A far-right Dutch politician who once railed against Islam now spends his time defending it

Anti-Muslim policies are a key tenet of the Dutch far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) led by Geert Wilders. Many of those policies were devised by former lawmaker and once close confidante of Wilders, Joram van Klaveren. Today van Klaveren dedicates his life to defending Islam.

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On the fourth floor of a large office block in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, Joram van Klaveren tests out a set of virtual reality glasses. They’re part of a tour called the Islam Experience Center, which van Klaveren, a former far-right lawmaker, co-founded.

Joram van Klaveren tests out a set of virtual reality glasses for the Islam Experience Center tour in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands.Orla Barry/The World

The center aims to explain the basics of Islam and tackle misconceptions about the faith. But few people in the Netherlands could have foreseen that the former politician would one day open an exhibition dedicated to the religion.

For more than a decade Van Klaveren was one of the Dutch far-right Party for Freedom’s (PVV) most outspoken members — someone who saw the party’s core aim as combating “the threat of Islam.” Today, he spends his time defending the religion instead.

Negative media

Van Klaveren was raised in an orthodox Protestant household. “Ministers at our church told us that all other religions are false, especially Islam, ‘that’s the religion of the devil.’” He said the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States further cemented his prejudice.

Joram van Klaveren started a tour called the Islam Experience Center to help explain the basics about Islam and tackle misconceptions about the faith.Orla Barry/The World

Then, three years later, a prominent Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered in the center of Amsterdam by a man who described himself as a jihadist. The killing spurred van Klaveren to write a letter to far-right leader Geert Wilders asking if he could join his party, and Wilders immediately welcomed him onboard.

Intense campaign

Van Klaveren rose quickly up the party ranks becoming one of its key policy makers. He proposed the closure of all Islamic schools and mosques in the Netherlands, an end to immigration from Muslim countries, and a ban on the Quran. In 2010, he was elected to the Dutch parliament with a singular focus: “to fight Islam.”

In 2014, Geert Wilders made an incendiary speech asking party supporters if they wanted more or less Moroccans in the Netherlands. As the crowd chanted “less, less”, Wilders smiled and said, “We’re going to organize that.”

Van Klaveren was uneasy because several members of his political party were from Morocco, and van Klaveren knew he would be expected to defend the leader’s comments in parliament. He pleaded with Wilders to withdraw his statement but the far-right leader refused. So, van Klaveren resigned from the party, staying in parliament as an independent MP.

Learning about Islam

Leaving the party gave him more time to work on a book he had been planning for some years “about the threat of Islam.” Van Klaveren delved into religious texts on Christianity, Judaism and Islam and consulted with spiritual leaders and religion experts. But months in, he hit an obstacle.

“I had to explain the God concept in Islam compared to the God concept in Christianity.” He contacted academic experts on Christianity and asked if they could explain the Trinity to him in a logical way. No one, including a Catholic priest, could give him a satisfactory answer.

An expert on Islam recommended several books for him to read. Much to his discomfort, the more he read, the more answers he found to the questions he had long held. Three years after starting to write his book, he abandoned it.

Joram van Klaveren wanted to write a book about “the threat of Islam,” but said his research led him to finding more answers to long-held questions he had about religion.Orla Barry/The World

On that day in 2017, he was sitting at his living room table facing a large shelf heavily stacked with books. What happened next, he said, sounds like a fairytale. The shelf suddenly broke and the books tumbled to the ground. Van Klaveren picked up one book and turned it over. It was a translated copy of the Quran. His thumb was resting on a line that read, “It’s not the eyes that are blind, but the hearts.” The phrase, he thought, could apply to him.

That night, he said, he prayed for a sign telling him what to do next. The following morning he woke up feeling at peace and told his wife he was considering converting to Islam.

Reactions to conversion

His family was broadly accepting of the decision. His wife said she would support him as long as he was content to remain married to a Christian woman. His mother cried and his grandfather said he was “grateful that he wasn’t converting to Catholicism.”

“I had preached hatred all these years and now it was coming back at me.”

Joram van Klaveren, former member of Dutch far-right Party for Freedom

But the backlash from voters was vicious. Van Klaveren went public with his conversion in 2019 and received more than 2,000 death threats. “People said, ‘I’m going to rape your wife and shoot your children.’” He wasn’t surprised by the reaction. “What goes around comes around. I had preached hatred all these years and now it was coming back at me.”

He had considered keeping his conversion private but a local Imam told him that was impossible. “Everybody knows who you are, if you walk into a mosque to pray, they will probably think you’re going to bomb it,” he was told.

Geert Wilders said he had “no words” to describe his dismay at van Klaveren’s conversion, saying it was like “a vegetarian working in an abattoir.”

The Muslim community, on the other hand, van Klaveren said, was nothing but welcoming. 

Elections and politics

Last November Geert Wilders’s PVV topped the polls in Dutch national elections. Van Klaveren said the result was depressing but not particularly surprising. In January, Wilders agreed to withdraw some of his most radical anti-Muslim policies in order to form a coalition government with right-wing parties.

But van Klaveren said he has no doubt that Wilders’ thinking on Islam has not changed. “It’s in his core,” he said. Van Klaveren doesn’t expect too much to change for the Muslim community under the new government.

The virtual reality tour at the Islam Experience Center in the Netherlands, co-founded by former far-right lawmaker Joram van Klaveren, aims to explain the basics of Islam and tackle misconceptions about the faith.Orla Barry/The World

The previous right-wing administration under Mark Rutte already introduced some policies that van Klaveren said were Islamophobic such as a ban on the burqa and niqab, coverings worn by some Muslim women.

But van Klaveren said whatever happens, he will do what he can to fight against any anti-Muslim policies the new right-wing coalition might attempt to introduce.

“I worked in politics for over 12 years, fighting Islam,” he said. “Now, I have to do the same trying to erase all those things that I proposed.”

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