Performing the Dutch nation through free speech – the politics of freedom and education after the murder on Samuel Paty

Guest Author: Thijl Sunier

Political debates, even formal ones in Parliament, have increasingly become platforms for excitable political rhetoric and public performance. Last week two debates in the Dutch Parliament reached the headlines and became trending topic on Twitter. Although different topics, the debates converged in a remarkable way and revealed the current political climate toward Muslims in Dutch society. On Tuesday the 10th of November the Parliament intended to discuss a proposal of the Minister of Education to revise a law on citizenship lessons at schools. Since 2006, citizenship lessons are obligatory in the Netherlands, but the frequency, content and the responsibility for the implementation of these lessons is currently not clearly formulated. Preparations for the revisions started already a year ago, largely prompted by concerns about the alleged lack of a sense of citizenship among residents with a migrant background. The assassination of the French teacher Paty in October and the threats toward a teacher of a Dutch school who showed a cartoon related to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, gave the parliamentary debate an extra sense of urgency. It shifted the focus of the debate even more explicitly to Muslims and the assumed ‘clash of values’. Muslims are guided by religious principles that diverge considerably from the ‘common basic values’ of Dutch society, it is argued. Allegedly, not all of them subscribe to these values, demonstrating a lack of affinity with the common good. Some would even be willing to use violence.

Identity politics

The debate would deal with this challenge, but unexpectedly took a different course. The Minister of Education, a prominent member of a small Christian coalition party, the Christian Union (CU), stated that Christian confessional schools are constitutionally entitled to ask parents to sign a so-called ‘identity declaration’ as a precondition for subscription to the school. In the declaration it is stated, among other things, that biblical principles ordain that a marriage is an alliance only between a man and a woman. This was interpreted by almost all parties in the Parliament as an ‘anti-gay declaration’. During the debate the minister was heavily criticized, upon which he backed down, stating that this in no way means that gay pupils should feel threatened at school. A representative of an umbrella organisation of Christian schools stated in an interview that he was surprised that all the attention was now erroneously directed toward Christian schools, while the initial reason for the debate was the integration problems of Muslim children.

The politics of petitions

The other debate on Thursday the 12th of November was scheduled in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in France and Austria. It would deal with the freedom of speech, a sensitive issue that emerges occasionally in public debates. Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders requested for the debate. Also, in this case the debate took a different course. Almost two weeks earlier a well-known imam in Amsterdam stated that he was in favour of a law that prohibits insults against the Prophet Mohammed. Most Muslims of course totally reject the killings, he said, but they also feel very sad about the continuous insults towards the Prophet in the name of the freedom of speech. A couple of days later a petition with the same plea and a condemnation of the violence was issued, which was signed by more than 100.000 people within three days. When a petition is signed by more than 50.000 people, the Parliament has to deliberate the petition.

Instead of discussing how to strengthen freedom of speech, the debate on the 12th of November was almost entirely preoccupied with that petition. Speakers heavily criticized the initiators of the petition and the representative of Denk, the only party supporting the petition, arguing that the initiators made use of their constitutional right. Other MP’s considered it “appalling” and “sickening”, or at least “improper” to come up with such a petition shortly after the terrorist attacks.

When Muslims make use of their rights

The issues at stake in both debates are generally considered as typical clashes of conflicting constitutional articles, notably 1, 6,7 and 23. The first article is the so-called ‘anti-discrimination’ article, which stipulates that all people on Dutch soil should be treated equally. Article 6 stipulates the freedom of religion and article 7 stipulates the freedom of opinion and speech. Article 23 stipulates that teaching is free, provided certain quality standards are met by schools.

All schools, whether confessional or non-confessional, receive equal funding from the state. The origin of article 23, which was added to the Constitution in 1917, was the struggle of religious communities in the late 19th century to have the right to raise their children according to their (religious) convictions. Today a growing number of politicians demands a thorough revision of this article, as it would not fit anymore in a society that is rapidly secularising. It would facilitate the existence of different parallel value systems and inhibit the development of civil commonality. Not very surprisingly the critique toward article 23 is prompted in the first place by the fact that Muslims make use of the constitutional right to set up schools, and the worries about what kinds of values are taught at those schools.

The reason why the Minister of Education backed down was very likely motivated by the strong support in Christian circles for article 23. Too much noise and attention for thorny issues and conflicting principles around this article would jeopardise the freedom of education. At the same time there is also a strong support among many Christians to be tough on Muslims. The proposal to revise the law on citizenship lessons would avert the critique of article 23 and at the same time sharpen the conditions for Muslim schools. In the second debate the constitutional right of Muslims to use legitimate legal means according to article 7, was completely overruled by the excited speech of the angry MP’s.

It is too simple to consider these events as just ‘talking constitutional principles’ related to the place of religion in society against the background of an assumed rapid deconfessionalisation of the Dutch population and the growth of secular political parties and worldviews. It does not explain why some constitutional issues receive hardly any attention while others grow out into media hypes.

Growing Islamophobia and the sacralisation of free speech

Parliamentary debates are increasingly opportunities for public performance. The Parliament, but also law courts, are excellent platforms to accomplish that. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party has amply contributed to this practice, but increasingly other politicians as well use the Parliament as a free amplifier of their political viewpoints and to create turmoil. The mediatisation of politics has also contributed to the ‘sacralisation’ of certain events and principles. By considering the terrorist attacks as an attack on the freedom of speech and on “everything we stand for in this country”, and by demanding from Muslims to subscribe to this view unconditionally, it becomes fairly easy to dismiss Muslims with more nuanced opinions as problematic and disloyal citizens.

Several Muslim organisations have issued press releases in which they explicitly condemned the attacks. But the fact that they do not go along with this pre-emptive condition on the freedom of speech, and additionally ask for understanding for the pain insults toward the Prophet cause, is apparently enough ground to suggest that they were happy with the attacks. The diminishing discursive room granted to Muslims to formulate their position on their own terms, is another sign of the deteriorating climate against Muslims and the growing Islamophobia in society.

Thijl Sunier is emeritus professor of cultural anthropology, chair ‘Islam in European Societies’ at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Currently he is involved in a European (EU funded) research project ‘Mediating Islam in the Digital Age’ (MIDA). He is chairman of the board of the Netherlands Interuniversity School for Islamic Studies (NISIS) and executive editor of the Journal of Muslims in Europe (JOME/Brill).

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