European Elections Special

A step too far

In the Netherlands, engagement has tempered racism and anti-migration sentiments. But it has done so at a cost.

In 2006, at the height of European “Islamophobia”, rhetoric and the aftershock of Theo van Gogh’s assassination by a radical Muslim still rung through Dutch politics. Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) was elected into parliament with 9 out of 150 seats. Eight years later, after making the anti-Islam movie “Fitna”, proposing a tax on hijabs and being party to a right-wing “mainstream” government that passed a law banning burqas, the Freedom Party is larger than ever.

The rise of Dutch populism and political racism has two roots. The first is the botched integration of migrant workers: facing a shortage in the labor needed to rebuild the country after the Second World War, the Dutch government tried to attract temporary workers. The government pursued a policy of implicit segregation. A large group of migrants were able to stay, but did not speak sufficient Dutch, were often housed poorly and had little access to education, resulting in expansive social and integration problems.

No room for moderate debate

The second root lies in the Dutch political response to political movements expressing their concern about issues of integration. In the late 1980s, the extreme-right Center Party received a seat in Parliament. Its leader, Hans Janmaat, coined the phrase “full is full” and called for the assimilation of non-Western migrants. This created a political climate in which discussing problematic aspects of migration became a cultural taboo and was conflated with racism. As a result, there was no room for “moderate” debate on these problems: racist rhetoric was met with silence and denial of the issue from the center left.

Those two developments led to the election of Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and Geert Wilders in 2006, both of whom mixed an ideology of anti-migration and Islamophobia with anti-establishment sentiments. People who felt disenfranchised by the “political elite” flocked to extreme-right politics. Every call for a “cordon sanitaire” of Wilders caused a surge in the polls as he dominated media headlines with tirades against Islam and survived a hate speech trial.

Challenging racism

It seemed a winning strategy until he took it one step too far and got an audience of followers to shout “we want less Moroccans” on the 19th of March this year. This incited a mass movement of protests and thousands of reports of hate speech to the police. As a result, he suddenly plunged in the polls and witnessed various elected Freedom Party officials leaving his party.

Constant engagement of other parties with the PVV has defeated Islamophobia. The liberal D66 constantly challenged racism and defended equal treatment. Labour (PvdA) promoted migrant MPs through its ranks to offer their communities a platform, and MP Ahmed Marcouch dispelled the myth that Moroccans are more likely to be criminal due to the Moroccan “princeling” culture.

This engagement, however, has also had drawbacks. It has, to some extent, made racist concessions part of the accepted political discourse and government policies: the PVV-backed Rutte government has imposed tougher sanctions on crime, it has created less room for labor migration and asylum seekers, and there has been a Dutch veto on Romania joining Schengen. As a result, what was considered racist and politically extreme in 2002 has now also become part of the political mainstream.

Racism is codified into attitudes

The second drawback is even larger. Due to the overblown nature of the racism debate in the Netherlands, the Dutch have lost their capacity to notice and rally against the more subliminal power structures allow everyday racism to happen. While the entire country condemned a company for not hiring an intern in 2013 because of his race, three million people signed an online petition that embraced the racist blackface symbol of Zwarte Piet, because they had grown “tired” of discussions on racism.

Overt, overblown racism and Islamophobia have been defeated and are no longer influential forms of thought in the Netherlands. But as a consequence, an acceptance of racist attitudes is codified into large parts of society. This is the trade-off that people need to keep in mind if they want to take something away from the recent successes that anti-racist campaigning has had in the Netherlands.

Read more in this debate: Dessislava Kirova, Manos Moschopoulos, Spela Kunej.

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