Pim Fortuyn would have loved all the international attention. The erratic, quirky populist who single-handedly shook up Dutch politics and who was shot and killed last Monday, was always happiest in the spotlight. CNN, the New York Times, even the American government have paid tribute. He would have loved it.
But he would have objected fervently to being swept into one corner with French Jean Marie le Pen, Austrian Jorg Haider and other "hard-right-wingers" or "neo-fascists" who are "flooding" Europe, as the American media have been happy to report with great alarm. In a piece just a day before his death in the New York Times, a reporter made reference to "Mr. Le Pen and others who have modernized their fascism, like Jorg Haider of Austria and Pim Fortuyn of the Netherlands." It's a mischaracterization some European political elites may try to cling to, but they will be wrong.
Fortuyn had a weekly column at Elsevier Magazine (which is also the magazine I write for) from 1994 until 2001, and Fortuyn, who was 54, built his reputation there as a political hell-raiser. A bold, bald, sharply dressed and very gay one at that. He was much alarmed by rising crime, unemployment, decay in the big cities, deteriorating public services, and the perceived loss of national identity in the face of European unification and bureaucratization. All of this became clear and more widely known during the election campaign. Fortuyn had left Elsevier to enter politics, and to become prime minister, as he always said. He never cared much for modesty.
More than anything, he was concerned about Islam being the fastest-growing religion in an otherwise secular society. He found it amazing, and alarming, that Mohammed had become the most popular name for newborn boys in Amsterdam. Clearly, Islam was being "imported" by newcomers, and Fortuyn didn't like it. As a gay man, he was unafraid of calling Islam "backward." There was never any nuance to that opinion, but from his perspective, it made some sense, especially when one Dutch imam recently called homosexuals "less than pigs."
Fortuyn did not want to send people back to where they came from, but he did argue for limits on immigration. He called on the government to force people to learn the Dutch language, embrace basic democratic principles, work real jobs rather than lean on the welfare state, and actively integrate if they chose Holland to be their new home.
The man simply refused to play the racially sensitive or politically correct role. (He never asked anyone to be careful or sensitive about his sexual identity either. The imam's pig comment merely made him smile in disbelief -- and he enthusiastically defended the spiritual leader's right to speak his mind.)
Fortuyn was among the first in Holland to wonder out loud how an open democratic country should balance the fundamental value of religious tolerance with the threat conservative Islam poses. In a modern, pluralist society, is it all right to have a new religious "pillar" where women (and gays) are considered lower figures? How to handle leaders who in mosques call for the destruction of Jews, or groups of young Moroccan men who freely vandalize subway stations and gang-rape girls? Those are pointed questions in a country that basks in all the international talk of liberalism, advanced feminism, and the legalizing of soft drugs and the gay marriage.
Fortuyn was far from subtle. He ranted, yelled, mocked and insulted. But the Dutch public now agrees that he did something important to the sleepy political culture of the Netherlands. He forced people to argue and debate, out in the open. That was his main feat, and it was also the greatest threat to the establishment, which had not been used to street-fighting with words, and hence tried to shut him out for long.
The Dutch and now the international media did not know where to place this odd man. He evaded characterizations. But more than anything, he took on the role of a strong, eloquent opposition, something he accused the "real" parliamentary opposition of failing to do. Most shocking, perhaps, is to realize now how the powerful managed to ignore and mock Fortuyn for so long. If we believe in democracy, how can we automatically dismiss critics of power as lunatics on the right fringe? (Interestingly, the chief suspect in Fortuyn's shooting is a far-left environmentalist.)
Calling Fortuyn a neo-fascist is in line with seeing every voter for Le Pen or Berlusconi as a dumb xenophobe. The European left, in power but out of touch, has done exactly that for years. But the issues that Fortuyn and other addressed, have needed urgent attention from the social-democrats in office. To call those who planned to vote for him a bunch of fascists is, to say the least, strange, as many of them had voted for leftist parties in prior elections. It's safe to say that the ruling class of today helped create the electoral base for populists whom they still do not know how to fight.
The frightened establishment is not responsible for Fortuyn's death, of course. But fighting him openly and honestly with words might have taken the sting out of the often cold and nasty exchanges with "Professor Pim," as his supporters lovingly called him. And, who knows, he might have lived to be 86, as he recently predicted he would.