any Muslim woman who wants to wear a headscarf would have to apply for a licence, and pay a yearly 1000 euros for the privilege. Wilders says the money raised would go toward women's emancipation programmes:

"We're sick and tired of the headscarves. And we'll do everything we can to get rid of them. We've already proposed a law to ban the burqa, and this is a way to get rid of headscarves, which pollute the Dutch landscape. It's not just that they're ugly; they're also a sign of the repression of women. We want to oppose that."

Newsline's Johan van Slooten went to Hilversum to gauge the public's reaction:

[media:audio]

Difficult distinction
The rest of the Dutch parliament reacted with disdain and disbelief. One after another, MPs asked Wilders if this was a serious proposal. For instance, would he include other types of head covering in the tax? And how about Orthodox Christian women who wear a headscarf quite similar to the Muslim version?

In reaction, Wilders said he would prefer to ban the headscarf altogether, but that appeared to be legally impossible. So he wanted to leave out the 'Christian' headscarf, but didn't mention how policy would make that distinction.

The Minister for Integration, Eberhard van der Laan, rejected the proposal out of hand:

"I call it a hysterical proposal. The Netherlands is built on freedom of religion and freedom of speech. It's so ridiculous, and it's insulting to those who wear it."

Blunt
The strongest reaction came from opposition leader Alexander Pechtold. He called the proposal 'out of every order':

"To think that how your clothing is in public, that you should one way or another tax this. It's his xenophobic and racist view of society."

Q: Would you call Mr Wilders racist? 

"Oh yes he's a racist. Yes, I can be as blunt as that. He's a racist."

Other MP don't go so far.

"I think he's anti-Islam, that would be more precise," says Jeroen Dijsselbloem from the governing Social Democrats.

"At least he uses a form of politics that discriminates between Muslims and non-Muslims. You could call that racism," reacts Harry van Bommel from the Socialist Party.

"Well, I'm not into using these big words at all. This proposal he did to tax headscarves, I think it’s rather ridiculous," said Paul de Krom from the liberal VVD. 

Electoral success
Mr Wilders has acquired a reputation for making shocking statements during general debates. Two years ago, he called for the banning of the Muslim holy book, the Quran. Last year, he warned that Muslims were colonising the Netherlands.

These antics have brought electoral success. The Freedom Party was the second-largest party in last spring's elections to the European Parliament. For the last six months, public opinion polls have consistently placed the Freedom Party as the first or second most popular party in the country.

With his latest proposal for a headscarf tax, Wilders has once again succeeded in distancing himself from mainstream politics. But has he finally gone too far, even for his own supporters? Pollsters are hastily trying to find out.

Geert Wilders told Radio Netherlands he was too busy to react to Pechtold's allegations. Another Freedom Party MP, Hero Brinkman, said Wilders is not racist. In fact, continued Brinkman, the proposal to tax headscarves is meant to protect Muslim women.

Listen to an interview with Alexander Pechtold here.