Islamophobia Sets the Terms

— Alex de Jong

THE DUTCH GOVERNMENT didn’t fall in February over involvement in Afghanistan, the unstable governing coalition stumbled over it. But the Islamophobic right wing might be the beneficiary.

Until the 20th of February the Netherlands were ruled by a coalition of the Labor party (PvdA), the Christian-democratic CDA and a smaller Christian party. The Dutch system of proportional parliamentary representation means that the largest party in parliament has to enter into coalition with other parties to form a government.

The relationship between the PvdA and the CDA has been an especially difficult one. What caused the eventual rupture was the PvdA’s determination to pull Dutch troops out of Afghanistan after the end of the current mission. The CDA wanted to keep open the possibility of Dutch military involvement, perhaps in the form of instructors for the new Afghan army.

Ironically, one of the reasons why the PvdA refused to make a new compromise with the CDA — after making compromises over an investigation into Dutch support for the war in Iraq and cuts to social spending— was that during the previous election campaign the Christian Democrats had painted them as unreliable. With municipal elections only a few days away, this seemed like a good opportunity to show some backbone.

Ending Dutch military involvement in Afghanistan was one of the promises the PvdA made during its election campaign. A majority of the population supports withdrawal, and the party had seen its support continuously decline while taking part in an increasingly unpopular coalition government. Political calculations like this were what determined the PvdA’s approach; there’s no anti-war movement in the Netherlands to influence the debate.

The break between the Labor Party and the Christian Democrats means that there will be new national elections for parliament in June. All parties of the previous governing coalition appear likely to lose seats.

Voters’ discontent with the previous right-wing government coalition largely benefited the left social-democratic Socialist Party. In 2006 the SP increased its parliamentary seats from 9 to 25 (out of a total 150). This time around it looks as if the big winner will be Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom (PVV).

Over the last few years, Geert Wilders has had a major impact on Dutch politics. He’s a career politician who started out with the right-wing, secular and pro-business VVD party but in 2004 left the party to form his own. In the 4th of March municipal elections the PVV, which concentrated its resources on campaigning in only two cities, won in Almere and came in second in The Hague, the seat of government.

According to polls the PVV could win as many as 25-26 seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections, maybe even becoming the country’s largest party. Only the VVD and the CDA — traditionally one of the large ruling parties in the country — leave open the option of forming a coalition with Wilders.

Racist Populism Rising

The PVV’s main position is easy to summarize: Islamophobia, an anti-Islamic racism that conflates religious, cultural and ethnic identities. Especially since forming his party, Geert Wilders has been making more and more extreme statements about Dutch Muslims and people with a background in the “Muslim countries.” He targets a group that forms about one million out of the country’s population of 16 million.

Some of Wilders’ proposals include scrapping the first article in the Dutch constitution, which forbids discrimination on basis of race or religion. He is for closing the borders to Muslims, banning the Koran (just as Hitler’s Mein Kampf is already banned in the Netherlands), imposing a special tax on anyone who wears an Islamic head covering and banning Islamic-identified clothing from public buildings.

True to his background in the VVD, Wilders and the other eight PVV parliamentarians have supported the neoliberal economic policies of this and the previous government. But while at first the PVV was vocal in support of plans like abolishing the legal minimum wage and weakening the rights of workers, in the last period the party has cultivated an increasingly populist image, especially since the outbreak of the economic crisis. The PVV objected to the government’s crisis measures and, when the ruling coalition proposed to raise the pension age from 65 to 67, threatened to organize street protests.

The PVV’s opposition to involvement in Afghanistan — skillfully exploiting the sentiments in the country about an unpopular war — is also contradictory. Geert Wilders is not so much against war and occupation — he is in favor of attacking Iran and is a supporter of the Israeli government — but he opposes the kind of mission the Dutch army was involved in; too much re-building, not enough fighting the “Islamic fascists” who are out to “colonize Europe.”

A Larger Trend

With his mixture of anti-Muslim racism and populist appeals against “traditional politics,” Wilders is part of a West-European trend than includes the British National Party, the Danish People’s Party and the Belgian Vlaams Belang. Since the meteoric rise of Dutch right-wing populist politician Pim Fortuyn — murdered in May 2002 by Volkert van der Graaf in order to stop him from gaining power through scapegoating Muslims — Muslims in the Netherlands have been continuously targeted.

The tradition that Dutch society should have space for several different cultures is under heavy attack. As in other European countries, the scapegoating has become more intense, giving birth to a new kind of Dutch (and “European”) nationalism based on a mythical, “superior Judeo-Christian civilization.”

A large part of the Wilders’ appeal is his clear presentation of friends (“the common man in the street”) and enemies (“Muslims and the left-wing elite that support them”). Wilders is one of the few Dutch politicians who is committed to politics, to changing society, not just to managing the current state of affairs. This has allowed him to dominate the public debate — other politicians shape their positions in reaction to Wilders’ statements.

Even when news about the financial meltdown was on the front page, a large part of the public debate revolved around what is euphemistically called “the integration question.” Wilders has built on feelings of resentment and xenophobia that have been developing for years in Dutch society.

Silence of the Left

The Dutch left has been largely unable to respond to Wilders. By far the largest left force is the SP, but this party has done very little to resist the rise of anti-Muslim racism. Traditionally, it neglected anti-racism in favor of more direct economic policies, arguing that racism will mostly disappear by itself when the discontent that is assumed to generate it disappears.

The party lost heavily in the municipal elections and it looks like it might lose more than half of its seats in national elections. But so far it seems unlikely that it will change its course. Since the outbreak of the economic crisis, the SP has refrained from organizing protests or taking a radical stance against neoliberalism.

