The Netherlands an immigration society

Speech by minister Timmermans. Inleiding voor opiniemakers uit de Verenigde Staten en Canada

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’d like to explain where we’re coming from and where we are today. To understand Dutch society, you need to realise that it has traditionally been organised along religious or political lines. Although this is the case in many societies, Dutch society was different because the organisation had total sovereignty within each social group, creating ‘pillars’. So you had a Catholic pillar, a Protestant pillar, a Liberal pillar and a Socialist pillar and each one had total sovereignty within the lives of their members, my own background is Roman Catholic, by the way. It meant that if you were a member of that pillar, you would go to the school of that pillar, you would be insured within that pillar and you would vote for the party of that pillar. And if, as in my case, you played football, you’d go to a club that was linked to that pillar. You’d only buy the newspaper of that pillar, listen to the radio station of that pillar, watch the television station of that pillar. You actually never got in touch with ‘other’ people. I’m from the south, and I can remember that when I was eight or nine years old - I was born in 1961 - my grandmother at some point said to me ‘See those people that live opposite - they’re Protestants’. So I looked to see what was different about them, but they’d got two arms and two legs just like the rest of us! Yet we never talked to people like them. Well, that was easy in my part of the country because just about everybody else was Catholic. But my relatives who lived in the west used to keep a precise list of shops that had Roman Catholic owners. So if there was a bakery next door to you but the owner was Protestant, you’d walk ten minutes farther to the Catholic bakery because you certainly didn’t want to do business with a Protestant.

That was the Netherlands until the 1960s. I stress this because it’s ex tremely important to know this background in order to understand the Netherlands today. There’s a wonderful man called Geert Mak who’s a historian, journalist and thinker, and who has written a great book called My Father's Century [De eeuw van mijn vader]. I think it ought to be used in Dutch schools to tell young people what our society was like in those days. And many of us have lost the sense of that history.

These pillars disappeared extremely quickly – within a single generation – because of the changes in society between 1960 and 1975. Yet we had never developed forms of negotiating and debating for ordinary people – that was always left to the leaders of the pillars. We had social peace in the Netherlands because the leaders got together and decided how to organise things. And they told their own people ‘This is the way we’re going to do it’. But ordinary people like my grandmother never got to know people outside their own pillar. They never developed forms of negotiation, of understanding each other.

I don’t want to sound too harsh, but we should beware of the idea that Dutch society is extremely tolerant. Yes, it is tolerant, but only in a very particular way. If I were unkind, I would say it’s indifferent rather than tolerant. The notion is ‘Live and let live. That way, we’ll all be better off’. Any of you will understand that this doesn't work in a modern society. We need to negotiate, to interconnect; to discuss things all the time, at all levels, in a modern society, if we want it to function properly. That is why many people in the Netherlands today have developed negative feelings about the term ‘ multicultural society’. In their perception, ‘multicultural society’ means that everybody keeps themselves to themselves, so there’s no criticism and no dialogue. In fact, what we need to become is an intercultural society. That is the big challenge for the Netherlands today – how do we develop from what we are now into a truly intercultural society?

I would say that almost until 9-11, we referred to our minority communities as ‘the Moroccans’ or ‘the Turks’ and sometimes in very pejorative terms. Before that, it was the Surinamese who took the brunt of most of the things that went wrong. As of 9-11, we suddenly identified everyone as ‘Muslims’. We had never done that before. We used to distinguish very clearly between Turks and Moroccans, and now suddenly they’re all 'Muslims'. This is a consequence of 9-11. For the first time since the Second World War, people actually think they ’re going to be worse off in the future than they are now. If you talk to honest people in the Netherlands (not people who are xenophobic or racist), people who have grave concerns about their future, you discover that many of them truly believe that “They” are taking control of this country. And if you ask ‘Who do you mean by “They’?” the answer is ‘Well, Muslims, of course!’

