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Geert Wilders and Islam in the Netherlands - CS EN


Analysis of the controversial stance of a dutch politician against the ‘Islamisation’ of the Netherlands and of the conflictual situation this may raise.

1. Description of a concrete case of inter-religious conflict

The population of The Netherlands in March 2008 counted almost 16,5 million people, of which over 3 million ( 19,4 % ?) are ‘allochtones’ (= person of whom at least one parent is born outside The Netherlands). Out of these over 3 million people about 1,7 million come from non-Western countries, the three largest groups originating from Turkey (372.852), Suriname (335.679) and Morocco (335.208). Other countries of origin are: Afghanistan, China, Iraq, Iran, Dutch Antilles and Aruba, and Somalia (Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek, 2008).

Current discussions on the Dutch multicultural society especially focus on Moroccans, Turks, and (to a lesser extent) Surinams and people from Dutch Antilles. First generation Moroccans and Turks came to The Netherlands to fill up the labour market shortage in the sixties and seventies. They were expected to stay on a temporary basis so no integration policies or professional education programmes were developed for them, and few learned to speak Dutch. Although they were made redundant on a large scale during the economic crisis in the eighties, they stayed. Consequently, segregation took place on the basis of economic standards of living, and was reinforced through different cultural patterns combined with social isolation.

Currently, migrants are generally over-represented in statistics on unemployment, crime, poverty and social welfare figures and under-represented in school results and social and economic participation. During the nineties, a growing awareness arose of this negative statistical cost of migrants (Dijsselbloem, 2007). And nowadays, like many countries, the Netherlands is struggling with its identity as an increasingly diverse state. The attempt to define a common vision, especially with the threat of terrorism looming large, has been played out in a starkly politicised debate on immigration and integration (Keeney Nana, Ch., 2007). Influenced by the killings of the Dutch politician P. Fortuyn (2002) and filmmaker T. van Gogh (2004) and the attack on the Twin Towers, the debate has sharpened.

An extreme position in this debate is taken up by the Dutch political party ‘Partij voor de Vrijheid’ (the Party for Freedom) headed by Mr. Geert Wilders. The main aim of this party is to stop the ‘islamisation’ (the process of a society's conversion to the religion of Islam) of the Netherlands. The party considers that the number of non-Western immigrants in the Netherlands is too high, it wants to firmly combat Islamic terrorism, to secure the safety of Dutch citizens and stimulate their pride of their Dutch identity. Concretely it suggests (inter alia) to include a new article in the Dutch constitution which states that the Christian/Jewish/humanistic culture should remain the dominant culture in the Netherlands, to close down radical mosques and expel radical imams, to oblige the use of the Dutch language in prayer houses, and to ban veils from public functions (PVV). With these ideas, the PVV gained 9 (out of 150) seats in Dutch Parliament as newcomer during the elections of 2006, so the party clearly enjoys strong support among Dutch citizens.

The leader of the PVV, Mr. Geert Wilders, is the founder of the party and the figurehead. Mr. Wilders considers the increasing number of Muslims and their Islamic practices as a danger and threat to the country, and states that the Quran is a fascistic book comparable to Hitler’s Mein Kampf (Pauw). He recognises that the majority of Muslims in the Netherlands and Western Europe are moderate, but he still considers their culture and ideology substantially different from ‘ours’. He says: ‘it has to do with ‘takkiya’, which is an Islamic concept that allows Muslims who live under a non-Islamic regime to lie and cheat. If a Muslim in the Netherlands sees two men kiss he will probably say nothing and pass by. The chance that this changes increases as Islamic culture will become more dominant.

In societies with a higher number of Muslims the limits of tolerance are different’ (Nieuwboer). Mr. Wilders does not consider Islam an ally of Christianity, referring to a country like Saudi-Arabia, where Christians are not allowed to avow their faith and where churches are forbidden. Since Christian and Jews are well integrated into Dutch society he considers it unnecessary to forbid Reformed education, but he does want to close down Islamic schools. Wilders recognises the existence of different movements within Islam, but still considers them Islam, based on the Quran. He would like to see a new Quran being developed, disposed of all resentful and violent parts. He does not believe in a moderate Islam since the Quran says that moderate Muslims who do not believe in all its verses are no Muslims. (Van Hoek).

