The Netherlands: from Multiculturalism to Forced Integration

By Eric Krebbers, 24 May 2006

Dutch parliamentary democracy has long worn the mask of multi-culturalism, but its swing to the right in recent years has exposed the limits of Holland’s famous tolerance. Now that it looks like the UK government may be following suit, we present here a new version of Eric Krebbers’ text on Dutch assimilationist racism originally published in De Fabel van der illegaal in January 2005

On 4 November, 2004, just two days after the death of film-maker Theo van Gogh, independent member of parliament Geert Wilders announced that he was going to found a new conservative party.[1] According to some polls at the time he could win almost 20 percent of the votes and that would make his party the second largest in the Netherlands.

Wilders has been crusading against Islam for years. ‘Our own culture is in danger because of the more than one million Muslims in our country,’ he said. According to him Muslims have ‘a backward culture.’ ‘Why are we afraid to say that Muslims should adjust themselves to us, because our norms and values are simply of a higher, better, nicer and more humane level of civilization? No integration, assimilation!’ He promised that if he became a minister, he would immediately ban head scarves and send imams, who ‘almost call out for a holy war, back to their caves in Saudi Arabia, or wherever. He also wants to exclude Muslims from constitutional rights like the freedom to found schools and organisations, because Islam supposedly cannot be reconciled with ‘Dutch culture’ and the ‘democratic rule of law.’ To arrest the Islamisation of Dutch culture, immigration should stop and every non-integrated immigrant should leave the country. ‘You adjust, or get out of here’, he argued.

Wilders’ opinions are quite extreme, but not really new or unique in the Netherlands. In the last five years many opinion makers have voiced this kind of racist thought. Wilders was kicked out of the conservative-liberal party VVD on 2 September 2004, because of the extremity of his right wing ideas. But, seeing him become so popular so quickly, three months later the party asked him to come back. The murder of Van Gogh had made his opinions acceptable to the mainstream. Wilders didn’t return.

Wilders’ popularity is the result of some 12 years of anti-immigrant campaigns by opinion makers, social scientists and conservative, liberal, Christian democrat and social democrat politicians. Feelings of racial superiority dating back to the colonial period surfaced again. People began to perceive migrants and refugees primarily as a problem. As a result, many harsh anti-immigration laws have been introduced without much protest. The individual social-fiscal number was introduced in 1992, compulsory identification in 1995, and the Linking Act in 1998, a law by which all governmental databases are linked to exclude undocumented people from all services. In 2001, a new Immigration Law made it almost impossible for refugees to obtain asylum in the Netherlands. In 2002, for instance, only 103 refugees received a residence permit as political refugees. That was only 0.55 percent of the total 18,667 applicants. At the same time border controls were expanded, the number of police raids at workplaces grew, as did the number of special jails for undocumented people. The extreme right, however, is unable to gain political ground in this racist atmosphere. This is because it is still associated with the Nazi occupation during World War Two, and also because the electorate has seen ‘decent’ mainstream politicians proposing policies historically belonging to the extreme right.


Until about 2000 multicultural ideology was still central to mainstream politics. Policy makers, opinion makers, the professional middle class and worried citizens, almost all could be considered multiculturalists. Central to this multiculturalism was the ‘recognition of the cultural diversity’ of the Netherlands. Other ‘national cultures’ had to be respected as much as possible. And the different habits and traditions of immigrants had to be seen in their ‘cultural context’ and therefore not condemned too quickly. On the pretext of ‘unity in diversity’ immigrants were given their own place in society in order to preserve ‘their own culture.’

When we look at society, our political vision determines what we see. The radical left, of course, first and foremost sees capitalist, patriarchal and racist power relations that have to be fought. Multiculturalists, on the other hand, see a multitude of ‘national cultures’ that differ a lot from each other, and which should all be preserved if possible. Thinking in terms of ‘cultures’ and their accessory, ‘peoples’, is a nationalist political choice. Like nationalism, multiculturalism also suppresses the awareness of power relations within these alleged ‘peoples’ and the oppressive practices within these alleged ‘national cultures.’ Actually ‘peoples’ and ‘national cultures’ are nothing but imaginary formations promoted by people in power. ‘National cultures’ and the multicultural society only exist as a product of continuous activities aimed at ‘preserving’ those ‘cultures’.