We need to take this seriously and not dismiss it as racism. Many honest and sincere Dutch people, especially those who are struggling socioeconomically, have the feeling that their country is being taken over, and that at some point, we will all have to wear headscarves and worship at the mosque. They’re afraid that there will no longer be freedom of choice – but that such things will be imposed on us. How very peculiar that Dutch society should have evolved in that direction!

I think that as far as Muslims in the Netherlands are concerned, we should elaborate on the excellent ideas developed by a French writer called Gilles Kepel, a man I very much admire. He’s written about Islam and Islam in western society and discusses the struggle within Islam, within communities, between modernity and fundamentalism, and so on. And we need to know who our allies are; we need to know that the vast, vast majority of the Muslim population are just trying to make a good life for themselves. They are loyal to this country and want nothing more than to create a good future for all of us. These people are our allies. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should be naive about threats.

My final point is very important. I believe that this is where the heart of the political struggle in my country will be for the next generation, so I really want to be very forceful about it. We have never learned to understand what it means to be an immigration society. Until recently, it was even taboo to say that we were an immigration society - ‘Oh no we’re not!’ - . If you look at the specific nature of immigration since the late sixties and seventies, you discover that we invited people. We wanted to get people from Turkey and Morocco because we needed them for industry, but always assuming that they would go back at some stage, and never accepting the idea that they would invite their wives and children. But in fact the government actually encouraged it. You hear people complaining ‘And now they’ve got their wives and children over here!’ No – it was official policy, because that would make them happier people. And then, instead of accepting the consequences, we just assumed that they would leave one day.

This is perhaps the one thing that we need to change in Dutch society. People need to understand that these are not guests. Because if you treat them as guests, you tend to have two wrong attitudes. First of all, you’re always wondering ‘When are they leaving, actually?’ Nice to have guests, but not for too long! And secondly – which is equally bad – you’re never very frank or direct with guests. Especially when there are problems. You complain to others, you talk with your family about your guests, but not with the guests. And this is exactly what's going on in Dutch society. We talk a lot about minorities. We don't talk things out with them. We don't give them a voice. And unfortunately, sometimes those who claim to be their voice no longer are, because communities develop so fast, especially the younger generation. I think these are key issues.

Let me give you an illustration of the fact that we don’t know we’re an immigration society. In Dutch we use the euphemism allochtoon for people of foreign origin. I gather it means something like ‘of a different identity’, but I don’t really know! Anyway, the opposite – autochtoon – would mean ‘aboriginal ’ or ‘indigenous’ (I’m only partly joking here). It’s a better word than ‘ native’ because that term doesn’t cover the whole meaning. So allochtoon would mean ‘non-indigenous’. But we use these terms! In the Netherlands, President Sarkozy would be an allochtoon – ‘non-indigenous’. So would Barack Obama. This is just an illustration of how Dutch society functions.

We need to remove the confusion. I’ve had huge rows with other politicians in this society because people confuse ‘integration’ and ‘assimilation’. In the debate in the Netherlands, these two fundamentally different phenomena get totally muddled up. We need to make the distinction clear. And my point remains: integration is impossible if you insist on assimilation. On the one hand we tend to avoid debate, because there are indeed serious problems that need to be addressed. But we also fail to understand that in 80% of cases, the core of the problem is socioeconomic. Such as in the case of my grandparents, who were Roman Catholic. I am actually the product of a double emancipation – working-class emancipation and Roman Catholic emancipation. Neither would have been possible without major changes in society. But just imagine: if my grandparents had been told by the vast majority of society that Roman Catholics were morons and that the Pope was such and such, they would have never wanted to participate in society! Nowadays I have the opportunity to go to university and be what I want to be. Whereas my grandfather, who was much more intelligent than I am, never got the opportunity.

Anyway, these are just a couple of thoughts. I would be glad to elaborate on any of them if you wish. You are visitors to one of the greatest countries on earth. We have the most wonderful things to offer: a very bright future, gifted people and a very talented young generation from a range of different origins. And we’re going to show the world that it is possible to be a European society, be forward-looking and very successful.

Thank you.