Europe and Islam: Dutch elections – Have the Dutch become intolerant?

The results are in
Recently voters in Switzerland issued a stop of the construction of minarets. In Italy, a Muslim woman wearing the niqab was fined for it. Belgium and France are trying to illegalize and stigmatize the burka and niqab. And the Dutch had the elections. There are many reports about ‘right wing Wilders” breakthrough, the major shift to the right. The conservative liberals (VVD) won the elections with (only) 31 out of 150 seats, the social-democrats  (PvdA) won 30 seats, the radical populist anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders managed to earn 24 seats (earlier 9) and the christian-democrats (CDA)  fell back from 41 to 21 seats resulting in the end of prime minister Balkenende. The progressive liberals of D66 (see here for more on the term liberal in Dutch politics), the populist Socialist Party (SP) lost 10 of its 25 seats, the orthodox Christian party (CU) went from 6 to 5, the fundamentalist christian party (SGP) and the Animal Party (PvdD) remained stable at two seats and the progressive liberal green party GroenLinks grew from 7 to 10.

Five remarks

  1. This indeed is a major shift in Dutch politics, but not for the first in recent times. In 1994 the christian democrats also lost 20 seats (then from 54 to 34) opening the era of the purple coalition: social democrats, conservative and progressive liberals. In 2002 there was another major shift after the assassination of populist leader Fortuyn, bringing the christian-democrats back into government.
  2. What we can also see from 1994 onwards is a decrease in seats for the political center: the conservative liberals, social democrats and christian-democrats. The rise of populist anti-elite and anti-multiculturalism politicians such as Fortuyn, Verdonk (former minister of integration, her party did not gain any seats i this election) and Wilders together with the Socialist Party is the result of this and strengthened it.
  3. Wilders’ breakthrough is not new. His popularity and anti-islam ideology have grown out of a paradoxical development in the 1990s whereby religion and ethnicity were increasingly seen as private issues while at the same time along a broad political spectrum questions arised about the lack of social cohesion in society due to cultural diversity. Conservative VVD leader Bolkestein was the first to publicly address the issue of Islam in 1991 and its alleged incompatibility with Western culture. After him it was populist leader Fortuyn who rised to the occasion just before 9/11 but after having published his book Against the Islamization of the Netherlands already in 1996. The social democrats by that had also become more focused on culture and religion as impediments for integration and social cohesion from 2000 onwards.
  4. Fortuyn and Wilders did not emerge out of the traditional radical right wing parties although there is some overlap between their constituencies. They are therefore not connected with a nationalist, racist and xenophobic tradition that has had a relatively small group of supporters since World War II. In fact both strongly condemn racism, intolerance and discrimination (which is not the same as saying that they love migrants of course) and Wilders has strong philosemitic agenda. Ian Buruma suggests Fortuyn and Wilders are better perceived as the radical offspring of the reformists in the sixties. The sixties have brought many freedoms and relieved the Dutch from the burden of religion but also is perceived as the cause of losing a sense of identity because of the relavist nature of the 1960s. Wilders, and Fortuyn before him, try to revive a sense of pride about Dutch culture in a utopian way whereby Dutch culture is viewed as everything that Islam is not: peaceful, tolerant, committed to freedom of speech and sexual freedoms.
  5. Although migration and integration were not dominant issues during the campaign, the first analysis show that the issue was important for most people who did vote for Wilders. But it was certainly not the only reason. Wilders has broadened his agenda against the background of economic reforms proposed by many other other parties such as the VVD; here they are more conservative and aiming at protecting the existing status quo in favour of the ‘common man’. And I think, more than other parties, they had a positive message. The last days of the campaign the PVV presented itself as the party for hope and optimism. I think this is important because in the Dutch Ethnobarometer research a few years ago it appeared that even people from the left opted for voting Wilders because they saw him as someone who could solve their problems and the problems Dutch society was facing, while seeing no credible leader on the left. These problems did not only pertain to multiculturalism and Islam but also to a political elite who appeared to be unaccountable for their mistakes (while giving way to migrants), the EU integration (and the loss of sovereignty of the Netherlands somehow extended to a loss of sovereignty of their personal lives) and so on.

