Review: The transformation of the Netherlands, a lecture by Simon Kuper
November 6, 2006 Leave a Comment
British journalist and Netherlands watcher Simon Kuper on a recent visit to Maastricht gave a compelling two hour lecture on the transformation of the Netherlands. He wanted to dispel the myth that the Netherlands is suddenly unsafe and rife with religious and cultural conflicts.
Yes, he said, the country’s demographics have changed drastically since WWII, but this is still probably the safest land in the world!
Kuper reminded the audience that until Pim Fortuyn’s death in May 2002 no Dutch politician had been killed since 1672. Compared to almost all of Europe, this is an exceptionally peaceful country. The murders of Fortuyn and then filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in November 2004 were so shocking for this very reason, because as Kuper puts it “nothing happens” here. It’s a quiet country and besides for WWII the Netherlands has been spared by history.
Kuper argues the recent transformation of the Dutch population – from being largely white to one of the most ethnically diverse in Europe – has been especially traumatic because the Dutch have so little experience with conflict or cultural clashes. With almost a condescending tone, he tells the Dutch to calm down.
While all western European governments are struggling with cultural and religious clashes, the Dutch seem to be making the toughest policies for Muslim immigrants. Why is this? The Dutch reputation, famously tolerant and peaceful, has been transformed since Fortuyn’s and Van Gogh’s rise and then tragic deaths, Kuper explains. Suddenly, a country famous for its liberal values is worried about Islamic fundamentalism, and politicians like Fortuyn are allowed to say “the Netherlands is full” and “Islam is backward”. The right wing says the Netherlands is facing a cultural war, where Muslims and white people cannot coexist, and the Netherlands may be on the brink of disaster. Fortuyn began a trend amongst Dutch politicians, Kuper notes. Most vocal now is immigration minister Rita Verdonk, whose solution is for immigrants to learn “Dutchness”, though no one is clear what this is.
There is no denying there has been a transformation in the past few decades, that the population has risen the fastest in Western Europe. Of a population of 16 million there are one million Muslims, or six per cent. This is one of the highest percentages in Europe. Kuper has felt this firsthand. He wasn’t born in the Netherlands but moved here as a six-year-old, grew up in Leiden and left in 1986 at the age of 16. When he came back as an adult, so much had changed. He uses personal anecdotes to persuade the audience. He describes being stuck in a traffic jam in The Hague, and as he looks around he realises how different the city is. First of all, a traffic jam on a Sunday! A barber shop open on a Sunday! The barber shop is called “Istanbul”! The Netherlands is no longer the place most Dutch people grew up in. Many see this transformation as a huge problem. But Kuper is quick to say that the problem is actually the Dutch reaction to a changing population, rather than the new immigrants themselves.
Dispelling fears – the Netherlands is not full
Fortuyn successfully riled the Dutch public. But Kuper argues the Dutch are much better off than they think. The Netherlands is still one of the most successful and peaceful countries in the world. He tries to dispel what he sees as myths about Muslim immigration. For starters, the Netherlands is not actually full since most of the land is still being used as farmland. As we speak, the country is being rapidly de-farmed making room for less condensed housing.
Kuper then almost makes fun of Dutch hysteria. He launches into a quirky rant about Dutch physical traits. This is after all the tallest country in the world, and being tall makes the Dutch more likely to be successful finding a job and a lover too. Height can be attributed to excellent nutrition and a relatively egalitarian society. The gap between rich and poor is minimal. The economy had grown almost non-stop for 20 years. The welfare state is extensive. The murder rate is low. The second generation of immigrants are doing ever better at school, starting to go to university, and have almost the same employment rate as the natives. Only the weather is bad, according to Kuper. So the Netherlands is not in ruins after all.
Calm down people
While the murders of Fortuyn and Van Gogh were tragic, one can hardly speak of a national crisis. With a historic and international perspective, the Netherlands is comparatively doing quite well. Ironically, comments Kuper, for once the rest of Europe is watching the Netherlands!
Europe and the Netherlands can learn a few things from the Dutch experience. First, if politicians want Muslims to join the community they should stop bashing them. By demanding that Muslims integrate into ‘Dutch’ society, they are telling them they don’t belong. Actually this makes real integration difficult, which can only happen when newcomers feel respected and welcomed.
Next, the Dutch need to accept that there will always be some risk of Islamic fundamentalist violence. We simply don’t live in a perfect world. Obviously the government must monitor potential terrorists, but all Muslims cannot bear the blame for the deaths of Fortuyn and Van Gogh. And Kuper says we shouldn’t exaggerate the risk. After all smoking still kills thousands of times more Dutch people than Islamic fundamentalism.
Finally, the Netherlands and all of Europe need to realise we cannot attain paradise on this earth. There will always be street crime and first generation immigrants will probably do worse in school and in the job market. But things get better with each generation. Unless European governments want to kick out all Muslim immigrants, they need to come up with sound policies. Mass hysteria will not get us anywhere.
About Simon Kuper: Simon Kuper was born in South Africa, grew up in Leiden, spent time in London and now lives in Paris. He writes for the Financial Times, the Observer and for the Dutch literary football magazine Hard Gras. His fields of interest are: the Dutch, literature, politics and sport. He wrote “Football Against the Enemy” and “Ajax, the Dutch, the War: Football in Europe During the Second World War”.
The lecture by Simon Kuper was organised by Studium Generale and was held on 17 October 2006.
About Studium Generale: Studium Generale offers a broad programme with academic and cultural activities. The programme consists of lectures, workshops, concerts and theatrical performances. Most of the scheduled events are in Dutch, but Studium Generale also hosts several English events.
By Danya Chaikel
Danya Chaikel is from Vancouver, Canada and recently graduated from law school. She has a background of working with migrants and promoting human rights. Danya recently moved to Maastricht to be with her Dutch partner.