Field Notes article

The Un-Dutchable Challenge of Pluralism

Every year on December 5th, tens of thousands of Dutch people paint their faces black, dress up in antique costume, and assume the persona of Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”) to help Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) distribute candy and presents to children throughout the Netherlands. In recent years, Dutch citizens of Caribbean ancestry have spoken out against the portrayal of Black Pete as a racist caricature. In early October of 2013, Quinsy Gario, a Curaçao-born Dutch performance artist, argued on TV that Black Pete perpetuates a stereotype of African people as second-class citizens in Dutch society. The following week, the mayor of Amsterdam met with residents who asked that Black Pete be removed from the city’s Sinterklaas parade. Most white Dutch reacted angrily to accusations that the Black Pete tradition is racist, and the character continues to be popular in society. According to a 2013 survey, 92% of the Dutch public do not perceive Black Pete as racist or associate him with slavery, and 91% are opposed to altering the character’s appearance.

Challenges of the New Plurality

This example illustrates how the Dutch, otherwise known for their pragmatism and tolerance, are being tested by the new plurality that marks their society. Until the 1990s, Dutch nationals approached ethnic, racial, religious, and sectarian differences, themselves the result of migration and colonialism, with some of Europe’s stronger multiculturalist policies. However, such government policies did not make many demands on Dutch society’s longstanding habits. Rethinking one’s own traditions requires more than just tolerating difference; it also involves rethinking your self-identity to accommodate the “other.” One of my Muslim informants tweeted on the matter, reminding Dutch folks to empathize with the Muslim immigrants who are constantly asked to change their beliefs and traditions to adapt to their lives in the Netherlands.

I have been conducting fieldwork among Muslims in the Netherlands since 2003, focusing on questions of how they adapt their beliefs to their new homes . Our project on the New Western Plurality allowed me to extend my research into the Catholic and Secular communities. My previous research involved two years of fieldwork, beginning in 2003-2004 followed up by summer research between 2006 and 2011. For this new project, I carried out three months of fieldwork in Amsterdam especially focusing on Catholic and Secular communities. The focus on the three ethical “communities” means that the project was not intended to be exhaustive, in covering all the groups within each tradition. Instead, I sampled organizations to illustrate their different approaches to the challenge of the new national plurality.

As the Black Pete debate illustrates, most people are willing to make some incremental changes to the character. This year, they have removed the earring. Next year, they might paint the character with lighter color to fit the story line that Black Pete is black only because he enters homes from chimneys to drop the gifts. However, Geert Wilders, the leader of the far right Freedom Party, has proposed the adoption of a law to protect Black Pete against any alterations in his appearance “to protect our (Dutch) culture.” This incident is one among many that indicates that once “received” understandings of integration, including various models of multiculturalism, are now in question. This has pushed questions of pluralist co-existence to the center of discussion in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands officially adopted multicultural policies in 1983 but by the 1990s assimilationist policies became ascendant. The verzuiling or pillarization system enshrined in the Dutch constitution still provides the legal basis for recognition of religious group rights. Nevertheless, even for countries like the Netherlands with a long tradition of tolerance and acceptance, it has become a challenge to incorporate immigrants while respecting their differences. Thus, there is a need for new approaches to understand how people respond to pluralism in their daily lives in Western Europe. The Making Multiculturalism Work report from Contending Modernities’ London research team, that argues for the role of political friendships in fostering pluralism is an example of this line of research. My book, Localizing Islam in Europe, also provides examples of this approach, such as the transformation of Muslim activists through interfaith settings. However, activities like these actually have a limited impact on the larger society that is exposed to the sensationalism of a public media that everyday stigmatizes and marginalizes “the other.”

The Limits of Dutch Multiculturalism

The Netherlands provides an interesting setting to pursue research on the new Western plurality because it has historically had an institutionalized solution to ethico-religious plurality, grounded on the so-called verzuiling or pillarization system. The Dutch state has recognized religious and ideological groups since the second half of the 19th century. Accordingly, the state supported each ideological or religious group to organize its own schools, hospitals, media, and political representation. Despite some debate on the exact number of pillars, for most of the twentieth century there were four. They consisted of Social Democrats, (secular) Humanists, Protestants, and Catholics. Among the pillars, Catholics led the way in creating these institutions followed by Protestants. The “secular” pillars of Social Democrats and Liberals did not create as extensive an assortment of pillar institutions. With regard to education, for example, the secular humanists were satisfied with the public schools; by contrast, Catholics wanted to have their own schools funded by the state. In fact, whether the liberals and the socialists had formed a pillar of their own is still debatable because they had formed too few organizations in too small areas to be called a “pillar.” Moreover, liberals were against voluntary segregation based on ideological and denominational lines.

The confessional pillars suffered great strains under the secularization process that swept the Netherlands from the 1960s onwards, as witnessed by the decline in church membership and attendance. In an interview with Vatican Radio on December 5, 2013, Willem Jacobus Eijk Cardinal, Archbishop of Utrecht said that the Catholic Church in the Netherlands is facing a near collapse. “The number of practicing Catholics is diminishing very quickly,” he said. “In the 1950s 90 percent of Catholics still went to church every Sunday. Now, it’s only five percent.” He quickly added that the Church officials would soon be “forced to close many churches.” He quoted from the Dutch Office for National Statistics that in 2010 just under 16 percent of the population identified itself as Catholic. This number is expected to drop to about 10 percent by 2020. The same office estimates that Islam will become the second largest religion in the Netherlands the same year.

As the pillarization system was dissolving as a result of the Netherlands’ secularization, the number of Muslims increased steadily as a result of labor migration from Turkey and Morocco from the 1960s onward. They were the second wave of migration, the first having been from ex-colonies in the Caribbean. At present, the Netherlands has a population of some 850,000 Muslims, making up nearly 6 percent of the population; 329,000 of them have historical ties to Turkey and 314,000 to Morocco. There are other Muslims who have arrived from former and current areas of conflict such as Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. In addition, there are nearly 10,000 native “Dutch” convert Muslims.

Multiculturalism as a state policy began with these major increases in immigration during the 1950s and 1960s. An official national policy of multiculturalism was adopted in 1983, with the introduction of the “Ethnic Minorities Policy.” This has allowed state support for the cultural, religious, and linguistic development of immigrant groups based on their ethnic origins. This approach was also tied in principle to the pillarization system, on the assumption that minorities would be empowered and emancipated in society through self-organization and group identification.

Questions were soon raised about multicultural policies, however, as a result of the continuing social and economic marginalization of immigrants. By the 1990s, the national policy had shifted markedly to more assimilationist programs. Anxious about their religious traditions, Muslims invoked the principle of verzuiling and applied for state funding for their social, educational, and media programs. Although some funding was granted, the state stopped short of supporting a full Muslim pillar, since opinion had shifted and the idea was that society required more cultural cohesion than the retention of cultural difference.

Since the September 11 attacks in the U.S., Dutch public opinion has shifted even more forcefully away from multicultural accommodation. The change has caused many minority leaders to perceive integration as a cover-up for full-scale assimilation and assimilationist goals. Nonetheless, the policy shift continued, and even accelerated after the tragic murder of the film-maker and anti-Muslim polemicist Theo Van Gogh by an Islamist extremist in November 2004—an event that event caused a veritable moral panic in Dutch society.

Mapping the Ethico-Religious Communities: Catholics

Although the Catholic Church has long been known for its hierarchical administration, effective central control over an increasingly diverse Catholic population has become a challenge for the Dutch Church. On the basis of interviews and conversations with representatives from the Catholic Church, both clergy and laypeople, I would tentatively divide up the Catholic community into three groups: the Bishops who represent the official position that is closest to the Vatican’s views; civic Catholic organizations that are semi-independent of the Church; and individuals of nominal Catholic affiliation.

There are seven dioceses in the Netherlands, with Amsterdam coming under the authority of the Bishop of Haarlem. During my interview on February 17th, 2014 with a representative from the Haarlem Diocese, he began by stating that “the Catholic Church in the Netherlands is in a deplorable state.” He explained that Church attendance is plummeting; there is a desperate shortage of priests; the active volunteers in the Church are elderly; and there is internal strife between priests and laymen as well as among the country’s bishops.

