Musings on the Netherlands and Turkey

On Wednesday 15th March, the Netherlands will hold a general election. In the American and British popular imaginations, the Netherlands is a socially progressive nation with a well-functioning democracy, and a high trust in its institutions. Relatively speaking, that perception is largely correct. But the Dutch increasingly believe their values are under threat, not from domestic affairs or even the EU, but from the Islamic world.

Despite its reputation for ethnic homogeneity, the Netherlands is home to a sizeable Turkish minority. Many are Turkish citizens who are entitled to vote in the upcoming Turkish constitutional referendum, which will give the President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, considerably more power, reducing Parliament to a mere scrutiny body. Turkey would effectively become like Russia: an authoritarian executive presidency. The Kemalist traditions of secularism and the separation of powers would be consigned to the history books. Following the failed coup to oust him, Erdogan is understandably nervous. But his style of rule is increasingly dictatorial. Human rights abuses are becoming more common, freedom of speech is in decline, and anti-Western and pro-Russian sentiments are on the rise.

Erdogan enjoys considerable support in Turkey, but due to a lack of accurate polling, no one is sure how the referendum will go. So to ensure the maximum possible support, the government has sent ministers to Turkish diasporas living in Europe. In France, authorities allowed campaign events to go ahead. But in most other countries, most notably the Netherlands, ministers have been prevented from holding rallies. European authorities have cited security concerns, arguing that that bringing in foreign political divisions would be dangerous. Turkish politics is very passionate, so campaigns are likely to result in violence. There’s also the question of whether its appropriate to hold domestic political events abroad. It would be a bit like Benjamin Netanyahu going to America to tell American Israelis to vote for him, only that Erdogan’s ideology is even more extreme that the Israeli right.

In response to the Dutch ban on Turkish political campaigning, Erdogan has labelled Mark Rutte (the Dutch PM) and his government ‘Nazis’ and ‘fascists.’ The governing party in Turkey, the AKP, believes Europe is gripped by endemic Islamophobia, and that this is yet another attempt to restrict the rights of Muslims to their free speech. In particular, many Turks believe Rutte has enforced the ban because of the upcoming Dutch elections, in which Rutte’s liberal VVD party is only narrowly ahead of the anti-Islam PVV. This is despite the fact that the ban is supported across the political spectrum.

There are two worrying trends here. The first is the increasingly reactionary, paranoid and conspiratorial nature of Turkish political dialogue. The Dutch are well within their rights to regulate foreign political campaigning in their own country. No one is preventing  the Turkish Dutch from voting, nor from receiving information about the referendum. All responsible authorities must judge whether an event poses a high security risk, and have the right to cancel such events if they have reason to believe they will. The somewhat violent nature of Turkish protests against the ban, both in Turkey and the Netherlands, shows that the Dutch’s fears may not be unfounded. To suggest that this constitutes fascistic behaviour is hyperbolic and delusional.

The second is the fragile nature of liberalism in the Netherlands. The Dutch, for the most part, are an open and welcoming people. Turkish immigrants solve the labour shortage that exists in the Netherlands’ high-wage, low unemployment economy. They help mitigate the effects of an ageing population. Many Dutch welcome the country’s increasing multiculturalism. But there’s a perfectly legitimate concern about the Turkish’s social and political views. Its clear that a considerable proportion of Turks support the AKP’s increasingly socially conservative and theocratic politics. I personally have a friend of mine who is Turkish, and despite being very culturally Western, supports Erdogan fervently.

The Turkish-Dutch clash must be contextualised in the broader rift between Europe’s increasingly secular and liberal white supermajority, and its growing Muslim population, which is overwhelmingly religious and socially conservative. Many second and third generation Muslims feel disillusioned with the godless hedonism that permeates the country they grew up in. In the most extreme of cases, they become radicalised. But in most instances, they simply feel apathetic and angry. Its important to mention that this disillusionment is not  entirely irrational. Muslims in Europe are much poorer than the general population, and are less likely to be employed. To varying degrees, they also face both institutional and casual discrimination. Western society, with its relentless focus on material wellbeing and instant self-gratification, is far from perfect. Liberals have too often sung the praises of multiculturalism and tolerance, while failing to economically empower the immigrants they purport to love.

However, the problems associated with Islam that the Netherlands faces, does not warrant the support of Geert Wilders and his PVV. Wilders is ideologically opposed to freedom of religion for Muslims. He believes in a complete ban on the burqa, a ban on all mosques, and a ban on the Qur’an. He doesn’t believe Islam can be practised peacefully, instead preferring to compare the Qur’an to Mein Kampf. In the unlikely event of a PVV-led government, Wilders’ policies would only make problems worse. Muslims would quite rightly take to the streets in protest. The Netherlands would lose its reputation as a strong liberal democracy, perhaps forever. I’m not knowledgable enough of Dutch politics to make a firm endorsement, but I would tentatively suggest that Dutch Epicureans vote for the incumbent VVD, simply as a tactical measure to keep out the PVV. Rutte is far from perfect, particularly his stance on the Zwarte Pete controversy, but the Dutch economy is relatively stable and the country remains most socially liberal than most. The authoritarianism, nationalism and populism of the Turkish government must not incline us to respond in kind.

  • rhanrott

    A very thoroughly prepared post. Thank you. The Dutch also have a big minority of Indonesians (another relic of colonialism). When I was doing business in the 1980s in Holland I heard a lot of negative things about the moslem Indonesians (This was before the Turks arrived). By now imagine they are reasonably integrated – at least, they don’t seem to figure in the rants by the extreme right, as far as I know. You don’t need a lot of immigrants to make a small country seem a bit overwhelmed with strangers.