Somewhere on a train now in Belgium, en route to Paris. Ten days in Amsterdam and Rotterdam was too little — even over just about a week, I found myself genuinely enjoying the Netherlands in a way that surprised me. The Dutch had always seemed to me to be overly stuffy, direct, and austere, stereotypes that are miles away from the genuinely kind, polite, and positive people that I came to meet. Visiting the twin cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the first old yet cosmopolitan, the other up-and-coming and rooted in a working-class reputation, proved just how diverse this country is for its small size, and just how many nuances there are even in places that seem on the surface homogenous — something I’ve found myself having to re-learn over and over again while traveling over these past four years.
The Netherlands is known as the world capital of peace and justice and as the progressive heart of Europe. With examples such as being the first nation to legalize same-sex marriage, the Netherlands is often cited as a banner for gender equality, progressive social policies, and freedom of speech and expression, In a nation that has its own dark history during the Second World War, including the genocide of its large and historical Jewish community and a own Dutch version of Vichy-esque collaboration governments, the Dutch have in the post-War world since committed to ideals of religious freedom, political refuge, and freedom of thought and speech, more so than most other countries in the world. That’s something that the Dutch are and should be proud of, and celebrate.
But this is also the nation of Geert Wilders and the Freedom Party, a remarkably far-right political party that advocates for the “de-Islamization” of the Netherlands, Euroskepticism, and the near-complete end to migration from predominantly Muslim nations. In the progressive capital of the EU, the fact that one of the most right-wing and radically anti-immigrant movements in Europe has not been created, but found support enough to grow to the largest opposition movement in the Dutch parliament, says much about how Europe has changed in the 21st century, and how the growing opposition to Islam and Muslim Immigration is quickly, and drastically, changing the progressive nature of the European Union.
9/11 changed everything. Of course it changed everything — a world that seemed to slowly, if unevenly, be growing safer, more peaceful, and more democratic suddenly saw a brazen attack on civilians by followers an extremist, hate-filled, and fundamentalist view of one of the world’s largest religions. In the U.S, this shock led to protracted, unnecessary conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq that defined a generation; in the Netherlands and much of Western Europe, 9/11 caused many Europeans to look at the decades-long Muslim migrant communities from Moroccan, Algerian, and Turkish backgrounds and begin to see them not only as immigrants, but as Muslims — Muslims who followed the same religion that al-Qaeda, and later ISIS, al-Shabab, and Boko Haram, claimed to be killing in the name of.
In the early 2000s, a man named Pim Fortyn — an ostentatious and incredibly visible advocate for the complete freedom of speech and, most notably, a severe reduction of Muslim immigration, stole the Dutch political scene in the months before his assassination in 2002 by a radical animal rights advocate, who pulled the trigger partly out of fears that Fortyn was fracturing the polite and progressive Dutch society. In 2004, another strong freedom of speech advocate and Muslim-skeptic voice was assassinated in Theo Van Gogh, this time killed not by a left-wing radical but by a Muslim of Moroccan descent, who had come to reject the secular Dutch state and its permissibility for those like Van Gogh to openly express religiously offensive or anti-Muslim speech and imagery.
The freedom of speech stands at the heart of much of the discussion regarding Muslims in the Netherlands today. The two deaths that rocked a nation were so notable because both figures had been such strong voices against Muslims and Islam, using their right to speech to peddle anti-immigrant rhetoric and what some would label hate speech that, while permissible under Dutch law, stoked intense fear, feelings of discrimination, and extremism amongst Dutch Muslim communities. Today, Geert Wilders (a much more extreme figure than either Fortyn or Van Gogh) has argued the freedom of speech and other progressive freedoms are under threat by Muslims, claiming that Islam cannot coexist in a western, democratic nation and thus that society should be “de-Islamized,” with Muslims severely restricted or outright preventing from moving into the country.
For over a decade this has been the conversation: between the advocates for the freedom of religion and multiculturalism as hallmarks of the Dutch state on one side, and the self-styled guardians of Dutch values who believe Muslim to be incapable of sharing Western ideals. At this point, in the Netherlands but also across all of Europe, I’m not sure which narrative will come out on top.
