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A Clash of Sexualities? Rigid Identities and Widespread Intolerance Worsen the Situation of ‘Muslim’ Homosexuals in The Netherlands

“If you look like a young Moroccan [man], everyone thinks you’re a f---ing terrorist, even if you’re just trying to go to the store for a carton of milk.”  Moena shook her head.  For the Muslim women, it’s not much better. “If you wear a headscarf, everyone thinks that you’re oppressed.”  Moena, a second-generation Moroccan, is not the only person to try to navigate the waters of being an ethnic minority in the Netherlands. Yet her process is more complicated: she is also openly lesbian. In a considerably polarized society, having a Muslim background and being openly gay/lesbian is viewed as forging two incompatible identities—and indeed many are forced to choose between them. But is the way the Netherlands frame the identity question helping or hurting the process for people like Moena?

This article analyses the role of sexualities in the construction of rigid identities. Many people in The Netherlands have been nurturing the unfortunate perception of an identity clash between the ‘Muslim community’ and the ‘indigenous Dutch’ population. The emphasis on conflicts of values has negative consequences – not only for the position of individuals with Islamic background that have homosexual feelings, but also for the emancipation process of sexual minorities as a whole.

A Disclaimer

The first thing to address when dealing with the construction of ‘Muslim’ intolerance and with intolerance against ‘Muslims’ is the use of the term ‘Muslim societies’. Holland’s Muslim population is generally composed of Moroccan and Turkish descendents. However, while the dominant religious background in both Morocco and Turkey is Islam, it is an oversimplification to assume that the religious practices are the same between two families, much less two nations. One must also not forget that the religious practices developed in the Netherlands are adaptations of their reality in this society and not a pure reconstruction of their place of origin. Moreover, there is a tendency to assume that every Moroccan or Turkish individual is a practicing Muslim, which is of course not true. The result is a classification of ‘Muslims’ as the foreign and non-Western Other, with little or no appreciation of the differences between cultures and people.  

Still, because this is the way that the discourse has been constructed, and the point of this article is to address this discourse and the polarization based on the idea of a Western vs. a Non-Western ‘cultures’, we will use the term ‘Muslim Societies’ periodically.  This is not an affirmation but a means of explaining the framework of the debate that surrounds the identity issues of individuals with a Moroccan or a Turkish background. We do not neglect the diversity within this constructed group and do not assume that all Moroccans or Turkish descendents are practicing Muslims, but we work within that framework for the sake of exposing the existing conflict.

The West vs. the non-West within the Netherlands

Most of the ‘Muslim’ immigrants—largely from Turkey and Morocco—came to The Netherlands as ‘guest workers’ in the 1960s and 1970s. They were formally recognized as immigrants instead of temporary visitors in 1980, but until then they were generally viewed as foreigners that had come for a few years with plans to return to their home country. As a result, even their children, born and raised in this country, are generally referred to as ‘Moroccan’ and ‘Turkish’, retaining their parents’ national identity.

In the beginning of the 1980s, the Dutch policy changed, regarding the immigrants as newcomers that had to integrate into Dutch society. New facilities and organizations were created to support their integration. Drawing on these new policies and stressing the uniqueness of Islam, leaders that emerged from the immigrant community presented themselves as the only ones who had access to their community, becoming the intermediaries between the Muslims and the broader society. In this way, Islamic organizations took the place of leftist migrant organizations as interlocutors of the government.

The label of temporary guest workers had made it difficult for the newcomers to feel part of the broader society. Many immigrants and community leaders emphasized the foreign character of their religion while forming an insular community as a safe haven in the yet unfamiliar Dutch society. Most of them, for this reason, became more oriented towards their religion and traditions. Moreover, once the government recognized the uniqueness of their cultural heritage, Muslim organizations managed to enjoy similar benefits heretofore reserved for Catholic and Protestant ones.

Consequently, the Muslim community grew in certain isolation from the broader society. Such a situation was however not new in The Netherlands, since it had been, especially from 1925 to 1965, strongly fragmented in four pillars: Catholic, Protestant, liberal and socialist. The Dutch heritage of pillarization was therefore a fertile soil for the segregation of Muslims and raised the question of whether they were forming a fifth pillar. Reactions were diverse but criticism against this group of immigrants continued only modestly until the rise of the populist politician Pim Fortuyn.

