The nation’s peculiar path from “live and let live” to “Make the Netherlands Ours Again” (as Wilders recently said) has as its guideposts a changing definition of tolerance, some instances of political opportunism—and a pair of grisly assassinations.
From the mix of faith groups that inhabited New Amsterdam to the peaceful coexistence of Protestants, Catholics, and socialists throughout the Netherlands in the 20th century, the Dutch brand of multiculturalism has often been more “salad bowl” than “melting pot.” Each sect of society had its own schools, media outlets, and social groups; tolerance was the act of respecting those boundaries.
“Historically, Dutch tolerance has been more of a pragmatic strategy,” said Jan Rath, a professor of urban sociology at the University of Amsterdam. “Tolerance has been a way to contain oppositions or complications.”
The same logic was initially applied to the wave of Turkish and Moroccan migrants who entered the Netherlands in the 1960s, when a substantial labor shortage prompted the Dutch government to welcome in many thousands of workers.
“They were supposed to have been temporary, to clean out oil tankers, work in steel factories, sweep the streets,” the academic Ian Buruma wrote in Murder in Amsterdam of the prevailing Dutch sentiments toward the Turkish and Moroccan workers at the time.
But when the jobs dried up after the 1973 oil crisis, the guest workers did not move back to their home countries; instead, their families moved to them, taking advantage of the Dutch government’s reunification laws and trading life in Fez, Rabat, or Ankara for the comparatively stable cities of Rotterdam, The Hague, or Amsterdam.
As these predominantly Muslim communities grew quickly in and around the country’s working-class neighborhoods, Dutch society was also undergoing rapid change during the era of bellbottoms, the Beatles, and the Vietnam War. A trend toward individualization and secularization spelled the end of a rigid system in which each religious community had minded its respective boundaries. In its place, a new type of “Dutch tolerance” emerged—one premised on gender equity, gay rights, free speech, and protections for cultural and ethnic minorities.
The last of these measures largely shielded the growing Dutch-Muslim communities from discrimination at the hands of those who believed Islam conflicted with the nation’s socially progressive turn.
“In the 1970s and 1980s, there was growing discontent of Muslim communities,” said Rath, noting that the decline in decent job prospects for the Turkish and Moroccan migrants only aggravated tensions. “The parties, however, had the principle that it was not appropriate to have a political fight about the presence of immigrants. You don’t use minorities to make a political point.”
By September 11, 2001, that principle had all but eroded.