When the Netherlands Had a Muslim-Majority Empire

Geert Wilders's brand of hostility to Islam has deep roots in Dutch society.

A woman arrives at a poll station to cast her vote in the Dutch general election in The Hague, Netherlands on March 15, 2017.
A woman arrives at a poll station to cast her vote in the Dutch general election in The Hague, Netherlands on March 15, 2017. (Yves Herman / Reuters)

Perhaps the key question hanging over Wednesday’s parliamentary elections in the Netherlands is whether the right-wing, anti-Islam Freedom Party can finally cement its place as a national political powerhouse. The party’s leader, Geert Wilders, is frequently characterized as the country’s Donald Trump: He sports an over-the-top peroxide blond bouffant, and uses inflammatory language to warn about the alleged Muslim threat. During a 2015 Dutch parliamentary debate about how the Netherlands should respond to the refugee crisis, Wilders described the movement of refugees as “[m]asses of young men in their 20’s with beards singing Allahu Akbar across Europe. It's an invasion that threatens our prosperity, our security, our culture and identity.” He has compared the Koran to Mein Kampf, adopted the slogan “Make the Netherlands Great Again,” and was convicted last December by Dutch courts for inciting hatred against the country’s Moroccan immigrant community.

Wilders’s party is projected to pick up around 15 percent of seats in the Dutch parliament, which could make it the nation’s largest political party after Wednesday. Though mainstream parties have pledged not to form a coalition with the Freedom Party, a strong showing in the election would offer a substantial boost to Wilders’s national standing.

Wilders’s rise feels like a sign of the times. If it can happen among the liberal, pot-smoking Dutch, who have accepted religious refugees from around the world for 500 years, then who can possibly resist the siren-call of the xenophobic far-right? In a recent piece in The New York Times exploring how economic and social dislocation have pulled voters in the Netherlands to the right—titled “How the Dutch Stopped Being Decent and Dull”—the Dutch historian Ian Buruma argued that Wilders wove together two different threads of Dutch protest voters: working-class voters frustrated by globalization, as well as progressive voters worried that conservative Muslim immigrants threaten liberal Dutch social values like tolerance for homosexuality. Wilders’s anti-Muslim positions have helped him disrupt the veneer of “decent and dull” Dutch politics.

Dutch anti-Muslim bigotry, however, is less novel than it seems. Only 70 years ago, the Netherlands was a majority-Muslim empire, stretching from Aceh in Northern Sumatra to the Eastern Maluku islands, 2,500 miles to the east. Its rule was often brutally intolerant. During the colonial period, the Dutch empire regularly banned its East Indies subjects—today’s Indonesians—from practicing key aspects of their faith, like making the pilgrimage to Mecca. “The polemics that come out from that period against Islam by Dutch missionaries and local Dutch officials … [are] that Islam is inconsistent with freedom, Islam is oppressive. This is the same thing Wilders is saying now,” Jeremy Menchik, a scholar of Indonesian Islam at Boston University, told me. Far from being sui generis, Geert Wilders is merely echoing his colonialist forbears.

When the Dutch arrived in modern-day Indonesia at the turn of the 16th century, their sole mission was to wrest control of the East Indies spice trade. To that end, they established the Dutch East India Company, which parlayed shrewd diplomacy and force of arms to expel Portuguese and British rivals, subjugate powerful local kingdoms, and monopolize the regional spice trade. It was a lucrative operation: By some estimates, the Dutch East India Company is the most valuable company to ever exist.

The company’s masters soon learned they had to reckon with Islam, which came to Indonesia with traders in the 13th century. By the 17th century, it had superseded Hinduism and Buddhism on major Indonesian islands. Today, Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country in the world.

As the Netherlands cemented its rule over the archipelago, it forged understandings with regional Muslim rulers that, generally, preserved the power of local royalty over their subjects, while giving the Dutch carte blanche to exploit Indonesian labor and natural resources to their own benefit. Unlike other colonial powers like the Spanish and Portuguese, the Dutch did not particularly prioritize converting the locals. In 1803, the governor general of the East Indies established a principle of state neutrality toward religion, meaning that, at least on paper, the state would not give special benefits or sinecures to Indonesians who converted—in essence, that Christians would not be favored. The Dutch “cared more about gold than God,” Menchik said. But Protestant missions were nonetheless established throughout the archipelago, often in regions like North Sulawesi and North Sumatra, where locals were generally not Muslim.