Immigrants and refugees were addressed solely in connection with their ‘national culture.’ They were supposed to see themselves in the first place as representatives of one ‘national culture’ or another. In this way ‘Moroccan culture’ supposedly determined the behaviour of boys whose parents or even grandparents had left Morocco long ago. Even those immigrants and refugees who regarded the ‘culture’ in ‘their own country’ as too restrictive and fled to the Netherlands to escape it, were here being glued to ‘their culture’ again by multiculturalists. The government always recognised and sponsored the most conservative immigrant and refugee organisations as best representing ‘the original cultures’ of the countries of origin. For instance they regularly met with imams and mosque leaders as if they represented all immigrants and refugees from Turkey and Morocco. Organisations based on more progressive ideas were supposedly not ‘authentic’ enough in a ‘cultural’ sense. Thus the government affirmed the unequal power relations within immigrant and refugee communities and weakened the position of workers, women and minorities.

Because they could count on the warm support of immigrant communities’ conservative elite, multiculturalism remained an interesting ideology for the Dutch political elite for a long time. Multiculturalism created separate communities centred upon different ‘cultures’. It resembled the model that dominated Dutch society since the beginning of the 20th century and proved so effective against radical resistance. The working class was in this way kept divided and each part was ruled by the elites of their respective communities (catholic, protestant, socialist and so on). That maintained a situation in which solidarity was difficult and organising counter-power from below virtually impossible.

Multiculturalism also came in very handy when promoting the exploitation and exclusion of worker migrants. Multiculturalists always stressed how much worker migrants and refugees contributed to ‘our’ economy and ‘the cultural life.’ They told moving stories of hard working Turks cleaning ‘our’ toilets, of artistic Africans crafting such beautiful art for ‘us’ and the Vietnamese spoiling ‘us’ with their spring rolls. The multiculturalists were much less interested in immigrants or refugees who could not, or were not allowed to, make themselves useful for ‘our economy’. These people should not count on support from multiculturalists when threatened with deportation, for instance. Although multiculturalists did protest against racism expressed by the extreme right, they never did so against the racism of the state or the deportation machine.

Integration debate

By the end of the ‘90s the growing racism and the dominance of the right led to the political elite dropping multiculturalism. The multicultural nationalism that advocated ‘to every group its own culture’ was traded in for a conservative nationalism with a policy of forced assimilation. In the spring of 2000 former communist opinion maker Paul Scheffer published a famous article on ‘the multicultural drama.’ He argued that migrants and refugees did not integrate enough into Dutch society. Most opinion makers agreed and said that the Dutch have been too tolerant towards foreigners, who have ‘barbaric’ ideas and habits that ‘we liberal Dutch do not approve of.’ They all posed as great defenders of the Enlightenment, and argued for equality between men and women, for the separation between church and state, for the rights of the individual and so on, ideals that have supposedly all been realised for a long time in the ‘free West’ by people like themselves. In reality, insofar as they have indeed been realised, these ideals have been struggled for by the left and feminists, mostly against people like these ‘defenders’.

Surprisingly, the opinion makers were able to mobilise virtually the entire society. By continually arguing that the head scarves which some Islamic women wear are by definition repressive to women, they even managed to win over large parts of the women’s movement. The same thing happened with the gay movement. After some imam said that being gay is a sickness, his remark was blown up into a giant scandal. Strikingly, a similar statement by a protestant Christian a few months earlier didn’t cause that much anger. Increasingly problems such as fundamentalism, homophobia, patriarchy, and also anti-Semitism were seen as ‘un-Dutch’ and imported by foreigners. This is, of course, utter nonsense, which is not to say these problems are non-existent among migrants and refugees. They just have nothing to do with nationality.

As a result of these debates the political atmosphere became rather heated. During the period immediately following 9/11 dozens of mosques and asylum centres were attacked. That same summer, opinion maker Pim Fortuyn decided to go into politics. Being a university professor he was allowed to state the kind of racist views for which neo-Nazi’s formerly were convicted. He called Islam ‘a backward religion’ and often suggested that gay men like himself no longer felt safe because of gay bashing Moroccans. He warned of the ‘Islamisation’ of ‘Dutch culture’ and argued for a ‘cold war against Islam’ because ‘Muslims are busy conquering Western Europe.’ Foreigners should learn how to be Dutch or get out of the country, he said. He often referred to foreigners as criminals. We should be free to mention these ‘truths’ about foreigners, without being called racists, said Fortuyn. With every racist remark his popularity grew. On 6 May, 2002, only 9 days before the elections, Fortuyn was assassinated by Volkert van der Graaf. Tens of thousands of his fans took to the streets for days, to honour the man ‘who wasn’t afraid to say what we all think.’

