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Is Dutch tolerance stretching too far?

How will the Netherlands reconcile growing permissiveness with swelling numbers of fundamentalist Muslim migrants?
Angela Shanahan | 18 April 2006
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Boys studying in an Amsterdam mosque. This month the prime minister of the Netherlands, Jan Peter Balkenende, visited Australia. Aside from attending the Melbourne Grand Prix, he came to Canberra for brief talks with his Australian counterpart. He also addressed students at the Australian National University. I went along to this event and found that there are some issues about which the Dutch are particularly sensitive

I asked Balkenende two questions with overlapping implications.

Firstly, I asked if the famously tolerant Dutch social model was straining under increased non-European immigration. And secondly, how did he answer critics who accuse the Dutch of Nazi-style policies since Holland is now the world leader in euthanasia? Even the euthanasia of children under 12 is now permitted under the so-called Gronigen protocol. It was obviously an awkward topic.

Everyone who has an interest in international affairs knows that the Dutch are facing major social upheaval because of an influx of Muslim immigrants. They now have the second highest proportion of Muslims in Europe after France.

At the same time as this internal upheaval, which has resulted in two murders of high-profile Dutch critics of the growing Muslim population, there is growing criticism from abroad and within the European Union of Dutch liberal views on issues like euthanasia.

In a recent debate, for instance, Mr Balkenende had a huge fight with an Italian minister over child euthanasia protocols which came into force earlier this year. Parliamentary Affairs Minister Carlo Giovanardi accused the Dutch of promoting Nazi policies. The Dutch find this view particularly offensive given their suffering during the Nazi occupation and Balkenende made a formal complaint to the Italian government. Naturally Mr Balkenende defended the policy as “carefully thought out and used within strict protocols”.

Aside from my scepticism about whether the Groningen protocols would actually prevent eugenics, I wondered about the libertarian direction Dutch social policy has taken. The Dutch have legalised not only abortion and euthanasia but gay marriage, and a level of legal drug use. This seems to be a catalyst not for toleration, but further social upheaval.

What happens when you have increasing permissiveness combined with an influx of fundamentalist Muslims? Surely this means that the Netherlands is heading towards an inevitable polarisation of its society, its tolerance strained by immigration from without and by increasingly libertarian social policies from within.

Balkenende pointed out that the Netherlands has a series of “pillars” supporting different groups and each group basically respected the others. Historically, the two main pillars were the two largest religious groups, Catholics and Protestants. Until recent times, these formed two parallel cultures. They went to different schools, had different newspapers, and even drank different beers! Tolerance did not stop each group from being equally devout. (Dutch Catholics were once renowned for this ) There was always a third pillar, too: “the others”. Once upon a time most of these were Jews. In the 20th century various sorts of non-believers joined them.

Nowadays the third pillar consists mostly of Muslims. The problem for the Dutch is that a combination of secularisation and immigration by a third highly religious group means that the three pillars of their famously tolerant society are in danger of collapsing.In fact the weight is shifting and only two pillars are holding up: immigrants and native Dutch. The Netherlands has reached the point of polarisation, not pillarisation.

These are not uniquely Dutch problems, of course. All Western European societies have them to some degree. The traditional organisation of Dutch society probably makes it a bit more resilient and better prepared than the French. For many years the Dutch have had a level of immigration higher than most other European countries, largely from ex-Dutch colonies like Indonesia. These migrated to Holland because they had a racial or religious affinity with the culture.

But as the native population ages and dwindles, so do its old Christian values. These are being replaced by the ideology of secularism. As a result, confronting the growth of puritanical fundamentalist Islam is another fundamentalist ideology. So you end up with two extreme ends of the religious spectrum glaring at each other. The question is whether they will pull the country further and further apart, perhaps to the breaking point.  

Interestingly -- given their much vaunted toleration -- the Dutch are ramming secularism down the less-than-enthusiastic throats of immigrants. This has its funny side. There is a campaign to “educate” people in Dutch libertarian values -- including gay marriage. Prospective immigrants are shown films featuring guys kissing in a park to gauge their ability to fit into Dutch society.  At the same time the government has sent back thousands of unwanted illegals and is cracking down on Islamic extremists. It sounds suspiciously like a new kind of secular intolerance.

Will this strategy work? The experience of feminist Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali shows that it is a risky one. A Somali migrant who has abjured Islam, Ali made a film, Submission, in 2004 attacking treatment of women by Islamic fundamentalists. The director of Submission, Theo Van Gogh, was savagely murdered by a disgruntled Muslim. She is a forceful voice urging the Dutch to insist on the superiority of liberal Western values. But do liberal Western values include child euthanasia and gay marriage? It may prove difficult to convert Dutch Muslims to this view of what the West offers.

The unanswered questions about the Dutch situation are applicable to the rest of Europe. They have been particularly pressing since the murders of critics of Islam Theo Van Gogh and MP Pym Fortune. Will social tensions with Muslims increase? In about 15 years’ times, the major Dutch cities will probably have Muslim majorities. How do the Dutch propose to maintain the dynamism of their economy, which Balkenende has been trying to reform, with an ageing population? How do the Dutch intend to maintain their distinctive culture with an ageing population and increasing percentage of non-Dutch, even non-Western, people? How successful will the Netherlands be in keeping a cap on right-wing reactionaries?

The Dutch, long considered a template for toleration, might end up a template for the sort of social upheaval the rest of Europe can expect if native birthrates do not rise and large scale immigration is not curbed.

Angela Shanahan is a Canberra-based newspaper columnist.


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