Clinging to the Nation-State: What We Can Learn From the Failure of Dutch Multiculturalism

Muslim Americans are five times more likely to be victims of hate crimes today than they were before September 11, 2001. In New York City alone, hate crimes against Muslims increased by 143% from 2013 to 2014. In the wake of such terrible events as the murder of three Muslim UNC Chapel Hill students in early February, the question of religious targeting was repeatedly raised. In light of the ongoing “war on terror,” a reevaluation of how American nationalism is perceived is necessary if future violence is to be avoided.

As an example, we can look to the Netherlands. Though known for its immigrant-friendly policies, the country is undergoing a shift in its government that many believe signifies the end of a culturally-integrated era.  The Dutch have maintained a legacy of “pillarization” beginning with the coexistence of Catholic and Protestant populations and, until recently, continued with a lenient stance on naturalization of newcomers. Pillarization is the accommodation of diversified traditions and equitable subsidization of minority organizations such as schools, places of worship, trade unions, and media outlets. In the past, the “pillarized” model of society has allowed and encouraged minority groups to settle in ethnically homogenous neighborhoods, free from obligations to adopt Dutch values or reject their native way of life.

However, marked “separate but equal” undertones have been noted in the implementation of multiculturalism. The framework of affording near-autonomy to the traditions of cultural groups has “utterly failed,” according to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Instead of fostering tolerance amongst Dutch peoples of varied national origins, anxiety and antipathy have been allowed to fester in the schism between communities. Fear-mongering politicians such as Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party pointed out what they perceived to be the death of “societal cohesion”, and the threat that multiculturalism posed to the “common sense and decency” of accepting the customs of the land. Wilders is one of the Netherlands’ most controversial figures, campaigning on a radically anti-Islam ticket. As evidenced by the election of the current right-leaning government, anti-liberal rhetoric is appealing to more Dutch citizens as tensions build in regards to rising religious fundamentalism in segregated ethnic communities.

“This calls for reflection upon our own culture and its history with a critical eye.”

Isolated instances of extremism are being used as a rallying cry by the far-right to gather support for such measures as a ban on burqas and dual citizenships, the rejection of asylum-seekers and religious leaders, a hard-line approach to the deportation of non-natives that commit crimes, and strict naturalization standards for those applying for residence permits. Though Wilders’ influence has been called fascist, he may be expressing what many people feel but don’t want to say out loud: that the presence of disconnected but prominent immigrant communities is disrupting preconceived notions of what it means to be Dutch. The nation is being thrown into an ontological crisis, which manifests as intolerance towards anyone onto whom the template of “Dutch-ness” cannot be traced.

What this will mean for the many people living in the Netherlands who were born there but are not of Dutch descent remains to be seen. What is for sure, however, is that although efforts to restrict immigration and create “true Dutchmen” out of non-natives may quell the fears of those who are uneasy about fringe extremist groups, it will not lend any stability to shaky conceptions of national identity. Rather than allowing for “societal cohesion” and the establishment of a certain set of traits that combine to form a proper citizen of a state, or a collection of agreed-upon principles and norms that can be used as a common platform for discussions of development, the result will instead be a lifeless, petrified archetype of national identity that denies the pluralistic public square. The problems caused by a diversified population would no longer exist because diversity itself would be eradicated; fear of the other could not be overcome because the other could no longer exist. Constructive dialogue would thereby be reduced to monologue, and the dialectic that makes positive progress possible would be silenced.

The promotion of such a suffocated identity can only lead to a chauvinistic culture of ontological oppression. Self-identity should not be found solely in the separation between oneself and the other, nor only in things held in common. Rather, it should be rooted in dynamism, in a pattern of interdependence and respectful discourse. Neither pillarization nor subsumption allow for productive intercultural exchange. Wilders himself said, “I always make a clear distinction between the people and the ideology.” Though he was referring to his hatred of Islam but not of Muslims per se, his remark is applicable to this case. Multiple ideologies, in a model of multiculturalism, drive a rift between peoples. In a model of assimilation, one ideology is imposed upon all in an attempt to remove any rift whatsoever. There is no space recognized between the ideology and the people that observe it in which other similarities and differences can be the basis of an interconnected and adaptable formation of identity.

The policies of both multiculturalism and assimilation stem from a fear of difference. They have arisen from a denial that national identities are fundamentally intertwined and dependent on each other. They shirk the responsibilities that come along with being a citizen of humanity. A society that promotes complete division between cultures engenders a disengaged identity, as does a society that promotes complete assimilation. Both encourage an attitude of superiority and remove the option to define oneself in a humble and tolerant way while maintaining the boundaries that one deems most essential. Overcoming this requires the emergence of a new ontological courageousness; a willingness to loosen our grasp on our perceptions of a pristine national identity. A space must be cleared in which the possibility for cultures to overlap and intersect is allowed to penetrate and enrich our understanding of our position in a differentiated community. This calls for reflection upon our own culture and its history with a critical eye. That which constitutes the way in which we view ourselves cannot be invulnerable to evaluation.

As American citizens, we can take a lesson from the Dutch case. We must ask ourselves what our own sense of nationalism is built upon. Self-identity must be bound to the changing tides of diversity, not anchored to a concrete conception of a cultural paragon.

- Tamsin Avra is currently studying Political Science at Gordon College.