POLITICS JANUARY 16, 2006
"Open" has long been a catchword for the Netherlands, referring to everything from the flat, low-lying fields of Zuid-Holland and the curtain-less windows of Amsterdam and The Hague to the country's liberal stances on marijuana and prostitution, both of which are enjoyed freely and legally in cheerful "coffee shops" and red-lighted bordellos throughout the country. To many, the country has long seemed the apotheosis of a free, liberal, and democratic state.
But, these days, Filip Dewinter, leader of one of Europe's most extreme far-right political parties, Belgium's Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), has had nothing but praise for his liberal neighbors to the north. In speech after speech over the past months, Dewinter has repeated the same refrain: "Once, Holland was the model country for everything left and progressive. Now, it is the model for the right and conservative powers."
Americans still tend to think of Holland as a bastion of liberty, either praising or condemning its permissive stance on matters like euthanasia or gay marriage, depending on their political persuasion. But, today, Dewinter's description seems more accurate. Increasingly—from a crackdown on immigration to a proposal to teach intelligent design to the censorship of a TV program satirizing the royal family (despite reports that the queen herself actually enjoyed the show)—Holland is, indeed, becoming a right-wing nation, in some ways an inversion of its former self.
MUCH OF HOLLAND'S rightward shift is the result of conflicts between the nation's native and Muslim immigrant populations. Fear of Islamic terrorism accounts for some changes: Despite having experienced few terrorist attacks, here, as in the United States, national security is the primary issue, and people are willing to sacrifice liberties (as well as social benefits) to obtain it. But the rising number of immigrants has also prompted a xenophobic and nationalist backlash, with frequent editorials and public debates about "what it means to be Dutch." Concern about immigration has become so profound that it even trumps worries about the Dutch economy. Support for the liberal workers' party, the Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA), which balances its economic and cultural policies with a generous and tolerant view of Muslims, has waned. Explains right-wing politician Hilbrand Nawijn, "Social issues are a problem. The people talk against current policy, but they remain afraid of bad immigrants and of Islam. And, in this way, people will remain conservative."
This turnabout has not happened overnight. The Muslim population of the Netherlands has grown from some 50,000 guest workers in the 1970s to approximately one million today, giving Holland the second-largest per capita Muslim population in the European Union, after France. AntiMuslim sentiment, already brewing before September 11, deepened when Muslims in the town of Ede celebrated the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
Soon after September 11, Pim Fortuyn, a flamboyantly gay former sociology professor, capitalized on those sentiments when he ran for parliament, proclaiming Islam a "backward culture," advocating a "cold war against Islam," and declaring that "the Netherlands is full; it is time to close our borders." Supported in large measure by 18- to 30-year-old voters, Fortuyn's new party, the Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF), called for diminishing public health and education services—what Fortuyn called "subsidy socialism"—and a tightened immigration policy. "I say what I think and I do what I say," was Fortuyn's trademark line, and it appeared refreshingly direct to a public weary from years of political correctness and pretense.
Not everyone, however, was delighted by Fortuyn. He was assassinated on May 6, 2002, by a leftist animalrights activist (not, as most people anticipated, by a Muslim). But Fortuyn proved to be more powerful in death than in life: When elections were held days later, Fortuyn's popularity ushered in a conservative majority in the parliament, ousting the previous left-leaning government. It was a short-lived victory.Parliamentary acrimony forced a collapse of government that October, and, when new elections took place in January 2003, the LPF was voted out, replaced by a slightly more centrist alliance between the Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD) and the Christian Democrats, along with support from a smaller third party.
THE MESSAGE OF the LPF's surprise showing in the earlier elections, however, was not lost on the new government: Holland wanted change. Even the PvdA weighed a harsher stance on immigration policy. In speeches and editorials, the Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then a researcher for the PvdA, began echoing Fortuyn's attacks on Islam as homophobic, misogynistic, and antithetical to the Dutch principles of tolerance and openness. Coming from a former Muslim now living in Holland, Hirsi Ali's denunciation of Islam—and her exposure of domestic abuse and even honor killings in the Dutch-Muslim community—caused so much outrage that, in September 2002, death threats forced her to leave the country. She returned only when the VVD invited her to run for parliament under its banner—and offered her secret service protection—just prior to the January elections. It was a move that shocked the country, suggesting that the PvdA and VVD were now so close in their ideals that one could simply skip between the two parties. As the representative in charge of immigrant integration, Hirsi Ali became a powerful voice for the anti-multi-culturalists.
