Originally appeared May 13, 2002, on the author's website, BruceBawer.com.
Few political figures in recent years have been so widely misrepresented as Pim Fortuyn, who prior to his murder last Monday had been expected to win big in this week's Dutch elections. Fortuyn was almost universally characterized in the U.S. and European media as a paradox: a fascist bigot who sought to close his country's borders to Moslem immigrants but who was also, perversely enough, openly gay.
The image is outrageously unjust. Though his populist style might not have appealed to everyone, Fortuyn was no fascist but a democrat - a passionate believer in Western freedom, tolerance, and pluralism. His party leadership was a racial and ethnic mosaic; his death was mourned by Dutchmen from a broad range of religious and cultural backgrounds. His animus was not against Moslem immigrants themselves but against their often chilling prejudices, which he rightfully recognized as a threat to Dutch democracy. As for his homosexuality, far from being a weird incongruity, it was central to his politics: for his identity as a gay man made it impossible for him to ignore the seriousness of such threats.
Indeed, it is impossible to understand Fortuyn's politics without underscoring a vital fact: namely, that he was an openly gay man living in the only nation on earth where homosexuals enjoy absolutely equal rights - and, perhaps, the nation that offers homosexuals the world's highest degree of social acceptance. Dutch public schools teach children to view the sexes as equal and to regard sexual orientation as a matter of indifference. This is the culmination of a long and extraordinary tradition of Dutch liberty that predates - and that influenced - both the American and French revolutions. It is no coincidence that it was a Dutchman, Spinoza, who more than a century before those revolutions wrote that "the purpose of the state is really freedom."
Fortuyn cherished Dutch freedom - cherished it so much that he refused to close his eyes to the serious challenge it faced from forces within his country's growing Moslem community (which at present makes up about 7 percent of the Dutch population). For decades, Moslems had immigrated to the Netherlands in large numbers; but what resulted was not integration so much as the establishment of insular Islamic communities within Dutch society - including schools that imbued children with prejudices the Dutch thought their country had long since risen above. Within those communities, Fortuyn knew, were women (many of them Dutch-born) who were hardly freer than women under the Taliban. There were religious leaders who expressed anti-democratic views with increasing boldness - among them the imam of Rotterdam (Fortuyn's own city), who in May of last year publicly denounced homosexuality as a "damaging sickness." And then there were the Moslem youths in the town of Ede who took to the streets on September 11, 2001, to celebrate the terrorist attacks on America. Fortuyn knew that, given the higher Moslem birth rate and continued immigration, the percentage of Dutch residents who shared such sentiments could only grow.
What did such developments mean for the future of democracy in the Netherlands - which Descartes, as far back as the 17th century, had described as the only place on earth where one could find absolute liberty? What, for example, would happen to same-sex marriage - that triumph of Dutch liberal democracy - when fundamentalist Moslems gained enough power to eradicate it? After all, Islamic countries not only prohibit gay marriage: they execute people for sodomy. Fortuyn knew that if Dutch Moslems had their way, such punishments would be instituted in the Netherlands as well. Shouldn't any democracy that truly respected its gay citizens take such things seriously? Yet most Dutch politicians, for all their purported liberalism and their vocal proclamations of support for gay rights, would not go near such questions. Fortuyn took them by the horns. His doing so was not an act of intolerance, but an appalled and courageous reaction to intolerance in a country whose media and political establishment are typically silent on such issues.
Right-wing bigot? Hardly. On most issues, Fortuyn was far more liberal than anyone in the U.S. political mainstream. As for the issue of Islam and immigration, if it is honorably liberal to sound the alarm about male supremacism and hatred for homosexuals within fundamentalist Christian communities, why call someone a right-wing extremist bigot for taking these prejudices equally seriously when held by fundamentalist Moslems? Reading some recent misrepresentations of Fortuyn, one has the impression that journalists' consideration for the sensitivities of fundamentalist Moslems has far outweighed their regard for the very right of homosexuals to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Most Dutch people, however, seem to get it. The impact of Fortuyn's murder on his homeland can hardly be overstated. He voiced concerns that have long troubled his fellow Dutchmen - and others throughout western Europe - but that they didn't dare express. Those concerns cannot be silenced by a few bullets. Indeed, the European movement for immigration reform has only just begun. The new leader of Fortuyn's party, a black man whose parents immigrated from the Cape Verde Islands, may or may not take Fortuyn's place as head of the movement; we must only hope that whoever does will, like Fortuyn, be a genuine democrat and not a Le Pen or a Haider.
For the number-one political problem right now, in the Netherlands and across western Europe, is sorting out genuine racism from the desire to seriously address the challenges to democracy posed by many immigrants' religious beliefs, social prejudices, and political views. The longer these challenges endure without being given sincere attention, the higher an increase there will be in actual bigotry and cultural polarization. It was just such a future that Pim Fortuyn labored so energetically to avoid.