The View of the Other

Before addressing the changes in the Netherlands—marked by the rise and assassination of Pim Fortuyn—it is interesting to look at the position of the ‘Muslim’ minority in the Dutch society and its significance in the symbolic realm.

Every society needs images of the Other to construct or reaffirm its own identity. Minorities often play an important role in forming national identities, and at the same time also reaffirm their own identity based on differences vis-à-vis the broader society. During the 1970s and the 1980s, the ‘trouble’ minority for the Dutch was the Surinamese. According to Gert Hekma, professor of gay and lesbian studies at the University of Amsterdam,  ‘it was always in the news that a person from Suriname had committed this or that crime.’ In the 1990s, the Surinamese were gradually forgotten when the Muslims came into the media spotlight. Especially after the polemics around The Satanic Verses of Rushdie (1988) and the Gulf War of 1991, Islam became a topic of intense public debate. Religion became a prominent part of the image and identity of Muslims and of Islamic organizations in the Netherlands.

The construction of the image of the Other is most often based on stereotypes. One such stereotype assigned to Muslims is related to their sexuality. Muslims are often seen as conservative, sexist and homophobic. Since the Muslim construct of (homo)sexuality is unlike that of the Dutch, its manifestation of homophobia also takes a different form. In the process of negotiating group identity and stigmatizing the Other, such differences adopt a moral quality, functioning as confirmation of the inferiority of the Other.

Different Constructs of Sexuality

The Dutch view on (homo)sexuality can be said to be influenced by two main sexual revolutions. The first sexual revolution took place in the 19th century. Science took over the control of sexuality, till then exercised by the church, and homosexuality became a medical problem. At that moment, homosexuality stopped being isolated ‘perverse’ acts and started being depicted as something inherent to a person’s state of being. Hitherto, homosexual acts were seen as perversions similar to adultery and not as the concretization of personal characteristics. Hence, the scientific approach turned people that engaged in homosexual acts into scientific research specimens. Much effort was put into the identification and treatment of homosexuals, including the measurement of body parts as a way to determine who was homosexual. This new construct generated a new anxiety: that being labeled as a homosexual would change one’s very identity. 

During the second sexual revolution, the patriarchal society and its hetero-normativeness were harshly criticized. Homosexuals demanded acceptance for “the way they were”. From degenerated or ill persons, they claimed to be associated with a way of life that had been discriminated against and was now to be equal in merit. The individualization of Dutch society and loss of power of patriarchal family values both contributed to the successful establishment of this newly-constructed gay identity.

Nonetheless, although much space has been created in the Netherlands for homosexuals since then, and despite some of the most gay-friendly laws in the world, a homosexual identity is still often experienced as inferior to a heterosexual one. This can be illustrated by the anxiety that is present in the way most people are engaged in classifying each other as being homo or heterosexual and in the fact that many heterosexuals put forth much effort in order to distance themselves from homosexuality. 

The exposure of Dutch homophobia is not a claim that the Dutch are more or less homophobic than Muslims; Homophobia cannot be measured on a linear scale; different cultural systems produce qualitatively different ways of dealing with homosexuality.

The general view traditional Muslims have of homosexuality is one of isolated sexual acts. Although religion and social norms condemn homosexuality, in practice the most important rule is that the acts of homosexuality should not be public.  Public values require that everyone must fulfill his/her obligations towards his/her community, such as getting married and having children. Although most Muslims say that Islam condemns homosexual acts, most people tend to ignore those acts as long as they are not public and do not affect ones community identity. Peter van Maaren, a homosexual high school teacher who worked for 14 years in a predominately non-white neighborhood, concurred. According to him, homosexuality is for Muslims a matter of sexual behavior and not at all about identity or love. Muslims have difficulties in accepting a homosexual identity because it does not fit their social structure in which the patriarchal family model is central. As a consequence, mainstream Dutch people see Muslims as homophobic and themselves as liberal. These stereotypes are used to depict Muslims as foreigners, incompatible with Dutch culture. It was drawing on this framework that made Pim Fortuyn so successful.

