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Two Muslim women walk past campaign posters in Amsterdam, where last week's elections saw the anti-Islamic party of Geert Wilders make significant gains.
Two Muslim women walk past campaign posters in Amsterdam, where  last week's elections saw the anti-Islamic party of Geert Wilders make significant gains.

A question of faith

The election gains of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim Freedom Party in the Netherlands have provoked much soul-searching about the loss of tolerance in contemporary life. But the roots of this change lie deeper in Dutch history, according to Faisal al Yafai.

The election gains of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim Freedom Party in the Netherlands have provoked much soul-searching about the loss of tolerance in contemporary life. But the roots of this change lie deeper in Dutch history, according to Faisal al Yafai. A few days before the Netherlands goes to the polls, Aicha Bennani is riding through the Dappermarkt, an open-air market in east Amsterdam that sells spicy Indonesian food, Moroccan fabrics and products from all around the world. The serious faces of politicians stare down from billboards, marked with the colourful, if confusing, initials of the main parties - CDA, VVD, PvdA - and covered again with bright flyers advertising nightclubs.

"We never see the PVV here," she says, referring to the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim party of the populist politician Geert Wilders. "They wouldn't dare. We have a lot of students and artistic people here and they would just laugh. No, they go to places where there are no Muslims, where they can say what they like." And with that, she smooths some of her hair back beneath her headscarf and rides off.

Bennani is one side of the modern Netherlands, the side that most Amsterdammers are keenest to display. The daughter of Moroccan immigrants, she is a university student living in one of Europe's most cosmopolitan cities. For the Dutch, tolerance is practically a religion, the embodiment of the local word gezellig which translates as being comfortable with each other, a rubbing along of communities that has historically allowed different religious and political groups to flourish side by side. No religious group comprises more than a third of the population, and no political party has won an outright majority since the First World War.

Yet last week's election has shaken that perception, taking the PVV - known as the Freedom Party outside the Netherlands - to third place in the polls, with a surprising 24 seats. Despite media discussion in the run-up to the election that the economic circumstances had pushed immigration concerns down the political agenda, Wilders' party almost trebled its number of seats, giving it a strong claim to sit in a governing coalition.

Among liberal Dutch that thought provokes horror: Wilders will face a criminal trial later this year on charges of inciting hatred and discrimination. "Is this the face we want to show the world?" asks one musician in Utrechtsestraat. The last time a far-right politician sat in a governing coalition in Europe was a decade ago, when Joerg Haider's Freedom Party joined the Austrian government, leading to months of EU sanctions.

That decision now rests with Mark Rutte, the new prime minister and head of the centre-right VVD party, which took the highest number of seats. He is in a bind. To exclude Wilders would lead to accusations of ignoring the will of the people, not to mention pushing Rutte into a coalition with the centre-left Labour party, which polled second place, leading to a highly unstable coalition. But it may be the least bad option: even with Wilders' party, a coalition would have to include the Christian Democrats, formerly the largest party, whose vote spectacularly collapsed at the election, putting Rutte at the head of a government with two deeply unpopular parties.

Yet regardless of what happens, from one perspective the damage is done. The tolerant Dutch have now given the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam right their largest number of seats anywhere in Western Europe. For a country that prides itself on accepting difference, that is a significant change. What happened? The answer lies in the inner cities and in the past. Although the number of Muslim citizens is relatively low by European standards - around 900,000 at the start of 2009 - they comprise six per cent of the Netherlands, the second-highest proportion in the European Union after France. Wilders sprinkles his diatribes with the word allochtoon, a word which, while not racist, has uncomfortable resonances. Allochtoon technically refers to people whose parents were not born in the Netherlands, although in practice it has a clear ethnic component: Europeans, such as Germans, who were born abroad are not referred to as such, whereas third-generation Turks and Moroccans, whose parents were born in the Netherlands and who make up the bulk of Muslims, are.

When Wilders talks of allochtoon and Islam, he is suggesting something quite specific to his Dutch listeners: that these people are different. Wilders campaigned to stop what he called "the Islamisation of the Netherlands" and suggested the Quran should be banned and a tax levied on the wearing of headscarves by Muslim women. But the Netherlands is not a country of one faith - there is no national church, for example. How has such anti-religion talk found a foothold in the psyches of so many Dutch people? Most commentators point to a new post-September 11 environment and the shocking political murders of the politician Pim Fortuyn and the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. Yet the answer is even more complex.

