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The Dutch Myth of Tolerance

It was a typical Dutch day – the sky was a chill gray, a cold breeze blew in from the sea, and the bicycle lanes in Amsterdam were packed. It was the first full day here in Amsterdam for the American Fellows from Humanity in Action, but already, for most of them, this cosmopolitan city felt like a serene and safe haven. It’s hard to imagine who wouldn’t feel at home here. Despite its small population, Amsterdam is home to over one hundred and seventy nationalities, making it the world’s most diverse city.

To let our first impressions of the city and each other sink in, we decided to partake in a Dutch tradition: grabbing a drink at a table along one of the canals in the city center. As we did so, we overheard the conversation at the table next to ours. “I can’t stand them. Some of them are all right – Marcouch, Elatik, for instance – but so many of them are just so backwards.” His friend nodded, quietly taking in the words with his last sip of beer, and then replied “So true. And Allah forbids you to call them on it, and then it’s off with your head.” The pair was sharply dressed. Solid ties and glistening cuff links suggested they were bankers, the Wall Street type, out on a power lunch. Their blond hair, blue eyes, and towering frames suggested native Dutch. The “them” they kept referring to were Muslims.

After the two finished their drinks and left their table, we did what most naïve newcomers would have done. We figured that we had just had the unlucky fortune of overhearing a conversation that was entirely un-Dutch, and dismissed it as such. After all, this is the land of Spinoza and the breeding ground for other free-thinking intellectuals. Gay rights are recognized by the government, and the law acknowledges the desire of some individuals to engage in “soft” drug use and prostitution. If ever there was a place that embodied tolerance, Amsterdam is it.

However, as the days passed, we continued to hear echoes of our eavesdropped canal-side conversation. There was the teenage boy who felt that “the damn misbehaving Muslims” were the reasons he couldn’t play outside, the young gay rights activist who complained that Muslims “are archaic and simply stuck in the past,” and the lawyer – who regularly worked on minority issues pro bono – who wasn’t sure what to do with “those problematic Muslims.”

Those exchanges were disconcerting. How could individuals in one of the historically most tolerant cities, be so intolerant? What had happened to the Dutch narrative of tolerance in recent decades? And how was the present political discourse shaping – and being shaped by – this evolving narrative?

Clues to the first question can be found in the unique history of Dutch tolerance. Since the seventeenth century, the people of the Netherlands have been an ethnically, racially, and religiously eclectic bunch. Contrary to oft-romanticized accounts, this tolerant attitude was more a product of necessity than the far-reaching vision of a multicultural society. To maintain the stability that a major trading empire demanded, the various elements of Dutch society had to work together while keeping ideological disagreement to a minimum. To accomplish this, they adopted an “each to its own,” or – as some have described it – a “live and let live” attitude (Newsweek 2009).

Ultimately, such an attitude led to tolerance in the narrowest sense of the word: a kind of separation containing all the begrudging distance implied by the term. The Netherlands soon came to rest upon “pillars”, each representing a major element of Dutch society and charged with the task of looking after its own community (Buruma, 2006). The Christian pillar was responsible for the proper functioning of the Christian community, the socialist pillar for the socialist community, and so on. To get the job done, a particular pillar had its own set of social, cultural, and political institutions. Interactions between different pillars were nominal; thus, the clash of cultures that one would otherwise anticipate was circumvented – or, more precisely, postponed.

Despite the high degree of self-sufficiency and compartmentalization that characterized these various interests, they still needed to work together in order to address the most complex challenges facing society. On such occasions, the leaders of each pillar would gather, discuss the problem, and agree upon a solution by consensus. Despite the straightforward nature of such an approach, its results were anything but simple. Instead of truly working together to find common solutions, the leaders adopted a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” policy. This system of this-for-that grew in the decades and centuries to come. Case in point: when the pillar most closely aligned with the Social Democratic Party achieved universal suffrage in the early twentieth century, it managed to do so only by cutting a deal with another set of interests to allow Christian schools access to tax dollars (Newsweek, 2009). By this point, the system of politics was so entrenched that such deals were seen as a given, representing the only effective path to progress. Therefore, they went unquestioned.

