THE HAGUE, Netherlands — One was a Somali refugee, the other an Argentine investment banker. Both are now high-profile Dutch women challenging this country to rethink its national identity.
Princess Maxima, the Argentine-born wife of Crown Prince Willem Alexander, triggered a round of national soul-searching with a speech last month about what exactly it means to be Dutch in an age of mass migration.
“The Netherlands is too complex to sum up in one cliche,” she said. “A typical Dutch person doesn’t exist.”
Her comments have tapped into an unsettled feeling among many Dutch who fear traditional values have been eroded in a country roiled by a rise in Muslim extremism. It’s a view espoused by Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has turned her back on her Islamic roots.
Conservatives in this nation of 16 million say the long Dutch tradition of welcoming immigrants and putting little or no pressure on them to integrate undermines Western values.
“Unfortunately, the debate about Dutch identity is too often held at a very trite and trivial level — as if the discussion is between Brussels sprouts and wooden shoes on the one hand, and couscous and caftans on the other,” said Bart Jan Spruyt, founder of The Edmund Burke Foundation, a conservative think tank.
“What is really at stake, due to a frivolous immigration policies and decades of multicultural indifference, is the identity of the Dutch nation, Dutch history and culture as a part of the history of Western civilization.”
Han van der Horst, author of a popular book on Dutch culture and history, staunchly defends the nation’s live-and-let-live traditions. He points to an old Dutch saying that translates as “everybody is entitled to his own views,” but hastens to add: “It doesn’t mean you respect those views or share” them.
That attitude historically allowed rigidly separated groupings known as “pillars” to form in society, meaning people of different faiths or political persuasion had their own churches, schools, newspapers, television and radio broadcasters and labor unions.
The system began to unravel in the 1960s, but some observers see the rise of Islam as a new pillar in Dutch society — mosques are springing up around the country and Muslims have their own schools and Web sites.
Hirsi Ali, the former Somali refugee, is one of the success stories of Dutch immigration policy, but also one of its fiercest critics. She condemns the Dutch tradition of multiculturalism, saying tolerance for the intolerant has provided a dangerous breeding ground for Islamic radicalism.
Fear of such radicalism crystallized after the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, Hirsi Ali’s collaborator on the controversial movie “Submission” — a fictional study of abused Muslim women with scenes of near-naked women with Quranic texts engraved on their flesh.
Van Gogh’s assailant shot the filmmaker and slit his throat on an Amsterdam street, leaving a letter pinned to his chest threatening the life of Hirsi Ali, who wrote the film’s screenplay. Despite going into hiding with 24-hour police protection, Hirsi Ali continued to speak out.
“Our migration policy is a failure,” she told The Associated Press in an interview last year. “We used to pretend that we were a homogenous little country and that Holland is not a migration country. We have become a migration country like the United States.”
After she arrived in the Netherlands as an asylum seeker fleeing an arranged marriage, Hirsi Ali quickly mastered the Dutch language, found a job and then went to university to earn a degree, eventually becoming a lawmaker for the conservative Liberal Party.
She moved to the United States last year to take a job with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Since the Van Gogh slaying, the conservative government has reversed course on multiculturalism, passing a raft of laws that emphasize integration over cultural tolerance — most notably forcing foreigners to take citizenship courses and learn Dutch.
It’s within that context that Princess Maxima’s speech created such a stir, especially because the Dutch monarchy is not usually political.
Dutch lawmakers from all sides of the political spectrum also have weighed in. Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende — one of three government ministers who approved the princess’ speech before she delivered it — supported her views. Right-wing, anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders labeled it politically correct “tittle-tattle.”
Mohammed Sini, the chairman of Islam and Citizenship, a national moderate Muslim organization, said there is a tendency in the Netherlands to group all Muslims together, bracketing moderates along with extremists.
He expressed hope that the old Dutch spirit of live-and-let-live would prevail.
“The key is respect — that you respect one another’s values — that is a key Dutch trait and fortunately there are still many people here who carry on the Dutch culture in that way.”