wilders
Dutch politican Geert Wilders. (AP Photo)

A mass shooting tragedy may have been averted late on Sunday, when two gunmen were killed in Garland, Tex., outside an exhibition for drawings of the prophet Muhammad. The two men apparently had hoped to kill attendees, but after they shot an unarmed security guard, police officers returned fire.

In an e-mail to The Washington Post, Pamela Geller, an anti-Islam activist who organized the event, blamed "Islamic jihadis" who were "determined to suppress our freedom of speech violently." That sentiment was echoed on Twitter by another high-profile, if seemingly out-of-place, guest: the Dutch politician Geert Wilders.

It may seem odd that a Dutch politician was attending an event in Texas, but Wilders has long been an ally of Geller. As far back as 2010, he was attending rallies organized by the native New Yorker against a proposed Muslim community center near the site of the World Trade Center. Along with Geller, he was one of the organizers of Sunday's event and had presented a check to one attendee for his drawing of Muhammad.

Yet while the presence of Wilders -- an elected member of the Dutch parliament and the leader of the fourth-largest party in the Netherlands -- may seem like a legitimizing factor for a clearly controversial event, Wilders's involvement is more complicated than that. For one thing, the Dutch MP might be standing up for free speech in Texas, but in his native Netherlands, he has repeatedly called for the Koran to be banned.

The 51-year-old Wilders, with his blond bouffant, has been a highly visible sight in European politics for more than a decade, well-known for his criticism of Islam and his anti-immigration views. He leads the Party for Freedom (PVV), currently the fourth-largest party in the Dutch parliament. The PVV, founded by Wilders in 2005, has become an established player in Dutch politics, supporting the minority government between 2010 and 2012 and becoming the third-largest Dutch party in the European Parliament.

After living for some time in Israel and initially working in health insurance, Wilders began his political career in 1990 working for Frits Bolkestein, leader of the center-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). In 1996, he was elected to the city council in Utrecht. Some accounts suggest that he began to consider Islam a problem around this time, in part because of his neighborhood's large immigrant population and crime problem.

At the same time as Wilders's personal shift, much of Dutch society as a whole was reevaluating its long-standing multicultural position. Wilders was elected to the Dutch parliament in 1998 and later became a spokesman for VVD, where his criticism of immigration began to gain national attention. After Pim Fortuyn, an energetic populist leader who had become one of the first Dutch politicians to actively criticize Islam, was shot dead in 2002, Wilders became the Netherlands' most prominent critic of Islam.

Wilders split with VVD in 2004 and went on to form his own party. His criticisms of Islam became notorious -- in a speech to the Dutch parliament in 2007, Wilders said there was "no such thing as 'moderate Islam' " and that "Islam is the Trojan Horse in Europe." That same year he wrote a blog post that called for an outright ban on the Koran, the Islamic holy book, and later suggested a tax on Muslim headscarves. He was acquitted on charges of inciting hate in 2011, a result that only increased his profile.

Although Wilders's views on immigration might place him far to the right, at other points he isn't so easy to categorize. He supports same-sex marriage, for example, and has sometimes distanced himself from other far-right parties such as France's National Front (although he apparently overturned his opposition to Marine Le Pen's party for an ill-fated attempt at joining Europe's right-wing populist parties last year).

The enduring appeal between Geller and Wilders is obvious. For Geller, the presence of a long-standing European critic of Islam is important in the wake of attacks in Paris and Copenhagen this year. For Wilders, his libertarian leanings fit in better in the United States, where his anti-Islam speech is supported by the First Amendment. His views have gotten him banned from entry in European nations. His embrace of a potential ban on the Koran may seem to be incongruous with that view of free speech, but his American allies don't seem troubled. (Wilders reasons that if the Dutch ban "Mein Kampf," they should ban the Koran to be consistent.)

The shootings in Texas do serve as a reminder, however, that whether you disagree with Wilders's views or not, those views put his life on the line. Wilders has lived with armed protection since the 2004 killing of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, another Dutch critic of Islam, and has faced numerous threats on his own life.

While in the Netherlands, he lives in a government safe house fitted with a panic room and rarely talks to outsiders: Der Spiegel once reported that his security concerns meant that he was able to meet his wife only once every week or two.