Pim Fortuyn, Theo van Gogh, and a Time Ripe for Crises

Pim Fortuyn attached ethnicity, religion and immigration issues to the issue of national security.  The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour for the Netherlands reported that starting in the fall of 2001 “widespread societal resentment towards growing numbers of Muslims and their culture became apparent. Populist politician Pim Fortuyn…received broad support for his characterization of Islam as ‘a backward culture’ that is intolerant towards women and homosexuals and that allows practices from the Middle Ages…” Pim Fortuyn, killed by an animal rights activist in 2002, was a right-wing homosexual politician whose hostility towards Muslim society stemmed, among other things, from a fear that a larger Muslim presence in the Netherlands could lead to restrictions of his sexual liberty.  Gay rights, which had historically been a leftist cause, were suddenly embraced by the right-wing as a part of the threatened Dutch identity.  Muslims were publicly cast as homophobic, and the native Dutch as liberal and progressive.

The death of Theo van Gogh, assassinated by a young Dutch Muslim extremist in November 2004, created further tensions.  Theo van Gogh, an unapologetic critic of Islam and of Muslim immigration, had produced the film Submission by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, which severely criticized Islam’s treatment of women. After his murder, violence erupted and included nearly 30 arson attacks against mosques, Muslim schools, churches, and other property. There were many reported minor incidents, including intimidations, brawls, vandalism, and graffiti with abusive texts. Expanding pockets of both radicalized Muslim and other youth, who identify themselves as "native Dutch," were responsible for many of these instances of violence.  Report polls found “that popular attitudes towards Muslims are rapidly becoming more negative, and a majority now views their presence as a threat” (International Religious Freedom Report 2005).  

Mustafa, a heterosexual Moroccan-Dutchman, said that the crises made it harder for all Muslims.  Muslims already received criticism for their perceived intolerance of homosexuality and treatment of women, besides the stereotypical portrayal of Muslim young men as criminals. Now, in addition, they were seen as potential terrorists. Professor Hekma agreed, adding that “a lot of Dutchmen […] feel as though the Moroccans are creating a backlash against gay rights.”  As the fear of the Muslim communities grew, the immediate identification of a Dutch Moroccan or Dutch Muslim as simply ‘Muslim’ or ‘Moroccan’ intensified. Willfully or otherwise, ‘Muslims’ were pushed into a rigid identity. Even the ‘good Muslims’—those that were considered to be more fully integrated into the larger Dutch society—experienced in their daily lives the weight of being labeled as merely ‘Muslim’.

Moena also spoke of the growing tensions between Muslims and the larger Dutch society.  As a person who doesn’t “look Moroccan” in behavior or appearance (in that she has short hair, her clothes are trendy, and she is actively involved in the LGBTQ scene), Moena is able to move throughout Dutch society with fewer problems.  Yet, she complains that: ‘As much as I act Dutch’- she smokes, drinks, does not wear a headscarf and speaks Dutch without a foreign accent – ‘I am never going to be seen as Dutch’. She also related stories of her younger sister, who is a practicing Muslim and wears a headscarf.  Her sister has grown accustomed to being the target of many negative comments, as have many other ‘Moroccan’ girls.  Similarly, Deniz, a Turkish man, expressed his difficulties with the fact that he started being more frequently identified as a Muslim, and that this association was now charged with much more negativity.  Before Pim Fortuyn, nobody dared to say anything that was not politically correct.  Afterwards, they became very hard on Muslims.  “Even I, that am quite relaxed and can put things into perspective, found it very difficult; I often thought: Jesus, what a f---ed up country (‘wat een kut land!’)”

The media’s role in building negative and rigid identification of the Muslim community has been important. “I don’t read the newspaper anymore.  It seems that everyday they look for which bad things they can say about Muslims,” Deniz said.  Mustafa was also frustrated with the media portrayal of Muslim boys as violent criminals, and of the continued news “polls” that measured homophobic tendencies among Muslims.  For him, the findings were no surprise: “They’re only interviewing the Muslims!” he cried.  If the newspapers were as intentional about interviewing the Catholics or other groups, the result would likely be the same.  The continual representation of Muslims as intolerant and homophobic is not helping improve the situation.

