A short history of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims in the Netherlands (Part 2) – On Moriscos, Turks and Renegades

In a series of blogposts I will try to trace how The 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. This is part 2.

For part 1: From Turks and renegades to citizens and radicals: A short history of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims in the Netherlands (Part 1)

For part 3: A short history of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims in the Netherlands (Part 3) – The management of Islam in the Dutch colonial empire

For part 4: A short history of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims in the Netherlands (Part 4) – Contemporary racialization and securitisation of Islam

For part 5: A short history of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims in the Netherlands (Part 5) – Discussion: Resonance and Amnesia

The weaponization of the European history on Islam

Only very small numbers of Muslims are likely to have lived in the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries.[i] Nevertheless, it is an important period as the first ‘Dutch’ imaginaries of Islam came about at this time, some of which to a certain extent are still relevant today. In the 17th century, several literary and academic works were published which discussed Islam. And the 17th century is sometimes invoked in contemporary debates about Islam, but without mentioning the past Dutch experiences. For example, in a debate held in 2007, Dutch anti-Islam leader Wilders said in parliament:

‘Islam wants to impose its imperialist agenda with violence (8:39). This is evidenced from European history. Fortunately, the first Islamic invasion of Europa was halted in 732 near Poitier and the second in 1683 near Vienna. Chairman, let us make sure that the third Islamic invasion, currently in full progress, will be stopped. Now creeping and, contrary to the eighth and seventeenth century without an Islamic army because the fearful dhimmis of the West, such as the Dutch politicians, completely open the doors for Islam and Muslims.’[ii]

Based upon a literature search, I outline three distinct features integral to the way that the Dutch have dealt with Islam and Muslims throughout history: their emphasis on tolerance, the need for elites to protect internal peace and cohesion and the international commercial and political interests of that time. The influence of these features, the ways their impact interrelate, and the contemporary erasure of past experiences, all resonate today.

Moriscos in the Dutch Republic

Until the 1570s, the region of what is now called the Netherlands and Belgium was characterized by the executions of heretics and religious persecution directed at the Anabaptists (who later divided into the conservative Mennonites and the progressive Doopsgezinden) who were demonized as seditionaries by the Catholics and the Protestants.[iii] The revolt against Spanish rule coincided with a quest for religious peace and tolerance which culminated in the Union of Utrecht treaty (1579), a treaty enshrining the freedom of conscience as a founding principle of a people.[iv] Because of this the Dutch republic became a favourite destination for various people fleeing from persecution, including Jews.[v] This did not mean that there was no hostility and opposition raised after the establishment of the treaty, but that it was nothing like the persecutions of preceding decades. There is alleged to have been a gathering place for Moriscos[vi] in Amsterdam which, according to Kaplan, was probably a house mosque similar to the informal private synagogues that the Sephardic Jews had.[vii] As Waite argues, the consistent upholding of the freedom of conscience contributed to the Dutch engaging with the so-called Moors in commercial and diplomatic endeavours.[viii] Yet, this supposed tolerance, as Kaplan cautions us, was first and foremost a rhetorical device to construct and emphasize the difference between the Dutch Republic and other countries (in particular Spain).[ix] The Republic had only a very small number of Muslims and it is doubtful that they were permanent residents, they therefore posed no risk to the status quo of that time. The fact that the Muslims were mainly Moriscos who had fled religious persecution and were expelled from Spain may also have created some sympathy among Dutch Protestants who had also suffered from Catholic anti-Protestant persecution.[x]

This does not mean that opinion in the Dutch Republic was altogether sympathetic though, as, for example, Waite shows in his analysis of several pamphlets, one of which associates the Moriscos with demonic witchcraft. Furthermore, anxieties over the religious conversions made by people and the ambiguous religious identities of the Moriscos and Conversos (Jews who converted to Catholicism) most probably ensured that the sympathy for the Moriscos never really went beyond seeing them as potential allies against Spain and useful mediators with the Ottoman Empire.[xi] In the 17th century there were several Christian publications which regarded Islam as a religion of infidels, heresy and apostasy (such as Grotius’ De Veritate Religionis Christianae from 1629 with a chapter on Islam)[xii]  but relatively few saw the Prophet Muhammad as the anti-Christ (which was reserved more often for the Pope).[xiii] The work of Grotius however was widespread and contributed strongly to anti-Islam rhetoric well up to the 19th century.[xiv]