While politicians and leaders of the various pillars were busy cutting deals in the halls of Parliament and around boardroom tables, the day-to-day lives of the people they represented were growing more and more separate from one another. Even as the institutions representing these pillars were cemented in place, so too was isolation. Their members, despite being neighbors, largely voted for different parties, received their news from different media outlets, participated in different social events, and sent their children to different schools. Neighbors may have occupied the same physical space, but increasingly occupied different social and public ones. Over time, tensions mounted and social cohesion came to hang in the balance.

In the 1970s, a need for more workers and the subsequent waves of migration from the Muslim world exacerbated this uneasiness, revealing cracks in the foundation of Dutch tolerance. Most of these migrant workers came from Turkey and Morocco. Dutch society received them as guest workers and expected them to behave as such, by eventually returning to their countries of origin. Unsurprisingly, having experienced a higher standard of living in the Netherlands, few of these guest workers actually returned home. Instead, their families came to join them, and their presence in the country only grew.

In accordance with its “each to its own” conception of tolerance and the isolation it entailed, Dutch society left these guest workers and their families to their own devices. Far from engaging them, they went on thinking of these workers – and their children, and their children’s children – as guests.

As a recent article in Newsweek (2009) put it, what happened next was akin to what happens when any guest has overstayed his or her welcome:

“You are too polite to tell them that their behavior is not what you would expect of a member of your own family, too polite to write out dinner-table rules for them to read. They are too embarrassed to ask, and they withdraw from the conversation at dinner because they feel awkward and unwelcome, in spite of the polite smiles around them. Everyone is just waiting for an opportunity to leave the table, fed up with uncomfortable silences.”

At the turn of the last century, Dutch society found itself caught up in this unease when it was jarred by a quick succession of three very public deaths: one act of terror, and two political assassinations. September 11th left much of Dutch society uneasy and afraid. Later that same year, fear struck closer to home when a deranged animal rights activist murdered Pim Fortuyn, a rising star in politics with a knack for political theater and an intensely anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim agenda. Fortuyn’s murder was the first political assassination to take place in the Netherlands for centuries.

Following that year, the uncomfortable silence was broken. As some took the opportunity to leave the table, they pointed their fingers at the unwelcome guests across from them – the ones, in their eyes, responsible for all of this uneasiness in the first place – Muslims. Not all of Dutch society reacted this way, of course. In fact, most did not. However, a subtle change in the “each to its own” attitude could be sensed; first and foremost by Dutch Muslims. “After that year, our national identities were erased and replaced by our religious one,” replied one of my Muslim neighbors when I asked him about what changed in 2001. “We came to be seen as a monolithic. I was no longer Turkish, you were no longer Indian, and he was no longer Moroccan. We were all simply Muslims.”

For many, the spreading fear of Muslims was legitimized in November, 2004 with the grotesque murder of Theo van Gogh, the controversial filmmaker, provocateur, and relative of the famous Vincent van Gogh. At the time of his death, van Gogh was in the process of making a documentary about Pim Fortuyn and had just aired a documentary done in collaboration with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somalian-born Dutch politician who was vehemently anti-Islam. The eleven-minute documentary was entitled Submission, and sought to provoke heated debate about the oppression of women by Islam. In it, women recounted stories of male domination – beatings by husbands, rapes by uncles, and forced marriages – while having verses from the Koran projected onto their naked bodies.

The murderer, Mohammed Bouyeri, was a promising Moroccan youth from Amsterdam who had become radicalized in the year or two before he struck. The murder was gruesome. Van Gogh was repeatedly shot, his throat slit from ear to ear, and a note calling for the death of Ayaan Hirsi Ali was pinned to his chest with a dagger. During his trial, Bouyeri coldly acknowledged that he felt no remorse for the van Gogh family and if given the opportunity, he would kill again.

Public reaction to these series of events split along three factions. A few called for a return to the pillar system (albeit a more vigilant one), others made a strong case for widespread integration, and still others became blatantly Islamophobic (Buruma, 2006). As a result, the former attitude of “each to its own” was ultimately thrown into question. In the most recent Parliamentary elections, one in six voters cast their ballots for Geert Wilders and his Party of Freedom (PVV) whose platform is radically intolerant and openly racist, calling for the end of Muslim immigration, the burning of the Koran, and a tax on headscarves.

With public opinion and the political winds blowing towards intolerance, Dutch society is currently confronted with several critical issues. To better understand the evolving discourse on tolerance and the critical juncture at which this discourse stands, we interviewed two influential Dutch thinkers: Dr. James Kennedy, professor of American Studies and Dutch History at the University of Amsterdam, and Bas Heijne, a Dutch intellectual who frequently writes on Dutch attitudes of tolerance.