Reactions to the Crisis

The rigid Muslim identification was not shaped only by Dutch society, but also from within Muslim communities. After the death of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, Mustafa noted a turn to the perceived traditional values of and unification between Muslim communities, forging “Muslims” as one. Professor Hekma elaborated on the impact for LGBTQ Muslims:  “The atmosphere has become so unfriendly … [that Muslims] have become a more closed community from which it is more difficult to step out.” Not feeling accepted as a part of the larger society, many ‘Muslims’ turn to the perceived basis of their identity (and consequently their religion) and reject Dutch values and customs.

Of course, there were also Muslim organizations that tried to foster dialogue. Groups like the Milli Görüs reached out to their community by opening the doors of their mosque and beginning dialogue.  Still, despite such efforts, the attitudes of withdrawal and fear permeated both Dutch and Muslim communities.

Also many Dutch are seeking to find ways to bridge the gap. The government has in addition been taking measures in order to integrate the Muslims to the broader society. Yet the governmental policies and private initiatives are being criticized for seeking assimilation instead of integration, and for having a very paternalistic character. Halleh Ghorashi, professor at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and an Iranian refugee that moved to the Netherlands sixteen years ago, criticizes Dutch approach to the Muslim community.  “There has emerged a dual discourse of citizenship: one discourse for the ‘real Dutch’ and another for the ‘unwanted Dutch’ who need to ‘integrate,’ ‘be saved from their husbands,’ or ‘learn the language.’  The latter discourse presumes that migrants are not mature enough to decide matters for themselves…” (ISIM, Spring 2005).  

In relation to homosexuality, this framework of the modern West vs. the traditional non-West also nurtures the attitude of the Dutch, and the government and media try to figure out ways to teach the Muslims how to ‘tolerate’ homosexuality. As opposed to a dialogue or cooperation that could bring improvement for all parties, it is the Dutch – who have supposedly already overcome this problem– that are supposed to teach the Muslims how to do it. 

Moving Forward

In sum, the discussions of gay acceptance and homophobia in the Netherlands are disturbed by a rigid dichotomy: the ‘liberal Dutch’ and the ‘conservative Muslim’. Different constructs of sexuality are used to stigmatize the Other and confirm his/her inferiority, making the gay rights dialogue charged and convoluted. The depiction of ‘the Muslims’ as homophobic as opposed to the ‘liberal Dutch’ overshadows Dutch homophobia. In this way, many Dutch people close their eyes to their own prejudices, since the problem is the Muslims. 

Furthermore, a climate of distrust and confrontation, together with rigid identities, limit the options of people like Moena and Deniz, who face the challenge of navigating numerous identities and creating equal dialogue. “The whole thing is a trust issue.  Nobody trusts each other anymore,” says Moena.  The solution is in dialogue and knowing one another.  Peter van Maaren agrees.  For him, the talk about polarization is too emphasized.  “The more we say it,” he said, “the more we polarize…It would be cool if we wouldn’t see them [the Muslims] as a threat anymore!” The way to solve the issue is not to try to assimilate entire cultures; the solution is in the small-scale action, in getting to know one’s neighbors, he says. Deconstruction of the Other and open dialogue is the only way forward.



Mustafa, personal interview.  20th June 2006.

“Moena”, real name witheld, personal interview, 23rd June 2006.

Dr. Gert Hekma, Department of Gay and Lesbian studies, University of Amsterdam, personal interview, 22nd June 2006. 

“Deniz”, real name witheld, personal interview, 26 June 2006.

Peter van Maren, instructor in Regio College Zaandam, personal interview 23rd June, 2006.


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Sunier, Thijl.  “Muslim Migrants, Muslim Citizens.  Islam and Dutch Society.”  The Netherlands’ Journal of Social Sciences. 35/1. Pp.69-83

Weeks, Jeffrey.  Sexuality, second edition.  Routledge Publishing, London, 2003.

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Grillo, Ralph and Soares, Benjamin J.  “Transnational Islam in Western Europe.” pg 11 Spring 2005 ed., ISIM Review.

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Netherlands Netherlands 2006


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