But after a succession of Islamist-inspired anti-colonial rebellions threatened Dutch control of the archipelago during the 19th century, the imperial masters backtracked on the promise of neutrality. By 1873, when the Dutch attempted to subjugate Aceh, a deeply Islamic sultanate in Northern Sumatra, they were so concerned about the power wielded by Muslim leaders that they began dispatching anthropologists along with soldiers in an attempt to understand the nature of Islamic resistance to Dutch rule. That attempt at understanding did not prevent violence. During a brutal 40-year counterinsurgency war to conquer the pepper plantations of Aceh, Dutch military units conducted mass executions of suspected insurgents, in a conflict that killed tens of thousands on both sides.

“Almost all rebellious movements against the Dutch government were motivated by Islamic sentiment,” Al Makin, a sociologist at Sunan Kalijaga State University in Yogyakarta, explained. “That’s why the Dutch government issued regulations and tried to control Islamic movements.”

Dutch authorities gradually adopted a policy of restricting Indonesians from making the pilgrimage to Mecca, which they worried would radicalize them, as well as bribing and inducing Indonesian civilian leaders to reject political guidance from Muslim faith leaders. Alexander Willem Frederik Idenburg, Governor General of the Dutch East Indies in the early 1900s, authorized the state to pay for Christian missionaries to travel to the East Indies, as well as fund missionary schools, orphanages, and churches. “If the Netherlands gave only the cultural fruits to the East Indies, it won't be enough. … Christian missionaries should be deeply inserted into the world of the Eastern people, the people of Muhammad,” he said.

In general, the Dutch were stingy colonists who gave little back for the resources they took, and wanted to suppress all influences, whether Communist or Islamist, that might promote rebellion. “The Dutch were not generous to the colonies,” Menchik said. “They did not invest in railways or in education until the end of the colonial period and only then to extract more from Indonesia society,” he added. Dutch colonial rule was characterized by forced agricultural labor for the natives, and frequent, brutal suppression of rebellion.

Though Dutch policies towards Islam would vacillate from more to less tolerant during the 20th century, authorities continued attempting to restrict pilgrimages and regulate Islamic education in the colonies in the decades leading up to World War II, when the Japanese invaded and took the Dutch East Indies for themselves.

The war did little to soften Dutch imperial ambitions. In 1946, while Nazi leaders faced prosecution in The Hague in the Netherlands, Dutch soldiers were rounding up and slaughtering Indonesian freedom fighters in a brutal counter-insurgency designed to take back control over their former colonies. Indonesia has claimed that 40,000 died after World War II in a years-long killing spree by the murderous Dutch captain Raymond Westerling on the eastern Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Given the harshness of Dutch colonial rule and the subsequent attempts to restore it, Indonesia has taken a keen interest in the elections in the Netherlands. The Indonesian media has covered the rise of Geert Wilders, shocked that a Dutch politician could claim that Muslims are invading the Netherlands when it was the Netherlands that colonized majority-Muslim Indonesia.

Adding to the irony, said Windu Jusuf, an Indonesian writer and film critic who has written about the rise of Wilders, is that Wilders himself is of partial Indonesian descent, the grandson of an Indonesian great-grandmother who married a Dutch colonial administrator (her religion is unknown).

But while the Netherlands’s historical intolerance of Islam and suppression of Islamic practices and movements in their colonies are a matter of record, many Dutch have yet to grapple with their nation’s colonial legacy. Henk Schulte Nordholt, professor of Indonesian History at the University of Leiden, said that Wilders’s rise reflects the Dutch people’s ignorance of their own history. After the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the Dutch empire “was the biggest Islamic empire, without many people in the Netherlands really realizing that,” he added.

There has been some progress. The Dutch government has begun paying modest reparations to some of the widows of Indonesians executed during the Netherlands’s attempt to recolonize Indonesia after World War II. But this is only a first step. “We tend to discover new cruelties in our colonial past and then instantly  forget it so next year there is a new revelation and new discovery. It’s a very structural amnesia.” Contributing to this amnesia is the fact that only a small number of Indonesians moved to the Netherlands after the 1960s, making the country’s colonial legacy even less apparent, Nordholt said.

As a result, the Dutch have managed to preserve their self-image as a historically liberal, tolerant nation, distinct, say, from their German neighbors to the east. As with many other self-professed liberal nations, like the United States and Germany, Dutch enlightenment values have always clashed with baser, tribal impulses in the nation’s politics.

Geert Wilders’s anti-Islam rhetoric Islam recalls earlier eras of Dutch politics. His anxieties over a supposedly Islamicizing nation are distinct from imperial Dutch worries about Islam providing a vehicle for anti-colonial resistance. Nonetheless, historical ignorance in the Netherlands helps explain why so many Dutch view Islam as foreign even though the religion is deeply tied to their country’s history.

“People have no idea,” Nordholt said. “There is ongoing amnesia about the colonial past.”