Islamophobia in the Netherlands
The Economist/November 23, 2006
Once a country renowned for tolerance of minorities of all stripes, the Netherlands now risks being known for an ugly debate over its growing Muslim population. As preliminary results emerged from general elections on Wednesday November 22nd, it became clear that a previously insignificant far-right party, the Party For Freedom, may claim as many as nine seats in a parliament of 150. The party had campaigned for a halt to all immigration, and in particular was hostile towards Muslims, calling for a ban on the building of religious schools and mosques and for a ban on veils worn by Muslim women. At its head is Geert Wilders, a man seen by some as the heir to Pim Fortuyn—a populist politician and outspoken critic of the 1m-strong Muslim population in the Netherlands, whose anti-immigrant party won 26 seats in parliament shortly after he was murdered in 2002. On Wednesday Mr Wilders told Dutch television that “we need more decency in this country, more education and less Islam”. He is unlikely to form any part of the new coalition government, which will be led by the moderate Christian Democratic Alliance. But he may yet influence policy. His relative success seems to reflect a deep unease about how to integrate the large Dutch-Muslim population.
Earlier this year Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Muslim politician of Somali origin (and an outspoken critic of fundamentalist Islam), said she was leaving the Netherlands for America. Among other things, she was apparently fed up with the awkward debate about the place of Islam in Dutch society. And though the Dutch election was about more than immigration and Islam, these issues played a part. The outgoing government, led by immigration minister, Rita Verdonk, also proposed that the face-covering burqa and niqab should be banned in all public places.
The Netherlands certainly has reason for deep soul-searching over its Muslim population, given the murder of Mr Fortuyn and of an anti-Islam filmmaker in the past few years. But dress seems an unappealing place to start. Elsewhere in Europe it has too easily become a symbol for politicians to manipulate. France has banned the wearing of all religious symbols in schools, a law clearly aimed at the Muslim headscarf. The ban, perhaps predictably, made the headscarf a sign of pride for many Muslim girls. Germany, recently, has moved in the same direction. Four states have banned teachers from wearing headscarves. But Muslims know that Germany would never ban Jewish headwear, and they feel singled out. Britain’s former foreign secretary and a Labour Party heavyweight, Jack Straw, recently said he believed that wearing the veil could harm community relations. Tony Blair expressed support for a school that fired a teacher for wearing the face-covering veil. Various towns in Belgium have also banned the niqab.
Instead the Dutch might look across the Atlantic. A slew of recent books by smug, mostly conservative American authors might be unhelpful. (Some with titles like “While Europe Slept”, “America Alone” and “The Death of the West”, argue that Europe has allowed immigration and Islam to undermine Western values from within). But there is something to learn from America. American laws on freedom of expression and religion are more permissive than those in Europe. Only those who mask their faces explicitly to hide themselves and intimidate others—like the Ku Klux Klan—are forbidden to cover their faces in public forums like marches. A law banning the burqa would be flatly unconstitutional. So, probably, would be a ban on headscarves in schools. And America’s success with its Muslims probably also owes something to the flexible American labour market, which gives minorities of all kinds the hope (if not the reality) of climbing the social ladder.