Part 1: Introduction

In 2008, after populist anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders released his film ‘Fitna – the movie’ in which he argued that the Quran provided a license to kill and that Islam was essentially a violent and intolerant ideology, a debate took place in Dutch parliament.[i] Many MPs, other than those from Wilders’ own Freedom Party, complained that Wilders’ film had portrayed a biased negative view of Muslims and Islam that did not reflect current reality. One Christian politician, for example, said:

  ‘My main criticism of Fitna is that it does not do justice to all Muslims, also in the Netherlands, […], who distance themselves from all the terror and violence, perpetrated in the name of Islam, who are proud to be Dutch, who do feel part of our society and want to live in harmony and peace with their fellow citizens.’

Rutte, then MP for the conservative liberal VVD party and current PM, stated:

‘In the Netherlands we have big problems with integration and with radical Islam. They have to be countered. You do not make any proposals in your movie. Instead, you lump all Muslims together. What is the purpose of that?’

One of the many themes raised in these fragments is the distinction between Muslims and radical Islam, and the ‘other’ Muslims: those who might be helpful in tackling the problems surrounding integration and Islam. While Wilders claims that there is only one version of Islam: the one that makes Muslims resort to violence and intolerant acts, the majority of politicians outside his party make a distinction between radical Islam and the ‘other’ Islam.

A second theme that emerges pertains to the idea of Muslims and Islam as a problem for integration. In Dutch politics, they are regarded predominantly in terms of a migration and integration issue: a group that comes from ‘outside’ which needs to be made compatible with Dutch society. Interestingly, a few years before the above-mentioned debate, in 2006, Rutte said: ‘We have no Islamic tradition’ in  response to a statement made by the Minister for Integration who, in an interview, claimed that the integration of Muslims was only going to be a matter of time, and that the Netherlands would have an Islamo-Judeo-Christian tradition in the future.[ii] Unlike several other European countries, such as the UK, the Dutch colonial and post-colonial situation did not result in the establishment of large Muslim communities but, as I will show in this chapter, to say there is no Dutch Islamic tradition at all is to erase parts of Dutch history.

This brief exposé raises questions which are important if one is to understand contemporary debates and events, and their historical frameworks. What function does this erasure of Muslims from Dutch history have for contemporary politics? How exactly did the Dutch imaginary and experiences with Islam evolve? I explore these questions by focusing on one important contemporary distinction pertaining to the regulation of Islam and Muslims: ‘moderate’ vs. ‘radical’ Muslim. Often taken as self-evident, the label ‘radical’ has been designated to a particular group of Muslims and readings of Islam that are regarded as being at odds with the position that religion should hold in the public domain. In a series of five posts I will trace how this distinction resonates throughout Dutch history, focusing on the 17th century debates surrounding ‘Turks’ and ‘renegades’ (part 2), the Dutch colonial enterprise in the East-Indies and the Muslims living in the Netherlands during the interbellum (part 3). Then I turn to the current situation by focusing on the racialization of Muslims and the institutionalization of Islam that occurs within the changing management of religion (part 4) and I will end will a brief discussion of my findings (part 5).

Following Mamdani, I am interested in how the ‘good Muslim’ or ‘acceptable Muslim’ is constructed.[iii]  Although the lives experienced by Muslims in the Netherlands are, and always have been, much more complex, multi-layered and ambivalent than can be captured by this radical vs. moderate Islam opposition, it has nevertheless always played an important role. Taking the opposition of radical and moderate as a variant of acceptable and unacceptable Islam, my argument in this chapter is twofold. First of all, by presenting some historical snapshots which illustrate this distinction, the process by which the opposition between acceptable and unacceptable Islam became secularized is described and examined within the context of the Dutch struggles against Spain, the colonial efforts across the world and the 19th and 20th century efforts to regulate religion and maintain social peace.

By mapping the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable Islam  and by showing the inconsistencies of this distinction, I illustrate just how this opposition between acceptable and unacceptable Islam has resonated throughout the Dutch history of Islam, yet has always remained unstable and open to changing contexts, circumstances and the pragmatic compromises made between the political elites and the Muslim community. So, although the contemporary distinction of acceptable and unacceptable Islam, through its talk on culture, radicalism, and its idealized vision of Dutch identity, continues to produce the acceptable and unacceptable Muslim tropes, the realities on the ground are nearly always much more complicated and nuanced.

[i] Fitna debate Tweede Kamer. Last accessed 27 May 2019.

[ii] Trouw, Nederland moet de islam omarmen (The Netherlands should embrace Islam). Last accessed 27 May 2019.

[iii] Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror (New York, NY: Pantheon 2004).

Part 2: On Moriscos, Turks and Renegades