Mr. Wilders dominated Dutch news in 2008 almost every day with his statements concerning integration, immigration and ‘islamisation’. Mr. Wilders expressed his opinions not only through interviews, in parliamentary discussions, etc. but also with the publication of a film called ‘Fitna’ in March 2008. Fitna is a short film consisting of compilations on the Quran and archive films. Prior to its publication, the film caused heated debates in the Muslim world (in The Netherlands and abroad). Many Muslims (but also non- Muslims) feel challenged by Mr. Wilders’ ideas and statements, and from some of them Mr. Wilders received death threats. Since 2004 (after the murder on Van Gogh) he lives under permanent security: he stays at different secret locations, is driven around in an armoured car, and also during holidays, his personal bodyguards accompany him.

The PVV and Mr. Wilders find much opposition to their ideas, both in The Netherlands and abroad, from both Muslims as well as non-Muslims. However, given the scope and limits of this paper, I focus on the standpoint of Muslims. The Muslim community (in The Netherlands) is a very diverse group, and it is represented by several religious and social organisations, such as the Dutch Muslim Council, the Turkish- Islamic Student Association SUN, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Contactorgaan Moslims en Overheid, mosques’ boards, and many others. Both individual Muslims, as well as these organisations, oppose Mr. Wilders in different ways and with more or less radical viewpoints. They feel highly offended and are angry that Mr. Wilders criticises their religion. They argue that he provokes, insults and ridicules the Islam, offends the Quran and disputes the verses of Quran, which is illegal according to Islamic law.

They state that Mr. Wilders blindly follows other people’s judgments. They consider Mr. Wilders’ statements an attack on Islamic relics, aimed to deprive Muslims of their rights. They state that the film ‘Fitna’ is propagandistic; it is based on a selection of violent images of Muslim extremists and Quran verses, which are purposely wrenched from their context or have been wrongly translated. Contrary to Mr. Wilders’ ideas, some Muslims affirm that the Islam does respect the co-existence of different religions and different populations. Members of the Muslim community express their ideas and emotions in different ways.

The more moderate Muslims, for example, ask politicians for help and for good government, pointing out their desire to restore peace and security in the country and their aspiration to integrate into Dutch society. They claim that the Dutch government should look after the interests of minorities, for example by prohibiting publication of the film Fitna. Some Muslims try to stop Mr. Wilders through legal means, referring to their right to freedom of religion or to anti-discrimination laws. The more radical Muslims send (hatred-) messages to Mr. Wilders directly or through internet forums, abusing and threatening him. Some state that Mr. Wilders’ propagandistic statements remind them of the Nazi propaganda against Jews as used by German nationalists in the thirties.

Discussions between the two ‘groups’ seem to run only indirectly through media (radio, television, film, email, internet forums, etc.) or legal procedures and not via debates in which PVV members, Mr. Wilders or Muslim representatives personally participate: they have no ‘physical’ contact. For example, Wilders has never visited an Islamic school and considers such a visit useless (‘these schools have to be forbidden anyway’) (Van Hoek). Wilders says to have invited 6 imams to discuss the matter of a new Quran, but none of them responded positively. The imams said they wished to define the discussion themes of such a  meeting on beforehand and asked for an independent discussion leader, but Mr. Wilders refused to meet these demands. Both parties claim to have invited the opponent several times to meet for a debate, but these initiatives did not lead to a meeting. Both parties accuse each other of not wishing to enter into a dialogue.


2.  Value-positions at stake

Geert Wilders, the PVV and its supporters perceive that the Netherlands is changing and they do not want this change (Pauw). Their adherence to ‘Dutch traditions’ is demonstrated for example by a promotion film of the PVV showing a typical Dutch landscape including mills, water and cows. Mr. Wilders claims that with the increasing number of Muslims the culture and tone in the Netherlands will change, the society will become more fierce, and it will eventually be at the expense of ‘our freedoms’. He aims for ‘a free Netherlands which includes as little as possible of that abject Islamic ideology’ (Nieuwboer). He wants to fight for the freedom of the Dutch citizens, which he fears will ‘go down the drain’ with an increasing Islam. Mr. Wilder says to make a distinction between Muslim people and the ideology: in principle, he believes in Muslims who live in The Netherlands and abide the Dutch law, but he does not believe in a moderate Islam. He points out the Jewish-Christian tradition of the Netherlands, and values concepts like the ‘democratic constitutional state’ and ‘equality’. ‘Christian and Jews are well integrated into our society. But the group that visits Islamic schools has great difficulty to integrate. Regarding criminality, values and norms, how to deal with women and homosexuals’ (Van Hoek).