There’s an important distinction between the immigration debate in America versus Europe. In America, despite being made largely of people from immigrant backgrounds, our society still holds to very nationalist narrative surrounding immigration: of “our culture” against a foreign culture, of the fears of immigrants diluting what is uniquely “American,” whether they be Latino/a, Muslim, Asian or African. That’s the narrative of Trump, Steve Bannon and increasingly the Republican Party writ large, and shared by the likes of Eastern European “illiberal democracies” like Viktor Orban’s Hungary or the Law and Justice party in Poland.
In Western Europe, the immigration debate is focused instead on the concept of universal values. The narrative is that Europe has fought tooth-and-nail for progressive policies and legislation, from a strong social safety net to the freedom of speech and improved gender equality, which Muslim communities supposedly don’t (or can’t) share. These are the stances of the Dutch Freedom Party, the French National Front, and to a slightly lesser extend AfD in Germany and the Five Star Movement in Italy. Out of political necessity, these opposition groups tend to ally with the Trumps or Orbans of the world, but their only real common ground lies in a shared anti-Muslim, anti-immigration narrative that lies at the heart of their political message.
That’s why freedom of speech is so important in the Netherlands. To the Van Goghs or Fortyns of the country, their ability not only to speak their mind, but to openly mock, offend, or insult the Muslim community (and other minorities) is enshrined in the Dutch constitution, and as such cannot be violated. But to Muslim citizens, their words are seen not as free speech, but as visible, painful attacks on their equal place as Dutch citizens, and serve only to make them feel more marginalized, more unwanted, and less likely to reach out and “integrate” to the white Dutch population of the Netherlands.
As an outside observer, it feels like a double standard that is out of place with what the Dutch are at their best: open, tolerant, and innovative in finding progressive solutions to societal issues. But for the Dutch, what is at stake isn’t just the demographic makeup of the country (although that’s a part of it), but of the very universal, progressive values they identify so strongly with — making the debate not just a moral one, but almost existential.
I can understand this; however, there is also danger in the rhetoric in Europe and America today, a danger of making Muslim citizens less than full members of the state, less than full members of society, less than full humans with full human rights. That’s a path we should be very wary of going down, one that is likely to breed only more extremism, more violence, and more polarization in our countries.
Not all Dutch citizens, nor even those of the right of the political spectrum, are are extreme as Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party. Most believe that the values of multiculturalism — that political freedoms and human rights apply to those of all backgrounds, no matter their religion or ethnicity — are as just as important as other universal values. And many in both migrant and non-migrant communities are also reaching out to each other in important ways, whether it’s advocating for LGBTQ issues amongst gay or trans Muslims or creating Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue groups. There’s a lot of progress in these little efforts, progress which eventually might lead to a new understanding of what the rights and responsibility of being a citizen really are, and how we can learn to live together even if with different ethnic and religious backgrounds.
This isn’t a guarantee. There is a very real threat that the Le Pens, or Wilders, or Trumps of our world are in fact rising in power with each passing year. The advocates of an open, liberal, multicultural world — like myself — are too often divided and unsure, constantly in doubt of our relevance in this new post-9/11 and now post-Trump world. Over the last week or so, I’ve watched as the progressive heart of Europe has itself grappled with this choice. And even though the people of the Netherlands are incredibly kind and welcoming and forward-thinking, and do in fact seem to be moving slowly forward towards a more inclusive future, the Dutch might still decide to choose the exclusionary path, the path of walling themselves off from the world and following leaders — like our Trump, like their Wilders — that promise the moon but offer only more division.
The world isn’t destined to move forward always — we can fall backwards, and retreat into ourselves, and undo just how far we’ve come from the recent days of the police state, or fascism, or Jim Crow. I hope that the Netherlands, and Europe, choses not to — just as I hope that America choses to step off the ledge it teeters on now with Trump. The debate surrounding Muslims, and what place Muslim migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees have in Western societies, isn’t just about immigration policies or what is or isn’t constitutional, nor is it merely a temporary political phenomenon — it’s at the heat of a much bigger question, a question of who we are as Americans and as Europeans, and who we want to be.
I’ll leave it on that note. For now, I’m returning back to France for the first time in over a year. Lots of strong memories here, most good, some a lot less so. But I do desperately love this country and its people, and I’m excited to fall in love with it all all over again over this last week.