Culturalization of the Dutch elections

Today are the Dutch elections. Given the financial crisis and the economic problems within the EU, the main issue is how is to tackle the economic crisis and how to take up Euro cutbacks; a number that everyone seems to agree upon. All parties have detailed plans that promise major revisions in health care, education, development aid and so on. No party is excluded although the Socialist Party (a conservative populist left wing party) and the Party for Freedom of Geert Wilders (a radical right wing populist anti-islam party) are trying to emphasize their attempt to save health care and elderly provisions.

The focus on economics has toned down the sometimes excessive rhetoric about immigration, integration, Islam and Muslims. But it did not disappear completely.
BBC News – Immigration still an issue for voters in Dutch election

Kirsten Fenvelt, a 33-year-old secretary, admits that the topic is uncomfortable, but plunges in.

“It’s a problem with strange people,” she says. “Some people don’t want to work and they want the money, and for me that’s an issue, because I live with a lot of people like that around.

“It’s not getting any better,” she adds. “For the last few years it’s been getting worse and worse. Something should happen.”

“Officially, this issue has faded away,” say political commentator Syp Wynia, “but that’s also what the traditional parties want.
Political analyst Syp Wynia Political analyst Syp Wynia says the immigration issue has not gone away

“In countries like ours… it’s a sort of triangle. Crime is one point of the triangle. Another one is your income, the future of the welfare state. And the other one is immigration.

“It was generally recognised that this triangle existed in the last 10 years. And I’m sure that among the general public, amongst voters, the triangle still exists.”

When we look at the election programs of the parties it is very clear that Wilders is the one who sets the agenda on this. His theme is not new of course. Already since the 1990s there is a growing trend of cultural differentialism: a vision that differentiates people into separate groups based upon the idea that the ‘members’ of these group share the same homogeneous culture that is different from other groups and that explains why these people act they way they act. Besides cultural differentialism also monist conceptions of identity (that assume homogeneity and hardly allow any variety) are underlying many of the proposals in the election programs. We can see this all over Europe and at the same time every country has its pecularities. In the case of the Netherlands Ian Buruma writes:
Dutch Parliamentary Elections: The Return of the Bourgeoisie – SPIEGEL ONLINE – News – International

Quite a few former leftists have joined the hysterical chorus about an impending “Eurabia.” In Holland, many leftists who came of age in the 1960s grew up in conservative, often religious families. Their rebellion was often as zealous as the institutions they rebelled against. The idea that religion is once again a serious factor in Dutch society, this time in the shape of Islam, fills them with rage.

In other respects, Fortuyn was closer to more traditional populist demagogues. He attacked the “elites,” encouraged a cult of the strong leader (himself), and promised a way back to a more disciplined, mono-ethnic, mono-cultural society — as if such a society ever really existed.

Defending the ‘Gay Capital of the World’

Geert Wilders is not a flamboyant homosexual, but he is just as eccentric as Fortuyn. Perhaps as a way to disguise the dark hair inherited from his partly Indonesian ancestors, his hair is permanently dyed peroxide-blond. He, too, professes to be a champion of liberalism, and of free speech, for himself, at any rate. The Koran, which he compares to Mein Kampf, should be banned in his view, or at least heavily censored. He also advocates deportation of Muslim immigrants, and a special tax on headscarfs. Without such radical measures, he believes, “Judeo-Christian civilization” is doomed.

One thing that distinguishes Wilders from some of his populist colleagues in other parts of Europe, is a somewhat sinister form of philosemitism, which is driven by his loathing of Islam. A frequent visitor to Israel, Wilders approves of the Israeli hard line on the Arab population. He also finds support among right-wing Jewish organizations in the US, where he finds sympathetic audiences, often in synagogues, for his diatribes against Islam. One wonders what his audience at an “anti-Jihad conference” in Jerusalem made of his remark that Muslims were threatening Amsterdam’s status as the “gay capital of the world.” But this observation says something about the peculiar nature of modern Dutch populism.

Wilders, and before him Pim Fortuyn, is exploiting anxieties that go beyond the fear of Islam. A combination of economic globalization, murky EU politics, financial crises and uncontrolled immigration has eroded many people’s trust in traditional politics and undermined their sense of belonging. More and more voters, in Europe as well as the US, feel unrepresented by the traditional parties. Old neighborhoods have been changed by immigration, and the sense of national identity has been shaken.

Buruma points to the liberal elite as the real target of Wilders cs. To a certain extent that is true I think. But I also think we have gone beyond that. Wilders’ best trick of all is I think that he is recognized as an ‘islamcritic’ instead of a radical anti-islam politician who instrumentalizes a particular vision on Islam (as an intolerant and prone to violence religion) and Dutch society (a tolerant, freedom loving society that once was pristine but now threatened by Islamization) has become common sense. Journalists can ask questions about the Islamization of Dutch society without realizing they are taking up Wilders’ rhetoric. All politicians are talking about massimmigration while in reality the number of migrants has decreased between 2004 and 2007 and between 2002 and 2007 only 6.000 migrants (immigration and emigration) could be added.

This of course does not mean all parties are the same. The social democrats and liberal democrats point out that the Netherlands always has been a country of minorities but they also emphasize the importance of Dutch values, freedom of speech, equality of men and women, separation of church and state and they also focus on domestic violence, honour crimes, genital mutilation and so on (the last three categories constituting so-called ‘cultural crimes’). The orthodox Christian parties and Christian-Democrats emphasize the Christian (added Jewish and Humanist) traditions in the Netherlands which should be the ‘Leitkultur’ in the Netherlands. All others see the Netherlands as a post-Christian, secular and humanist country. The most fundamentalist Christian SGP identifies Islam as one of its opponents together with secularism. All parties underline the necessesity the crucial emphasis on ‘our fundamental norms and values’. Even the most leftist parties (GreenLeft and Socialist Party) do not completely escape the logic of cultural differentialism although they focus as well on a more socio-economic approach. The orthodox Christian Union also deems it important not to accept any limitations for the fundamental freedoms of specific groups (pertaining to themselves but in the past they have extended this logic also to Salafi Muslims). The social-democrats remain somewhere between the Christian-Democrats, conservative liberals of VVD on the one hand, and the other left wing parties. According to them people have to ‘choose’ for the Netherlands, one can remain proud of their roots and Dutch natives also have to make room for ‘new cultures’ that were not part of Dutch society before; a line of thinking that clearly betrays the idea of clearly demarcated cultural groups. The conservative liberals state that they are neutral in religious affairs unless people breach ‘our nuclear values, our democratic order’ and they see the entrance of disadvantaged migrants leading to a ‘cultural drama’ and they do not want any foreign imams anymore (priests or pandits do not seem to be a problem), the are opposed to ‘culturally determined violence such as genital mutillation) and deem sharia courts (which we do not have) as ‘fundamentally at odds with the rule of law and unacceptable’ and Salafi mosques working to oppose integration as unsuited for Dutch society.

In general the conservative liberals (VVD), Christian-Democrats (CDA), Party for Freedom (PVV) and fundamentalist Christian SGP opt for a cultural homogenisation (each according to their own standards) of society. In doing so they separate society in Us (with a Jewish-Christian, Humanist culture) and a strange other culture (mostly Islamic or Muslim). In particular radical Muslims are perceived as the major threat to the homogenuous nation-state the Netherlands (or rather its utopia). The PVV makes a huge issue of wanting to register all ethnic minorities, including the Antillians (who are in fact part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands). No party talks about opportunities migration creates for a small country such as the Netherlands, almost no recognition of the positive sides of Islam (albeit that some point to the capacity to create cohesion) let alone any relativism towards the idea of a superior Dutch or Western culture. And although all parties clearly state ‘it’s the economy stupid!’ no party recognizes the difficult socio-economic circumstances of migrants (except as a reason not to let people enter the country anymore), the differences between generations that causes problems, modernity’s emphasis on individuality and authenticity that partly stimulates religiosity and only lip-service is paid to the issue of discrimination. The multi-dimensionality of Dutch society and of its migrants is reduced to a very one-sided emphasis on cultural differences, the need to educate the others (or to exclude them) that has pervaded the rhetoric of all parties.

Brubaker has written some interesting stuff on this tendency which he calls ‘groupism’: the tendency to take bounded groups as fundamental units of analysis (and basic constituents of the social world). It is indeed a perspective on the world rather than entities in the world as he explains, that at the same time maintains and re-produces groupist ways of thinking because it affects everyday common sense, practical and institutional categories, everyday encounters, cultural idioms, cognitive schemas, interactional clues, discursive frames, organizational routines, social networks and institutional forms, as Brubaker explains. The consequence of this cultural differentialism (which does not have to be negative in all case) is that it leads to a culturalization of citizenship with an increasing exclusivist tendency; migrants and Muslims remain categorized as outsider groups (even though we already have a third generation). This brings about the question if they ever will be part of the Dutch moral community; there is no party that answers that question.

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