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Netherlands: Dutch Immigration (Part 1) -- The Death Of Multiculturalism

Political scientist Andre Krouwel says the emphasis is on 'integration' not 'multiculturalism' The Netherlands was forged amid the Christian sectarian struggles of 400 years ago. Ever since, this northern European nation has prided itself as a beacon of religious freedom and tolerance. But the country faces a difficult challenge. During the past 40 years, tens of thousands of unskilled workers were brought in from mainly Islamic states. Many were never schooled in the Dutch language. The result is an isolated and increasingly frustrated minority of more than a million Muslims out of a total population of 16 million. The murder of controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh this month by an Islamic extremist underscored for many the dangers of this relatively new social division. It's left many wondering whether the old model of tolerance will survive. RFE/RL reports that van Gogh's murder has accelerated efforts to integrate the country's Islamic minority into the Dutch mainstream -- and probably spells the end of any official policy to promote cultural diversity. (To see Part 2 of this series, click here --> /featuresarticle/2004/11/e9f6a663-11f3-48de-b47d-c4756bd849e0.html .)

Amsterdam, 23 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- For 30 years, from the 1960s through the 1990s, the official Dutch policy toward its growing population of unskilled Islamic "guest workers" was one of "multiculturalism."

That is, the government actively encouraged diverse groups -- from Morocco, Turkey, and other countries -- to maintain their linguistic and cultural identities.

Andre Krouwel, a political scientist at Amsterdam's Free University, says the policy was not based on any idealistic notion of the virtues of diversity, but rather a cold calculation that the new immigrants should not be encouraged to stay.

"Ever since the 1960s, the subsequent Dutch governments took an approach toward minorities by which they assumed that these people were temporary workers, would stay here a limited period of time, and would go back to their country of origin. They always denied the Netherlands was an immigration country. And therefore they [encouraged policies] that people were [to be] educated in their own language and very much a multicultural agenda," Krouwel says.

That calculation turned out badly wrong. Some guest-workers did return to their countries of origin -- but many more did not. The result is that Holland increasingly finds itself divided into two societies: a relatively affluent and educated Dutch “in-group” and a mainly Muslim, under-skilled “out-group.”
"The [murder] of Van Gogh initiated an enormous backlash, both among the intellectual elite and the middle class, who said we have always been far too soft with immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants."

Van Gogh’s murder underscored for many the fact that the country can no longer afford that division.

The killer, a young Muslim radical, apparently was angered by van Gogh's strongly anti-Islamic views. For many Dutch, however, the issue was not van Gogh’s opinion of Islam, but free speech. They say van Gogh was killed for speaking openly about what many here now see as an intolerant faith.

Meindert Fennema, a professor at the University of Amsterdam and one of Holland's leading authorities on immigration, says the murder confirmed his countrymen's worst -- if misguided -- suspicions about Islam.

"When [van Gogh] was murdered by a Moroccan youngster, then of course what people thought already became 'true' -- that was that Islam was a very dangerous religion and that [a] large part of the population was sort of a fifth column in our country," Fennema says.

The main casualty is likely to be an end to any remaining popular support for multiculturalism.

Fennema says multiculturalism had been under question for years since it became clear guest-workers were not leaving. Still the policy was backed by some on the left who viewed it as a more humane alternative to the melting pot.

Fennema says van Gogh’s murder has strengthened voices -- in the political center and the right-wing -- calling for a quick and thorough integration of minorities into the Dutch mainstream.

"The [murder] of Van Gogh initiated an enormous backlash, both among the intellectual elite and the middle class, who said we have always been far too soft with immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, but also among the extreme right, or the youth that had extreme right sympathies but was never organized in an extreme right party," Fennema says.

Krouwel explains what is meant by integration. "No longer is the model that ethnic minorities should basically organize themselves, have separate organizations, cultural organizations, sports organizations, political organization in terms of unions, and all kinds of representational organizations. That is no longer the case. They now have to participate in the Dutch mainstream organizations," he says.

It's not clear yet how such a policy will function in practice, or even whether all the groups involved will welcome it.

Krouwel says he, for one, is optimistic given the country’s long history of assimilating religious and cultural minorities, but admits progress will not happen overnight.

"The policy is clearly a model of integration. Now all of a sudden everything has to turn around completely. And we have to integrate minorities immediately -- which of course doesn't work. I mean if you, for 30 years, adopt a certain policy, you cannot [immediately] change everything around," Krouwel says.

In the second part of a four-part series, we look at whether Holland may be paying the price now for a flawed debate on immigration policy in the past.
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.