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Keeping the Faith in the Dutch Army - Retaining Muslim Religious Identity and the Desire for an Egalitarian Social Structure in the Military

Tolerance is a much talked about value in The Netherlands. Dutch society, with its history of liberal thinking, has long viewed itself to be a forerunner of acceptance of a multicultural populace. This multicultural component, fundamentally altering the previously held notion of a homogeneous Dutch society, largely came into being in the 1960s and 1970s with the arrival of new immigrants. Besides immigrants from the former Dutch colony of Surinam, so-called guest workers from Mediterranean countries arrived and established themselves in the Netherlands. The majority of the latter came from Turkey and Morocco, and through family reunification schemes, were later joined by their families. 

In the last few years, doubts have arisen about the ideal and reality of a multicultural society, instigated partly by domestic and international Islamic terrorism. A segment of the Dutch population views the substantial Muslim minority in the country, consisting of almost 1 million, or 5.8 percent, of the total 16 million people in the Netherlands, as outsiders. As a result, some Dutch Muslims feel disenchanted in their native country; they feel neither accepted nor do they feel Dutch. If there’s one place, however, where a sentiment of being ‘Dutch’ can be viewed, it is in the armed forces. For many, it is even the paramount expression of being ‘Dutch’, demonstrating loyalty to one’s nation, and when this allegiance is not at first present, it is one of the values the army attempts to instill in its personnel. As Mostafa, a Muslim soldier explains, loyalty, as well as “obedience, pride in what you do, [and] trust” form part of the values promoted by and within the army. Furthermore, the army has long been hailed in some countries as an environment promoting social equality - where the backgrounds and social standings of the soldiers are of little importance compared to the talents they exhibit when striving for a common goal. Hence, with a rise in discrimination over the last few years in quotidian life in Dutch society, the armed forces could present a microcosm in which minorities no longer exist. More specifically, it could provide the Muslim minority an environment in which religious beliefs and ethnic background are not used to form and define particular groups within a social setting. To achieve this, the army has to ensure that the basic religious needs of all army-personnel are provided for, and that the military milieu offers the possibility to retain one’s personal religious identity.

Although the Dutch army has a long history of multiculturalism, mainly during The Netherlands’ colonial era in the East, the active and specific search for recruits from minority backgrounds has only recently been initiated. After the Dutch armed forces changed from a conscription to a professional army in the mid-1990s, it started looking for personnel willing to serve for limited periods of time. The search mainly focused on the most underrepresented groups, namely women and ‘allochtonous’ people (a term widely used in The Netherlands in reference to everyone of first or second generation with at least one parent born abroad). The extensive recruiting initiative was successful: the population of allochtones has risen from 6.9 percent in 2000 to 7.6 percent of the total of 70 000 military personnel in 2004 (Richardson, 2004). This increased presence of allochtones substantially increased the number of Muslims within the Dutch army (Nuij, 2003) and thus increased the need of religiously orientated services for Muslims.

Facilitating Religious Practices – Searching for an Imam

“I think it’s important that people can live by their tradition,” says a rabbi in the Dutch Armed Forces, who believes the Government has a duty to ensure the military provides this. Consequently, special services are provided for religious groups within the armed forces: provisions for dietary needs such as halal, kosher, and vegetarian foods; the opportunity to take leave for religious holidays during peace time; the opportunity to pray; and religious counseling. Priests, chaplains, reverends and rabbis, as well as non-religious humanist counselors have already been present in the Dutch armed forces for several decades. In 1998, following the Ministry of Defense’s adoption of a Diversity Policy the previous year, the Dutch military initiated religious counseling to soldiers of other religions, namely to Muslims and Hindus; two full-time positions for Hindu pundits as well as two for Muslim religious counselors were created. Faced with a sizeable increase of people coming to The Netherlands from other countries, the fact that the Dutch Armed Forces did not well reflect this growth, and amidst the discourse on integration that had become prominent in the Netherlands, the Ministry also initiated its own discussion on the issue. 

Although the positions for the Hindu pundits were quickly filled, the two spots reserved for imams still remain vacant. The vacancies have entailed that the Jewish counseling services were made available to Muslim individuals. “It’s not as it should be, but it is commendable” comments Major Rijpma of the Defense Ministry, about the rabbi advising Muslims when they seek his counseling services. Muslim soldiers have voiced their gratitude at having the option to go see a rabbi if desired, but as Mostafa points out, “there have been moments when I would have liked to have spoken to an imam.” He refers specifically to his service tour in Afghanistan which overlapped with Ramadan, when he looked for advice concerning whether or not he should fast.  