Given the anti-Muslim statements in the film Fitna, Wilders’ opponents have argued for the prohibition of its publication, but Wilders has repeatedly pointed out his freedom of speech. This freedom of speech is a central element in the debate, especially concerning the film Fitna. Some of Mr. Wilders’ Muslim opponents argue that if Mr. Wilders is allowed to offend, they are allowed as well (for example by ‘celebrating’ the fact that Dutch soldiers died during their mission in Afghanistan). They state that Mr. Wilders claims the freedom of speech for himself, and misuses it at the expense of their freedom of religion. They ask for more respect for their Islamic religion, for Muslims and their holy Quran. The more moderate Muslims call attention to the coherence and tolerance of Dutch society, the integration of its different populations, and mutual respect for the different norms and values. They point at the reputation of the Netherlands, which is at stake due to the publication of ‘Fitna’. They feel ‘publicly humiliated’ because of the film itself and because they feel obliged to respond to its publication as if it doesn’t distress them.

Next, to these verbally expressed values, I think it is possible to read between the lines that Mr. Wilders likes decisiveness and straightforward solutions (no-nonsense approach). I believe this attitude also applies to the more radical Muslims. Other values that both parties seem to share are the significance of traditions, respect for and maintenance of their own ‘identity’, and a desire for recognition of their distinctiveness and problems (by the social and political mainstream parties and organisations).


3.  Different strategies for mediation

P. Scheffer states: ‘Although religion has always played a big role in migration processes, the Islam is a new phenomenon in the western world. […] The migration of Muslims is an event without precedent.’

(Scheffer). Contrary to Europe, the Islamic world has not experienced, in the modern era, the phenomenon of secularisation. Religious beliefs play a fundamental role in the make-up of a cultural group and of a society, but it is not only in the spheres of religion and ethics that religious beliefs deeply influence a cultural group. The impact of religion in society is caused at various tension levels: within the life of a religious human being, between religious ethics and social ethics, between the secular and the religious, and between state institutions and religious institutions (Fabris). All these levels play a role in this conflict case, and it is in fact not only an inter-religious conflict but historical, social and political aspects play a very important role as well. The description in the previous two paragraphs is in fact just a very short summary of an enormous (inter-religious) conflict, which is influenced by and influencing the whole society (not only in the Netherlands but also in Europe and the rest of the world), involving many different stakeholders (politicians, media, church/religious leaders, social organizations, etc.), and related to worldwide developments (migration, globalization, terrorism, digitalization, etc.). The conflict took years to develop to its current proportions; it will take ages to ‘calm down’.

Outlining a complete strategy for mediation of the entire conflict, therefore, goes far beyond the scope of this paper. I just want to point out the relevance of the context in which the conflict is situated. The context needs to be taken into account when trying to mediate between the two parties, focusing on the PVV/Mr. Wilders on one side and the Dutch Muslim community on the other. The aim of this mediation strategy is to create a common space within which the interlocutors can reach true understanding and stimulate a thoughtful interaction between the two parties. By pointing out both the differences and similarities between the two parties, the meditation strategy aims to enhance the understanding of and respect for each other’s ideas. This increased understanding intends to reduce the threat of violence (and not necessarily to overcome conflict and differences of opinion). Such a mediation strategy may want to keep the following aspects in mind.

Firstly, it is important to consider that this inter-religious conflict deals with two opposing groups of peoples instead of two rivalling individuals. The PVV and its supporters are a diverse group with a clear spokesperson: Mr. Wilders. The ‘Dutch Muslim community’ is a very diverse group that does not speak with once voice and does not have a clear representative. It is important to bear in mind that it is very difficult to have an interreligious dialogue between groups. As a principle, religions are at the service of individuals, so interreligious dialogues at a personal level are more likely. An attempt to organise an interreligious dialogue should, therefore – initially - focus on individual participants, for example, Mr. Wilders and an imam or a president of a Muslim organisation.

