The Politics of Dutch Tolerance

Once, Amsterdam was the embodiment of the tolerance of the Netherlands: the proud capital of a country that saw itself as a symbol of openness. Until recently Amsterdam was seen as the favourable exception: here it was still different from the rest of the country, here the distrusting mass did not call for a revolt. And now there is a body with a butcher’s knife under a white sheet on the streets and everybody knows that we have been fooling ourselves.
Paul Scheffer (2004)

On 2 November 2004 Dutch film director and columnist Theo van Gogh is killed by Mohammed Bouyeri. This, according to some opinion leaders and newspapers, was the end of Dutch tolerance. Van Gogh well known in the Netherlands for some very good films and his vile columns on Islam and Muslims in which he frequently tried to insult Muslims by calling them goatfuckers (most of the time aimed at so-called radical Muslims but he remained vague about that) but at the same time seeing himself as someone standing up to defend the typically Dutch tolerance. It was said the attack was possible because we were too tolerant for people who want to destroy our democracy. Some said the aftermath of the murder when several Islamic schools, mosques and churches were set on fire, was the end of Dutch tolerance. Again, one could say. This was the second murder in a short period of time that shook the whole country. The first one was on 6 May 2002 when Dutch right wing populist Pim Fortuyn was murdered by a native Dutch environmental activist. That murder however did not raise serious questions about Dutch tolerance (although this was a very important issue in Fortuyn’s program and the election campaign): a Moroccan Muslim born in the Netherlands was needed for that. In foreign newspapers although the murder on Fortuyn has raised questions about Dutch tolerance, such as in an article in The Guardian about the confusion after the murder (Death of the Dutch Dream). In this article however tolerance is not related to the murder but the issues Fortuyn referred to in his campaign:

Dutch society, similarly, has become simply too complex to fit comfortably into the myth of liberal tolerance it had cast for itself.

The reactions on the murder of Van Gogh and before that the election campaign with Fortuyn, make clear that tolerance is an important issue for the Dutch. Tolerance is often seen as something good, neutral and beneficial. But that is highly questionable as PhD researcher on citizenship, subjectivity, and aesthetics in local communities Mepschen points out in an article on Monthly Review

Paul Mepschen, “Against Tolerance: Islam, Sexuality, and the Politics of Belonging in the Netherlands”

The Slovenian philosopher and sociologist Slavoj Zizek argues that tolerance constitutes a mystifying discourse veiling what is really at the heart of political and social struggle. There is good reason, Zizek argues, that someone like Martin Luther King didn’t make use of the concept. The struggle against racism is not a struggle for tolerance, but for social, economic, political, and cultural rights, and for changing unjust and undemocratic power relations. Zizek makes a parallel with feminism, asking if feminists struggle to be ‘tolerated’ by men. Of course not — from this perspective the concept of tolerance even becomes rather ridiculous.

Tolerance, in other words, does not work as an imperative for political struggle.

Mepschen explain his point by referring to the debates about Islam and homophobia (seen as related) and Dutch identity and integration (in which gays have become ‘normal’). Notwithstanding the discursive construction (rather than daily practice) the tolerance towards gays does not remove structural aspects of Dutch society that are detrimental to gays:


What causes the disgust mentioned above is heteronormativity, which is still a structural, essential aspect of Dutch society and moral order. In other words, heterosexuality remains the self-evident norm, a normativity which is reproduced through the family, in the educational system, popular culture, and media. The tolerated homosexual fits this heteronormativity very well: in almost every way he behaves according to heteronormative norms. As Steven Seidman says, the emphasis on tolerance has normalized homosexuality. The modern homosexual changed from a deviant, excluded other into the mirror-image of the ideal heterosexual. In a 2001 article on normalization, Seidman argues: “Normalization is made possible because it simultaneously reproduces a dominant order of gender, intimate, economic, and national practices”. He warns: “[L]egitimation through normalization leaves in place the polluted status of there marginal sexualities and all the norms that regulate our sexual intimate conduct apart from the norm of heterosexuality”. He also points out: “Ultimately, normalization [renders] sexual difference a minor, superficial aspect of a self who in every other way reproduces an ideal of a national citizen”.

