A Litmus Test for the Dutch Integration Policy

The murder of the Dutch film-maker Van Gogh at the hands of a Moroccan has been followed by arson attacks on mosques and churches. The Netherlands' integration policy is increasingly being called into question. By Lennart Lehmann

The murder of the Dutch film-maker Van Gogh at the hands of a Moroccan has been followed by arson attacks on mosques and churches. The Netherlands' integration policy, which for years has been a model liberal project for Europe, is increasingly being called into question. By Lennart Lehmann

Fear spreads after the attack on a Koranic school: Muslims in Eindhoven, photo: AP
Fear spreads after the attack on a Koranic school: Muslims in Eindhoven

​​According to Gijs von der Fuhr, spokesman for Amsterdam's Commissioner for Foreigners, the Islamically motivated murder of the controversial film-maker Theo van Gogh by a Moroccan fanatic will have no effect on the Netherlands' policy of integration.

Talking to Muslims

The anthropologist Thijl Sunier of the University of Amsterdam also warns against drawing the wrong conclusions from the attack: "The situation in the Netherlands did not give rise to this incident. We cannot talk about Muslims; we must talk to them." Von der Fuhr is quick to point out that Muslim umbrella organisations in the Netherlands strongly condemned the attack.

It now seems apparent that the murderer was a member of an extremist organisation. The 26-year-old left a death threat addressed to the Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the scene of the crime. Ali was involved in the short film Submission, which criticised Islam's discrimination against women and served as the motivation for Van Gogh's murder.

The end of the Dutch integration model?

Van Gogh's brutal murder has reopened the discussion about the Netherlands' integration policy, which has recently been the subject of criticism. The liberal Dutch system has long been considered a model for the peaceful cohabitation of various religions and religious denominations.

"In the 17th Century, in the early days of the colonial era, Protestants, Jews, and Catholics joined forces to enable themselves to earn more money," explains Von der Fuhr. It was the introduction of the "pillar system", which gave each religious denomination the status of a pillar in society, that made it possible to finance a huge fleet of trade and war ships.

But this community of interests would appear to have long since lost its effectiveness, especially since the start of the wave of immigration of Turkish and Moroccan workers in the 1970s. All around Europe, people are talking about the failure of the Dutch "Polder Model" in terms of integration policy.

Sunier considers the reason for the collapse of this "pillar system" to be structural: "The system was built on the principle that the state did not provide any public welfare: the churches took care of the poor, elderly, and sick. With the birth of the welfare state after the second world war, everything changed."

The Dutch must now ask themselves what Islam's place in society is. "Religious equality is anchored in the constitution. Unlike in France, where the emphasis is more on individual equality, in the Netherlands, equality is defined more as equal rights for different communities.

"This is why some people think our system is similar to the multiculturalism of Great Britain," says Sunier. "But we have never had a multicultural society. While Muslims were indeed considered a homogenous group, we didn't have multiculturalism in the truest sense of the word."

One major problem in the Netherlands is the combination of the ghettoization of Moroccan, Turkish and approximately 100,000 illegal immigrants, and problems such as crime and exclusion. Some 40 per cent of Moroccan men living in the Netherlands have no school leaving certificate, and the unemployment rate among immigrants is four times higher than in the Dutch community.

Increased polarisation

"We brought these migrant workers here and forgot that we would have to do something with their children. That's not tolerance; that's ignorance," criticises Von der Fuhr. As a reaction to this situation, Islamic associations are increasingly playing a political role. At the same time, the atmosphere in the Netherlands is becoming ever more nationalistic.

Polemic anti-Islamic statements are on the increase and right-wing parties are gaining in popularity. There have already been street battles in cities like Amsterdam, where a third of the population is of foreign extraction.

Van Gogh's murder has been condemned across the Netherlands as an attack on the freedom of speech. Demonstrations, called for by Amsterdam's mayor, Job Cohen, took place immediately after the attack.

Meanwhile, Muslim associations fear further reprisals from the emotionalized population. In the wake of the murder, both mosques and churches were the target of arson attacks.

Sunier emphasises that the Dutch integration policy has achieved a lot. "We have Islamic schools that are supervised by the schools' administration just like any other school in the country. Nevertheless, some people persist in believing that these schools are teaching a radical form of Islam."

Unlike in Germany, there is greater cooperation between Muslim umbrella organisations and the state in the Netherlands. Von der Fuhr advises Muslim organisations directly; organisations like the Dutch branch of Milli Görüs or the Union of Moroccan Muslim Organizations in The Netherlands (Ummon).

His advice covers issues as diverse as the training of board members or dealing with problematic issues such as same-sex marriages.

"I ask myself where we will be in ten year's time," says Von der Fuhr. He considers other European countries' refusal to deal with Muslim associations to be a mistake. "You have to speak to the people who are there!"

Lennart Lehmann

© 2004

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

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