Luc Soethout

Bursting the ‘Tolerant Dutch’ Myth

On 15 March voters in the Netherlands will be electing a new parliament. Surrounding the lead up to the election Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, has drawn substantial attention due to his anti-Islam campaign. His campaign has recently begun to use the slogan, ‘Make the Netherlands Ours Again,’ a catchphrase similar to US President Trump’s election slogan, ‘Make America Great Again’. Polls suggest that support for Wilders is high and while he may not secure a position in the coalition, his popularity demonstrates that his anti-Islam and anti-immigration rhetoric resonates strongly with a large audience in the current political climate. In covering Wilder’s popularity in the lead up to the election, media outlets such as the BBC have attempted to unravel ‘why the liberal Dutch are turning to the right.’ In doing so, the broadcasting service has depicted Wilder’s popularity as a sudden move away from tolerance and liberalism, yet in reality this shift is by no means sudden.

In its coverage of the election, Al Jazeera pointed out that ‘multiculturalism [is] a hot topic in the Dutch election,’ thus highlighting debates about immigration and integration that have dominated most campaigns in this election. Similar to the BBC, their coverage of the election suggests that Dutch voters are only now deciding whether to pursue or abandon multiculturalism. For the purposes of this article, the term multiculturalism refers to the idea that diversity should be celebrated, not repressed. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that the Netherlands made its move away from multiculturalism a few decades ago.

Following an influx of guest workers from Spain, Italy, Morocco and Turkey in the post-war period, the government slowly realised that many workers were there to stay. The 1983 ‘Ethnic Minorities Policy’ was therefore implemented by the government, which had the aim of integrating migrants while allowing for the retention of their ethnic and cultural identity. This policy was, however, short-lived. In 1989, the ‘Foreigner’s Policy’ put forward by the centre-right government, placed a focus on the integration of migrants rather than a keeping of cultural identity. The ‘Foreigner’s Policy’ was soon followed up with the 1994 ‘Integration Policy,’ which outlined that ethnic minorities were expected to do ‘their’ utmost to fit into ‘our’ (the Netherlands’) country.

Luc Soethout
Image courtesy of Luc Soethout, © 2013, some rights reserved.

The policies implemented by various governments since the late 1980s demonstrate that the Netherlands has pursued integration over multiculturalism for some decades now. In theorising the tangible consequences of integrationist policies, a variety of scholars like Vasta and Huysmans have argued that pursuing integration is rooted in a desire for a culturally homogenous society. In other words, integrationist policies uphold the assumption, or rather myth, that a culturally uniform society existed before migration started. The implications of such policies on migrants or ‘non-native’ Dutch citizens in the Netherlands, is that they are being increasingly defined as being outside the national community. This effect has only been increased as the government has made moves towards an assimilationist model, such as the one followed in France. In 2016, members of parliament banned the Burka in some public spaces, citing security reasons as justification despite evidence that suggested there are at most 500 women who wear the Burka in the Netherlands. Not only did the rule demonstrate a strong move towards assimilation, it further pinpointed Islam as incompatible with what it means to be ‘Dutch.’ The government’s policies and actions since the late 1980s have therefore demonstrated that while in theory the Dutch continued to be heralded for their ‘tolerance’ and ‘acceptance,’ the practice of policies enacted by the government has depicted a different reality.

This is not to say that Wilders’ anti-Islam rhetoric for the past decade has not been a contributing factor towards a shift away from tolerance by the government. Already in 2008, Wilders described the Koran as ‘fascist’ and cried for all immigration from Muslim countries to be halted. In 2014 Wilders told his supporters that he would ensure that there would ‘fewer Moroccans’ in the Netherlands. Wilders has therefore been shifting the political discourse towards the far right for years and as a consequence of his popularity, has been influencing the government’s actions in policy.

The shift of the discourse away from tolerance cannot be attributed entirely to Wilders. In the early 2000s politician Pim Fortuyn became increasingly popular for his message that Islam was ‘lagging behind Western culture.’ Thus he argued, immigrants should ‘embrace Dutch culture and leave their own values behind.’ In 2002, an animal rights activist assassinated Fortuyn, yet Fortuyn’s legacy and message remained powerful.

Fortuyn and Wilder’s messages, of course do not resonate with the whole Dutch population. Nor can one say that the policies implemented by the government over the past two decades have been as intolerant as the messages espoused by the far right. Yet the combination of integrationist policies and an increase in anti-Islam and anti-immigration political discourse have all contributed to a process whereby multiculturalism has long not been accepted or enacted in the Netherlands.

It is clear that for years the position of immigrants and citizens with an immigrant background has been changing vis-à-vis the Dutch state and civil society. As the Netherlands has become less tolerant, and in some cases wholly intolerant, non-native Dutch citizens and immigrants have been increasingly defined outside of the imagined national community. Through this process, the Netherlands has been reshaping its identity as a nation seeking to ‘return’ to a culturally uniform society. Yet such a society has never existed, and in the process of seeking homogeneity, those who fall outside the imagined community face increasing discrimination.

While the elections on 15 March will indicate the extent to which Dutch voters resonate with an anti-Islam and anti-immigrant message, it is necessary to be aware that the shift towards intolerance has not been sudden, but rather gradual. With elections being held in France and Germany in the coming months, the Netherlands may set a precedent for a further shift towards the right. The effects of these votes will, depending on the results, be most felt by those who are increasingly imagined outside of their respective national communities.

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