As argued, many people in the Netherlands still look the other way, disgusted, shamed, when confronted with homosexuality in public. In such a heteronormative culture it needs not surprise that many homosexual men and women are depressed; that suicide rates among young gays and lesbians remain high; that transgenderism and other forms of gender nonconformity are ridiculed and transgenders are excluded; that violence keeps threatening the lgbt-community. The solution for such problems is not a politics based on tolerance, but on the struggle against heteronormativity.

[…] I do not argue for intolerance, but for re-imagining political struggles in such a way that the structural causes of exclusion, discrimination, and violence assume center-stage again, for a queer movement that takes up the struggle against heterosexual normativity. Tolerance is ideology. We do not fight to become tolerated but to change the world. Tolerance is an ideological construct that disarms the lgbt-movement and positions us against as opposed to alongside ‘other’ oppressed minorities.

Tolerance is perhaps one of the main mythical characteristics of Dutch society. Mythical in the sense that it is a sacred narrative concerning how the Netherlands and the Dutch people came to have their present form. It can be traced back to the Dutch golden era, the 17th century and is still an important issue in debates and the relationship between different people.

Tolerance in Dutch society is mainly used with regard to different religions. Especially Amsterdam from the 17th century onwards is famous for its ability to attract people with a wide variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds who came for economical reasons or fled for religious reasons (Lucassen en Penninx 1997). In the 20th century religious tolerance is very much connected with the system of pillarization. In this system society was deeply divided into distinct and mutually antagonistic religious and ideological groups. Because of overarching cooperation at the elite level and by allowing each group as much autonomy as possible, a stable democracy was made possible (Lijphart 1968). The 1960s were a turning point in history in Europe and the U.S. In the Netherlands this turning point involved a major shift in the position of religion. A popular narrative is that during the 1960s the Dutch liberated themselves from the burden of religion. Free speech rights were loosened in the 1960s and already after WWII new mass political parties such as the PvdA (Labor Party) and the VVD (secular-right-liberal) emerged as powerful forces (Kennedy 1995: 356). By the end of the 1960s daily newspapers had lost their religious affiliations and the mass media become more adversarial with loosening of ties to religious denominations (Kennedy 1995: 285). After that the debate about tolerance seems to have shifted towards the question of how to deal with (Christian) groups that do not acknowledge and accept the fundamental freedoms of a secular Dutch society. In this sense secularism is not only a description of the decline of religion in society but also a norm in society. This question was raised when several Christian groups refused to vaccinate their children against polio or in case of the SGP (a right wing orthodox Christian political party) who refuses women to become active members of the party. The way these questions were resolved did not question the tolerance of society. On the contrary it was seen as an affirmation of Dutch tolerance. More serious questions were raised during the 1990s when the issue of tolerance was linked to immigration and Muslims. This shows that tolerance is more just a virtue alone. It is an important aspect of identity politics on both sides of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Identity politics, in my view, should be taken to mean the negotiations about the definition and interpretation of ideas, practices and experiences that constitute a certain identity (Eickelman en Piscatori 1996, Eriksen 1993). In this case it involves negotiations about the definition and interpretation of ideas, practices and experiences related to tolerance. One only has to have look at the headlines of Dutch and foreign newspapers after the murder of Van Gogh, or look at touristic brochures and flyers to realize that tolerance is considered to be an in important part of Dutch identity. Or read for example the next statement from a website about studying in the Netherlands. It clearly shows how the history of tolerance, tolerance as a virtue and tolerance as a part of Dutch identity are interwoven:

The Netherlands is extremely tolerant
A recent poll about the Dutch identity has revealed that tolerance is a typical Dutch property. The forefathers of Dutch tolerance descend from far back in history. These were Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1563), Hugo de Groot (1583-1645) and Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677). These men influenced the Dutch tolerance, and with this prepared and defended in word and writing such as in the jurisprudence. democracy and equality are typical values that emanated from the tolerance philosophy. This also has its effect on aspects such as: the gay marriage, the Dutch drug policy and the recognition of prostitution as entrepreneurship. Recently it’s said that the Dutch tolerance is coming to an end. The murder of the well known politician Pim Fortuin and filmmaker Theo van Gogh has shaken Holland’s foundations.

