AMSTERDAM, Netherlands—When Dutch politician Geert Wilders announced in November 2007 that he was releasing a film about the Quran, the government girded itself for potential catastrophe. Wilders, who sports a bleached-blond bouffant hairdo, has likened the Quran to Mein Kampf and called for it to be banned. His film was sure to offend Muslim sensibilities—and the Dutch had already experienced, in a visceral way, what a provocative film about the Muslim faith can unleash.
Four years ago, a radical Dutch-Moroccan murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh after he released a short documentary criticizing the treatment of women under Islam. Pinned to van Gogh’s chest with a knife was a letter threatening the filmmaker’s collaborator, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Wilders received his own share of “you’re next” warnings; both he and Ali have been under heavy police protection ever since.
Van Gogh’s brutal killing prodded a fundamental change in the Netherlands’ immigration laws. It came just two years after another convulsive event—the murder of populist politician Pim Fortuyn, who had advocated halting all immigration into the Netherlands. It was the first political assassination in Holland in more than 300 years, and it deeply shook Dutch society. Conservative parties were swept into power in the national election immediately after the killing of Fortuyn. The vicious attack on van Gogh bolstered the government’s mandate to crack down—and former Minister for Immigration and Integration Rita Verdonk (popularly known as “Iron Rita”) made the most of the opportunity.
Declaring the days of “cozy tea drinking” with Muslim groups to be over, Verdonk ushered in a series of reforms that stanched immigration from Morocco and Turkey. Holland had imported workers from those countries in the 1960s and early ‘70s, and although the guest-worker program was discontinued in the mid-1970s, family reunification and, more recently, marriages between Dutch residents and people from their ancestral homelands sustained the migratory flow. Approximately 10 percent of Holland’s 16.4 million inhabitants have non-Western roots, and about 1 million of these residents are Muslim.
Verdonk didn’t explicitly slam the door on people from countries with large Muslim populations. But since March 2006, immigrants from the developing world—essentially, outside of Europe, the United States, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia—have been required to sit for a Dutch-language test and a culture exam. The culture component includes a video featuring nudity and homosexuality. Presumably, most people watching the film keep their cool even if what they see offends their religious sensibilities. The language test, however, proved to be a real hurdle for many aspiring Dutch residents. Visa applications dropped by one-third, and about one-tenth of the people who sit for the exam flunk it. According to Dutch government statistics, immigration from Turkey and Morocco has declined by 60 percent since 2003.
Those figures could soon creep back upward, however: This summer, a district court in the Netherlands held that men and women seeking to move to Holland to be reunited with family did not have to sit for the exam because the authorizing legislation did not explicitly mention it in the clause referring to family reunification. That means the target of Verdonk’s initiative—the spouses of guest workers and their descendants—will no longer have to demonstrate minimum proficiency in Dutch in order to move to the Netherlands. Groups like Human Rights Watch lauded the decision. But even Dutch citizens who don’t share Verdonk’s politics can see the rationale. When Verdonk pointed out that there were some 600,000 people living in the Netherlands who didn’t speak Dutch, no one needed to be told whom she was referring to. Senay Ozdemir, editor of a magazine for Muslim women, points out that the isolation many young brides from Turkey and Morocco experience makes it hard for them to adjust to Dutch society. “These women oftentimes have an idealized vision of what their lives will be like in Holland,” she says. “They heard other stories about Europe and the Netherlands, that they would be free and live in a rich way.” The reality of being cordoned off in immigrant neighborhoods and being largely dependent on their spouses can come as a shock—and, of course, makes the women particularly vulnerable to abuse.
One impact of Verdonk’s reforms over the last two years has been to change the profile of immigrants to the Netherlands. The country is now a net exporter of people. Of the 117,000 people who settled in the country in 2007, the majority were either returning Dutch citizens or citizens of countries like Poland, Germany, and Bulgaria. As EU citizens, these men and women have an automatic right to live in Holland, although Bulgarians do not, as yet, have permission to work there.
Verdonk’s approach didn’t just change the profile of foreigners settling in the Netherlands—it also had an effect on immigrants who had been living in the country for decades. In particular, there are signs that the anti-immigrant tone behind the new laws polarized some citizens of foreign descent. At the Vrije University in Amsterdam, I met a number of students who wore head scarves even though their mothers did not. One woman who did not cover her head told me that her younger sister had elected to do so after anti-Muslim rhetoric reached a crescendo two years ago. Abdou Menebhi, chairman of Emcemo, a Moroccan interest group in Amsterdam, said it was common for second- and third-generation immigrants to embrace an Islamic identity in a way their parents hadn’t. “They are experiencing a crisis of identity,” he said. “And they are more willing than their parents to react to the prejudice they feel.”
Their parents found a society governed by a more laissez faire ethos. For most of the last half-century, there was a taboo on criticizing people of a different ethic origin. That had a lot to do with a guilty national conscience: About three-quarters of Holland’s Jews died in the Holocaust, one of the highest percentages in Western Europe. That painful reckoning was one reason the Dutch instituted liberal laws not only regarding rights for women and gays but also in accepting foreigners.
The statute of limitations on World War II guilt appears to have run out after the murders of Fortuyn and van Gogh. Still, the Dutch didn’t embrace some of Verdonk’s more extreme ideas, like banning the speaking of foreign languages on the street. Verdonk was forced to give up her Cabinet post in February 2007 when her party fared poorly in national elections and the fraught rhetoric around immigration died down in the aftermath. Wilders’ video was not as provocative as he’d led people to believe. The grand mufti of Syria had warned of “war and bloodshed” if the Quran were defaced on-screen. Wilders avoided doing so explicitly. There were no significant disturbances on the streets of the Netherlands to protest his work. For the time being, at least, the Dutch appear to have achieved an uneasy truce over immigration.
Nonetheless, the legacy of the Netherlands’ guest-worker program has made for a riven society. Across Europe—and the United States—immigrants often live in self-contained worlds. But here their isolation is particularly jarring.
The Jan Galenstraat neighborhood is just 20 minutes away from the center of Amsterdam, but it feels very far from the tony restaurants and gezellig homes most visitors associate with the nation’s most-visited city. Drab brown high-rises stand behind tall gates. Few pedestrians walk the streets. What is most striking, however, are the gray satellite dishes that hang from virtually every balcony. This ubiquitous appendage has earned these neighborhoods the moniker “satellite cities.” The dishes receive programming from Morocco and Turkey, allowing expatriates to feel they are still connected to their homelands even as they live a continent away.