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Immigrants in Holland unfazed by rise of anti-Islamic party

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Hürriyet Daily News | 7/4/2010 12:00:00 AM | ARAS COŞKUNTUNCEL

The rise of an anti-Islamic political party in recent Dutch elections leaves some Muslims in the Netherlands concerned for their future. Others, however, say the hostility is unlikely to last long because it is only a symptom of a lack of knowledge about the religion and does not reflect the day-to-day reality of their experience

Although Dutch voters gave the anti-Islamic party a boost in recent elections, Muslims in the Netherlands predict the hostile political atmosphere will be short lived, an idea bolstered by the fact that they are facing no increase in discrimination.

In the recent general elections, Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom, or PVV, recorded significant gains and ended in a strong third place, with 24 seats out of 150 in parliament. Wilders campaigned on a platform that included ending immigration from Muslim countries and instituting a ban on new mosques and the Quran.

With coalition talks ongoing since the shock of Wilders’ election victory and debates continue over his possible participation in the Cabinet, many immigrants and Dutch people think the far-right’s surge in popularity is a temporary situation and does not reflect what they encounter in daily life. And, generally, they don’t take Wilders seriously.

“Although we don’t receive the anti-Islam party’s election success favorably and describe Wilders as a racist, we believe that this was not because of increasing discrimination in this country,” İslam Erkal told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review. He also said he thought the political atmosphere would change soon.

Integration of Turkish immigrants debated
The negative image that minorities in Holland - especially Turks - face is nuanced: Religious stereotypes, as evidenced by Gert Wilders’ party, that depict Muslims as criminals and the question of whether immigrants are integrating into European society remain as obstacles.

The Turkish Institute in the Netherlands serves to eradicate these prejudices by informing Dutch society about Turkey and its people. “It’s been two-and-a-half years since we were founded,” Turkish Institute Director Lily Sprangers said. “We still need time to change Turkey’s image.”

Whether Turkish immigrants have integrated into Dutch society is still debated, even within the Turkish community. “We can’t say Turkish immigrants have integrated into Dutch society yet,” said Zihni Özdil, program manager at the Turkish Institute. He said Turks in the Netherlands rank lowest among immigrants in the country when it comes to participating in social activities.

“The question is whether Turkish immigrants are going to become Turkish Dutch or whether they will segregate themselves,” he said. Integration means “the Dutch will become a little bit Turkish and the Turkish will become a little bit Dutch. But except in some underdeveloped countries, there is no example of this kind of ideal integration.”

But İslam Erkal, the secretary of a Turkish charity foundation that runs a mosque that was originally a synagogue in The Hague, said that especially after the first generation of immigrants, the Turkish community completed the integration process. He also said the Dutch government made a big mistake by labeling the first immigrant workers as “guests” and not encouraging them to learn the Dutch language.

Several foundations around Holland, including the Turkish Institute, emphasize the importance of diversity. The Netherlands Program Service, or NPS, is one of them. NPS, a Dutch government-funded radio and TV broadcasting foundation, has a separate diversity section that produces cultural programs. Some of their programs are among the most popular in the Netherlands: “Bimbo’s and Burka’s,” “Girls of Halal” and “Ab and Sal.” NPS also carries out joint projects with broadcasters from different countries in Europe, including the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, or TRT.

“In light of the recent elections, we don’t think that our efforts are enough,” said Frans Jennekens, head of NPS’ diversity section. “But we would not change our policy.” NPS Program Editor Mary de Keijzer said the foundation’s aim was help communities overcome their differences with humor, allowing them to make light of the things that separate them.

The European Journalism Center’s “EU Policies at Work” seminar, which was held in the Netherland’s The Hague, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, gave Turkish reporters a chance to speak to immigrants and understand the difficulties they face. The seminar also allowed the journalists to learn about Dutch institutions that work in the field of immigration, integration and diversity.

Erkal is the secretary of a Turkish charity foundation that runs a mosque that was originally a synagogue. The Turkish community bought the building in 1979 and turned it into the Mescid-i Aksa mosque, which has a community of around 1,500. The mosque is located in The Hague’s China Town, once a Jewish neighborhood that is now dominated by Turkish and Chinese immigrants.

Eric Outshoorn, a veteran Dutch journalist from the Netherland’s most circulated newspaper, daily De Volkskrant, told the Daily News that the rise in anti-Islamic rhetoric is temporary because it is rooted in ignorance.

