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Will Individualism in Dutch Politics Liberate Dutch Muslims?

“Election campaigns are fought on the television screen. And the more politics gets complicated, the more the voter will vote for a personality than for a program.”- anonymous Dutch critic

The landscape of Dutch politics has changed dramatically over the past year.  The sudden and monumental rise of Pim Fortuyn ignited an intense nation-wide discussion about the status-quo, the achievements of the government, the societal problems at hand, and the best possible solution for the future.  Just recently, in the aftermath of Fortuyn’s assassination, another new political movement has appeared: the Arab European League.  Its remarkably charismatic leader, Abou Jahjah, confirmed the assumption that was already made in light of Fortuyn’s success: the qualities of individual appeal, its consequent media attention, and the extensive focus imparted on these groups by society are now the defining characteristics of contemporary Dutch politics. 

In this political framework that emphasizes the importance of candidates over parties, Pim Fortuyn and consequently his political party, Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF), gained unprecedented popularity. His sudden ascension in the political ranks occurred after Fortuyn broke with the Dutch political tradition of political correctness. On February 9, 2002, in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, Fortuyn claimed that the Netherlands had reached its population limit at 16 million inhabitants and insisted that the government stop allowing 40,000 annual asylum-seekers into the country. Moreover, he guaranteed that if he became part of the next government, he would pursue an exceptionally restrictive immigration policy to combat this problem. Among other statements, Fortuyn also placed greater importance on Article 23 of the constitution, which asserts freedom of speech, than Article 1, which forbids discrimination. This dissension cost Fortuyn his initial leadership position in Leefbaar Nederland.  However, it also gained him widespread popularity, his own political party, and a national forum to express the concerns and discontent of many disenfranchised Dutch voters.  

As the media increased its focus on the LPF’s controversial stance on Muslim integration and not on other LPF grievances, Fortuyn increasingly centered his party on immigration as a main plank of its platform and used political incorrectness as a vehicle for his cause.  By asserting that integration was a path that most Muslims refused to travel down, Fortuyn touched on a growing fear in Dutch communities. Political consultant and journalist, Lennart Booij emphasizes that “the LPF formed out of three fears: loss of position, loss of culture, and xenophobia.”  Fortuyn played on all of them in the media to maintain exposure and increase his following, phrasing it as follows: “I don't hate Islam. I consider it a backwards culture. I have traveled much in the world. And wherever Islam rules, it's terrible."

To many, this political rhetoric was seen as a threat to time-honored Dutch tradition of tolerance as an unwelcome break with Dutch political correctness. However, many others embraced Fortuyn’s political incorrectness and praised it for identifying the growing problems that the Dutch administration had neither recognized nor addressed over the years: rapid growth of the immigrant population in Holland exacerbated by the slow integration into the Dutch society, lack of reconciliation between tolerant Dutch norms and conservative Islamic social values, a growing feeling of insecurity on the streets of Dutch cities, and a fear of losing the Dutch national identity.  Although Fortuyn was assassinated on May 6, 2002, the LPF went on to record an unprecedented debut in the lower house of parliament by winning 26 seats. With 17% of the total 150 seats, LPF became the second-largest faction in the house and took part in the first Balkenende cabinet. Clearly, Fortuyn’s ability to recognize the estrangement of many Dutch voters, his willingness to employ political incorrectness to identify their frustrations, and his ability to capture the media spotlight attributed to his success in galvanizing public support to rock the Dutch political boat.  

Much like Fortuyn, another charismatic leader has recently entered the Dutch political arena to champion frustrated Dutch voters: Dyab Abou Jahjah.  Relying on public discontent, Abou Jahjah and the Arab European League (AEL) also focus on the issue of Muslim integration. He received international publicity as he protested alongside young Muslims in an Antwerp working-class neighborhood when a Muslim was murdered by his Belgian neighbor. After being arrested, imprisoned, and eventually released by the local police, Abou Jahjah gained widespread support from Belgian Muslim minorities. After setting up a political program in Belgium and drawing increasing media attention, he has now initiated a Dutch division of the AEL, and seeks to expand its influence across the continent.

Unlike Fortuyn’s hard-line integrationist stance, Abou Jahjah and the AEL believe that integration is a two-way street in which both immigrants and natives meet in the middle to form a new national identity. Whether Abou Jahjah’s charisma will garner the AEL political power parallel to the coverage it receives by the media is yet to be determined. Indeed, only time will show if this infant becomes a behemoth or fades into oblivion. Despite their different conceptions of integration and other ideological differences, many significant and compelling similarities exist between the AEL in the Netherlands and the LPF in their respective developments.  Booij asserts that “a strict comparison between the AEL-NL and LPF is very difficult, if not impossible.”  Nevertheless, the two parties are, on a superficial level, easily comparable. As a result, comparing the development of AEL-Netherlands to the prior emergence of the LPF may be useful in ascertaining the future of Abou Jahjah and his political party.  

