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

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 3.

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

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


Dutch colonial endeavours mark a different chapter in the Dutch experience with Islam. During the 16th century and thereafter the Dutch built an empire all over the world. The Dutch colonized the East-Indies (now Indonesia) which had a strong Islamic tradition. The Dutch built the Masjid Raya (Grand Mosque) at Aceh in 1870 (after destroying the old Masjid Raya during the first Dutch Aceh expedition when it became a stronghold of the local resistance). The Dutch colonization of the East-Indies also resulted in small communities of Muslims in the Netherlands and there were also Muslims from the Dutch West-Indies and Dutch Guyana.[i]

As Raben observes, it is remarkable how little attention writers of Dutch history give to the Dutch overseas activities, ignoring, or even rejecting, the influence of the Dutch colonial past on society and the political culture of the Netherlands. Raben points out that there was little interest in the Netherlands in what was going on overseas even during the occupation of Indonesia. This may have been related to several of the ideas that were dominant at the time: the idea of empire was never as central to the Dutch nation-making as it was to either the British or the French; the Dutch ‘empire’ was much smaller than those of Britain and France and was much more technocratic and business oriented, even though military aggression and administrative and cultural interference reached new levels; and, except for South-Africa, no Dutch colony had developed as a settler colony.[ii]

VOC mentalities

Many Dutch authors have examined the commercial trading networks of the Dutch United East India Company (in Dutch, the VOC) and looked at local histories but the interconnections between the different parts of the Dutch empire have largely been ignored, not even those between the Indies (for the Dutch the exemplary colonization) and the Dutch; many Dutch studies on nationalism and whiteness have also ignored the colonial factor.[iii] On the other hand, the colonial possessions and endeavours have been invoked as an element of the Dutch greatness of the past and as a focus point for how the Netherlands should be nowadays. For example, in 2006, during a debate about the results of Dutch economy, the incumbent Dutch PM Balkenende stated: “Let us be happy with each other! Let’s be optimistic! Let’s say: the Netherlands can do it again. That VOC mentality, looking across borders, dynamic! Right?!”

As many authors have shown, the relationship between the Dutch state and the East-Indies was complicated, layered and multi-faceted. By the end of 19th century and beginning of the 20th, the Dutch increasingly recognized and institutionalized religious diversity at home, while abroad in the East-Indies, secular-nationalist assumptions were dominant in the educational system as the Dutch attempted to regulate the Islamic presence, control local politics and, above all, prevent the establishment of a political Islam. So domestically there was a tendency to ‘pillarize’ society into socio-religious denominations, while in the colonies there was a strong preference for implementing secular rule (although the Dutch churches were by no means absent from the scene). [iv]

Religion: agama and/or adat?

Wijsen cautions us to note that there was no equivalent to the word ‘religion’ in the indigenous languages of Indonesia.[v] Missionaries and colonial administrators used the terms agama and adat. Agama is a Sanskrit word meaning tradition or teaching or post-Vedic text. It was used by missionaries to refer to religion, more specifically, to those elements of indigenous cultures that were regarded as compatible with Christianity. Adat (from the Arab adah, meaning custom or customary law) was used by missionaries for the ‘primitive’, ‘heathen’ or ‘pagan’ elements of indigenous culture that were at odds with Christianity. The administrators (informed by colonial scholars of Islam) used the term adat for pre-Islamic indigenous customs, beliefs and rules. It was thus separated by them from Islam which they referred to as agama. Wijsen states that one of the most well-known Dutch scholars of Islam at that time – Snouck Hurgronje:

“’[…] advised the Dutch colonial government to accept the indigenous, local, native, or mystical form of Islam, which he considered to be harmless, and to fight political and foreign forms of Islam (including Islamic law, syari’ah), which he considered to be dangerous and a threat to colonial rule and law.[vi]

We can clearly see a distinction here between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ Islam, yet it is an inconsistent one. In the discourse of administrators, agama referred to an ‘unacceptable’ Islam which was at odds with colonial policies and adat as the local customary law in contrast to Islamic law. In the discourse of the Christian missionaries agama refers to those elements of indigenous culture and religion that were regarded as being compatible with Christianity while adat was viewed as being incompatible with Christianity.


As in the past, we see a mixture of local, international and global motives and interests in how Islam is represented and should be dealt with.[vii] The pilgrimages from the East-Indies to Mecca played an important role here. Alexanderson’s[viii] account of how the Dutch colonial authorities tried to regulate the hajj maritime networks between the East-Indies and Jeddah shows how worried the Dutch authorities were about Hadrami Arabs and Meccan sheikhs who travelled within those networks on the same ships as the people from the East Indies. They feared that these individuals were dangerous and could influence the people from the East Indies with their anti-colonial, anti-imperial, nationalist and pan-Islamic sentiments and rhetoric. Until 1919, the Hadrami Arabs (the largest Arab population in the East Indies at the time and categorized as Foreign Orientals – Vreemde Oosterlingen) remained separate from other residents as they were concentrated into the Arab Villages (Kampong Arab), villages they could only leave with a travel permit.

The Dutch authorities cooperated with Kongsi Tiga, a Dutch owned shipping company which, along with several other European companies, dominated the hajj travelling. On board the Kongsi Tiga ships, Arab passengers were separated from the pilgrims from the East Indies. Alexanderson shows that the Arabs were seen as a threat to the peace and order (rust en orde) on the ships. It was thought that Arabs lacked respect for (Dutch) authority, created a nuisance on board and disturbed the order and routine of the ship. Dutch authorities feared they would contaminate the so-called “good spirit” of the East-Indies passengers who were seen as compliant with Dutch rule and authority, but also looked upon with suspicion for potentially having anti-colonial agendas, while the Arabs themselves were as seen as potentially engendering an anti-colonial movement. After the communist uprisings in 1926 and 1927, which were cracked down on by the Dutch costing hundreds of lives, the separation of the Arabs from the ‘real pilgrims’ then became much stronger.