Despite these great challenges, all dioceses subscribe to the Second Vatican Council’s call for interfaith relations, carrying out interfaith dialogue activities through various councils with many groups and sections of society in the Netherlands. There are constant and intense ecumenical relationships, including the one within the Council of Churches. Additionally, regular contacts take place with Jewish representatives, especially through the Episcopal Commission for the relationship with Judaism. There is also contact with believers of other religions through the Contact Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

The Catholic Church’s interfaith activities assessment document for 2012 describes relations with Muslims, laying out principles for the dialogue for Muslims, including calling for honest and open dialogue, and asking “difficult questions” such as textual references to violence in Islam. The document is critical of the “anti-Islam campaign” launched by the PVV (Freedom Party) of Geert Wilders. The Catholic Contact Council for Inter-religious Dialogue (CID) has strengthened its ties with Muslims through interfaith dialogue, and messages of goodwill to all Muslim organizations in the Netherlands during Ramadan. This has occurred despite the problems posed by some Muslims’ withdrawal from dialogue in the aftermath of the PVV’s election victory in 2010, which is thought to have benefited from substantial Catholic support. The document refers to an interesting finding about maintaining dialogue in such difficult times. It sums up the response in parishes to the “negative coverage of Islam” especially the film “Fitna” produced by Wilders as follows: “Where contacts between Christians and Muslims were good, ties became stronger, meetings and talks increased. Where there were few, if any, contacts, fear of Islam and distrust of Muslims grew.”

One example of this trend is Volendam, which is a small fishing town in the north where PVV has won nearly 40 percent of the votes in 2009 European parliamentary elections. Although there are no Muslims living there, the voters explain their support for Wilders by almost quoting him verbatim “This country is being taken over by the Muslims and their violent religion.” Despite such regional support for PVV among Catholics, the representative of the Catholic Church emphasized that churchgoing Catholics can empathize with immigrants and minorities because Catholics too have been a religious minority in this country. In other words, he underlined that the Catholic Church is not contributing to the support for PVV. However, it seems that the Church is not able to prevent the party’s popularity among some Catholic circles either.


The Muslim minority population shares all the disadvantages of low socioeconomic standing, which limits and constrains their engagement with the larger society. A weak middle class, and very limited intellectual capital among Muslims makes them dependent on scholars from their countries of origins, most of whom are not familiar with the Dutch context. Muslims also lack the professional and intellectual cadres to engage systematically with public debates. There are a number of transnational Islamic movements that originated from the countries of origin and incrementally adapting their agendas to Europe, which can be categorized into three clusters that are influential and relevant for the pluralism debate: transnational branches of political Islamic movements; movements engaged with dialogue and pluralism; and Salafi Muslims.

There are, first, Islamic organizations that have originated as the transnational branches of the political Islamic movement in the Middle East such as Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt), Milli Görüş (Turkey), and Jamaat-i Islami (Pakistan). Their original agendas in their countries of origins such as ushering in pro-Islamic regimes have, in the context of Europe, shifted to developing a Muslim identity in public life by getting Islam recognized as an equal religion to other religions in Europe. These groups demand to be recognized as legitimate organizations within European states in return for spreading a “moderate” Islamic cause that condemns violence, accepts secularism, and calls Muslims to identify with their new societies.

There are a number of other movements that promote interfaith dialogue, active citizenship, and engagement with pluralism. According to this civil Islam, which refers to an interpretation of Islam that is compatible with the principles of democratic governance, Muslims are encouraged to play an active role in society while negotiating their religious and ethical commitments with the larger society. Jamaat al-Adl wal Ihsan from Morocco and the Gülen movement from Turkey have activists in the Netherlands and across Western Europe committed to these values. All of these individuals and groups utilize bridging activities in educational, interfaith and artistic venues to promote an active role for Muslims in larger society.

There is also a small but vocal group of Salafi Muslims, estimated to be several thousands. Salafis tend to avoid avoid engagement with a plural society, citing their interpretation of the principle of Al Wala’ Wal Bara’ (literally meaning loyalty and disavowal) which calls for disengagement with non-Muslims and even other non-Salafi Muslims. There are, however, different trends within Salafi Islam. Apolitical Salafis denounce violence but call for a literalist and puritanical interpretation of Islam. They consider the presence of Muslims in Europe as temporary. Although apolitical Salafis have been in principle against democracy and voting in elections (because this violates God’s authority as the only ruler, in their view) they have decided to vote in the elections in the Netherlands to counter the rise of Geert Wilders by using the traditional Islamic law principle of “maslaha” or public interest.