In March 2003, nearly a year after Fortuyn's death, the Lebanese-born Belgian Dyab Abou Jahjah founded a Dutch wing of his Arab European League, a radical Muslim political group with aspirations to develop into a pan-European Muslim party. Eloquent and charismatic, the then-31-year-old Jahjah became, for some Dutch Muslims—particularly disenfranchised Dutch-Muslim youth—what Fortuyn had been for Dutch natives. Although his group has struggled to achieve broad support, Jahjah, with his virulent anti-Israel stance, is cited by Jewish watchdog groups like the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel as having exacerbated already worsening anti-Semitism in Holland.
Daily news accounts of alleged misdeeds committed by Muslims, particularly in Amsterdam, have only fueled the increasing sense of crisis. Police reported that, of 1,500 juvenile delinquents in Amsterdam, 1,200 were DutchMoroccan (a statement that was later challenged). In one incident, a homeless Dutch woman—falsely accused of shoplifting from a grocery store in Amsterdam—left the store cursing at the Dutch-Moroccan owners who had detained her. She was immediately attacked; she died when someone hit her with a chair from a nearby cafe.
Right-wing ideas are increasingly popular among teenagers, nicknamed "Lonsdale youth" because they have adopted the Lonsdale clothing label as a kind of uniform—a gesture some have traced to the letters NSDA in the name (a reference to Hitler's NSDAP), while others interpret it as insider code for "Laat ons Nederlanders samen de allochtonen langzaam elimineren" ("Let us Dutch slowly eliminate the Muslim foreigners together").And, in June 2004, a study showed that 86 percent of Dutch natives felt threatened by Holland's Muslim population—this while only 33 percent acknowledged knowing anything about them other than what they saw on television or in the streets.
Such was the climate—a Huntingtonian clash of civilizations—when filmmaker Theo van Gogh, the artist's great-grand-nephew, and Hirsi Ali collaborated in August 2004 on the docudrama Submission, a film that contended that the abuses of women in Muslim society were ordained in the Koran. When the film aired on August 29, 2004, what was left of a middle ground between the nationalists and multi-culturalists collapsed.Tensions soared. Death threats against Hirsi Ali and van Gogh grew. And, on the morning of November 2, 2004, a Dutch-born Moroccan, Mohammed Bouyeri, shot and stabbed van Gogh as he bicycled to work.
VAN GOGH'S MURDER is often referred to as the September 11 of the Netherlands, but, in some ways, its effects on Dutch society have been far more profound. November 2 divided the country, literally setting neighbor against neighbor. White extremists set fire to Muslim schools. Muslim extremists chanted their support for van Gogh's killer. Integration minister Rita Verdonk warned against further violence on the night of van Gogh's killing. "To here," she announced, "and no further."
Since then, the crackdown on immigrants—and Muslims in particular—has accelerated. At the time of van Gogh's killing, progress was already underway on legislation that would expel immigrants who commit crimes.Currently, any non-EU citizen who is approved for a green card must attend a citizenship course with 500 hours of Dutch language instruction and 50 hours of "social orientation." In recent months, immigration officials have further proposed requiring that not only new applicants, but also anyone living in the Netherlands who has not completed the requisite eight years of primary education here, take the course.
The rightward shift can also be seen in a raft of other recent laws: Carrying a nationally recognized form of ID has been mandatory since January of last year. Ministries have slashed art subsidies and welfare. And, in July, the parliament approved a security package allowing video surveillance on the streets and government access to records of Internet surfing, information about book and video purchases (and rentals), vacation plans, medical records, and health club memberships, as well as continuing access to private phone conversations and bank transactions. All such records in private hands must be kept for a minimum of three years and delivered to authorities on demand.
Meanwhile, Nawijn, formerly of the LPF, has joined up with Belgium's Dewinter to create a think tank aimed at examining immigration, multiculturalism, and security, as well as at strengthening Dutch-Flemish culture and its presence in the European community. Moreover, Nawijn explained in a telephone interview, the two plan to promote Denmark's highly restrictive immigration model—which they consider ideal—throughout Europe.Long-term plans, says Nawijn, who recently founded his own political party—Lijst Hilbrand Nawijn—include a run for parliament in 2007.
Caught in the middle, Dutch moderates have started leaving—largely for Canada and New Zealand, according to one report—and net emigration in the first half of 2004 was the largest since the 1950s. More interestingly, many moderate Dutch Muslims—mostly Turks—have started making plans to leave as well. "It's less radical there than here," one aspiring emigre, who planned to move to Turkey, told a Dutch newspaper.
Now, a little more than a year after van Gogh's murder, Holland finds itself in a kind of social quagmire: The more repressive the government and the more Muslimunfriendly it is perceived to be, the more radicalized its Muslim youth become. The anger is palpable: Gone are the days of carefree strolls through Amsterdam streets or smiling nods to neighbors of another race. One looks twice now. The smiles are often false—a kind of armor people wear—to protect themselves from anger and from fear.
Abigail R. Esman is a writer based in New York and Amsterdam. She is currently writing a book about Muslim extremism in the West.