World Europe Focus

In Netherlands' elections, a fight for the Dutch soul

shift in thought

The Netherlands is one of Europe's most liberal countries – and home to one of its most ardently anti-Islam politicians, Geert Wilders, who could capture the most seats in March 15 elections.  

Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch far-right Party of Freedom, campaigns on Feb. 18 in Spijkenisse, a suburb of Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Michael Kooren/Reuters
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For those with the dimmest knowledge of the Netherlands, a parody of Donald Trump’s “America first” mantra that went viral became something of a learning moment, at least about how the Dutch view the US president.

“We built an entire ocean, OK? An entire ocean between us and Mexico,” the narrator intones with Trump-like cadence. “And we made the Mexicans pay for it. It’s true.”

Missing from the spoof, however, is any mention of the Netherlands’ own firebrand politician, Geert Wilders, whose comments on Islam could make some members of the Trump administration blush. Mr. Wilders calls Islam a totalitarian ideology and has campaigned to close down mosques and ban the Quran. He officially launched his campaign in February calling some Moroccans “scum.” In a December trial, he was found guilty of inciting discrimination for leading a chant in 2014 that called for “fewer” Moroccans in the Netherlands.

And yet his party could win the most seats in parliamentary elections scheduled for March 15.

Nancy Lenders, a cashier at a gas station on the outskirts of the Dutch town of Maastricht, says Wilders speaks common sense. “If Muslims don’t behave, they should go home,” she says. 

But even by Western European standards, the Netherlands stands out as a social liberal bastion. It’s also the world’s fourth most competitive economy, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index – tied with Germany, and just behind the United States. So the fact that such exclusionary rhetoric is able to resonate even here is telling about the levels of anger aimed at mainstream politics and the lack of optimism about the future in the Netherlands and in Europe more broadly. But those sentiments are also the result of Wilders’s particular influence in the Netherlands – as both catalyst and magnifier of the public’s general mistrust, which he has easily redirected at Muslim communities. 

“He is not just reflecting your opinion,” says Ineke van der Valk, who runs the Monitor Islamophobia project at the University of Amsterdam. “He is also forming your opinion.”

And Europe is watching amid a high-stakes electoral season, with France and Germany heading to the polls next.

The heart of Europe

Maastricht, on the River Meuse, is the heart of Europe. It is here that the Treaty of Maastricht was signed in 1992, creating the euro, the common currency that laid the foundation for the modern European Union. Maastricht is the capital of Limburg, the southernmost Dutch province, which shares far more border – some 220 miles – with Germany and Belgium than it does with the rest of the Netherlands, and it is correspondingly dependent on its international neighbors.

“Closing borders would be a meltdown for the economy,” says Joost van den Akker, the Liberal Party leader for the Limburg region.

But the Dutch south is also Wilders’s home region, and he is extraordinarily popular here – despite, or perhaps because of, his hostility to the EU, which he wants to test with a “Brexit”-like referendum. His Party for Freedom (PVV) has emerged as a major anti-establishment player in the Roman Catholic south, which was historically cast aside by the elite from Amsterdam and The Hague.

The butchers at a Turkish supermarket in Maastricht say they feel part of a multicultural city that is their birthplace, where many are welcoming. “This is my country, my city,” says Sabaun Qureb, whose parents are from Afghanistan.

But just a few blocks away, in a mall that, ironically, shares the name of the de facto capital of the EU, Brusselsport, support abounds for Wilders’s anti-Islam, anti-EU, and anti-establishment stance. A salesclerk, Suzan Hoffman, says she’s not voting but likes what Wilders says about Muslims going home. “If you want to practice Islam, do it all together in your own country,” she says.

The PVV could capture the largest number of seats in the Netherlands’ election. Polls on the eve of the election give Wilders’s party about 22 percent of the vote, which would put it just behind the prime minister's party in the legislature. Mainstream parties have ruled out joining a coalition with him, so even if the PVV tops the vote – which would normally ensure that Wilders, as leader of the largest party, would be tapped as the next prime minister – Wilders is not likely to lead the Netherlands. Still, he could become a power broker. 

Hate crimes

At the same time that Wilders’s support has risen, so, too, have hate crimes against Muslims here. The 439 reported to the police in 2015 – which Dr. Van Der Valk says represent only a fraction of the true number because underreporting of hate crimes is so prevalent – were more than double those reported in 2014. Van Der Valk’s own data show reported attacks on mosques nearly doubling over the past decade, from 25 attacks involving arson, vandalism, or graffiti in 2005 to 45 attacks in 2016. 

It is not that Dutch society has moved from tolerant to intolerant, she says. Both tolerance and intolerance have long coexisted and still do, but the nature of discrimination has changed. Muslims who came to the Netherlands starting in the 1960s faced discrimination, but it was articulated as ethnic discrimination rather than as religious. 

That has changed since the turn of the century, first with 9/11 and then with the rise of Pim Fortuyn, a firebrand politician who railed against multiculturalism and Muslim immigration. He was assassinated in 2002 by a Dutch environmentalist agitated by Mr. Fortuyn’s stance against Muslims. Society was spooked further two years later when Theo van Gogh, a filmmaker critical of Islam’s treatment of women, was killed by a Muslim extremist while riding his bicycle to work. 

