THE HAGUE — An artistic satire of The Netherlands hanging at European Council headquarters shows a country that has finally lost its battle with the North Sea. The only landmarks to survive the waves are a tightly packed jumble of minarets.
The depiction resonates with the Dutch, who are turning to anti-immigration politicians in increasing numbers as they worry that the country’s identity is being submerged by immigrants and Islam.
But the annual Queen’s Day celebration — when hordes of Dutch head into the streets to party, dressed up in the colors of the royal House of Orange — does not show evidence of an identity crisis, rather a society rejoicing in its diversity.
This year’s holiday on April 30 was marred when an unemployed security guard drove into the crowd cheering Queen Beatrix in the city of Apeldoorn, killing himself and six others. Before the tragedy, the festivities in the country’s big cities gave an indication of the multicultural society that the Netherlands has become.
Caribbean and Asian kids in orange baseball caps and Stetsons mingled with the crowds bopping to live music from outdoor stages around The Hague. An orange-clad North African dancer entertained passers-by on a street lined with Chinese, Indonesian, Portuguese and Japanese restaurants while a few blocks away, a trio of blond grade-school musicians played Bach outside the centuries-old parliament building.
“This is normal. We are living in the Netherlands, so should be expressing the same feelings as the Dutch,” says Ali Bis, chatting outside a Turkish cafe decked in orange and the red-white-and-blue colors of the Dutch flag.
But recent surveys show the Party for Freedom, or PVV, has emerged as the kingdom’s most popular party ahead of June’s elections for the European Parliament. Support has grown since PVV leader Geert Wilders was expelled from Britain as a threat to public security, and a Dutch court launched legal action against him for inciting hatred and discrimination.
A distinctive figure with a shock of platinum blond hair, Wilders is best known for his movie “Fitna,” which denounces the Koran as a “Fascist book.”
Wilders contends that Islam is not a religion but a dangerous “totalitarian ideology.” His campaign has built on concern over crime among the youth from immigrant neighborhoods and fears of Islamic extremism. Those fears have grown after the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004 by a Dutch-Moroccan angered by a movie about women in Muslim society.
There are almost a million Muslims in the Netherlands, a nation of 16 million. Most are of Moroccan or Turkish origin — the descendants of workers who arrived during the 1960s and 1970s.
Wilders’ supporters say the spread of Islam has undermined traditional Dutch liberal values. He is seen by many as the successor to Pim Fortuyn, an openly gay political leader who cited Islamic intolerance to homosexuality as one of his major concerns. Fortuyn was assassinated by a Dutch animal-rights activist in 2002, but his party briefly became the second largest in the Dutch parliament after his death.
Wilders’ opponents counter that his anti-Islamic message does more to undermine traditional Dutch values of tolerance and openness to outsiders.
Nearly one-in-eight Dutch citizens have foreign parents or grandparents. Many are frustrated by the politicians’ obsession with national identity.
“It’s a lousy debate,” says Rabiaa Benlahbib, director of Kosmopolis, a cultural group that aims to bring down barriers between citizens in The Hague.
“I’m from different backgrounds; that gives me the chance to explore my identity, it’s a privilege,” adds Benlahbib, who is of Dutch-Moroccan parentage. “It’s never possible to say this part is Dutch and this part is something else.”
Benlahbib is one of the organizers of El Hema — an Arab-inspired variant of the eclectic Hema chain of department stores that are an institution on high streets around the Netherlands. El Hema sells rubber gloves decorated with traditional Moroccan henna tattoo designs, Halal versions of Hema’s famed sausages, Barbie-style dolls wearing Islamic headscarves and a range of North African-inspired kitchenware.
“We should look at the community like a salad. Every ingredient has its own taste, its own character, but it’s the dressing of Holland that keeps us together,” says Elyazid Bouziki, a trader who supplies mint to many of the city’s Moroccan tea houses and restaurants.
Bouziki considers himself lucky that his family chose to live in mainly Dutch neighborhoods when they moved from Morocco in the 1960s. That way he avoided joining the youth who often grow up alienated from society in immigrant “ghettos,” where many risk drifting into crime or extremism.
He is confident that the majority of Dutch people remain tolerant of minorities, but he acknowledges that Wilders has succeeded in exploiting a deep vein of unease.
“I have a lot of Dutch friends and when we start discussing these things, they say ‘you are like us, it’s no problem,’ but they are not in my skin,” he says. “I’m a very kind, polite person, but if I walk down a dark alley I know that any Dutch granny that meets me will be scared, her heart will pump harder because it’s me, rather than a blond Dutch guy. That’s in the people here, but hopefully one day it will fade away.”
More Dispatches on issues of immigration: