The Netherlands has a reputation as a liberal, tolerant society. On a range of issues, from legalising prostitution and cannabis, to euthanasia and gay marriage, the Dutch have taken a progressive stance. The Dutch capital, Amsterdam, is one of the most multicultural, ethnically-diverse cities in the world.
Yet not everybody in the Netherlands supports tolerance. National elections are scheduled for 15 March 2017, and the anti-immigration, anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders, who leads the far-right Party For Freedom (PVV), is currently polling roughly 18%. The PVV’s manifesto pledges that a Wilders government would enact a “de-Islamification” programme: rounding up and detaining any Muslim the government identifies as “radical” (even when no crime has been committed), banning the Muslim Quran, expelling Muslim asylum seekers, shutting all mosques in the country, banning headscarves in public, and banning immigration from Muslim-majority countries. Needless to say, these policies are not exactly “tolerant”.
Supporters of the PVV argue that Muslim immigrants often hold very traditional, conservative religious beliefs which clash with the Dutch notion of tolerance (for example, on homosexuality or women’s rights). Critics, however, see Wilders’ de-Islamification programme as dangerously authoritarian, scapegoating Muslims and inciting hatred and racism.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Peter, who says he disagrees with racism but that he also feels that his culture is under threat from immigration, and that this makes him less tolerant of diversity.
To get a response to Peter, we spoke to Floris Mansvelt Beck, a lecturer in ethics and political philosophy at Leiden University. What would he say?
Well, my guess is that there are a lot of people that feel the way he does. But, to be honest, if you look at the cultural changes that have occurred in the Netherlands over the past half-century, the effect of immigration is pretty marginal by comparison. There have been huge cultural changes, transforming the Netherlands from a highly pillarised and fairly religious society (and ‘pillarisation’ is a term describing the Netherlands as being composed of different religious groups, such as Catholics and Protestants). The Netherlands has changed from that kind of society – which was fairly religious and diverse – into a pretty homogenous, highly-secularised, post-industrial society. These changes have been huge and they weren’t caused by immigration, but they might go some way towards explaining the societal angst that some people are experiencing. So, I understand that immigration can be seen as threatening, but it’s not quite clear to me that immigration is more of a threat to Dutch culture than, for example, the internet and American sitcoms.
We also had a comment from Marieke, who argues that “stereotypes, prejudices and paranoia” have always been embedded in Dutch culture. So, is the Netherlands really growing less tolerant? Or has intolerance always been there?
We spoke to Caroline De Gruyter, author and journalist based in Vienna, and a European Affairs correspondent for the leading Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. What would she say?
The Netherlands has a reputation for tolerance. We have always been conducting social experiments, if you will. We were the first country to legalise euthanasia in the whole of Europe, gay marriage was another first – we conducted one social experiment after another. Also, as a multicultural society, we were always ahead. And this gave us the label ‘tolerant’ and flexible. But, at the same time, we all had to agree with that. Now, I’m not saying I didn’t agree with it, but there were many more people who did not agree with it and they felt they were not listened to.
[The Netherlands is] a small country and it feels like almost everybody knows one another, especially the political, economic, and cultural elite. It’s very much a culture where – a bit like in Denmark – everybody wants to agree. People who fundamentally disagree have usually kept a low profile. So, I think our so-called ‘tolerance’ has carried with it a sort of intolerance for dissent. This has now come to the surface, and Marieke is very much right to say that it’s always been there, but people used to say it with the curtains closed, and now all of a sudden they say it on the street and on television…
Finally, we also had a comment from Bert, accusing the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of playing populist politics. Most recently, Rutte took out a full-page newspaper ad in order to publish an open-letter arguing migrants should integrate or “go home”. Is this a sign that Dutch politics is growing more xenophobic?
I think what it shows especially is that it’s much more acceptable to be critical of what are considered to be deviant beliefs or behaviour than, say, 20-30 years ago. This has less to do with xenophobia than it does with changing views of toleration, however. For the majority in the Netherlands, there isn’t really a good reason anymore to tolerate what they consider to be unreasonable beliefs or customs. As a result of secularisation, the majority isn’t religious. Because the majority has no need for toleration itself, it has become much less tolerant than it was when the Netherlands was still composed of differing religious groups, none of which had a clear majority. That is why the prime minister can get away with remarks which would have been beyond the pale two decades ago.
We put the same question to Caroline De Gruyter, to see what she would say. Does she think the Netherlands is growing more xenophobic and less tolerant of diversity?
If politicians use xenophobic rhetoric, people will think it’s perfectly okay to talk like this. I think we have a very irresponsible political class at the moment. It’s not just in Europe but across the whole Western world, where politicians are just saying what they think people want to hear instead of putting forward a positive vision for the future and focusing on that. So, I was not very happy with the ad that Prime Minister Rutte put out telling people to ‘act normal or go home’. I think he should have put a stop right there.
Is the Netherlands growing less tolerant? Or has intolerance always existed in Dutch society (and is just more visible today)? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll put them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!