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The Political Participation of Dutch Muslims: A Dilemma for a Multicultural Society

Religious pluralism. Tolerance. Multiculturalism. These are all words that for decades have been synonymous with the Netherlands, a country with a longstanding reputation for its liberal attitudes toward immigrants and individuals of different backrounds. To many, the large Dutch Muslim population, hailing mainly from Morocco, Suriname, Turkey and the Antilles, is a standing testament to that fact. But, in spite of their growing presence and of recent developments that have made Islam part of the political discourse, Muslims in the Netherlands have remained largely absent from the political stage. 
The role of Muslims in Dutch society is often negatively perceived, and there has been no effective rallying response on the part of Muslims. The dominant political view seems to be that Muslims have not embraced the normative ideas regarding rights, responsibilities, and values of Dutch society.  Why then, are Muslims not playing a more significant role in the political arena and combating this negative stance? What are the obstacles that prevent them from mobilizing to garner representation for their interests and to influence the public debate on Islam?
The early stance toward Muslim immigrants in Dutch society was far different than today’s. In the 1960s, the Dutch government invited tens of thousands of young males from Islamic countries to work temporarily in the Netherlands’ burgeoning industries (de Winter, 2005). The tacit assumption on the government’s part was that these migrants would eventually return to their countries of origin once their labor was no longer needed.  Meanwhile, these migrants were encouraged to maintain their linguistic and cultural identities (Baker, 2004). It was therefore not surprising that Dutch neighborhoods began experiencing an influx of Muslims, and that more and more mosques began appearing on Dutch streets.
Between the 1970s and 1990s, the Muslim population in The Netherlands skyrocketed. In 1975 nearly half the population of the newly independent Suriname, which consisted of some 200,000 people, immigrated to the Netherlands after being given the option of Dutch citizenship. Although the demand for unskilled labor was declining during this period, guest workers did not return due to the labor market conditions in their home countries. The increase in the Muslim population was also due to the relatively liberal Dutch immigration policy at the time, which allowed the families of guest workers to reunite with them in the Netherlands. As a result, the Muslim subculture in Dutch neighborhoods grew substantially, fuelling tensions between Muslims and native Dutch citizens who felt that the social disposition of their communities was being threatened (Priemus, 2007). Hostility towards Muslims became even more palpable following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the murder of Theo van Gogh (Evans-Pritchard 2004). Nowadays, mosques have an image as orthodox places where people act according to strict religious rules, and are often viewed as breeding grounds for fundamentalist Islam. This image is often projected on the Muslim population as a whole. 
Mehmet Yamali, representative of Fahit Mosque in Amsterdam, believes that part of the problem is that there has been too much positive emphasis placed on the idea of tolerance, which was promoted by the Dutch government’s multiculturalism policies for decades. When you tolerate someone, he says, you’re implying you’re better than them. In other words, tolerance can be interpreted as synonymous with indifference—a sentiment lacking inherent respect or value. He suggests that tolerance has encouraged native Dutch and Dutch Muslims to close themselves off to one another; it has not fostered understanding of other cultures and ethnicities or promoted unity.
In the Netherlands, multiculturalism has paradoxically served as a “policy of cultural segregation,” forcing Muslim immigrants to the periphery of society where they congregate together, forming their own religious, sports, and political organizations (van Amersfoort, 1999). The growth of these networks of Muslims has only increased the fear of Islamic radicalism in Dutch society, and reinforced Dutch society’s perceptions about their unwillingness to integrate (Socolovsky, 2007).
In an effort to actively dismantle these perceptions, Yamali has welcomed all sectors of Dutch society to the mosque. He explains that through openness and hospitality it is possible to break stereotypes. “People have negative ideas about us, but when they step inside, they experience a peaceful atmosphere and friendly, approachable people,” he says. He adds that mosques are a very special place for Muslims. They are not simply places of worship and religious rules, he explains. Here young and old get together to see each other and socialize, in the most common and simple sense of this word. People come to chat about daily issues, like health problems, work, education, marriage, and sometimes politics, depending on the interests of particular individuals. 
