A princess and a refugee stir national identity crisis in the Netherlands

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 about what exactly it means to be Dutch in an age of globalization and mass migration with a speech last month.

“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 say traditional values have been eroded in a country roiled by a rise in Muslim extremism — a view espoused by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a conservative thinker who has turned her back on her Islamic roots.

Many in this nation of 16 million still identify with traditional images — seeing themselves as a nation of tolerant, hardworking, straight-talking individualists who bicycle around a flat landscape solid with windmills and crisscrossed by dikes.

But the growing Muslim population — 850,000 and rising — is prompting a rethink.

“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 conservative commentator Bart Jan Spruyt.

Spruyt and other conservatives claim the long Dutch tradition — another key part of the country’s identity — of welcoming immigrants and putting little or no pressure on them to integrate undermines Western values.

“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,” said Spruyt, founder of The Edmund Burke Foundation, a conservative think tank, and contributor to Opinio, a conservative weekly.

Hirsi Ali, the former Somali refugee turned prominent critic of radical Islam, 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 “Submission’s” screenplay.

Islamic extremism had been put on the public agenda earlier by populist politician Pim Fortuyn who called for an end to Muslim immigration and was also murdered, in 2002. His killer — an animal rights activist with no links to Islam — called Fortuyn a danger to society.

The death threat forced Hirsi Ali into hiding and Dutch authorities gave her 24-hour police protection. Yet she continued to speak out against Islamic radicalism and the Dutch system.

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.”

Hirsi Ali moved to the United States last year to take a job with a conservative think tank in Washington D.C. — but returned home this month after the Dutch government said it would no longer pay for her round-the-clock protection while she was in America.

After she arrived 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.

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.

Conservatives seized on it as harking back to the days of laissez-faire liberalism, an invitation to roll back a growing consensus among Dutch that immigrants must assimilate into established Dutch norms if they want to stay.

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; rightwing, anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders labeled it politically correct “tittle-tattle.”

Interwoven in the discussion is the role of the country’s monarchy, which rarely speaks out on divisive issues.

Though deeply respected, Queen Beatrix and her family had always been seen as stodgy until Maxima reinvigorated the royal image with international flair. Wading into the integration debate “is a remarkable break with the tradition of discretion and political impartiality of the Royal House,” wrote the NRC Handelsblad newspaper.

Han van der Horst, author of a popular book on Dutch culture and history, agrees with the princess that there is no such thing as a single Dutch identity — and 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 he hastens to add: “It doesn’t mean you respect those views or share” those views.

That attitude historically allowed rigidly separated groupings known as “pillars” to form in society, meaning people of different faiths or political persuasion had not only their own churches, but also schools, newspapers, television and radio broadcasters and labor unions.

The system began to unravel in the 1960s, but parts of it endure even today and 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. Apartment blocks in immigrant neighborhoods are festooned with satellite dishes that pick up television channels from their home countries.

Spruyt is one of those making the fifth column argument, saying that Islamic radicals “want to create enclaves of Muslim dominance and Shariah law, abolishing the rights and freedoms of liberal democracy. We cannot let that happen. We have to change them, they should not change us.”

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.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday November 1, 2007.
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