Normen en Waarden: Public Debate on Dutch “Norms and Values”

The murder of Theo Van Gogh by a Dutch-Moroccan Jihadi in Amsterdam in 2004 greatly intensified the public debate on Dutch norms and values. “Dutchness” has been presented by Far Right parties such as Wilders’ PVV as standing for freedom of speech, in opposition to Islam and Muslims, who are perceived as wanting to negate this principle. In this politically charged environment, social pressures on immigrants to accept the communal norms of Dutch society have increased exponentially.

This pressure has been expressed in several important policy changes. The Christian Democratic government has made it more difficult to immigrate to the Netherlands from outside the EU. A striking illustration of policy changes, since September 30, 1998 the Integration of Newcomers Act requires newcomers to take 600 hours of Dutch language and culture courses to become legal immigrants. Moreover, since March 15, 2006, immigrants are required to pass an exam testing their knowledge of Dutch language and society before they can come to the Netherlands to be reunited with their families. The Netherlands is also the first country in Europe to implement compulsory training for imams entering the country. Since September 2002, imams are obliged to attend courses on Dutch values, soft drugs, prostitution, gay marriage, and euthanasia. It is debatable whether these policies are effectively promoting cultural integration.

In short, both Muslims and the Dutch liberal tradition of multiculturalism have come to face new and significant challenges. Declining support for multicultural policies, new anti-immigration laws, and the end of political correctness toward Muslims have all created an atmosphere in which Islam and Muslims have become “the other” of the “tolerant” Dutch society. The Muslim “other” is portrayed as not tolerating homosexuals, mistreating women, and denying freedom of speech. Actual Muslims, of course, have widely varying opinions on all of these questions. However, the murder of Theo Van Gogh and the statement of the Moroccan Imam el-Moumni about gays, which referred to homosexuality as a disease, have been enough to confirm to many Dutch citizens that all Muslims share these views.

The “norms and Values” debate has informed new policies on civic integration (inburgering) and citizenship education (burgerschapsvorming). Since January 2007 the Civic Integration Act obliges most non-Dutch and non-EU nationals living in the Netherlands to speak Dutch and have some general knowledge of the country. This general knowledge about the society included topics such as homosexuality and gender equality. In order to promote integration, the Civic Integration Act obliges most foreigners to take part in language and civic integration courses. If you are between the ages of 16 and 65 and come from outside the European Union you will need to pass the integration exam.

Since 2005, Dutch schools have also been required to include citizenship education in their curriculum. The Ministry of education has come up with core goals or kerndoelen as the goals for citizenship education of students; however, each school is allowed to implement the goals in its own way. For instance, one of these goals is “active citizenship.” Each school aims to reach this goal differently. The De Roose Islamic School I visited aims to reach this through the “universal language of music,” as the principle put it. School officials believe that if their students learn to make music and use musical instruments they can become more active in the larger society. They organize fieldtrips to nursing homes and invite local authorities to talk to their students. Among the Catholic Schools in low income and immigrant neighborhoods that I visited, there were attempts to make the students more involved and responsible for the rest of the society and active citizens. However, for the Catholic schools in “white” neighborhoods with high economic standards, teachers and parents have admitted that they do not do much of anything with regard to citizenship education. Because they believe that citizenship education is not aimed for their students and that the inspectors know this as well and do not question them on it. A similar pattern was seen in secular schools. Overall, the priority for all schools was reading and math skills; citizenship education was way down on their “to do” list.

Liberal and social democratic critics of these new programs of citizenship education programs are worried that the government is moving in the direction of using education to create “good citizens of the state” whereas the goal of education should be to teach the students how to think critically. More generally, however, new policies and public debates on “norms and values” demonstrate that, even as Dutch society may have reached the limits of an earlier multicultural tolerance, programs designed to inculcate a common moral vision may be causing more tension than cohesion. For the moment, the path forward to a more effective pluralist co-existence remains uncertain.

Ahmet Yükleyen
Ahmet Yükleyen is currently head of the Istanbul office for College admissions advising company "Great College Advice". He was previously Associate Professor of Anthropology and International Studies at Mississippi University's Croft Institute for International Studies as well as Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Istanbul Commerce University. He received his Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from Boston University in 2007. His book titled “Localizing Islam in Europe: Turkish Islamic Communities in Germany and the Netherlands” was published by Syracuse University Press in 2012. .

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