Walking into Kennedy’s office at the University of Amsterdam, we were immediately struck by the presence of a tea bag which symbolized leader Job Cohen. While seemingly trivial, this tea bag serves as a powerful reminder that tolerance is often politicized, used and abused by politicians for personal gain. The line between this lofty ideal and a baser, political motive is often a thin one – an important lesson to keep in mind.

Kennedy agrees that the idea of Dutch tolerance began with the process of pillarization aimed at accepting Catholics – at the time, the “other” – in 1648, in the aftermath of the Eight Years War. This typical Dutch poldermodel became the foundation of Dutch tolerance. He explains: “Tolerance is a changing concept, understood differently by each generation and strongly dependent on the zeitgeist of that specific time and place. It’s ironic that many politicians refer to the Dutch past of tolerance as something we should try to pursue again – unfortunately framed by the former Prime Minister Balkenende as the VOC mentality – as if that kind of tolerance is wanted in the current multicultural society. Catholics were respected in the spirit of live and let live, but real acceptance was not the case. The current prevailing moral is that every person is born in freedom as equal, with no exceptions.”

The idea is a seductive one: “every person born in freedom.” But the truth is that it is only appealing as long as everyone accepts the Dutch blueprint of tolerance. Kennedy continues: “This dogmatic blueprint is often defended with tooth and nail adherence to the protection of ideologies. If certain citizens object to specific elements of Dutch tolerance – for example, the freedom of speech – the Dutch standard-bearers of tolerance, politicians and opinion makers alike, turn intolerant. Exceptions to the rule are not in compliance with the Dutch narrative of tolerance. Oddities, like headscarves and mosques, are being less tolerated.”

Throughout the conversation, the academic in Kennedy was apparent. He took his time answering each question, weighing his words carefully. When we asked what the future holds for tolerance in Dutch society, Kennedy shifted in his seat, signaling that he was approaching the edge of his academic comfort zone. “There should be a more feasible notion of tolerance; more based on realism than idealism. It is nice to have all these ideals and utopian prospects but the danger is that these dreams can shatter basic principles of tolerance: to live and let live between the borders of the reasonable. Seemingly trivial events – like shaking a person’s hand – can nowadays been blown up to such a proportion that intolerance takes the upper hand instead of tolerance. And this is what we need to avoid.” He closed the interview by saying, “Many challenges and road bumps lie ahead for our polarized Dutch society, but as an historian I must say that astrology is not my cup of tea.” We realized that sometimes in such an interview, it is better to raise the right questions than to search for an immediate answer.

As we walked to the sunny terrace of the Stanislavski restaurant to meet Bas Heijne, the author of several books and columns on Dutch identity and values, we tried to come up with some of those “right questions”. To prepare for the interview, we read Heijne’s essay Onredelijkheid, which in English loosely translates to Unreasonableness. In it, Heijne shares his views on the current debate oer Dutch national identity. Social cohesion, sense of community, and tolerance are key themes of the essay, but the question of how to translate Heijne’s theoretical framework into practice remains open.

Upon greeting us, Heijne immediately mentioned that he had recently published a book, freeing up his schedule. As in his essay, a communal sensibility was a constant thread running through our conversation. When we asked him why he considered it so vital to Dutch society, he replied, “With the de-pillarization and emancipation of the 60s and 70s, individualism gained ground. People cherished their obtained autonomy to choose who they want to be and their individual rights. This changed when globalization kicked in during the 90s, in combination with 9/11 and the murders on Fortuyn and Van Gogh. Suddenly the idea of a multicultural society wasn’t that appealing anymore. People felt alienated from their own society, not grasping the complexity of the world turning into a global village. Fear of the ‘other’ became the stronghold for nationalist movements. Communal sense was missing and in order to boost this feeling, the search for a singular national identity began. The ‘other’, mostly non-Western Dutch were not part of this ideal identity.”

What is striking is that Heijne – perceived as a progressive, activist leftist thinker – spoke more of the dangers posed by the so-called linkse kerk (moralistic left-wing intellectuals) than those posed by extremist right wing movements like the PVV and Geert Wilders. Heijne proclaimed that the narrative of Dutch tolerance could be described as a myth, offering three explanations.

