Dutch anti-Islam maverick Geert Wilders has taken his cinematic assault on the Quran to Britain's House of Lords, sparking heated debate inside the building and angry protests outside.
The invitation to Parliament, and Wilders' stunning political gains in the Netherlands this week, highlight a growing dichotomy in Europe: concern at the increasing number of Muslims who reject long-cherished liberal values, against the liberal tradition of welcoming the world's unfortunates and embracing multiculturalism.
Wilders screened his 15-minute film "Fitna" to about 60 people Friday, including a half-dozen peers, in a wood-paneled committee room in Parliament. The film associates the Quran with terrorism, homophobia and repression of women.
Outside, about 200 protesters jeered and chanted "Fascist thugs off our streets." Police scuffled with several demonstrators who tried to block a street to prevent a demonstration of pro-Wilders activists from the English Defense League from approaching Parliament.
The bleach-blond politician later held court for the British media, replete with quotes from Thomas Jefferson, George Orwell and references to the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
"I believe Islam is a violent and dangerous religion - but I have nothing against Muslims," he told reporters. Nevertheless, he said he wanted a Europe-wide ban on Muslim immigrants because "I believe they bring along a fascist ideology."
The visit, and the controversy surrounding it, added to Wilders' visibility as he heads into a national election campaign with his popularity soaring and polls predicting that his come-from-nowhere Freedom Party will be among the two largest in the next Dutch parliament.
His party scored well in local elections this week, winning one city outright and placing second in another. But his 4-year-old party lacks a national organization, and it declined to field candidates in nearly 400 other town hall races.
Wilders said he might even become prime minister after the June 9 election, although Dutch political analysts say it is unlikely he could garner a majority coalition if his party emerged as the largest.
The 46-year-old lawmaker said that if he came to power he would create a Dutch equivalent to the First Amendment, as well as closing all Muslim schools, forbidding the construction of any new mosque and banning the Quran, which he described as more dangerous than Hitler's manifesto Mein Kampf. The Prophet Muhammad, he said, "was a barbarian and a pedophile."
'Unpleasant bunch of racists'
The intemperate language, heard in Britain only on obscure reaches of the extreme right, made even his hosts uncomfortable.
"I don't necessarily believe that," said Lord Pearson, the leader of Britain's UK Independence Party, a fringe group defined principally by its opposition to the European Union.
Wilders describes himself as a libertarian and rejects comparisons with right-wing European politicians such as Jorg Haider in Austria and Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. His special blend of traditional Dutch tolerance and anti-Islamic rhetoric defies easy categorization, and others throughout Europe have taken note of his success.
The English Defense League, a newly formed, self-described "counter-jihad" movement with reported links to the UK far-right, has mimicked Wielder's relentless focus on Islam.
France's immigration minister in November launched a series of "national identity debates" that stirred up anti-immigrant, and sometimes anti-Islam, sentiment that alarmed some in the mainstream. France's conservative government is also moving toward banning face-covering Islamic veils.
In Denmark, discontent about immigration fueled the rise of the nationalist Danish People's Party, whose leaders regularly bash Islam and urge Muslim immigrants to adopt Danish values and culture. The party won 25 of 175 seats in Parliament in the last election in 2007, making it Denmark's third biggest political party. It has used its leverage with the center-right minority government to push through sharp restrictions on immigration.
Outside the British Parliament, protesters calling themselves antifascists denounced Wilders and his backers of the English League as racists.
Jack Kavanagh, one of the people wrestled out of the crowd by police, expressed scorn for Wilders, calling his movie "racist tripe."
Across the way, 70-year-old retiree Ian Birchall said the English League was composed of "a particularly unpleasant bunch of racists" intent on setting Britons against the country's approximately 2 million strong Muslim community.
Back in the Netherlands, Wilders' outspoken attacks on Islam have brought charges against him for "hate speech," a little-enforced crime subject to a maximum one-year jail sentence and fine. He appealed to have the case dismissed, saying his remarks were not against Muslims but rather against Islam, and were protected by freedom of speech. Last month the court ruled against the objection, but is yet to set a trial date.
He has been under permanent police protection since his life was threatened in 2004 by the Muslim radical who killed filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His name was in a note pegged with a knife to van Gogh's lifeless chest.