In particular, arranging, while deployed, to have one’s body washed in the case of death -according to Islamic customs- can be a taxing demand for some individuals. “That’s a gruesome thing to have to arrange for yourself,” comments Mostafa, who while in Afghanistan, had an agreement with a fellow Muslim soldier that they would wash each other’s body if the need arose. However, if both of them had died in the field, it is uncertain whether their bodies would have found appropriate care. Mostafa explains that an imam could join preparatory missions to ensure such arrangements.

While a rabbi may offer counsel to Muslims, situations arise in which knowledge of or service for another religion may be lacking. As the army rabbi stressed, he can assist in facilitating part of religious rituals in the army, helping to provide for necessary services, such as food, but he cannot adjudicate Islamic issues.

The Ministry of Defense understands that for many Muslims, Islam entails a commitment that far outpaces the requirements of Sunday worship. It has already recognized the need and desire to employ an Imam to assuage worries of the Muslim minority in the armed forces. However, following the separation of state and religion, the Ministry does not consider itself responsible for selecting the religious counselor. As such, it has awaited the governmental approval of two organizations, which are now officially recognized as representatives of the Muslim community: the CMO (Contact organization Muslims and Government), representing six Sunni organizations and about 560,000 Muslims, and the CGI (Contact Group Islam), representing other Sunni organizations, the Ahmadiyya and Shiite groups, consisting of approximately 115,000 Muslims. 

Some Ministry of Defense staff have blamed Muslim organizations for failing to select an imam; briefly, it is up to them to find common ground on choosing a suitable imam. Ayhan Tonca, chairman of the CMO, explains that his association is concerned with fulfilling “the needs of those serving”, from which may follow that the CMO, being the largest organization, deserves the right to be the sending organization for Muslims. The CGI, on the other hand, claims that their voice must also be heard. According to the Ministry, the Muslim organizations are responsible for fulfilling the vacant positions for Muslim religious counselors, yet the CMO and the CGI have yet to apply for the status of a ‘counsel sending organization’ to initiate the process.

Joseph Soeters, a professor at the Royal Military Academy and co-editor of the book Managing Diversity in the Armed Forces: Experiences from Nine Countries, believes that “the Government needs a more practical view” with regards to the question of an imam, namely one involving greater “flexibility”. According to Soeters, if the organizations find no common ground, the two full-time positions could be split into three or four part-time posts, so that Islam’s own internal diversity could be represented in the armed forces. As a matter of fact, with other religious counselors, that is exactly what is done. There are orthodox and liberal Jewish religious counselors, as well as various Christian denominations represented. For each of these counselors, the Ministry of Defense deals with a different sending organization. 

Although the army rabbi maintains that the limited services he can offer to the Muslim soldiers run smoothly, the need and desire for an imam in the Dutch army is clear, both from the standpoint of the army and the Muslim soldiers. For Muslim soldiers, services offer the opportunity to keep religion in their lives. The army is just as practical, and its goals should not be mistaken as ideological. True, it offers religious and non-religious provisions to its soldiers, but mostly to ensure that the latter will join and more importantly, stay in the armed forces. The fact that the army does not yet have Muslim religious counselors can be viewed as discriminatory, in light that all other religions are represented. However, it should also be remembered that the army’s first priority is not that of being multicultural, but rather to have the personnel required to serve and protect the country’s national interests. Nevertheless, in order to be able to fulfill its first priority, policy makers within the Dutch Armed Forces have realized that in a multicultural society, it may be advantageous and even necessary to provide for a multicultural army void of discrimination to recruit and retain the needed soldiers.

Discrimination within an Egalitarian Setting

A couple of cases of discrimination in the Dutch armed forces have drawn widespread media-attention during the last few years. Amongst them are right-extremist acts committed by Dutch peacekeepers against their colleagues in Bosnia, the setting afire of the coat of a Dutch private of Turkish descent in 2002, and discriminatory behavior towards fellow-soldiers with Moroccan background during several missions in Iraq. According to Mostafa, the Dutch army is not entirely separated from the tensions existing in the civil society, but nonetheless, “the Dutch army is more tolerant than civil society.” He maintains that while there are unfortunate isolated incidents, there seems to be no widespread discrimination in the armed forces in The Netherlands.

