U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham is under pressure to apologize publicly for posing for a photograph over the weekend with Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician known widely for his hostility towards immigrants and Islam.
“The vile anti-Muslim bigotry spewed by Mr. Wilders stands at odds with the values of religious freedom and pluralism that Senator Graham took an oath to defend,” Robert McCaw, the government affairs director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement Monday evening.
“Senator Graham must immediately apologize for appearing in this photo and issue a strong repudiation of the vile, Islamophobic views endorsed by Mr. Wilders,” McCaw continued. “American Muslims in South Carolina and across the country will be watching.”
McCaw’s comments follow condemnation from Jaime Harrison, Graham’s likely Democratic challenger for the U.S. Senate in 2020.
“Sen. Graham jetted to Europe on the taxpayer dime and met with a white nationalist — while a hurricane was hitting South Carolina, impacting hundreds of thousands of South Carolinians,” Harrison said in a statement. “This is a new low for Lindsey and proves he has no business representing us in the Senate.”
Graham wasn’t actually in Europe to meet with Wilders, the leader of the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands. The two men both happened to be attending the Ambrosetti Forum, an annual international economic conference in Italy.
At one point during the event, Wilders posted a photo of himself and Graham smiling for the camera.
“Great to meet with US Senator @LindseyGrahamSC,” Wilders wrote in a tweet he later deleted for reasons that have not yet been explained.
Graham told The State several days later he was not aware of Wilders’ reputation at the time.
“I never met him in my life,” Graham said. “He said he was the opposition leader in the Netherlands and wanted to have a photo and that’s all I know.
“I’m an incredibly talented person. I like me a lot,” Graham added with a laugh, “but I’m not an expert on Netherlands politics.”
Still, the photograph was notable given Graham is the chairman of the U.S. Senate committee in charge of foreign aid and the U.S. Department of State budget as he has made international relations and efforts to forge alliances with other countries a centerpiece of his political portfolio.
Wilders, on the other hand, has said he “hate(s) Islam,” compared the Quran to Adolf Hitler’s manifesto “Mein Kampf” and promoted what he has called a “head rag tax” for Muslim women who cover their heads with the Hijab.
He has faced charges of hate speech and of inciting violence against minorities in the Netherlands. U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who has been marginalized by his own party for his racist rhetoric, has praised Wilders for promoting the idea that westerners must procreate among themselves to “restore our civilization.”