An Unlikely Comparison

The most compelling similarity between the two parties rests in the nature and background of their two visionaries: Pim Fortuyn and Dyab Abou Jahjah.  Both leaders formed their parties through their charismatic presence and had experiences as children that spurred their future political agendas, but neither Fortuyn nor Abou Jahjah descriptively represent their followers. As a child, fellow students did not accept Fortuyn because he was a homosexual.  This experience parallels the current, perceived encroachment of conservative Islamic social values on the tolerant Dutch culture evident in the religious and political rhetoric of Khalil el-Moumni, a Rotterdam imam, “The western civilization is a civilization without morals. In the Netherlands it's permitted for homosexuals to marry each other. The Europeans stand lower than dogs and pigs.” As a prosperous, homosexual intellectual, Fortuyn did not represent his followers, mainly consisting of middle class, blue-collar workers, beyond their shared ideology.  In Abou Jahjah’s case, his motivation stems from losing his Lebanese village as a child to Israeli aggression. This experience illustrates a significant reason for Abou Jahjah’s focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict and his efforts to import it into Dutch politics. Much like Fortuyn, Abou Jahjah also stands apart from his followers in the descriptive sense. Unlike most Dutch Muslims that emigrated from Morocco (primarily Berber areas), Turkey, and other non-Arab Islamic nations, Abou Jahjah is from Lebanon, an Arab nation. 

Moreover, the strong charismatic presence of both visionaries has rendered the leadership structure of each of their political parties unstable without them at the helm. After Fortuyn’s death and the massive gain of votes during election, the LPF-ministers in the newly established coalition were unable to overcome continuous internal struggles, and made the cabinet fall after a mere 87 days of effective administration. A parallel can be drawn with the current struggles within the AEL-NL after Mohammed Cheppih withdrew from his leadership position. Badr Madi, a Moroccan student at the University of Amsterdam, points to the power gap in the AEL-NL saying that he didn’t think he would vote for the AEL in the Netherlands, because “their structure is so weak and they are so indecisive about their leader, that they don’t seem worth a vote.  The only really attractive thing about the AEL is Dyab Abou Jahjah, whose strong argumentation and charisma are worth something.  But the Dutch AEL lacks all of this.” 

The LPF and AEL-NL are also founded on essentially the same goal: preservation of culture.  In that sense, both groups are grappling for control over redefining Dutch culture in the twenty-first century.  The LPF aims to maintain the tolerance of Dutch society that the middle class perceives to be endangered by the growth of the Dutch Muslim community with their conservative Islamic social values.  Booij explains this apparent conflict between the two cultures, stating that “the AEL-NL is a party whose people strictly interpret Dutch law, much like they interpret sharia law. Doing so simply clashes with Dutch interpretation.”  In contrast, the AEL-NL strives to preserve the Muslim identity.  Abou Jahjah recognizes the difficulties of Muslim integration into Dutch society by paralleling it to the difficulties faced by Muslims in Belgium where “instead of looking at integration as a process involving the whole population, immigrant and indigenous alike, (the Belgian government believe) integration must lead to abolishing all differences between the majority and the immigrant minority through the way of total assimilation of the minority.”

Both movements agree that integration is essential for the future of the Netherlands.  However, the two groups differ on who should integrate.  On the one hand, the LPF believes that Dutch Muslims are obligated to integrate into traditional Dutch culture.  The AEL-NL, on the other hand, stresses that Dutch Muslims share this obligation with Dutch natives because the influx of Muslim immigrants changes the demographics of the Netherlands and, as a result, its identity.  Additionally, this goal of preserving their own culture adds a nationalistic tone to the two parties since the LPF wishes to continue traditional Dutch culture into the future and the AEL-NL ultimately wishes to implement sharia law which implies the convergence of church and state.  

Both the LPF and AEL-NL, furthermore, have an underlying theme of intolerance expressed through political incorrectness. This quality separates each party from the polder model, which aims to achieve consensus through moderation. Yet, the polder model, for all of its praise, has also constrained political debate to the narrow range of political correctness with deference to the tolerance protected under Article 1 of the constitution. In contrast, preference of Article 23 over Article 1 is fully evident in both the LPF and AEL-NL platforms.  By using political incorrectness, the LPF and AEL-NL challenge Dutch political norms and, as a result, address issues that have been neglected by previous administrations.  Abou Jahjah reinforces this view, arguing that “if we ever want a solution to these problems we have to start by naming things by their names. Political correctness is not a valid reason to avoid the naked truth, no matter how difficult and hard to bare that truth might be.”  

