Dutch political leader Geert Wilders goes on trial in Amsterdam next week for allegedly inciting hatred and insulting Muslims. As head of the right-wing Freedom Party, Wilders has called the Quran “fascist,” compared it to Mein Kampf, and released a movie featuring Quran verses alongside images of the 9/11 attacks. In 2004, filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered after making anti-Muslim remarks, as was the anti-immigrant politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002. Why is there so much anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Netherlands?
Because it’s a tiny, densely populated country with a high immigration rate. The Netherlands is hardly the only European nation to spawn a strong anti-immigrant political wing. France just passed a law banning burqas. Swiss voters passed a ban on the construction of new minarets in 2009. Austria’s Freedom Party campaigned this year on a platform that included anti-immigrant slogans. But the Netherlands has a higher population density—about 400 people per square kilometer—than any other major European country. It also has a stronger flow of immigrants—2.55 migrants for every thousand people—than most of its neighbors, and Muslims constitute about 6 percent of the country’s population of 16 million. (In Austria, Switzerland and Germany, they make up about 4 percent.) And whereas Muslims are ghettoized in countries like the United Kingdom, they’re more visible in the Netherlands, with largely Muslim neighborhoods abutting Christian ones and more integration between them.
The Dutch political system has also given a louder voice to anti-immigrant sentiments in recent months. Wilders’ Freedom Party gained major ground in the last election, going from nine seats to 24 in the country’s 150-seat parliament, to become the third-largest party. And because the leading Liberal Party and its partner, the Christian Democrats, didn’t have enough seats for a majority, they had to reach out to the Freedom Party to form a coalition. This has given the Wilders not just a platform but an influence on policy. On Friday, the new coalition committed to implementing a burqa ban.
The international media plays a role in publicizing the rhetoric, too. The sensational killings of Van Gogh and Fortuyn highlighted religious tensions in Holland over other European countries. The Dutch activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who now resides in the United States, has also been a strong critic of Islam. But what makes the anti-Muslim story so juicy is Holland’s reputation for pluralism and tolerance, with its famous red-light districts and cannabis cafes. As it turns out, permissiveness when it comes to drug use does not always translate into accommodation for any and all lifestyles and religious views.
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Explainer thanks Erik Jones of the School for Advanced International Studies, Jytte Klausen of Brandeis University, and Peter Mandaville of George Mason University.