And terrorism in Europe in recent years, especially at the hands of European Muslims responding to calls from the so-called Islamic State, has provoked genuine fear that is easily conflated with Muslim immigration. In this context, Wilders’s message has found fertile ground.

Fears about Muslim immigration are hardly exclusive to the Netherlands. Despite European condemnation of President Trump’s ban on Muslims from certain countries entering the US, a poll carried out by the London-based Chatham House – before Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order – showed that in the 10 countries surveyed, 55 percent agreed that further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped. In France and Germany, 61 percent and 53 percent agreed, respectively. That response has further alienated Muslims concerned about the often anti-Islam populist parties rising in their countries.

Hadja Kone, a student whose parents are from Ivory Coast but who was born in Germany, says she is not deeply religious, so she does not wear a veil, which she considers fortuitous. Between being black and Muslim, she says, speaking at a cafe during a break on a field trip to Cologne, it’s definitely harder to be a Muslim in Germany. “They think all Muslims are terrorists,” agrees her friend Nisa Baran, who is of Turkish descent. “We are just teenagers.”

Wilders’s platform

But with regard to Islam, the Dutch hear a much more radical platform from Wilders. 

Some of that comes from Wilders’s willingness to occupy political space that mainstream parties have eschewed.

A longtime political actor who came from the Liberal Party before forming the PVV, Wilders is able to go further than his counterparts in Europe because he doesn’t carry Nazi baggage – as does France’s National Front, whose founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has called the Holocaust a “detail” in history, or Germany’s Alternative for Germany, whose rhetoric is limited in a society deeply sensitive about political intolerance.

Ms. Lenders, the cashier, says she wishes Wilders would tone down his rhetoric so his foes wouldn’t write him off as a racist. Yet she, and many Dutch, say he has allowed the nation to get beyond an extreme form of political correctness in which politicians refused to talk about problems associated with Muslim immigrants. “That decision has turned out a disaster. It has strengthened the idea that the elite are not to be trusted, that they don’t speak the truth,” says Meindert Fennema, who wrote a biography on Wilders.

But now the mainstream politicians have been criticized for adopting an “us versus them” sentiment to pander to far-right voters. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte penned in a national newspaper in January: “People who refuse to adapt, criticize our customs, and reject our values. Who harass gays, yell at women in short skirts, or call regular Dutch people racists. I completely understand that people would think: ‘If you reject our country so fundamentally, I’d prefer you’d leave.’ Because I feel the same way. Act normally, or get out.”

Cas Mudde, a Dutch expert on far-right populism at the University of Georgia, says this language and media coverage of it keep Islamophobia a central issue, even though polling shows Dutch Islamophobia is average for Europe. He sees a mismatch between Wilders’s rhetoric and public attitudes. And almost no politicians offer an alternative narrative today, he says, “or actually point out that overall the multicultural society works pretty well, that the vast, vast majority of Muslims are integrated.”

A society that feels adrift

The Wilders phenomenon also taps into the fears of a society that feels itself adrift.

Frans Bastiaens, a Labour Party member on the city council in Maastricht, says that society’s common bonds have worn away as church membership has plummeted, unions have become irrelevant, and party loyalties have disappeared. 

“All of these organizations were able to put the issues of the people on the agenda. So people were tied together; they had faith things would happen. And they did,” he says. “Now there is this fear in society about who is representing us; who can we trust anymore?”

That’s contributed to the remarkably fractious political scene in the Netherlands, and to a resentment toward Muslims that’s provoked a shift in Mr. Bastiaens’s own thinking. 

He is still keen to “welcome” refugees, but he now feels more strongly that Dutch society shouldn’t pamper migrants. Instead, migrants should be encouraged and enabled to get work as quickly as possible, and assisted in doing so, in order to facilitate their being integrated into society.

“I see many Dutch saying, ‘We don’t accept [migrants who are idle and being taken care of],’ ” he says. “They need to see the other side working hard as well.” Which, he says, migrants can. When doing volunteer work in refugee camps in Greece and Turkey, he has seen firsthand the challenges they overcome. “People survive in the most bizarre circumstances,” he says. “When they get here, we shouldn’t take that sense of responsibility away from them.”

Community-building

On a recent February day, when the city was celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Treaty of Maastricht going into effect, Eline van Drongelen was preparing a forum between different faith and ethnic groups. She heads the Mondiaal Centrum, an internationally minded community-building organization in Maastricht. She says she believes the Dutch today are “spoiled” – well off and worried that the best is behind them. They take it out on the “other,” she says, which is crystallized in this race.

She says she starts each session of the forum with a poem by Maastricht-based Mine Stemkens, because its first lines get beyond all politics: “I would like to ask you about life,” it opens. “I would like to ask you about you.” 

In this sentiment, many see the bridge-building needed to overcome populist forces ahead.

Citizens, says Bastiaens, the Labour Party member, “need to see who Ahmad or Abdul is and who Franz is ... that [all people] worry just as much about their children and their future and the way their hair looks.” 

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