Although political incorrectness has gained the LPF and AEL-NL strong followings to their own extent, it has also given the media an opportunity to demonize them for breaking with Dutch social tradition. Initially sometimes labeled as extremists for disregarding political correctness, the LPF soon shed this title when it gathered widespread support in the 2002 election. Likewise, the AEL-NL has received the extremist label for its unconventional views on integration and other issues. When asked about the validity of the media’s characterization of the AEL-NL as an extremist group, a Muslim student at the University of Amsterdam, Imam, said that she did not “know how extreme some of their standpoints are, but they serve merely as provocative instruments rather than serious goals.”

The Future of the AEL-NL

The rise of the LPF and recent erection of the Dutch branch of the AEL thus seem to share several characteristics.  Even though Fortuyn’s party lost more than one third of its seats in parliament in the 2003 elections, today it is still a strong oppositional force, especially in light of its recent establishment.  But where is the AEL-NL heading?  To what extent is widespread success amongst its target group to be expected?  An overload of media attention was given to the party, especially during Abou Jahjah’s tour through the Netherlands in April of this year.  The university centers where he spoke were packed with young, ambitious, highly educated Muslim students, and he seemed able to answer every single question posed in the numerous TV shows he appeared on.  Since then, according to Naïma Elmaslouhi, spokesperson and board member of AEL-NL, the amount of members has rapidly risen to 800 and she “expects this number to keep rising.”

There exist various sources that challenge these enthusiastic prospects.  The first few months after the birth of AEL-NL, Abou Jahjah put forward Mohammed Cheppih as its candidate-leader, a Saudi-educated imam that lacked both the physical and verbal charisma that had attracted so many to listen to Abou Jahjah.  After he stepped down on May 23rd because he did not feel “happy” as a political leader, the AEL held a first national congress on May 30th in Utrecht.  The proceedings of this event appeared to have been chaotic regarding the messages that were posted afterwards on the forums of Maroc.nl and Mahgrib.nl, two well-frequented portals for young Moroccans.  One visitor, calling himself “Broeder” remarked on Maroc.nl in reaction to the meeting: “I disagree with the nationalism that dominates within the AEL.  Nationalism opposes Islam. The voting session was manipulated, and was extremely chaotic.  And I completely disagree with the dictatorial behavior of some prominent members within the AEL.  I put in 100% percent for the organization, but I’ll put in 1000% to break it down, before it does more damage.”  Others complain that the AEL exploits Islam for attracting members and that it lacks democracy.  According to Trouw newspaper, 79 people gave up their memberships as a result of the meeting, and the Maroc.nl’s web poll regarding the future chances of the Dutch AEL showed that 67% of the visitors did not believe in it anymore. 

According to some observant Dutch scientists and journalists, the future of the AEL-NL is not exactly bright.  The Anne Frank’s foundation’s expert on racism and extremism, Dr. Jaap van Donselaar, believes that “the AEL-NL is merely the product of a media-hype, the climax of which has already been reached.   I think that most of the Moroccan youth in this country is smart and emancipated enough to see how extreme and limited the views of the AEL are.”  Harm Botje, a journalist at Vrij Nederland who closely followed the media campaigns, asserts that the “AEL is an extreme light-weight party.  The maximum amount of seats they might ever achieve here is one or two in a local municipal council.  The media-hype is more or less over now, and so will be its minor success.” Aside from these objective onlookers, the AEL also experiences considerable resistance from various political parties.   Camiel Eurlings of the Christian-Democrat CDA party has called their standpoints and statement’s “dangerous”, describing them as a “provocative organization that rejects a society in which we try to live together.”   Liberal VVD members, vocalized by former Muslim and Islam-skeptic Ayaan Hirsi Ali, have proposed to initiate a “liberal jihad” against the movement.  LPF-member of parliament Joost Eerdmans even carried out considerable research into the possibilities of forbidding the party, because their “sympathy for the jihad is nothing less than terrorism, which is illegal under Dutch law.” 

It appears that many AEL-objectors especially despise the program point regarding Israel, which states that “the AEL does not recognize the right to existence of this Zionist entity.”  The AEL pledge for the Palestinian cause is one of the most widely-debated aspects of the movement.  Opponents claim that the Moroccan background of most AEL members makes their support of Palestine difficult to substantiate, because they are usually of Berber descent (a group that has been suppressed in Morocco for centuries by Arabs), and Moroccan Muslims and Jews have always peacefully lived alongside each other.  On Tawiza.nl, a website aimed at Berber heritage and culture, one Moroccan Berber exclaims that they need to “certainly do something against this Arab nationalist that use Amazigh (Berber) negligence for his own Arab interests.”  They claim that Abou Jahjah is simply on an individual quest against Israel, and imports the Arab-Israeli conflict into the Benelux.  Support of the Palestinean cause by “minority immigrants is simply a reaction to not being recognized and not being accepted,” as described by Mahawat Khan in NRC Handelsblad.  AEL-NL spokeswoman Naïma Elmaslouhi strictly disagrees with these critiques.  “Berber, Arab Moroccan, Lebanese or Turkish, the members of the AEL simply sympathize with the repression of a minority in the Arab world,” she explains.  “The media just digs deeply for these differences to make us look unstable and demonize us.”