Muslims in the European Netherlands

The situation for Muslims at the time in the Netherlands was both related and different. The limited research that is available on Muslim life and politics in the Netherlands during this period shows that the situation for the individual Muslim was determined by his or her migrant status (except for a few converts) and what their socio-economic position was in The Netherlands.[ix] An article by Ryad about the life of the Dutch convert to Islam, Mohammed Ali van Beetem, provides us with some insight into Indonesian communities living in the Netherlands.[x] Van Beetem played an important role in the establishment of the Perkoempoelan Islam in 1932, the first official Muslim organisation in the Netherlands with a constituency of Indonesian workers. As Ryad shows, the Perkoempoelan Islam was regarded as an organisation that kept people away from ‘revolutionary paths’.[xi] The Perkoempoelan Islam had a complicated relationship with the Dutch state, as it was loyal to it as well as critical of it, contrary to the nationalists who adopted a non-negotiation stance and the ‘ethici’ who remained aloof from the political debates. As soon as the Perkoempoelan started to address the social issues of the workers, the attitude of the state changed and it repatriated many of these workers just as it had done with the Chinese and other Asian workers before them.[xii]

The racial construction of good and bad Islam: Peace, discipline and order.

From the literature on Dutch colonialism at the time, it becomes clear that the Dutch had an “obsessive concern with a (supposedly fragile) order”.[xiii] Closely held ideals of peace and order [rust en orde] and discipline and order [tucht en orde] underpinned the authorities concern and fear of dissent drove their desire to establish and maintain order.[xiv] The above account suggests that the distinction between an acceptable and unacceptable Islam was established at the time as a reaction to this pre-occupation with disorder. In the words of the Dutch academic and convert to Islam, Snouck Hurgronje, (who was particularly influential in shaping colonial policy and writing about the ‘question of Islam’ that emerged out of the necessity to prepare the indigenous population for modern culture and life) the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable Islam was one between Islam as a religion and Islam as a political doctrine.[xv] While the Islam of the local population was seen as a-political and inferior to ‘Europeanness’, it was the Islam of the Hadrami Arabs and sheikhs that was seen as potentially disrupting social order because of its pan-Islamic and anti-colonial ideas. At home the Dutch state supported the organisation that was thought to be loyal to the Dutch rule over Indonesia.


[i] Nathalie Clayer and Eric Germain, ed. Islam in Inter-War Europe (London: Hurst & Company, 2008).

[ii] Remco Raben, ‘A New Dutch Imperial History? Perambulations in a prospective field’, Bijdragen en Mededelingen betreffende de Geschiedenis der Nederlanden, 128, no. 1 (2013): 5-30.

[iii] With some notable exceptions such as: Frances Gouda, Dutch Culture Overseas: Colonial Practice in the Netherlands Indies, 1900-1942, (Amsterdam 1995); Gloria Wekker, White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016).

[iv] James C. Kennedy and Markha Valenta, ‘Religious Pluralism and the Dutch State: Reflections on the Future of Article 23’, in Geloven in Het Publieke Domein. Verkenningen Van Een Dubbele Transformatie, ed. W. B. H. J. Van de Donk and others (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 337-353.

[v] Frans Wijsen, ‘Indonesian Muslim or World Citizen? Religious Identity in the Dutch Integration Discourse’, in Making Religion. Theory and Practice in the Discursive Study of Religion, ed. Frans Wijsen and Kocku von Stuckrad (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 225-238.

[vi] Ibid., 228-229.

[vii] Ann Stoler, ‘Making Empire Respectable: The Politics of Race and Sexual Morality in 20th-Century Colonial Cultures’, American Ethnologist 16, no. 4 (1989): 634-660.

[viii] Kris Alexanderson, ‘“A Dark State of Affairs”: Hajj Networks, Pan-Islamism, and Dutch Colonial Surveillance during the Interwar Period’, Journal of Social History 47, no. 4 (2014): 1021-1041.                     The information on the regulation of the hajj by the Dutch rulers is taken from this article unless mentioned otherwise.

[ix] Klaas Stutje, ‘Indonesian Islam in Interwar Europe: Muslim Organizations in the Netherlands and Beyond’, in Muslims in Interwar Europe: A Transcultural Historical Perspective, ed. Bekim Agai, Umar Ryad and Mehdi Sajid (Leiden: Brill publishers, 2015), 125-150.

[x] Umar Ryad, ’Among the Believers in the Land of the Colonizer: Mohammed Ali Van Beetem’s Role among the Indonesian Community in the Netherlands in the Interwar Period’, Journal of Religion in Europe 5, no. 2 (2012): 273-310.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid., 136.

[xiii] Benedict Anderson, (1966). ‘The Language of Indonesian Politics’, Indonesia, 1, p. 98, quoted in: Ann Stoler, ‘Perceptions of Protest: Defining the Dangerous in Colonial Sumatra’, American Ethnologist 12, no. 4 (1985): 644.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, Nederland en de Islâm: vier voordrachten, gehouden in de Nederlandsch-Indische Bestuursacademie (Leiden: Brill, 1911); Harry J. Benda, The Crescent and the Rising Sun (The Hague: Van Hoeve, 1958).

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