Ethnic Turks represent the majority of visitors as it has been originally a Turkish institution, but people with other backgrounds are among the regular visitors: Iranians, Afghans, Surinamese, Egyptians, Iraqis, etc. This multinational character is clearly visible during the month of Ramadan and Nawruz (New Year). People interact with each other and at the same time operate within their own culture and traditions. Yamali emphasized that it is completely wrong to view mosques as sources of danger or problems. In principle, they are not different from churches and synagogues. 
In order to show the real face of the religion and its people, he and his colleagues organize open days during which interested people are allowed to enter, look around and ask all kinds of questions. They also try to accommodate random and unplanned visits. It does not matter, he says, whether one is a native Dutch, foreigner, religious Christian, Jew, Hindu or just a curious person. Most of the time, everyone is welcome. And, unlike what is generally believed, women are also allowed to go inside.  Of course, Yamali realizes that such visits are a very limited tool in the fight against stereotypes. You can only reach those that show interest and willingness to learn, he says. The large majority of the population forms their own opinion with regard to Islam and its followers, often influenced by Dutch and international politics. For this reason, it is extremely important that the interests of Muslims and existing concerns about Islam be discussed adequately in the political arena.
Most of the time, the debate on Islam in the Netherlands includes issues of immigration and integration. The tone and direction of this debate was quite different in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, the discussion revolved around the methods of integration and what level of immigration could be acceptable for the Netherlands. Nowadays, right-wing political parties increasingly raise arguments about the infeasibility of integration altogether, and the threat of Islam to the values of Dutch society. 
Historically, immigrants, especially those with non-Western backgrounds, have voted for political parties that have more immigrant-friendly agendas, Yamali says. Since the 1960s and 1970s and until quite recently, nationalized immigrants tended to vote for Social Democrats, as the party was strong and defended multiculturalism and immigration. Its acronym PvdA, which stands for Partij van de Arbeid (Workers Party), also stood for Partij voor de Allochtonen (Party for the Foreigners).  
Today, the atmosphere has changed. Other parties, such as PVV, gain popular support by criticizing Islam and advocating the removal of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of “potentially dangerous” Muslims from Europe. This in turn has led losing parties, among them PvdA, to take on a more anti-immigrant tone. As a result, what one sees happening is a discernable shift by Muslims towards voting for other parties like D66 (Social-liberal) or the SP (Socialist Party), which have less political strength but have managed to remain more or less loyal to their original principles. Yamali, however, does not believe that the existing political parties represent the interests of Muslims effectively. At the same time, the level of influence among the Dutch Muslim population remains very marginal. 
Despite these problems, the formation of a Muslim political movement or party seems unlikely to Yamali. He provides three reasons for this. First of all, there are too few practicing Muslims in the Netherlands, and even those are scattered geographically and across ethnic and national lines. Besides, he explains, there are too many differences within the Muslim population, both with regard to religion and to politics. Such a movement would therefore be too weak to garner enough popular support to have clout in the political boxing ring. 
Secondly, according to Yamali, there are already successful politicians with a Muslim background, both on municipal and national levels. As members of mainstream political parties, they often use their position to represent interests of Muslims and immigrants. Toffik Bibi, parliamentarian from GroenLinks (GreenLeft), even took to the streets of Amsterdam to demonstrate against Geert Wilders. He was arrested for holding a poster accusing Wilders of extremism, but was released along with other detainees soon after the incident, as the Ministry of Justice decided not to press charges against protesters.
Last but not least, he says, there are umbrella organizations which represent minorities and religious groups. For Turkish Muslims, for instance, there is the Islamic Association Netherlands (ISN), which has more than 140 mosques and Islamic associations as part of its network. Boards representing each mosque communicate their concerns to the ISN, and the latter passes on this information to political parties and policymakers. The implication here is that there is no direct need for practicing Muslims to demonstrate or seek publicity.  