Renegades: Traitors and diplomats

The fear surrounding the conversionary power of Islam, in particular, was evident in many European texts describing Muslims and Islam at that time[xv] but the Dutch Republic’s uprising against Spain seemed to be much more important to the people than the issues they had with the Ottomans, for example, as the slogan ‘rather the Turk than the Pope’ exemplified. Indeed, Dutch rhetoric all round appeared to be less demonizing, although the connection between Islam and diabolical sorcery remained strong.[xvi] Nevertheless, as Kaplan  suggests, it was the Dutch converts to Islam, the renegades, who were met with the harshest and most hostile reactions, as opposed to the foreign born Muslims. The term renegade, as Van Gelder explains, was a pejorative term referring to people who had renounced their Christian faith.[xvii] Kaplan suggests two factors that may explain that difference in treatment between foreign born Muslims and converts. First of all, people who had converted evoked (and still do) many ideas and emotions. They were regarded as “odious” and betrayers of God, truth, church, family and friends. A second reason, Kaplan states, people of different faiths were treated differently depending on whether they were foreigners or natives. The former enjoyed a religious freedom denied to native dissenters. The rather low numbers of foreign born Muslims in the Netherlands at that time may have contributed to that difference as well, although the same difference existed for Jews and Lutherans who were in much higher numbers.[xviii]

According to Van Gelder, the Dutch converts to Islam played a major role in establishing diplomatic relations with the Ottomans and the Moroccan Sultan (driven by their shared hostility toward Spain) to protect and expand Dutch commercial interests. One of the first Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam (now New York), Anthony Jansen van Salee (also known as Anthony De Turk and Anthony Jansen van Vaes [referring to the Moroccan city Fes]), worked for the Dutch authorities and his settlement was part of the Dutch efforts to damage the colonial efforts of Spain.[xix] Anthony Jansen van Salee was later joined by his brother, or half-brother, Abraham and his father the privateer Jan Jansz van Haarlem also known as Murat Reis. Murat Reis went from aggressor and privateer to protector, adviser, and diplomatic mediator representing Dutch interests in Morocco.[xx]

Etno-racial categories and religion

It is not entirely clear however whether Anthony Jansen van Salee was actually identified as a Muslim like his father was, but he was indeed referred to as ‘The Turk’.[xxi] Akbari argues that the term ‘Saracen’ (for Muslims) highlighting the religious alterity was replaced during these times by the terms ‘Turk’, and in other cases ‘Moor’, which according to her makes ethno-racial categories the primary marker of alterity instead of religion.[xxii] However the case of the Dutch converts ‘turning Turks’ suggests a more complicated and conflated notion of alterity based upon religious affiliation as well. As Van Gelder notes, a lot of the studies on converts focus on their position as people who cross boundaries, not only religious ones, but political and social boundaries too.

This emphasis reveals how the racialisation of Muslims and the distinction between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” Muslims was not only dependent on religion, but also upon ideas about politics, social position and economic power. Less clear in the Dutch case, but certainly so in Europe as a whole, is that Moors and Turks were also portrayed with dark skin (in particular the Moors). In the representations of Turks and Moors, their outward appearance (black skin or wearing particular clothes) was seen as a marker of difference, ignorance, barbarism and demonism, or the embodiment of evil compared to the white Christians.[xxiii] Given the political, commercial and geo-strategic interests Muslims, ‘renegades’, could combine positions of power with their roles as self-made mediators, advisors, and so on as long as they served the local and international interests of the Dutch rulers in particular in their struggles against Spain.