According to the army rabbi and to Professor Soeters, the official tolerance stems from the primary identity of everyone in the army as a soldier, forming a cohesive unit. It is neither interesting nor important to attribute ‘groups’ to soldiers. When one enters basic training, one is teamed up according to the ‘buddy-system’: both individuals do and share practically everything. People are not teamed up according to their religious beliefs, place of birth or skin color, and as Mostafa explains, “after three weeks everybody’s got mud on his face anyway, so it does not matter anymore whose face is greener.” The only group that will exist is ‘us’. For this reason, Mostafa stresses that he personally does not take every remark as a grave case of discrimination. If his colleagues negatively refer to Muslims in generalizing terms on tours of duty in a Muslim country, he understands that they sometimes need to “blow off some steam.” However, if this language continues upon return to The Netherlands, the remarks would then be viewed as discriminatory and acted upon with the gravity they deserve. 

In the case mentioned above, it is implicitly understood that any negative reference will be directed towards an outside group, a ‘them’, or in other words, the enemy. The fact that a Dutch soldier of Islamic faith does not take offense at general comments made about followers of his religion demonstrates that he feels more strongly, in that context, about his identity as a soldier than being offended as a Muslim. In other words, difference is subordinated to categories of us/them, or allies/enemies. It is important here to note that such a process, namely one which depicts a common ‘other’, and in doing so forms the ‘we’, is particular to the structure of the armed forces. In society at large in the Netherlands, there is no common enemy around which the population can rally. There is no immediate threat to the country. Poverty and crime may be seen as societal villains, but since they do not affect all individuals equally, their rallying incentive is weak. In an army battalion, in contrast, the interdependence between the soldiers makes it so that it is in everyone’s interest to work together against opposition. Thus, the egalitarian structure of the army, which fosters an environment where discrimination is the afterthought of striving for a common goal, may not be exportable to Dutch society at large. 

However, the army should not be mistaken as an environment where discrimination does not exist, as it is difficult to regulate the behavior of soldiers amongst themselves.  Even if relative tolerance exists, it does not change the fact that there have been, also recently, serious cases of discriminatory acts and even violence. 

The armed forces, nonetheless, strive to create an atmosphere where divisions between individuals lose significance. The primary identity as members of the armed forces also explains why some soldiers of minority background opposed the recent creation of a ‘Multicultural Defense Network’, a committee encouraging the communication with and about ethnic minorities within the armed forces. They feared it would encourage people to treat them as being ‘different’ (Van der Meer, 2002). For Rudy Richardson, chairman of the Multicultural Defense Network, however, the committee’s value lays in its attempt to supply individuals a voice heard by the Ministry. He explains that people are hesitant to come forward with difficulties they encounter as minorities within the armed forces; to some extent, the reality of being a minority in the army is ignored by the military because of its egalitarian structure. Fundamentally, the difficulty with assessing the ‘social practice’, i.e. whether or not discrimination occurs within the army, is that one is mostly dependent on reports of incidents. The unreported cases, as well as the general work environment, virtually get no attention. 

What becomes even more important, then, is the way the army deals with incidents. Officially, and according to interviewees, the army acts decisively and strongly against perpetrators of acts of discrimination. The rabbi points out that one person has been discharged from the army for discriminatory behavior. The Jewish religious counselor continues by saying that decisive action and good education, as is given during training programs, is the best way to fight discrimination. However, it is clear that there have been serious cases of discrimination that were not addressed according to the official policy and with the gravity they deserved. Such a case is the setting afire of a Dutch soldier of Turkish descent’s clothing, which was witnessed by numerous soldiers who idly, some even encouragingly, stood by. The perpetrator was forced to apologize and eventually received a fine but the victim never again felt safe and left the service. Other than cases of such blatant discrimination, Muslims in the Dutch army at times encounter biases that make them feel uneasy and singled out because of their background. “I think that approaching people of Muslim background is not as neutral as [approaching] other groups,” comments Soeters, citing events of the past years, beginning with 9/11 and mentioning the recent murder of Dutch personality and film maker Theo van Gogh. Specifically related to the army, an example of this non-neutral approach was demonstrated when a soldier of Moroccan descent was asked whether he would or would not be willing to work under a female platoon commander, implying that his beliefs could conflict with official army policy. Such instances show that stereotypes do exist and can single out any one soldier, effectively working against the egalitarian social structure the army wishes to attain. Thus, although the army structure may not be exportable to society, there are definitely societal aspects that seep into the army environment.

Mingling identities 

Within its desired egalitarian social structure, the army accepts religious diversity as well as actively enables soldiers to practice their spiritual beliefs. In doing so, it allows for the retention of their personal religious identity. “Within the army, there is space for people to stand within their tradition” mentions one of the armed forces’ religious counselors. This religious identity can be kept despite the fact an individual’s primary identity while in the army is that of a soldier. “People will no longer stick to only one [identity]” comments Soeters. The possibility of having multiple identities, then, is a reality that is present within the Dutch army.

