In particular the foreign press have made a big deal of the Dutch elections within the context of a possible domino effect of racist populism prior to the elections in France and Germany and after Brexit and Trump’s election victory. Would the Netherlands be the next to the fall? On the surface, this question seems to make sense with all the attention Wilders and his Freedom Party receives in and outside the Netherlands and the still existing myth of Dutch tolerance. The poor, albeit not unexpected poor result, of the Freedom Party would then mean that the Dutch have stopped the domino effect.
However, such reading of Dutch politics and elections is based upon a profound lack of understanding of developments regarding policies and debates about Islam, migration and integration in the last 35-40 years and an example of a lazy reproduction of the political rhetoric of the mainstream politicians against the populist radical right.
As Cas Mudde has argued, the populist radical right should be seen as a radical interpretation of mainstream values. This becomes clear when we look at the important processes of racialisation in Dutch society which in different ways center around three questions: how do we know that particular groups are different compared to ‘us’, how do political elites distinguish between us and them and how do political elites know the Other constitutes a threat?
Migrants, Islam and Danger
The idea that migrants and their culture pose a danger was present from the earliest days of Dutch minority policies. The idea of danger initially pertained mainly to the notion that migrant cultures, and then in particular Islam, were a potential threat to the rule of law. Rather than assuming such a threat was all pervasive, policy makers and advisors stated that the danger migrant cultures could present might occur when conflicts came about and, in a situation such as this, ‘cultural achievements’ would have to be defended.
By the 1990s, developments had already taken place that involved migrants being categorised primarily on the basis of their culture and/or religion. Dutch values with regard to secular and sexual freedoms became the standard for measuring integration: the so-called culturalisation of citizenship. This culturalisation puts the burden of integration on migrants: it is their culture which is at odds with the so-called ‘cultural achievements’ of the Netherlands and it is up to them to change it. Both the culturalisation of citizenship and the securitisation of Islam have had profound impacts on Dutch integration policies, as evidenced by the stronger emphasis placed on the value of assimilation. After 9/11, the debates about integration and security focused almost entirely on Islam and Muslims, and their being an alleged threat to Dutch society.
The allochtonisation and autochtonisation of the Dutch people
A second mode of racialisation in policies pertains to the autochtonisation and allochtonisation of Dutch people to illustrate that we are dealing with a particular mode of racialising migrants in policies and debates. Allochtonisation refers to the categorising of individuals and debates and policies as ‘people from a foreign land’ while autochtonisation is the categorising of other individuals as ‘people from this land’ in discourses about belonging, migration and integration in the Netherlands.
It has been difficult to decide who is placed in the category of allochthonous. In general, this category refers to people who are considered to be non-native and a distinction is made between westerners and non-westerners. The opposition, does not only pertain to birthplace but also to kinship, while the link with culture connects both birthplace and kinship to stereotypical explanations of collective differences in attitudes and practices.
Although the process of allochtonisation does not necessarily, or exclusively, refer to Muslims, they have nevertheless become exemplary ‘allochthones. This does not mean that Christian migrants, by definition, become part of the Dutch moral community, as the quintessential autochtonised Dutch person is white and many allochtonised people (for example Moroccan-Dutch) are referred to as having a little colour.
In the 1990s, liberal leader Bolkestein, followed by the author Fortuyn, questioned the compatibility of Islam with democracy, and Islam with Dutch identity. Albeit from different perspectives, what they added to the already existing focus on migrants’ culture was their emphasis on Islam on the one hand, and protecting an ideal image of Dutch liberal values on the other. The emphasis in the pleas made by Bolkestein, and later the populist leader Fortuyn, was not only on having a people with a shared culture (which for them was liberal and secular) but also on building a strong defence of liberal principles in the face of an illiberal force that was increasingly exemplified by Islam.
In particular Fortuyn introduced the argument about the Islamisation of society entered the debates. Fortuyn’s (and other’s) now common argument against the ‘Islamisation of our culture’ transformed the regular incorporation of Islam into a cultural conflict. It is an argument that is in particular expressed in opposition to the presence or construction of mosques, the public call to prayer, and occasionally the headscarf. As such, Islam is constructed in opposition to so-called Dutch liberal values, a difference which is seen as causing problems for integration and security, and is often followed by a moral evaluation and a prescription of how to act: namely that one should defend so-called liberal secular values.
The radical politicisation of Dutch identity
In sum, I would argue that the racialisation of Muslims, albeit an always contested and never totalitarian process, has transformed a religiously diverse group of Dutch citizens into a separate and exceptional category of people who are problematised in policies and debates. This is not the responsibility of Wilders and the likes. What I analyse here is mainstream policy and debate from the 1980s onwards from conservative liberals (VVD of PM Rutte), progressive liberals (D66), social-democrats (PvdA) and Christian-democrats (CDA). What Fortuyn and Wilders picked up upon was the already existing racialisation with its focus on culture, threat and religion. What they added was a politicization of culture by singling out migrants, Moroccan-Dutch people and Muslims and their culture and religion while the mainstream parties tended to de-politicize issues of migration and integration.
What we see now is that also the mainstream parties have made those issues part of their electoral campaigns, in particular the Christian-Democrats (CDA) and conservative liberals (VVD). We already saw that the VVD-PvdA government established a partial ban an face coverings (pertaining to the face-veil in particular), problematizing the influx of refugees and playing down the racist violence against asylum centres and the local democratic processes, stripping foreign fighters in Syria from their Dutch nationality (which can only be implemented in the case of persons with dual citizenship). The campaign rhetoric of the Christian parties focused on an opposition between the alleged Dutch Judeo-Christian tradition vs Islam while the VVD targeted migrants and minorities by singling them out in their rhetoric of act normal or leave.
The domino effect is not what you think it is
So yes, the Freedom Party did not become the first party, but it did gain seats. Also a new party has entered Dutch Parliament: Forum voor Democratie. Its leader Baudet has minimized rape and expressed his fear that more migrants would lead to diluting the Dutch population. But far more important, the famous Dutch tolerance is a myth which was very useful in making invisible the racist underpinnings and legacies of the Dutch nation-state while promoting an ideal image of the Dutch self. As Sara Salem explained yesterday in her excellent post Dutch elections and colonial continuity: The history of race and racism in Dutch nation-building:
this election has merely made transparent the fact that for the past few centuries the Netherlands has operated within this framework of racialized politics. Citizenship rules and regulations, categories of belonging, media, educational and everyday semantics – all of these structures that organize daily life are thoroughly racialized.
So no, the mainstream parties did not copy the (cultural) race theories of the populists: they have done the ground work for those theories. So no, the Dutch did not stop the domino effect of racist populism: the mainstream parties have taken over the racist rhetoric that was the result of the populists strategy of politicizing Islam, integration and immigration. And worse, the rhetoric of the domino effect reproduces the invisibility of the racist mainstream as well as Dutch nationalism by directing our attention to Trump’s US and Brexit as symbols of what went wrong and the Netherlands as a bulwark against what PM Rutte has called the ‘wrong kind of populists‘.
The text of this blogpost is based upon and partly taken from my article published in the Journal of Muslims in Europe: “You Need to Present a Counter-Message” The Racialisation of Dutch Muslims and Anti-Islamophobia Initiatives.