Secondly, also as regards the contents of an interreligious dialogue, it is important to discuss the issue of ‘religion at the service of individuals’. What does religion mean to both participants? Mr. Wilders claims to make a distinction between the Islam ideology and Muslim people. The existence or otherwise of this distinction is a crucial point of discussion during the mediation. Both parties on average talk about each other in general terms, stereotyping the other. This may have to do with the fact that they have been in contact only indirectly. A mediation attempt may, therefore (firstly) aim to get the parties in a direct physical interaction, sharing a concrete experience in real time. It may be useful to pay attention to their non-verbal communication, and not only the exchange of words (logos). Since religion is based on emotions and values (and not on logical reasoning), a starting point for the interaction/discussion could be the values/norms that both parties share and which divide them. Because ‘values/norms are recognised as resources for communication, for making sense, for creating community and for establishing one’s personal and social identity’ (Hall).

Thirdly, one needs to realise that both Mr. Wilders and a Muslim religious leader (or head of a social Muslim organisation) are public figures in leadership functions representing a group with a certain ideology. As representatives of this system of values, they may have multiple interests (for example looking for supporters and voters, trying to enhance their sphere of influence and to maintain their powerful position) not necessarily aimed at reaching out to another value system. Taking this political and social context into account, a mediation attempt might aim to try to get the representatives away and look for a more private setting. Also for Mr. Wilders, who needs permanent security, it may be more feasible to meet at a secret location.


4.  Ways to practically solve the conflict as mediator

Based on the circumstances and context as described above, I suggest organising the following mediation process. At first a mediator may be chosen who is trusted by both parties and who has the following skills: interest in alternative worldviews, ability to individuate (one’s own) value-judgements, ability to distinguish between understanding and acceptance, ability to overcome inner discomfort, disposability to change one’s own value system, ability to accept a refusal (Monceri). The first step for a mediator could be to try to get the parties (two individual representatives) willing to physically meet each other. Given the unsuccessful attempts so far, this may be a challenge in itself. Both parties (at least their more radical fractions) have a tendency to ‘fundamentalism’, in the sense that they insist on ‘underlining elements of exclusion rather than elements of convergence, based on the conviction that one’s own religion in the only right and suitable way to interpret the relationships that a human being has with God, the world and others’ (Fabris). Based on these attitudes they may not be willing to physically meet and enter into dialogue. This refusal to enter into dialogue is a result of the mediation strategy in itself. Perhaps it is not the most desired result, but it is important to consider such kind of outcome and accept it as part of a mediation process.

Furthermore, the mediator could make the conditions for entering into dialogue a subject of the negotiations. The mediator may opt for a meeting in an informal confidential sphere, without any media present, at a secret location, in order to overcome the barrier of ‘public figures’ and to stimulate a meeting of two individuals with personal convictions. Further conditions for the setting may be to place the two participants diagonally opposite/almost next to each other, so as to stimulate a cooperative atmosphere. The mediator could place him/herself at a little distance from the two discussion members, as a way to make the members feel responsible themselves for the outcome. The mediator could ask the participants on beforehand to respect the following moral principles of communication: the principle of justice, of solidarity and of co- responsibility (Fabris). Moreover, the mediator could focus her/his intervention on making explicit and exchanging the created stereotypes. He/she could try to make the parties explain and share their values and interests. What do they exactly mean when they talk about ‘Christian/Jewish/humanistic tradition’ or ‘respect for Islam'? In this way, the meeting may open a door to the exchange of ideas and be an enriching experience. For in the end ‘conflict’ is something ‘natural’, and also has a constructive side: when differences can be perceived as resources, conflict contains a source for creativity.

A next step of the mediation process might be to experience together a concrete case in real time in a relevant situation (instead of / next to verbally discussing abstract ideologies), for example to visit a specific Islamic school and talk with the pupils and teachers, or to stay in a neighbourhood and meet the Muslim and non-Muslim people who live there. Due to Mr. Wilders’ security conditions, this may be a challenging operation.

Subsequently, the representatives may be willing to enter into discussion during a public meeting and report their experiences (for example on television). As stated before, this case of an inter-religious conflict is a complex situation, and finding a solution to it is an enormous challenge. Perhaps a mediation process as described above can be part of this challenge, next to many other necessary pragmatic efforts and activities during many years.