“Dutch society is experienced enough to overcome this conflicting situation. It’s a matter of time,” he said. “The main problems about the rise of anti-Islamic rhetoric in this tolerant country are the majority of Dutch people don’t know anything about Islam. They don’t know that there is also a tolerant Islam like in Turkey and Indonesia, not like very hard-line Sunni Islam.”

[HH] Assassination of Pim Fortuyn

Polarizing politicians are not new to the Netherlands. “The rise of discriminatory politicians in the Netherlands was not a developing fact. It happened suddenly with the assassination of Pim Fortuyn,” said Evren Madran, a 30-year-old Turkish translator who has been living in the Netherlands for nine years and is married to a Dutch woman.

Fortuyn was a Dutch politician known for his extreme views about immigrants and Islam. He called Islam “a backward culture,” and said that if it were legally possible he would close the borders to Muslim immigrants. He is the politician who coined the slogan, “Holland is full!”

Fortuyn was assassinated during the 2002 Dutch national election campaign by a Dutch rights activist who said he murdered Fortuyn to stop him from exploiting Muslims as “scapegoats” and targeting “the weak members of society” for political gain. Now Wilders is seen as his successor, only less entertaining.

“Dutch people love to be dampened by a politician who plays the victim role,” Madran said. According to Madran, Fortuyn’s party, called Pim Fortuyn List, benefited from this and Wilders was trying to fill that role by playing up the U.K.’s refusal to let him enter the country.

“Dutch people made it a national honor issue,” he said. “Both Fortuyn and Wilders were filling the open space of Dutch politics, which has been formed by the monotony of Dutch politicians.

“And also if we follow the political developments within the far-right surge, we can see the ongoing gradual elimination of the social state and the adoption of terror laws in the Netherlands,” Madran said. “For me this rhetoric was used for that in a controlled way and will continue to be used to legitimize their moves.”

[HH] ‘Holland is full’

Madran said the “Holland is full” slogan was partly correct and was an effective campaign strategy for Wilders because it reflects reality. But Outshoorn disagreed with this analysis and said people were saying the same things in the 1950s. “No, Holland is not full,” he said.

A 21-year-old Surinamese student at The Hague University, who gave only her first name, Nandini, said she also voted for Wilders because she agrees that Holland is full.

“It’s not about discrimination. It’s a reality,” she said. “And Wilders’ visions consist not only of Islam. He has really different views on economics, for example.” Nearly half of The Hague University’s students are from foreign countries.

The combined legacy of the Netherlands’ colonization of Suriname and the current immigration issue has put Suriname immigrants in a unique situation. When Suriname gained independence in 1975, Dutch subjects living in the former colony were given the choice of Dutch or Surinamese citizenship. About 200,000 out of a population of 450,000 left Suriname for the Netherlands.

Another student from the same university, Aaron Elyazar, who is from Indonesia, said living in Holland as a Muslim was hardly an unbearable situation.

“Wilders’ boom does not reflect discrimination in daily life, at least not more than in the other European countries,” Elyazar said. “And if one day the Dutch state wants to get rid of us, I don’t care; Muslims can always find better places to live. But their need for immigrants will never end. If not now, I’m sure they will need [immigrants] again.”

[HH] Uncertain future

But some immigrants still feel insecure about Wilders’ rise. Millet Milad, a Libyan man who has been living in Netherlands for 20 years, said Wilders’ racist opinions frightened him about the future.

“After the results of the last election, I started to be afraid for my family’s future, “ Milad said. “If it continues like that, I will surely leave this country.” 

Mahmoud Mostafa, 40, from Egypt, agreed with Milad and said the problem was Wilders himself. “Even if we don’t face more discrimination in daily life, Wilders’ views are quite provocative, and we are afraid of rising discrimination in daily life because of his provocations.”

Redokan Schat, a Dutch man who converted to Islam three months ago and is now one of the members of Mescid-i Aksa mosque, said he found peace in Islam after searching for 20 years. “Dutch people are afraid of Muslims just because of a lack of knowledge, but of course this will change, and the anti-Islam party’s rise will not continue,” Schat said.

But Wilders, the lone politician at the center of this nationwide debate, has pledged to continue his rise to power and make his party part of the new government. When the elections were over, he declared, “Nobody in The Hague can bypass the PVV anymore.”

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