AMSTERDAM – Coming here often from France, I have always had a touch of envy for the way the Dutch handle many of their controversial public issues. As long ago as the 17th century, they started to sit around tables to negotiate a consensus, while the French still retain an anachronistic affection for large street demonstrations, with both sides shouting rather than talking.
This is still true in economics. Growth is weaker than it should be throughout Europe, and there is general agreement that a higher percentage of people on this side of the Atlantic need to be working, retirement should be delayed by a few years, and some of the more lavish social welfare benefits should be trimmed.
While France and Germany move laboriously toward such objectives, and Italy remains stalled as usual, last month the Dutch government of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende sat down with the country’s trade unions after a wave of unusually angry strikes, and agreed on a plan that discourages early retirement and limits wage increases.
I also liked the way the Dutch seemed to mix more easily with their immigrant population than we do in France. It is true that there are relatively fewer Muslims here than in France (1 million out of 16 million in The Netherlands vs. 6 million out of 60 million in France). Yet the encounters between the Alis and the Jans I have witnessed here involve much more good-natured banter than I usually see in Paris. But perhaps it was all an illusion seen through the rose-colored glasses of the short-term visitor.
In any event, anger against Muslim immigrants here has reached a fever pitch, and if last month’s tit-for-tat bombings of churches and mosques have mostly subsided, the very hard feelings that remain are worse than anything I have seen in France.
One Dutch politician has proposed a five-year moratorium on non-Western (essentially Islamic) immigration while a government minister has warned pointedly, “Dutch tolerance goes this far – and no farther!” The ostensible cause of all of this was the killing of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist. Admittedly, van Gogh was unnecessarily provocative, saying he had a pet pig he called “Mohammed.” In France, acutely sensitive to the dangers of religious conflict, van Gogh’s words probably would have brought him a summons from a court for “inciting religious hatred.”
Yet the reality is that relations between Muslim immigrants and the European societies in which they live have never been very good, and are not getting better. This is as true of Britain and The Netherlands, which, for example, have accepted the Islamic head scarf in schools, as it is of France and parts of Germany, which do not. This was underlined by a recent report of a French administrative court confirming that integration of Muslim immigrants is not working particularly well in either education or employment. The court did offer some solutions, and French politicians are beginning to talk about American-style affirmative action to help immigrants get that first rung on the economic ladder.
A more plausible solution is one that is now under consideration in Paris, in which companies with more than 250 employees must treat the job resumes they receive anonymously, making decisions without knowing names, as it is often the case that a resume with Mohammed or Fatima at the top is consigned to the wastepaper basket.
The whole issue has more urgency than before, as alienated immigrants are fertile ground for the seeds of hate sown by fanatical Islamic preachers who have no interest whatsoever in integrating in Western society.
In any event, integration is harder in Europe than in the United States, as Europeans have never celebrated their immigration or multiculturalism the way Americans do. Besides, in a post-nationalist Europe, there is little of the American flag-waving that sends a strong message to newcomers that they are expected to be loyal to their newly adopted country. The latter, though, is on its way, for better or worse, as Britain, The Netherlands and France are discussing relatively strong measures to force newcomers to attend language, culture and civics classes.
Some Muslims here have taken to celebrating (and wearing) the tulip, one of the iconic symbols of The Netherlands. The message is a double one: The tulip actually came here from Turkey, a Muslim country, and has quickly become a badge of integration. A Moroccan friend of mine was wearing one the other day, and said, “We moderates on both sides are going to have to make our voices heard.” I suggested to him that this was an understatement.
Eugene native Kevin Cape is a teacher and writer who lives in Paris.