After years of the SP’s continuous growth, there was an assumption that further growth was inevitable and that the party had to present itself first of all as a “responsible candidate for government.” The crisis, the SP leadership thought, would force the other parties to renounce neoliberalism and move closer to its positions.

What is happening instead is that working people are made to pay for anti-crisis measures, and the SP lost its profile as the opposition party. A left-wing perspective in the debate about the causes and solutions for the crisis was barely heard.

An anti-racist movement hardly exists. Whereas in some other west-European countries mobilizations against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan formed a counterweight against rising Islamophobia, the Dutch ant-war movement has been moribund for years.

Traditionally, anti-racism in the Netherlands has been based not so much on demands for equal social and economic rights but on appeals to “decency” and an ideology of a “tolerant, multicultural Netherlands.” But since the rise of Fortuyn, the idea of what it means to be Dutch has changed, taking shape more and more in opposition to the Muslim “Other.” The tasks of Dutch anti-racists and leftist activists are many, compared to their small number.

ATC 146, May-June 2010

Netherlands and Islam

[The following letter to the ATC editors was submitted by George Fish.]

ALEX DE JONG’S article on the Netherlands political crisis, “Islamophobia Sets the Terms,” in ATC 146 (May/June 2010) didn’t provide some basic information that is especially important for an article on Dutch politics in a U.S. journal that will be read by a majority of readers with little or no prior background. Fortunately, these omissions were substantially cleared up by subsequent articles that appeared elsewhere on the left: an article on the then-upcoming June 9, 2010 elections by fivethirtyeight.com that was distributed by the left news listserve Portside, and the recent article on the election results that appeared on the website of the International Marxist Group (IMG).

The unfortunate fact of those elections is that they did mark a substantial gain by Geert Wilders’ Islamophobic PVV; and thus, de Jong’s import was partially confirmed. But there was much more than simply Islamophobia involved, as the Portside and IMG articles point out. Wilders’ appeal (and as noted by the IMG, the PVV is essentially his own one-man political province) was based not only on Islamophobia but also on demagogic economic populism as well, similar to the Teabaggers here in the U.S. And the PVV did double its seats in the Dutch parliament, and as a result of the June 9 elections, now has 24 seats out of the 150, making the PVV the third-largest party in the parliament, and a serious contender for participation in any governmental coalition. But as a result of this, Wilders has already begun to tone down his populist rhetoric in order to be seen as a more suitable coalition partner to the neoliberal VVD, which holds the largest plurality of seats, 31, followed by the social-democratic PvdA with 30.

The big loser in the Netherlands elections was the erstwhile ruling party, the CDA or Christian Democrats, which went from first place in parliament to an ignominious fourth place, with 21 seats, while the left-wing Socialist Party managed to hold on to 15, with much of its former electoral base turning to the PVV. The PVV’s appeal, however, is not based entirely on Islamophobia, and the party (essentially Wilders) has tried to portray itself as an active opposition to the status quo, a protest alternative that also emphasizes opposition to the “left-wing elite” and the European Union as well as to Muslim immigrants. Further, any actual practice of Islamophobia (e.g. through legislation) will still have to take into account the necessity of maintaining good trade relations with the Arab world and with Turkey. Moreover, the first-place VVD is a secular party publicly, as are all the other major parties outside of the PVV. So, arguably, Islamophobis doesn’t entirely “set the terms” in today’s Netherlands, contrary to de Jong.

Further, and in light of what happened, one might wish to know more about the Muslim immigrant community in the Netherlands, which de Jong gives as 1 million people, only 6% of the total Dutch population of 16,560,000. Certainly, discrimination against Muslims simply because they are Muslims is a grave issue, and certainly something the international left must oppose. That’s just classic civil libertarian tolerance, as so well expressed by the Enlightenment atheist Voltaire: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to my death your right to say it.” However, that is a quite separate issue from accepting Islam or any other religion uncritically, on rendering Islam or any other religion immune from a critical approach.

This is why I wish to know more about what are exactly the “cultural” issues involved in Dutch Islamophobia. Islamic minorities elsewhere in Europe (e.g., in Britain) have vigorously demanded that Muslims there be governed by the Sharia rather than by the secular laws of the host state, and have their own Sharia courts -— a reactionary demand that “exempts” Muslims from civil liberty and due process protections. Surely opposition to Islamophobia cannot mean bowing to such demands made in the name of Islam, any more than respecting the religious rights of Catholics can allow tolerance of priest-pedophilia and its coverup, another important religious issue in Europe as well as elsewhere.

“Cultural” issues are always intertwined with economic and class issues, as noted by Engels in his remarks at Marx’s graveside: “Marx proved that man must first of all eat before he can do philosophy, the arts, etc.” As we all know on the left, “cultural” issues can be used not only to obfuscate and negate the directly economic issues of the working class, but also used to muddy and obfuscate economic and class issues and allegiances generally. This is something pointedly not noted in de Jong’s article, which ties opposition to Islamophobia to a strictly “multicultural” appeal for tolerance based on “anti-racism” alone. Any economic issues involved are seen by de Jong as a bother and distraction. However, as the IMG article notes, this “multicultural” tolerance as pursued by the PvdA through organized cultural festivals, etc., was used by reactionary Islamic and Turkish nationalist groups to hide and promote their reaction under broad “cultural” appeals; so it wasn’t only the PVV that used above-class “cultural” appeals to promote reaction.

George Fish
Indianapolis, IN

Steve McGiffen's analysis of

Steve McGiffen's analysis of the dutch elections adds the perspective of EU austerity to the mix, which ought to be part of the discussion.

See: http://www.spectrezine.org/two-elections-and-eus-war-europes-peoples

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