Reactions to the future of the Dutch AEL are not only disapproving.  Ahmed Larous, the chair of Towards a New Start (TANS), a network of higher educated Dutch Moroccans, states that “many young Moroccans were initially very interested in supporting the AEL, mostly because of Abou Jahjah’s charisma and argumentation. The party may seem unstable without a leader right now, but if they overcome their internal struggles and create a firm image, I believe that a considerable amount of well-educated Moroccans could vote for them anyway.”  A minority member of the leftist GroenLinks party, Naïma Azough, expresses that the movement will be compatible with Dutch society, by saying: “It is an instrument of awareness and maturing, and thereby positive and necessary.  We need the Moroccan community to seek a confrontation: they tend to avoid it.”  

A recent action undertaken by the AEL-NL exemplifies such confrontations.  At a small demonstration at a Catholic high school in Utrecht on June 24th, AEL members protested the school’s regulations that did not allow for veils to be worn.  One of the demonstrators had decided to leave the school because she did not want to take her veil off.  Even though she had filed a formal complaint with the Board for Equal Treatment, she had decided to “not to wait for their ruling,” and come and protest with the AEL-NL.  A group of about 20 students carrying banners, slogans and veils was received by an equally large group of local and national press.  A protester, wishing to remain anonymous, admitted that she was somewhat disappointed by the turnout, “There aren’t too many people here. But then again, maybe it should not have been planned in the summer vacation.”  The protesters, who were predominantly young, veil-wearing women, shouted slogans like, “Assimilation?  No!  Suppression?  No!  Respect?  Yes!” and “We demand not to be discriminated.”   One of the sympathizing bystanders, Imran, a student of Pakistani descent and an AEL-member, explained that he was “supportive of what these girls are doing.  I know about the internal problems of the AEL-NL, but this is essentially what they are here for: pointing out the problems in this country without beating around the bush. Just like the LPF.” 

Only Time Will Tell

Once again, these two dissimilar political parties are connected.  Bound by their charismatic visionaries and their use of political incorrectness and an unconventionally direct way of confronting social and political issues, they share a similar political path.  The history of the LPF in Dutch politics may, therefore, be used as a barometer and guide for the efficacy and development of the AEL-NL.  Dutch Muslims and non-Muslims, alike, anxiously await the future to see if the AEL-NL will make its mark on the Netherlands as a legitimate representative of Muslim minority rights or go down in history as a mere extremist group.   Surely, the AEL-NL can learn much from the success, pitfalls, and history of its predecessor, rival, and often-cited contemporary, the LPF.  
















Phone and Personal Interviews

Ahmed Larous, board chair of Towards A New Start (TANS). June 23, 2003.

Harm Botje, journalist for Vrij Nederland. June 20, 2003.

Iman, Badr Madi, law students at Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA) June 19, 2003.

Imran, Pakistani student. June 24, 2003.

Jaap van Donselaar, racism and extremism expert, Anne Frank Foundation. June 18, 2003.

Joost Eerdmans, LPF Member of Parliament. June 16, 2003. 

Lennart Booij, political consultant and television-maker. June 18, 2003.

Naïma Elmaslouhi. spokesperson and vice-chair on board of AEL-NL. June 20, 2003.

Media Sources

“AEL could be forbidden.” Joost Eerdmans. Algemeen Dagblad, June 6, 2003.

“AEL is not a polarizing movement.” Hikmat Mahawat Khan. NRC/Handelsblad, June 3, 2003.

“AEL-NL: Noodzaak of Kwaad?” Groenlinks Magazine, April 2003 “Het is tijd voor een liberale jihad.” Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders. NRC/Handelsblad, April 12, 2003.

Ephimenco Column, Trouw. June 14, 2003.

Ephimenco Column, Trouw. June 17, 2003.

“Islam is a backward culture.” Frank Poorthuis and Hans Wansink. February 9, 2002.

“The Netherlands is already a Muslim country.” Maurits Berger. NRC/Handelsblad, June 14, 2003.


AEL-NL demonstration against veil-policy of St.Gregorius College, Utrecht. June 24, 2003.


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Netherlands Netherlands 2003


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