Opinion makers and politicians can now bash immigrants without ever being criticised for it, by choosing themes like female circumcision, honour related violence, head scarves and Muslim fundamentalism. By seemingly coming to the aid of the female victims of violence, the right manages to create a humane image of itself. Many progressives and anti-racists, on the other hand, keep silent about these themes for fear of also attacking immigrants and in that way aiding the right. This causes the right to continually have the initiative, and the left has had to watch powerless as racism is normalised. By permanently and one-sidedly stressing the violence of immigrant men the right uses the centuries old, but still surviving, colonial and racist stereotypes of threatening black rapists and of ‘primitive people’ being more emotional and violent. The left should speak out against all forms of domestic and sexual violence, including honour related violence, but should not join in discussions on the supposedly ‘cultural background’ to this violence. Neither the immigrants nor ‘their cultures’ are the problem, but patriarchy and violent men in general.

In September 2002 the ‘integration debate’ started in parliament and the media. For two years almost every day politicians and opinion makers came with racist remarks and proposals for even harsher measures against immigrants and refugees, who were continually being depicted as backward barbarians and religious fanatics in need of civilizing by the Dutch. The nationalist atmosphere almost made the differences between the right and the left disappear. In spring of 2004, 40 of the most prominent opinion makers, from far left to conservative right, wrote an open letter together in which they asked the government to make this consensus into law. Most parties wanted compulsory integration contracts in which immigrants would declare themselves adherents of Dutch values. As a result of the debates, all first and second generation immigrants now have to successfully complete €6,000 ‘integration courses’ or be excluded from social security and even deported. One of the most important goals of the new policy is to make immigrants more useful to the Dutch economy. The borders are being completely closed to immigrants with little education, and plans are being developed to make social security unavailable to new immigrants. Plans are also being made to forcibly distribute immigrants to the cities and neighbourhoods where the economy needs them.

Van Gogh

Just when the integration debate was slowing down a bit, Van Gogh was murdered. In his columns and other texts he had called Muslims ‘goat fuckers,’ or for instance ‘pimp of the prophet’ or ‘bootblack of Allah.’ According to Van Gogh, Muslims are ‘messengers of the utmost backward darkness,’ and he always warned that ‘Islam is a faith which threatens our freedoms.’ Together with conservative liberal (VVD) member of parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, he had produced the short film Submission in which negative statements from the Quran about women are painted on women’s bodies. It was certainly not women’s emancipation which drove him to make this film; he often spoke with much contempt for women and feminism. ‘Maybe a man who really beats them up is actually very attractive to some ladies,’ he once said. Van Gogh also wrote many anti-Semitic articles. In one he imagines Jewish writer Leon de Winter performing the ‘Treblinka love game’ with ‘a piece of barbed wire’ around his ‘dick’. He also fantasised about ‘copulating yellow stars in the gas chamber.’ In this way he reproduced the anti-Semitic myth of Jews’ perverse and all-consuming sex drive. According to Van Gogh, even in the gas chambers this drive got the better of them.

After the murder, most members of parliament called for extremism to be met with strong measures. But, as if this were self-evident, they only meant Muslim fundamentalism, and not the ‘Dutch’ extreme right with its dozens of attacks on mosques, or right wing extremist MPs like Geert Wilders. Opinion makers repeated over and over again that extremism was produced by ‘Muslim culture,’ but kept quiet about ‘Dutch culture’ which, according to the same nationalist reasoning, was logically responsible for the fascist school bombers who committed more than 100 attacks in the weeks immediately after Van Gogh’s murder.

This anti-Muslim agitation by opinion leaders and politicians was extremely successful. In a survey by the bureau Motivaction a week and a half after the murder, some 80 percent of the respondents wanted a tougher integration policy, 90 percent wanted more rights for the police and the secret services, 60 percent wanted to allow the police to break the law when fighting terrorism and 40 percent even said that they hoped Muslims would start to feel less at home in the Netherlands. The government recognised the favourable situation and immediately started to implement new repressive measures on top of those already taken after 9/11.

