Day in and day out, Dutch Muslims are told their religion is "a fascist ideology" and "a threat to Dutch society".
By Sheila Kamerman and Dirk Vlasblom for NRC Handelsblad
They hear their "so-called prophet Muhammad" is "a barbarian, a mass murderer and a paedophile", or words to that effect. The indignities come from a member of parliament: Geert Wilders.
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After leaving the right-wing liberal VVD party in 2006 and setting up his own Party for Freedom (PVV), Wilders has made criticism of Islam his one main issue.
He is being heard by native Dutch people who fear the country of 16 million is suffering under the burden of its estimated one million Muslim citizens. Wilders obtained 5 of the 25 Dutch seats in European parliament last year. His PVV did very well in the two municipalities in which it participated in recent local elections. Some polls have predicted his party could become the biggest in parliament after the upcoming national election.
One wonders why the Muslims he is targeting are not standing up against his attacks and letting themselves be heard.
When asked this question, Islam expert Mohammed Cheppih immediately countered it: "Aren't we all Dutch?," he asked. "Society as a whole should stand up to Wilders. Wilders is destroying the Netherlands. We should all ignore him."
Farid Azarkan, the director of an interest group of Moroccan-Dutch people, SMN, agreed. "Where are all the reasonable Dutch people who say: 'This is not how we treat each other here'?" Ideally, non-Muslims would support their Muslim compatriots en masse, Azarkan ventured. "Suppose that all the women in Almere [the one city where Wilders' PVV won the most council seats in the local election] would don a headscarf." Azarkan chuckled at the idea of such a form of protest against the PVV's proposed headscarf ban in municipal buildings there: "But that is not realistic."
Azarkan has thought about instigating large-scale protests, but believes it would ultimately be counterproductive. "Imagine we would organise a mass demonstration, say, on the Malieveld in The Hague," he said, referring to a meadow near buildings housing the national government. "It would suddenly be filled with thousands of headscarves. People who don't fear Islam wouldn't be bothered by it. But those are not the people we need to convince. The people who support Wilders however, will go ’Yuk, there they are'."
The fear of rubbing native Dutch people the wrong way by lashing out at Wilders is one argument why Muslims aren't organising themselves. Another is that a movement would be hard to establish because there is no single Muslim community in the Netherlands. Moroccans, Turks, Somalis, Surinamese, Iranians and Iraqis in the Netherlands all have their own religious lives and communities. They are impossible to mobilise, according to Azarkan.
Faith in democracy
A unifying, Dutch Islam has yet to develop, said Loubna el Morabet, who is a PhD researcher in social science at Leiden University. "This is an ongoing process. Muslims in the Netherlands are already very Dutch," she said. "I have done research in the Netherlands and England and learnt that Muslim students here have adopted the Dutch mentality. This is their country."
Arkazan offered the example of the lack of success of Muslim parties as an argument why any fear of Muslims "taking over" the Netherlands is "a joke". In this month's municipal elections, Islamic parties failed to obtain a single council seat anywhere but in The Hague. "Obviously, Muslims vote for a party that suits them, they don't vote for a religion," said Arkazan. "We call that integration."
Many Muslims and non-Muslims in the Netherlands are uncomfortable with the things the PVV has been saying. The party has suggested Muslims who don't adjust to the dominant Dutch culture should be deported. It has also talked about shooting criminals of Moroccan descent in the knees.
But for most who disagree with him, their faith in democracy is larger than their fear of Wilders.
"Of course I feel threatened when I hear Wilders speaking," said Loubna el Morabet. "But if I take a step back, I realise he will never be able to carry out his ideas. Taxing headscarves is nonsense and halting immigration from Islamic countries is discrimination. The principle of equality is deeply embedded in Dutch law."
Even if he wins the upcoming national election, many Muslims don't believe he can change Dutch, let alone European, laws that protect them. "And you can't rule a country ranting and raving," Farid Azarkan said about Wilders' politics.
Several Muslims interviewed said they would welcome a large PVV after the June election. If Wilders were to be forced to take responsibility and make compromises, his rank and file would realise he can't deliver, they said.
The Netherlands is always ruled by coalition governments and if Wilders were to form one "he would need to have clear ideas about other issues than just Muslims," said El Morabet. "What does he really want for our country? The only statements he yells are anti-Islam, everything else is hazy."
Cheppih, however, disagreed. "It is extremely frustrating that other parties don't preclude governing with Wilders. It would be a clear sign if other parties would say: 'We don't want to cooperate with the PVV'. The party is empty and has hardly taken positions on anything." Cheppih encouraged other political parties to rule out any coalition with the PVV after the election. "Society as a whole should hit back hard: we do not accept this! Make that clear. Otherwise, things could escalate. The fear he sows is imaginary, but he is being heard. The higher the minarets, the more frightened the people."
This fear of Islam is fuelled by the media hype surrounding Wilders, said El Morabet. "I think it is ridiculous that media pay so much attention to a party that has garnered a handful of seats in the municipal elections. [Left-wing liberal party] D66 was the real winner of the local elections and that happens to be the one party that tells Wilders: 'You are shutting people out, you discriminate'. That gets relatively little attention."
To counter the anxiety some native Dutch feel for Islam, Farid Azarkan thinks, Muslims need to try to remove this through personal encounters. "You have to reach out to people. A minority happens to be xenophobe. I don't believe you can sway all of them. They have to notice out on the streets that you may be Muslim, but apart from that, you are all right.”