HomeWorld‘Some were extremely hostile’: how Dutch far-right figure turned to Islam

‘Some were extremely hostile’: how Dutch far-right figure turned to Islam

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He was once Geert Wilders’ right-hand man, crafting Freedom party (PVV) messaging that described Islam as a “lie” and pushed for the Qur’an and mosques to be banned in the Netherlands.

One decade on, Joram van Klaveren is a Muslim convert – the second politician from the far-right PVV to convert – and actively working to dismantle the myths he once peddled.

“The things that I helped them develop are still there; they’re still using the tools I gave them,” he told the Guardian. “I literally hear them say things that I made up.”

His work has taken on renewed importance in recent months, as the PVV emerged as the party with the most votes in the recent Dutch elections, echoing a Europe-wide surge in nativist and populist platforms. “I was in anti-Islam politics for altogether 12 years, so I have to counter this narrative for at least 12 years to make it even, so to speak,” said the 45-year-old.

Raised in a deeply religious Protestant family in Amsterdam, Van Klaveren said his initial wariness of Islam was influenced by his church. His stance hardened in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the murder of the film-maker Theo van Gogh by a man who described himself as a jihadist, spurring Van Klaveren to sign up for Wilders’ party in 2010.

He rose swiftly up the ranks. “I did everything. I tried to ban mosques; I tried to ban the Qur’an, shut down Islamic schools, forbid the Arabic language in public,” he said. “Back then, I thought it was a good thing because we were fighting Islam.”

Van Klaveren broke with Wilders in 2014 after a rally in which the PVV leader asked supporters if they wanted “fewer Moroccans” in the country. For Van Klaveren, it seemed a step too far. “I thought, well, I must leave because now it’s becoming an ethnic thing.”

He set up his own party, but failed to secure a single seat in the national election. He quit politics, instead setting his sights on finishing a book he had started to write years earlier, envisioning it as an academic tome that would lay bare the threat posed by Islam.

Van Klaveren next to Geert Wilders at the Dutch parliament in 2013, before he left the PVV. Photograph: Martijn Beekman/AFP/Getty Images

He threw himself into the task but as he learned more about Islam he said he found himself becoming increasingly intrigued.

His interest, however, jarred with his day job at an evangelical radio station. As he grappled with being simultaneously drawn to Islam and his status as the voice of conservative Christians, he abandoned his book and crammed the many volumes that had fuelled his research on to a bookshelf in his home.

He readily admits that what he says came next defies belief. “It sounds a little bit like a fairytale, but it really happened,” he said.

His heaving bookshelf collapsed, he said, its contents tumbling to the floor. As he picked up a copy of the Qur’an that had fallen, he said he glanced at where his finger had landed. “It said in the translation: ‘It’s not the eyes that are blind, but the hearts,’” he said.

“And I thought: ‘Well, yeah, this is really my problem.’”

In 2019 he went public with his conversion, urged on by a local imam who explained that it was an opportunity to set the record straight. “He said you have a responsibility as well. Because you incited hate, in a way,” said Van Klaveren.

The news made headlines across the country, breaking just as Wilders was live on TV. Reporters plied the PVV leader with questions. “I didn’t see this coming,” Wilders said, likening Van Klaveren’s decision to a “vegetarian going to work in a slaughterhouse”.

Another who chimed in was Arnoud van Doorn, a former Hague-based city councillor for PVV who converted to Islam in 2013. “I never thought that the PVV would become a breeding ground for converts,” Van Doorn wrote on social media at the time.

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Among Van Klaveren’s followers – many of whom had voted for him – there was a deep sense of betrayal.

“Some people were extremely hostile. I got over 2,000 death threats,” he said. “It was really extreme. People saying they were going to rape my wife, kill my children, and they sent the address of the school to me, so as to intimidate me.”

Things have since calmed, allowing Van Klaveren space to contemplate all that once drew him to the party – and how to counter this appeal.

In 2020 he joined several others in launching a Muslim-led foundation in the Netherlands to introduce people to the faith and history of Islam. After visiting more than 200 schools the foundation opened a museum in Rotterdam in June called the Islam Experience Centre.

“The main goal is to take away misconceptions and promote empathy,” he said. “When I was in the Freedom party, we always said Islam is alien to us; Islam has nothing to do with Europe. And of course, when you look at Spain, for example, at Andalucía, it is nonsense.”

Asked whether he felt guilt or regret over his actions during his time with the PVV, Van Klaveren said: “Of course I feel ashamed because of what I said. I had plans, but Allah is the best of planners and my life took another direction.”

Van Klaveren estimates that about 12 of the 37 seats won by the PVV in its surge at the last election could be attributed to those who are staunchly opposed to Islam. The rest, he said, were probably a result of voters who had become disillusioned with mainstream parties over their failure to tackle the soaring cost of living, the erosion of the welfare state, and rocketing housing prices.

“If you really have no money and you see people getting a house that you were on a list for for 10 years, whether they are immigrants or not, you feel like: ‘I’m just not important enough,’” said Van Klaveren.

But as countries across Europe wrestle with the rise of the far right, he called for people to fight back with “mature” reactions, citing an incident in the Dutch city of Arnhem, where the leader of the Pegida movement recently held a Qur’an burning.

Muslim groups responded by handing free Qur’ans to anyone interested. “Every time he burns one Qur’an, we give away a thousand,” said Van Klaveren. With a laugh, he added: “So, I don’t know if he will be burning Qur’ans anymore.”

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