With multiple identities arises the question of loyalty to the state. According to Richardson, soldiers can have more than one loyalty, on the one hand to the employer, and on the other to one’s cultural heritage. There may be occasions when these different feelings of adherence collide, such as Muslims in the Dutch Armed Forces serving in Muslim countries. Research demonstrates that Dutch soldiers of Turkish and Moroccan descent would be willing to serve in Iraq if sent (Richardson, 2003). For Mostafa, serving in a Muslim country was a non-issue. Regardless of where he is stationed, he is first of all a soldier, having consciously made the decision to join a professional army knowing full well that he could be sent to a Muslim country. Furthermore, religious identity, which is of a personal nature, and military identity, tied to one’s employment, can be seen to be on two very different planes. Fundamentally, by joining the Dutch Armed Forces, one’s primary loyalty is given to the military. Hence, it is ridiculous to question a Muslim soldier’s loyalty to the armed forces. 

This does not entail that one can no longer be loyal to one’s religious identity. The army ensures the possibility to do so by providing the necessary services to practice one’s religion. This allows for the recruitment of all members of society, in so far as they assume they will be secure in living a life according to their religion. 

Part of this sense of security should be ensured by the decisiveness by which cases of discrimination are dealt with as well as by the gravity with which singling out groups or individuals is viewed by army leadership. Nevertheless, even though serious instances of discrimination have been rare, some have not been dealt with appropriately. In addition, stereotypes about Muslims and other groups still exist, showing that the army’s egalitarian structure is not pervasive in all military interaction. It is therefore of utmost importance to continue and intensify educational programs about inappropriate behavior within the armed forces, which includes discrimination. Only through recognition of the potential problem of discrimination in a setting such as the armed forces, and the danger it entails for military tasks, can the essential social cohesion be maintained.  Herein lays a major challenge for the army.

The Gap that Remains 

The army offers an environment in which differences between groups are minimized through the creation of a primary identity as a soldier. In addition, by providing for religious and spiritual needs, and the strict way with which cases of discrimination are officially, albeit not necessarily practically, addressed, soldiers are able to retain their religious identity. Nevertheless, for the time being, there is no Muslim religious counselor, leaving a gap in the provision of religious life for soldiers of the Islam faith. If the army would make a priority out of this matter, it could overcome some of the more practical obstacles. For example, it could hasten the research it has planned for 2007 into what religious services are needed according to the soldiers’ wishes. This would enable the army to invite a specific number of counselors in accordance with the soldiers’ needs, resolving the difficulties it now faces of having to choose two counselors (without much soldier input). The fact remains, however, that the army does not have the duty or the priority of providing for such services due to ideological reasons. If the services are provided for, they satisfy a more practical goal. Even if some aspects of religious life are present in the army, it remains an institution that serves without preaching



Rabbi in the Dutch Armed Forces – June 27 and 28, 2005

Roger van der Wetering – spokesman within the press and communication department of the Ministry of Defense for the Military Intelligence and Security Service and for the Command of Service Centres Ministry of Defense – June 21 and 28, 2005

Major M.J. Rijpma – Ministry of Defense, Directorate for Personnel Affairs – June 27, 2005  

Mostafa – Soldier in Dutch Armed Forces – June 22, 2005

Ayhan Tonca – Chairman Contactorgaan Moslims en Overheid (CMO, Contact organization Muslims and Government) – June 27, 2005

Professor Joseph Soeters – Professor at Royal Military Academy in Breda and at the University of Tilburg – June 23, 2005


Bijkerk, Rein and Sico van der Meer. “De krijgsmacht blijft geen blank bolwerk” in Civiel/Militair. (Rijswijk, Fall 2003), 16.

Nuij, Norbert-Jan. “Trend: kleuriger krijgsmacht” in Civiel/Militair. (Rijswijk, Fall 2003), 18-19.

Richardson, Rudy. Multiculturalism in the Dutch Armed Forces. Paper presented for the “Leadership, Education and Multiculturalism in the Armed Forces: Challenges and Opportunities” conference in La Paz, Bolivia, 13-15 September 2004. p. 5


Van der Meer, Sico. “De multiculturele krijgsmacht” in Civiel/Militair. (Rijswijk, Spring 2002), 32.

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Netherlands Netherlands 2005


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