[i] Gerard Wiegers, ‘De Nederlanden en de islam in de zeventiende eeuw: Wisselwerking tussen beeldvorming en cultuurcontact?’, in Religie, cultuur en minderheden. Historische en maatschappelijke aspecten van beeldvorming, ed. W.A. Shadid and P.S. van Koningsveld (Tilburg: Tilburg University Press, 1999), 141-153; Benjamin Kaplan, Muslims in the Dutch Golden Age. Representations and realities of religious toleration (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007).

[ii] Debate on Islamic activism. 6 September 2007. The full text can be found here: http://www.pvv.nl/index.php/component/content/article/12-spreekteksten/484-inbreng-wilders-tijdens-debat-islamitisch-activisme.html. Last accessed 21 January 2017. The term ‘dhimmi’ refers to Christians and Jews under Islamic rule who enjoy a regulated religious freedom but are not equal to Muslim subjects. He refers to verse 8:39 from the Qur’an, which states: ‘And fight them until there is no strife, and religion is wholly for God. But if they desist, then truly God sees whatsoever they do.’ The Study Quran, trans. S.H. Nasr, C.K. Dagli, M. Massi Dakake, and J.E.B. Lumbard (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015), 483, see also 492.

[iii] Judith Pollmann and Andrew Spicer, Alastair Duke – Dissident Identities in the Early Modern Low Countries (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).

[iv] Kaplan, Muslims.

[v] Daniel M. Swetchinski, ‘From the Middle Ages to the Golden Age 1516–1621’, in The History of the Jews in the Netherlands, ed. J. C. H. Blom, R. G. Fuks-Mansfeld and I. Schoffer. Translated by Arnold J. Pomerans and Erica Pomerans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 44–84.

[vi] Moriscos were Muslims who converted to Christianity, or were forced to do so, in Spain after it was conquered by the Spanish kings and the Moors were driven out.

[vii] Kaplan Muslims, 20; Gerard Wiegers, ‘Managing Disaster: Networks of the Moriscos during the Process

of the Expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula around 1609’, Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures no. 36 (2010): 141–68.

[viii] Gary K. Waite, ‘Empathy for the Persecuted or Polemical Posturing? The 1609 Spanish Expulsion of the Moriscos as seen in English and Netherlandic Pamphlets’, Journal of Early Modern History 17, no. 2 (2013): 95-123.

[ix] Kaplan, Muslims.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Waite, ‘Empathy’, 122-123; See also: Mercedes García-Arenal and Gerard Wiegers, A Man of Three Worlds: Samuel Pallache, a Moroccan Jew in Protestant and Catholic Europe (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University, 2003).

[xii] Christoph Bultmann, ‘Grotius’s De Veritate Religionis Christianae in the Context of Eighteenth-Century Debates About Christian Apologetics and Religious Pluralism’, Grotiana 35 no. 1 (2014):168-190.

[xiii] Wiegers, ‘De Nederlanden’.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv]  Daniel Vitkus, Turning Turk: English Theater and the Multicultural Mediterranean, 1570–1630 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

[xvi] Gary K. Waite, ‘Reimagining Religious Identity: The Moor in Dutch and English Pamphlets, 1550–1620’, Renaissance Quarterly 66, no. 4 (2013): 1258-2159.

[xvii] Maartje van Gelder, ‘The Republic’s Renegades: Dutch Converts to Islam in Seventeenth-Century Diplomatic Relations with North Africa’, Journal of Early Modern History, 19, no. 2-3 (2015): 188-189.

[xviii] Kaplan, Muslims.

[xix] Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, A History of Islam in America: From the New World to the New World Order (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[xx] Van Gelder, ‘Republics’, 187-189.

[xxi] GhaneaBassiri, History, 10-12.

[xxii] Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Idols in the East. European representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100-1450 (New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), 285.

[xxiii] Vitkus, Daniel. ’Early Modern Orientalism: Representations of Islam in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century Europe.’, In Western Views of Islam in Medieval and Early Modern Europe: Perception of Other, ed. David R. Blanks and Michael Frassetto, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 224-225.

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