Attributing Wilders’ victory to a rise of Dutch intolerance (although that may be the case) means therefore neglecting a trend that has been going on for more than a decade now and the variety in people’s motives for voting for him. It also neglects the fact that other parties have been subjected to the same trend as well while there exists at the same time a broad opposition in Dutch society against the PVV and Wilders. A recent debate after the elections is typical for both the similarities and differences of the PVV and other parties. After the elections it appeared that people discovered that the PVV proposed an ethnic registration for all citizens (except natives and including Antillians (I have written about it earlier but it took a sports journalist on TV to make the public aware of this…). Moreover, it is already standard practice that newborns from people with at least one allochtoneous (migrant) parent are registered as being allochtone (from foreign soil).


Earlier however the social democratic minister of the interior proposed an ethnic registration for criminals. While the PVV is more blunt and generalizing, the social democrats have taken up the same logic in tackling problems in society with migrants.

The logic of culture talk

What is clearly apparent in the Dutch case is that the perception of conflict follows the logic of ‘culture talk’. This means people have a sense of how the relationship between conflict and identity is created namely that putting people with different identities together, in particular the fault line between Muslim and non-Muslim, is responsible for creating competition and tension between the two groups. People seem to understand ethno-religious conflict as primarily ethno-religious in its cause and nature. The perceived differences between Muslims and non-Muslims appear to offer the explanation of the (expectation of) conflict. This resembles the ‘clash of civilization’ (Huntington 1997) where ethnic and/or religious groups are treated as homogenous, clearly demarcated groups and where the basis of conflicts lies in ethno-cultural realities. The dichotomy used here between Muslims and non-Muslims means that it is the individuals who are seen as part of the Muslim-group who have the apparently great depth of cultural attachment, loyalty to an (ancestral) community and a sacred tie that binds them. The others are lumped together under the concept of non-Muslims that is more or less an empty concept and is never defined (only by that which is not Islamic).

The logic of ‘culture talk’ with regards to the relationship between Muslim and non-Muslims is based upon three premises:

  1. Cultural essentialism: Seeing human beings as ‘cultural’, the bearers of a distinct, bounded and homogeneous culture, which defines them and differentiates them from others.
  2. Islam as an extreme, exceptional case
  3. Anxiety: There is an anxiety about people’s loss of cultural values and a threat to their individual and collective lifestyles among minorities and majorities.

One of the most outspoken politicians using the logic of ‘culture talk’ as part of her rhetoric is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Her recent book Nomad provides an excellent example of how Islam is perceived within this logic:
Hirsi Ali, Berman, and Ramadan on Islam : The New Yorker

she reminds her readers of the West’s tradition of intellectual revolt against clerical tyranny and warns of the insidious, intransigent enemies in their midst. “The Muslim mind today seems to be in the grip of jihad,” she writes.

She is not hopeful that Americans will heed her warning. Her initial job interviews in the United States were discouraging: the Brookings Institution, she writes, worried that she might offend Arab Muslims. (The conservative American Enterprise Institute, however, immediately appointed her as a fellow.) On college campuses, Muslim students accuse her of wanting to “trash” Islam, while Western feminists, convinced that white men are “the ultimate and only oppressors,” lack the “courage or clarity of vision” to help her knock down the mental “hovels” of the East. Pointing to Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s murderous rampage in Texas, last November, she deplores the “conspiracy to ignore the religious motivation for these killings” in America.

Muslims today, Hirsi Ali believes, must be forced to choose between the darkness of Islam and the light of the modern secular West.

Hirsi Ali and Wilders are part of a transnational discourse can be identified in the writings of, for example, Oriana Fallaci and a number of other (liberal) writers such as Paul Berman, Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens and Bernard Henry-Levy. A whole genre of books written by liberals displaying their (essentialist) criticism towards an Islam that transcended its traditional national boundaries and today threatens European ‘tolerance’ and ‘freedom’ has emerged. They envision a sort of ‘cold war’ in which Europe in particular has to be defended against Islam and especially against Islamism, threatening the secular liberal values and freedoms of society. This discourse ties tolerance and freedom to a European lifestyle that is opposed to what is perceived as an Islamic lifestyle. It is very clear that this cultural logic has found its way into people’s lives and that they effect people’s identity and social relations and practices. How this actually works and what tactics are taken up by Muslims to respond and ‘use’ them in order to resist, accommodate or re-appropiate the public discourse on Islam and the strategies of national institutions, and how they turn these everyday experiences into public issues again (if they do), are matters that are poorly understood however and I hope I can do some research into that in the near future.

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