To understand the resonance that a resurgent Islam has for the Netherlands - and particularly its visible symbols, such as the wearing of the veil and the building of mosques - one needs to look back into Dutch history, to the concept of verzuiling ("pillarisation" in English) that held sway prior to the 1960s. Pillarisation was a way for Dutch society, always fragmented along sectarian lines, to co-operate. Religious and political groups formed their own "pillars" - parallel schools, businesses, cultural institutions and newspapers, all agreeing to get along and leave each other alone.

"On top of these pillars was a horizontal elite who solved conflicts, but citizens stayed in their own pillars. If you were Catholic, for example, you bought your bread from a Catholic baker," explains Sadik Harchaoui, the director of Forum: the Institute for Multicultural Affairs, a non-governmental organisation that works on integration policy in the Netherlands. "That was the stabilising factor in Dutch society and for a long time it functioned well."

But during the 1960s and 1970s, two big changes occurred: the first was the cultural revolution that took place in much of the West, levelling out society and consigning churches and other notions of traditional authority to history. Pillarisation collapsed. At the same time, mass immigration began, bringing workers from Turkey, Morocco and Suriname. For these new arrivals, there was no "pillar" for them to fit into and they needed to fight their way into Dutch society or remain at the fringes. As elsewhere, an increasingly globalised world brought down traditional industries and some parts of Dutch society suffered.

When, at the beginning of the century, the populist Pim Fortuyn appeared on the political scene, he attacked Islam - the faith - as the reason for this social upheaval. Muslim communities, he argued, struggled to integrate because of their faith, not because they were immigrants. For Fortuyn, integration wasn't a process but a philosophy, and he saw Islam as the opposition. After September 11 and its attendant focus on Muslim communities in the West, an unhealthy symbiotic relationship emerged: as Muslim communities felt under siege, they gravitated to visible symbols of their faith and their parents' culture. The Dutch - in common with other European countries - saw in these symbols confirmation of the wilder rhetoric about the separateness of Islam and insisted even more strongly that Muslim communities integrate. The Dutch difference stems from their history and understanding of pillarisation. For the Dutch, the fear of Islam is not the fear of an alternate culture, as it is in British and German cities where immigrants have formed ethnic enclaves, but rather the fear of a return to an alternative religious pillar. In the visible symbols of Islam they see not a minority culture but a separate pillar; worse, a separate pillar they fear may interfere in their own lives.

As Harchaoui puts it: "The Dutch say, 'Finally, we have been liberated from the rule of the church.' That's what we fought for in the 1960s and 1970s. Now you have Muslims who behave like Muslims and this causes great concern." For the Dutch, a visible Islam provokes two fears: a return to religious authority and a concern that authority may interfere in their lives. Such a scenario might suggest irreconcilable differences, were it not that Wilders and the Freedom Party are wrong on the facts. Far from being a monolithic, devout group, the Dutch Muslim community has a complex and evolving relationship with the faith of their parents.

Research by Forum shows these complexities. Its 2010 report on the position of Muslims notes: "Although compared with Turks, Moroccans have more contacts with native Dutch people, are more modern in their attitudes to relationships between men and women and family ties, and are less concerned about retaining their own culture, [research] shows that religion plays a more important role in their daily lives than among Turks." At the same time, Turkish women are more religiously observant than Turkish men, while the opposite is true among Moroccans. Neither group prioritises educating their children at Islamic schools or converting others to Islam.

For now, Wilders' narrative of a separatist Muslim community has played successfully in some regions. His party benefits from a lack of mixing between communities outside of the big cities. Most of his supporters fear a community they don't see. But the Netherlands has Muslim mayors and businesspeople, TV presenters and actors. As it becomes more apparent the Dutch Muslim community, like most communities, just wants to rub along, Wilders' argument is likely to collapse - along with the Freedom Party's share of the vote.

Faisal al Yafai is a journalist. He received the Ibn Battuta Award for Media in London this spring and is a Churchill Fellow for 2009/2010.

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