First, the politicians of the linkse kerk saw multiculturalism (and still do, albeit to a lesser extent) as exotic. Immigrants were perceived as extremely fascinating, and encouraged to hold on to their own culture and traditions. Such an attitude, while superficially tolerant, ultimately served to create a strong division between the new Dutch and native Dutch.

Second, the myth of Dutch tolerance was partly fueled by foreign perceptions. As a result of its small size and lack of influence in world affairs, the Netherlands often serves as a blank slate on which world leaders can project their own political agenda. Thus, abroad, clichés about the Dutch “paradise of tolerance” were pronounced among those on the left and right alike. By the left, the Netherlands was often depicted (and is still depicted) as a paragon of democracy, while the right regarded it as a quintessential example of the horrors of socialism.

The third driving force behind the myth of Dutch tolerance has to do with the Netherlands being a frontrunner of emancipation. In the 60s and 70s, the Netherlands was the first country to accept the right to abortion, gay and female rights, and euthanasia. In doing so, Dutch society – as well as the outside world – came to perceive the Netherlands as a country of tolerance par excellence. The problem was that over time, people forgot that this tolerance simply referred to emancipation, and began to assume that this implied a harmoniously integrated, pluralistic society. Sadly, while the Dutch were an emancipated society, they were far from being a pluralistic one.

Heijne – a gifted speaker – explained his views as if they were the truth and nothing but the truth. We ourselves acknowledge that Dutch standards of morality have helped guide the country to peace and prosperity. Most people feel at home and accepted for whom they are in the Netherlands. Few countries have so little in the way of hate crimes, discrimination, racism, or intolerance. But, as Heijne emphasizes, it seems that reality is finally catching up to the Netherlands; the Dutch myth of tolerance is showing cracks. As Heijne said, “The creation of the Dutch myth of tolerance made us Dutch feel as if we were a pluralistic society and that we were all heading in the same direction. Everybody seemed to agree on the universal values of Dutch tolerance, focused on individual freedoms. This changed when newcomers with Islamic background did not always identify with these ideas, for example with the freedom of speech.”

When asked what the biggest danger was for a tolerant, pluralistic Dutch society, Heijne answered without hesitation: “The moral complacency of left Dutch politicians ignores sincere feelings of people with other views than their own. Their monopoly on moral values creates a great intolerance on people who don’t agree entirely. Every form of culture critic or critic on certain freedoms is seen as an endangerment for the perceived Dutch tolerant society. Ironically, this stance is creating intolerance itself.”

As the interview came to a close, Heijne, like Kennedy, called for a more realistic idea of tolerance. But then he went one step further, arguing that the moral complacency of the linkse kerk becomes an incentive to the growth of right-wing movements. Talking left and acting right is more harmful than the other way around. By holding to such moralistic views in order to keep the Dutch myth of tolerance alive, not only does intolerance increase, but this behavior itself specifically generates intolerance.

In the end, we can conclude that the outdated and misinterpreted narrative of tolerance in the Netherlands needs to be critically examined. Dutch values of an emancipated, pluralistic society are admirable, but not perfect. Such beliefs can have negative consequences, as articulated by Heijne and Kennedy.. Dutch tolerance is not a “one size fits all”. There is leeway required for different people with differing backgrounds and beliefs. There is no such thing as a singular “Dutch identity” in a pluralistic society such as the Netherlands, and it shouldn’t be something we – at the cost of others – desire to achieve. We must hold onto the values we cherish, while remaining open-minded to unfamiliar ideas and people representing the “other.”



We would like to thank both James Kennedy and Bas Heijne for their valuable time and insights, and Willem Bowers for his thoughtful feedback on this piece. We would also like to acknowledge the pieces Murder in Amsterdam by Ian Buruma and The Limits of ‘Live and Let Live’ which appeared in Newsweek magazine on May 14th, 2009. Both were particularly invaluable in the writing of this essay.



Buruma, Ian.Murder in Amsterdam: the Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance. New York: Penguin, 2006.


“The Limits of ‘Live and Let Live.’” Newsweek, May 14, 2009.


Heijne, Bas. Writer. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 19, 2010.

Kennedy, James. Professor of American Studies and Dutch History, University of Amsterdam. June 18, 2010.

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Netherlands Netherlands 2010


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