 Haci Karacaer, former director of Milli Gorus, a large umbrella organization for the integration and emancipation of Muslims in the Netherlands, believes that this top-down system of political debate actually stands in the way of real change. He calls it “monopolization of debate,” where a semi-bureaucratic chain of associations and umbrella organizations speak on behalf of large groups of people who don’t identify with them, and there is not enough transparency or overview.  In 2004, Contactorgaan Muslims en Overheid (Contact Organ Muslims and Government or CMO), the umbrella for other organizations in this field which includes ISN and Milli Gorus, was recognized by the Dutch Government as an official discussion partner. While this might be seen as a great achievement, Karacaer, himself a devoted community organizer and a former director in this network, is very sceptical about the roles that this and other organizations play.  His main objection relates to the non-representation of other voices; one needs to be part of this organization in order to be able to speak to the government. Even if someone has an important concern, his or her opinion is deferred on the grounds that there is already a proper channel for addressing these potential problems.
Karacaer goes on to say that this monopolization of debate is in fact a strong sign of “pillarization”, which he believes has the potential to worsen the position of the Muslim population. Here, pillarization refers to the religious and ideological segmentation of Dutch society that has been occurring since the late 19th century. Local Islamic political parties like Muslim-Democrats and Duurzaam Nederland (Sustainable Netherlands) have tried to counter this trend, but with a relative lack of success, even in cities as multicultural as Amsterdam and Rotterdam.  A larger, nationwide Islamic political movement would face even more difficulty in gaining political support. Karacaer explains this with an example that illustrates the core problem surrounding Muslim mobilization efforts. Currently, he claims, there are two Islamic broadcasting companies which have spent more money on lawsuits against each other than on creating programs. Such differences among the Muslim population serve to prevent them from having one voice.
The interviews with both Yamali and Karacaer suggest that in the Netherlands, a policy of tolerance for multiculturalism has been confused with a blatant denial of the problems created by this policy (Priemus, 2007).  It became an excuse for the government to ignore ethnic and native people within Dutch society. Simply encouraging the existence of multiple cultures or ethnicities has not been sufficient for social integration in the Netherlands.  Instead, the result has been – as Karacaer characterizes it – a country of boxes.
But is a lack of social integration really the main obstacle to Muslims’ political participation?
Down the hall, in her office, Turkish parliamentarian Fatma Koser Kaya of the Social-Liberal party D66, dismisses such a notion.  That would be an excessively narrow reading of the problem, she says. As a parliamentarian, she believes that too much attention is paid to Islamic identity, and not enough paid to other valuable Muslim attributes. Why can’t a Muslim be perceived as anything other than a Muslim, she wonders aloud. According to her, this exclusive focus has had a marginalizing effect.
In a sense, she is right. To native Dutch people, the Muslim faith has become the defining aspect of those immigrants’ social identity, something that clearly sets them apart from native Dutch citizens. But has Islam not also become disconnected from its social context, where it could possibly serve as an intermediary between the the migrant ‘community’ and the host society?
In response to the question, Kaya replies that religion is a private matter.  This is not to say that it should not be discussed in public forums; only that that first and foremost, it is personal. She adds that she has never met a group of Muslims who held the same view on a single subject—even conservative Muslims. Echoing Haci’s sentiments, she suggests that perhaps if Islam were more homogenous, it could be used as a mobilizing force, but there are too many fractures along national and ethnic lines for Muslims to have a single voice represent them. You just can’t use religion in politics to make a statement on behalf of all Muslims, she says emphatically
This fact is perhaps why a figure like Karacaer, who is prominent in the Turkish Muslim community, irks her. “Oh yes, Haci,” she says knowingly when asked about him. She explains that the same spokesmen always represent Muslim professionals in Dutch society, which just serves to highlight Muslims as allochtoon. If you play the role that people expect you to play, then you will be treated accordingly. In other words, if you play the role of the Other, then you will be treated as such. She makes it clear that she doesn’t want to perpetuate this view of Muslims, for which she believes Karacaer is partly responsible. I have a Muslim background, she says, but I have health and finance in my portfolio too; I’m a parliamentarian—why is there a focus on what I think about how Muslims are being represented? 