All Muslims and immigrants were expected by opinion makers, politicians and even some left wing activists, to immediately distance themselves from the murder. By demanding such condemnation one makes them into suspects. Furthermore, to specifically ask Muslims and immigrants suggests that it is not self-evident for them to reject murderous acts. In this way Muslims were slowly dehumanised. There were Muslims who on principal refused to distance themselves, and who justly answered: ‘What has this guy, this murderer, to do with me?’ A student with a Moroccan background argued: ‘Do you see us believing that every white person is a fascist, now that Islamic schools are being set on fire?’ Moreover, Van Gogh’s murderer, Mohammed Bouyeri, is not only a Muslim, but also right wing, male and Dutch, just to name a few possible identities. It is a nationalist choice to specifically ask Muslims and immigrants to distance themselves, and not, for instance, all right wingers, all religious people or even all men.

Many politicians and opinion makers nowadays analyse conflicts in terms of ‘cultures’ and religions. According to them there is a global ‘cultural war’ between ‘us’ and ‘Islam’. This nationalist view has grave consequences. Immigrants are now being addressed more and more as Muslims by the government and the media, and in a sense they are being made into Muslims. In these politically stressful times the government hardly consults immigrant organisations at all anymore, but instead exclusively addresses the Contactorgaan Moslims en Overheid (Muslim-Government Contact Organisation), which is founded, paid for and dictated to by the state. This is the way the government supposedly keeps in contact with ‘the community,’ as if all immigrants are Muslims or want to be represented by Muslims.

Muslim fundamentalists also create cultural and religious identities and force these upon people. Sometimes literally. In his ‘Open letter to Hirsi Ali’ Van Gogh’s murderer, for example, called conservative liberal (VVD) member of parliament Van Aartsen a Jew, which he isn’t. According to the murderer, Dutch politics are completely dominated by Jews. In the eyes of this kind of religious fascist all their opponents are Jews or lackeys of Jews. And just like many opinion makers and politicians they promote the idea of a ‘cultural war’ and are strongly opposed to every left and feminist struggle.

Both sides use this alleged ‘cultural war’ to attract, mobilise and control the population. The opinion makers want us to choose between democracy and terror, or – in left wing terms – between capitalism and feudalism. Here, in the rich West, the choice for capitalism with its relatively generous civil freedoms is, of course, easily made. But the radical left should not let them force upon us such a choice between reactionary alternatives. Our goal should remain the achievement of a socialist and feminist world.

Much of the extra-parliamentary and radical left, unfortunately, have also started arguing in terms of clashing cultures, instead of left and right. For fear of criticizing Islam as a whole, they refuse to speak out against Muslim fundamentalism, or for that matter, the Arab nationalism of the Arab-European League. Fundamentalists and nationalists are even considered possible allies because of their ability to mobilise many immigrants. But Muslim fundamentalism is nothing but religious fascism, and Arab nationalism is all about crushing the left and feminism. Turning a blind eye to the extreme right character of these currents has, for instance, lead to anti-Semitic, patriarchal and anti-gay slogans and violence on demonstrations organised by the left against the war in Iraq or the Israeli occupation. ‘Hamas, Hamas, all Jews to the gas’ has become a popular slogan.

So, it is by now ‘politically correct’ in the Netherlands to be against multiculturalism. Every day politicians and opinion leaders are bashing ‘the completely failed multicultural society’, as they call it. The current right criticism of multicultural society always contains barely disguised racism against immigrants, refugees and Islam. Although the radical left is also critical of multiculturalism, it is not wise to start attacking it right now. It is better to fight racism, without defending multiculturalism. The radical left should not have anything to do with thinking in terms of ‘cultures’, nor be seduced into classifying humans in terms of ‘cultures’ or ‘peoples’. Neither pleading for dialogues between supposed ‘cultures’, nor striving for ‘cultural conservation’, nor for a ‘cosmopolitan culture’. Instead of looking for the cause of all kinds of injustice in ‘cultures’ and ‘religions’, the radical left should simply focus its attention on unequal power relations and fight them.


[1] Editor’s note: The party Wilders founded was called Groep Wilders, then became Partij van de Vrijheid – Party of Freedom. According to Wikipedia, ‘in polls released following the assassination of Theo van Gogh, it was estimated that Wilders’ party could win 29 (out of 150) seats in the Dutch parliament (Tweede Kamer). With the uproar over the killing of Van Gogh subsiding, this number declined to a low of one in October 2005. In February 2006, after the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy, it rose again to three seats.’

Eric Krebbers is a member of De Fabel van de illegaal [] with whom he publishes a bi-monthly newsletter