Wilders’s rise feels like a sign of the times. If it can happen among the liberal, pot-smoking Dutch, who have accepted religious refugees from around the world for 500 years, then who can possibly resist the siren-call of the xenophobic far-right? In a recent piece in The New York Times exploring how economic and social dislocation have pulled voters in the Netherlands to the right—titled “How the Dutch Stopped Being Decent and Dull”—the Dutch historian Ian Buruma argued that Wilders wove together two different threads of Dutch protest voters: working-class voters frustrated by globalization, as well as progressive voters worried that conservative Muslim immigrants threaten liberal Dutch social values like tolerance for homosexuality. Wilders’s anti-Muslim positions have helped him disrupt the veneer of “decent and dull” Dutch politics.
Dutch anti-Muslim bigotry, however, is less novel than it seems. Only 70 years ago, the Netherlands was a majority-Muslim empire, stretching from Aceh in Northern Sumatra to the Eastern Maluku islands, 2,500 miles to the east. Its rule was often brutally intolerant. During the colonial period, the Dutch empire regularly banned its East Indies subjects—today’s Indonesians—from practicing key aspects of their faith, like making the pilgrimage to Mecca. “The polemics that come out from that period against Islam by Dutch missionaries and local Dutch officials … [are] that Islam is inconsistent with freedom, Islam is oppressive. This is the same thing Wilders is saying now,” Jeremy Menchik, a scholar of Indonesian Islam at Boston University, told me. Far from being sui generis, Geert Wilders is merely echoing his colonialist forbears.
When the Dutch arrived in modern-day Indonesia at the turn of the 16th century, their sole mission was to wrest control of the East Indies spice trade. To that end, they established the Dutch East India Company, which parlayed shrewd diplomacy and force of arms to expel Portuguese and British rivals, subjugate powerful local kingdoms, and monopolize the regional spice trade. It was a lucrative operation: By some estimates, the Dutch East India Company is the most valuable company to ever exist.
The company’s masters soon learned they had to reckon with Islam, which came to Indonesia with traders in the 13th century. By the 17th century, it had superseded Hinduism and Buddhism on major Indonesian islands. Today, Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country in the world.
As the Netherlands cemented its rule over the archipelago, it forged understandings with regional Muslim rulers that, generally, preserved the power of local royalty over their subjects, while giving the Dutch carte blanche to exploit Indonesian labor and natural resources to their own benefit. Unlike other colonial powers like the Spanish and Portuguese, the Dutch did not particularly prioritize converting the locals. In 1803, the governor general of the East Indies established a principle of state neutrality toward religion, meaning that, at least on paper, the state would not give special benefits or sinecures to Indonesians who converted—in essence, that Christians would not be favored. The Dutch “cared more about gold than God,” Menchik said. But Protestant missions were nonetheless established throughout the archipelago, often in regions like North Sulawesi and North Sumatra, where locals were generally not Muslim.