Mepschen is right in taking the El Moumni affair as an important example in his essay. In the televisionprogram NOVA about the attitude of Moroccan boys towards homosexuality, young people were showing their contempt for gays. According to imam El Moumni in that program, homosexuality was a dangerous disease. This unleashed a fierce debate about the position of Islam in the Netherlands that clearly showed the transformation of tolerance that was already set in motion in the 1990s. Gaymagazine Gaykrant opened a website, as Mepschen also explained, with a poll with the thesis: ‘New Dutchmen must accept our tolerance, otherwise they don’t belong here’. An overwhelming majority of 91% agreed (Prins 2002, Trouw 2001). Also historian Kennedy points to the changing ideas about tolerance in an interview with Dutch daily Trouw (Top 2005). Freedom and tolerance become the dominant concepts and ‘narrow-mindedness’ and ‘intolerance’ are attacked. Tolerance becomes a militant term and something that other people should learn, a benchmark of integration and therefore part of identity politics.

Tolerance remains important for Dutch identity but is, in particularly by the ‘islamcritics’, transformed, from something that a dominant group is able to give to a minority group, to something the dominant group demands from the minority group. This is based on a very strong emphasis on personal autonomy and the conviction that the Other does not value personal autonomy and wants to restrict the personal autonomy of Dutch people.


Anderson, B. 1983. Imagined Communities, 2nd edition 1991 edition. New York: Verso Press.
Cliteur, P. 2002. Moderne Papoea’s, Dilemma’s van een multiculturele samenleving. Amsterdam/Antwerpen: De Arbeiderspers.
Eickelman, D. en J. Piscatori. 1996. Muslim Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kennedy, J. C. 1995. Building New Babylon: Cultural Change in the Netherlands during the 1960s. Ann Arbor: UMI Dissertation Services.
Lijphart, A. 1968. The politics of accommodation: pluralism and democracy in The Netherlands. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lucassen, J. en R. Penninx. 1997. Newcomers, immigrants and their descendants in the Netherlands 1550-1995. Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis.
Prins, B. 2000. Voorbij de onschuld. Het debat over de multiculturele samenleving. Amsterdam: Van Gennep.
—. 2002. Het lef om taboes te doorbreken. Nieuw realisme in het Nederlandse discours over multiculturalisme. Migrantenstudies 18:241-254.
Scheffer, P. 2000. “Het multiculturele drama,” in NRC Handelsblad.
—. 2004. “Tolerance kan alleen overleven binnen grenzen: de kans voor een nieuwe ‘wij’,” in NRC Handelsblad, pp. 15.
Slijper, B. 1999. Twee concepties van liberale tolerantie in een multiculturele samenleving. Themanummer over ‘Multicultureel Burgerschap’ geredigeerd door Baukje Prins en Sawitri Saharso. Migrantenstudies 15:83-95.
Top, B. 2005. “Tolerantie is niet meer neutraal,” in Trouw.
Trouw. 2001a. “Boze moslims verzamlen 10.000 handtekeningen.”
—. 2001b. “Onderzoek uitspraken imam.”
Van Gogh, T. 2001. “Niemand vindt het meer de moeite waard om de typisch Nederlandse tolerantie te verdedigen.,” in NRC Handelsblad.

One thought on “The Politics of Dutch Tolerance

  1. What bizar conclusions Paul Mepschen has drawn from the perfectly sensible premises of Zizek…
    If you wish to refute Mepschen’s claim that ‘heterosexual normativity’ acts as an impediment to the social, political and economical emancipation of gays, all you have to do is look at the Pim Fortuyn himself, a man who made Bruno look straight. His support came from the traditional white working and lower middle-classes, not your typical ‘cosmopolitan’ and gay-friendly crowd.
    In my opinion Mepschen confuses ‘heterosexual normativity’ with two things: the desire of many gays and lesbians to lead an average lifestyle (hence gay marriage) and the fact that 90 to 95% of the population is heterosexual (which also explains why two guys making out is not valued equally by all, simple biology).
    Now I know that Paul Mepschen is a socialist activist, and I can’t help but thinking that his intense desire to build this great coalition of all the downtrodden minorities of this earth (against whom?) has tainted his perspective on things.
    How on earth would you reconcile the views of orthodox christians and muslims with on homsexuality with those of gay activists? After all the only serious infringements of gay rights (exclusion, resignation of gay teachers, refusal to marry gays, prayer healings etc.) have come from religious minorities, not from mainstream Dutch society.
    I’m sorry, but this is just weird extreme-leftist politics, not anthropology.

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