Integration in the Netherlands

Tolerance instead of a Multicultural Illusion

Asis Aynan, son of Moroccan immigrants, author, and journalist, criticises the Netherlands for its double standards in dealing with Muslim migrants as well as for abandoning multiculturalism since the country's swing to the right. Arian Fariborz had the chance to discuss these issues with him

Asis Aynan (photo: Arian Fariborz)
Asis Aynan doesn't mince his words when it comes to hotly debated issues in Dutch society, such as the failed immigration policy and the country's political swing to the right

​​ Asis Aynan is a busy man. In his small apartment on Korte Prinsengracht in the heart of Amsterdam, numerous copies of his latest book are piled high on his desk and all over the floor. He quickly pushes them aside, finally picking up one copy, and points to the title – "Veldslag en andere herinneringen" – or in English, "The Battle and other Recollections."

It is not a history book nor is it a collection of random reminiscences of the young Moroccan. Instead, the book is full of short stories from his life in Holland. They deal with the various difficulties in integration experienced by the author growing up as a second generation Moroccan immigrant and tells of his family from a very personal perspective.

Asis Aynan, born in the small Dutch city of Haarlem, is one of the very few Moroccans raised in the Netherlands who is active as a journalist and author. He regularly writes as a columnist and commentator on the issues of migration, multiculturalism, dialogue, and Islam for the Social Democratic newspaper "Het Parool" and the cultural magazine "Contrast".

What does tolerance mean?

In Asis' articles and books, the reader can sense his bitterness of not truly being a part of Dutch society after so many years – never being accepted or even able to have this goal in sight. And this is so even though the Netherlands has preached social tolerance and political generosity with respect to immigrants from the Muslim world for decades. Their approach towards minorities has long been regarded as a model for other countries in Europe with an open immigration policy.

​​ "It is constantly claimed that the Dutch are tolerant," relates Aynan. "But what does tolerance mean? Is tolerance not having anything to say to the other person? I believe that is exactly what Dutch tolerance is – not bothering to speak to the others. But, tolerance means something totally different, namely, that you make room in your life for the others."

The young Moroccan journalist of Berber descent severely castigates this multicultural self-portrayal by Dutch society – a utopia of "harmonious coexistence," that in reality has never seriously existed, but which remains a facade to this day.

A party attitude and a parallel society

"It is truly difficult to live multiculturally," says Aynan. "It requires you to be open and also prepared to set aside certain traditions and find compromises. I am not aware, however, of a single example of the Dutch even showing a readiness to move in this direction. Instead, multicultural coexistence is referred to superficially, reduced to the level of a joke. It is like 'Ha, ha, you are a Moroccan and I am Dutch – how funny…!' Why do they regard multiculturalism in this way, as if life is nothing but a party? There is no other country with this kind of attitude."

By the end of the 1990s, at the very least, the cracks in the facade of multiculturalism could no longer be ignored. Immigrants showed an exceedingly poor level of education as well as high levels of unemployment. Gangs of Surinamese and Moroccan youth in socially deprived areas were increasingly turning to violence, such as in the Amsterdam district of Slotervaart – a formerly prosperous district where the Dutch inhabitants moved out decades ago and which now has predominantly immigrant population.

The 28-year-old author and journalist is currently occupied with the question of how Dutch society has been able to turn its back on it liberal migration policies in such a relatively short period of time. Even into the late 1990s, the Kingdom of the Netherlands enjoyed the reputation of being the world's most generous country towards immigrants after the USA.

The emergence of populism

Pim Fortuyn (photo: AP)
Pioneer in shifting political opinion among the Dutch public: the right-wing populist Pim Fortyn

​​ "In my writings, I am concerned in discovering why the multicultural debate has so abruptly veered into the negative," reports Aynan. "If you open a newspaper from 15 years ago, you would find a completely different tone to the discussion. Can it really come down to the terrorist attacks of 11 September or the murders of the Dutch film director van Gogh and the right-wing populist politician Pim Fortyn?"

Aynan doubts it. In the previous years, the Dutch majority had already experienced a vague feeling in its gut of separation and even open hostility towards migrants. "This transformation had already begun before the murders – and at a time when society had to admit that its multicultural concept was an illusion. Then came Pim Fortyn, who first began the debate and simultaneously opened the door for right-wing populists such as Marco Pastors, Geert Wilders, and Rita Verdonk."

This is why Aynan sees it as so important to take a clear stand in this debate via his commentaries and essays, particularly against the image of Islam propagated by right-wing politicians as well as the growing prejudices fostered by the Dutch media.

The ostentatious attempts of the past

"The media is constantly going on about Islam. Can't they just put it aside for once?!" asks Asis Aynan and quickly adds, "Yes, it is true that there are problems with Muslims in our society, but isn't it time for society to pull together and take the initiative to get a handle on these difficulties? Let us at least try for once!"

Instead, the media repeatedly warns of the dangers posed by radical Islamists, al Qaida, and the like. Yet, fear is a poor substitute for good council, thinks Aynan. "I ask myself, is such news really so relevant to how people live their daily lives together? Is it so important for us? Let us start by talking to the imam in the local district and discuss the difficulties in the neighbourhood with him. This is what we have to do if we seriously want to solve our problems!"

Aynan sees a real opportunity to patch up the difficult relations between migrants and the Dutch majority, but only through dialogue with representatives of Muslim associations as well as with intellectuals. This means, however, that the dialogue must be more than the superficial or ostentatious attempts of the past – the fate previously suffered by Dutch multiculturalism.

Arian Fariborz

© 2009

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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