In one respect, however, Fatma’s point of view seems to overlook the larger problem: why is it so problematic to have a Muslim identity, and why does that seem to preclude participation in the Dutch political arena? 
Professor Jean Tillie of the University of Amsterdam attributes this problem to a number of factors. Firstly, in the post-9/11 era, people everywhere have become keenly aware of living in a multicultural society. Islam has also become firmly ingrained in the consciousness of Dutch citizens as something incompatible with democratic values. Meanwhile, the ineffective organization among Muslims has allowed this critical view of Islam to prevail in Dutch politics. So as an academic who studies the political integration of ethnic Dutch, what is Tillie’s take on why Muslims in the Netherlands are so poorly organized?
Contrary to what is popularly believed, and in contrast to Karacaer’s explanation, Tillie’s research suggests that the more people create civic forms of organization along their own ethnic lines, the more they participate in the political arena. He explains that strong horizontal relationships within the community are key to participation. Network mobilization is more feasible when there are a large number of these closely linked organizations. Together, they help form a network which creates social trust among participants. Such a cultivation of social trust, in turn, provides for a system of grassroots checks and balances that will help assess the validity of political leadership and therefore create trust in that leadership. In this way, Muslim civic culture can be effective in stimulating political participation.
Tillie has studied the Turks, Moroccans, Surinamese and Antilleans living in the Netherlands, and has found that their level of political participation varies greatly based on the strength of the links between their respective organizations. For example, Turks enjoy a multitude of tight-knit organizations that enable them to form a well-organized community. More than any other Muslim ethnic group in the Netherlands, they are politically organized and active. On the other end of the spectrum, the Antilleans have no community to speak of—only a variety of organizations, that are not networked together. 
He explains that when an individual participates in the politics of his/her country, it is a strong indication that he/she identifies with that country. In other words, political participation entails a certain level of inclusion; a person will not participate if he feels like he doesn’t belong. In the pursuit of a multiethnic society, governmental multiculturalism policies have socially isolated Muslim ethnic groups. At the same time, Dutch society is wondering why they are not integrated, why they are not more “Dutch.” Tillie suggests that if an individual feels socially isolated, he will gravitate towards what he knows, and will further distance himself from what others relate to. That is how radicalism is bred. The orthodox Islamic community provides clear rules for how to live; there are no clear rules for how to be Dutch, even though that remains the expectation for Muslims in this society. 
According to Tillie, in the 1970s and 1980s there was actually a movement in favor of ethnic organization, which helped Muslims start to build their networks in Dutch society.  Contrary to Koser Kaya’s view, these immigrant organizations and their leadership had the potential to play an important role in social and political integration. They served as liaisons for Muslim groups and communities that were difficult to reach by government, in order to facilitate a better working relationship between these two parties. They also played an active role in implementing policies by working closely with mainstream organizations (Fennema and Tillie, 2004).
However, following the dramatic growth of Muslim subculture in the Netherlands that accompanied the country’s strong emphasis on multiculturalism, there was an abrupt governmental shift in the 1990s away from multiculturalism and towards assimilation, which led to the disintegration of many of these networks.
So, where does Dutch society go from here? Tillie believes that the Dutch government needs to acknowledge that multiculturalism is merely a description of what is happening in Dutch society; it is not a normative concept. After all, there will always be differences in ethnicities, identities and cultures. He suggests that for purposes of nation-building, we need to emphasize our awareness of a common future, and our respect for the governmental institutions that facilitate that future. Moreover, this social cohesion is necessary not only between ethnic groups, but within them. As Tillie sees it, political organization along ethnic lines is not contrary to this notion of a unified national community. In fact, this is ultimately more likely to strengthen Dutch Muslims’ ties to society. 
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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2009


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