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Netherlands: Dutch Immigration (Part 2) -- Paying The Price Of Political Correctness

The Netherlands was forged amid the Christian sectarian struggles of 400 years ago. Ever since, this northern European country 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 1 million Muslims settled in a small country of 16 million. The killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh recently -- apparently by an Islamic extremist -- underscored the dangers of this relatively new social division. It's left many wondering whether the old model of tolerance can long survive. In this second in a series of stories on Dutch immigration, RFE/RL reports that some in Holland now blame the "political correctness" of the 1980s and '90s for stifling a necessary debate on immigration and contributing to the country's current problems. (To see Part 1 of this series, click here --> /featuresarticle/2004/11/922941ab-4df5-47ef-87da-1d726d9f1db0.html .)

Amsterdam, 24 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Many in the Netherlands say, with the benefit of hindsight, that it was clear as far back as 20 years ago that the country's immigration policies were leading to a dead end.

For decades, Dutch companies had been bringing in tens of thousands of unskilled laborers from Muslim countries like Morocco and Turkey. By the 1980s, large, mainly Muslim ghettoes were appearing in cities. Crime and poverty rates among these populations were rising.

The official policy of "multiculturalism" -- educating new arrivals in their own cultures so they would return to their home countries -- was failing. Relatively few workers were going back, and the policy only reinforced the immigrants' isolation.

Something was clearly wrong, yet few people had the courage to speak out.

Meindert Fennema, an authority on immigration policy and a professor at the University of Amsterdam, blames an atmosphere of "political correctness" -- an effort to restrict inappropriate or insulting language -- for preventing people from speaking openly during those years. He says people were afraid that any negative comment made toward the immigrant population might be taken out of context and labeled "racist."

"Alongside this policy of immigration [at the time,] there was also a policy of anti-racism, which made it very difficult for people either to campaign to stop the immigration or to criticize the behavior of immigrants, or to air the feeling that we should remain, as Dutch people, master in our own country," Fennema says. "All these ideas and conceptions were considered as nearly extreme right-wing."

It’s possible that political correctness prevented politicians from exploiting the population’s fears -- but Fennema says it also effectively stopped any meaningful debate on immigration policy.

"My position is that it's not so much the [immigration] policy that failed, it was the 'deliberation' policy that failed. So there was no discussion on the way [immigration] policy was formulated," Fennema says.

In the 1990s, the leading Dutch political parties went so far as to agree among themselves not to discuss immigration as part of any election campaign. The fear was the debate would soon spiral out of control.

That policy eventually back-fired with frustrated Dutch voters and a generation of anti-Islam, anti-immigration politicians soon emerged to fill the policy void.

The most successful of these was Pim Fortuyn, an openly homosexual university professor who struck a chord with voters fed up with rising immigration. Fortuyn once famously declared the Netherlands "closed" to immigrants. He once wrote a book called "Against the Islamization of Our Culture."

Fortuyn was assassinated by an animal-rights activist just days before the 2002 parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, his party, the "List Pim Fortuyn," placed second in the vote.

Andre Krouwel, a political scientist at Amsterdam's Free University, says Fortuyn and other right-wingers made the mistake of blaming the high crime and poverty rates among Holland’s immigrants on Islam. Nevertheless, Krouwel says Fortuyn's legacy -- for breaking the silence on immigration -- is not all negative.

"Pim Fortuyn clearly mobilized on [the immigration] issue [and] clearly put the issue of immigrants being on a different social position [on] the political agenda," Krouwel says. "The problem is that the [political] right-wing blamed Islam for that socio-economic position, whereas the [political] left didn't want to explain it, didn't have an explanation and certainly didn't have a solution. So I think we have finally started the debate about what is going on in this country and the structural position of ethnic minorities, and that debate is new for the Netherlands. It was depoliticized. You could not talk about this issue."

In the year's since Fortuyn's death, the debate has gotten increasingly shrill on both the political left and right. Moderate voices have all but disappeared.

Even filmmaker Theo van Gogh, murdered in November by an Islamic extremist and widely viewed -- like Fortuyn -- as a kind of national hero, was himself no peacemaker. He was outspoken in his criticism of Holland’s immigration policy, and in his films, newspaper articles, and television appearances, he routinely disparaged Islam.

Nevertheless, the hope remains that any dialogue -- however harsh -- is better than a return to the days when inconvenient or uncomfortable opinions were repressed, and allowed to fester.

In the third part of the series, we listen to the voices of modern Holland -- focusing on a young Moroccan woman and a right-wing Dutch politician.
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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.