Speech by Minister Kaag at symposium 'Tolerance in turbulent times'

Speech by Minister Kaag at the symposium 'Tolerance in turbulent times', during the celebration of 400 years of Remonstrants in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, on 29 September 2019.

Minister Kaag at the symposium 'Tolerance in turbulent times' in the Rijksmuseum.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As I’m sure you’re well aware, two weeks ago the new political year began with the Parliamentary Debate on the Speech from the Throne. It’s quite a marathon session, but there’s plenty to enjoy. For two full days the House discusses the fundamental, principle-based choices concerning the Netherlands’ future. It’s also a time for rendering account. It’s a clash of major political movements and important ideas.

This year’s debate was very different from last year’s. Last year the session began with a party leader telling a colleague to ‘bugger off’. And it ended with another leader saying that participating in the Parliamentary debate was ‘beneath his dignity’.

This year, the atmosphere was different: it wasn’t a predictable politics of condemnation but a surprising show of unity. The parties were conciliatory. They were willing to hear each other out. As a result, it even proved possible for conservative and progressive parties to reach consensus. First on the tone of the debate, and then on the role of government in society and the limits of the free market.

As you might imagine, I enjoyed this year far more. Because this is how it should be in the Netherlands. Even though it strikes an unpleasant and un-Dutch dissonant chord when someone speaks of a ‘Moroccan poison flowing through our streets’. Unpleasant because hearing an entire section of the population dismissed in such terms is hard to take. Un-Dutch because such extreme intolerance is impossible to square with the lessons of Dutch history.

As anyone who knows their history is aware, our freedoms and achievements cannot be taken for granted. On the contrary. History teaches us that freedom and tolerance demand something of us all, every day.

The Young Republic

Thanks to the current coalition, all children in the Netherlands now have a chance to learn that same lesson here, at the Rijksmuseum. A lesson about the essence of our Dutch and European identity. About freedom and tolerance. A lesson that needs to be learnt.

It’s easy enough to express values like freedom and tolerance. But if you really want to learn, you have to dig deeper. And if you want to dig deeper, you have to ask questions. What is freedom? What is tolerance? What do they require of us? How do you achieve them? Do these values define the Netherlands? Do they define Europe? Are they part of our Dutch and European identity?

We can find the beginnings of an answer in the birth and rise of the Remonstrants in the 17th century. It happened in a young republic which, compared with the rest of the world, enjoyed great freedom. It’s this period and these names that we still point to when asked what really made the Netherlands the country it is.

The country of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Vondel, Spinoza, Huygens, Grotius, De Ruyter and the brothers De Witt and De la Court. The Dutch Republic was a safe haven for freethinkers from all corners of Europe. Here, tolerance was cherished, even if only for pragmatic reasons: bringing an end to religious conflict.

The 1579 Union of Utrecht guaranteed personal freedom of religion. According to the text of the treaty, ‘Every person shall be free in his religion and no one may persecute or investigate another on religious grounds.’

Two years after the Union, we (if I may be so bold as to include us, the distant descendants of that age) rejected the Spanish King Philip II in the Act of Abjuration, in part because of his tyrannical religious views. A triumph of tolerance, you might think.

And yet one generation later, things were very different. The Remonstrants and their opponents were facing off in a fierce theological debate on predestination. This theological dispute turned into a political conflict which ultimately led to the beheading in 1619 of Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt, and the banning of the Arminianist vision after the Synod of Dort.

Johannes Wtenbogaert had fled to Antwerp. ‘Shall we found a new sect?’ he wrote to his supporters. And that is what happened.

The Remonstrant community thus endured, but they lived in exile and remained officially banned until the establishment of the Batavian Republic in 1795. The establishment of the Remonstrants and freedom of religion in the 17th and 18th centuries were not the result of an unstoppable march of progress towards freedom and civil rights. It was a twisting, winding path. History meanders.

Freedom, citizenship and national consciousness were values the people of the Republic would fight for – sometimes to the death. The Republic found itself in constant conflict with outside forces, but also internally it was locked in a continual struggle.

Pragmatic tolerance had little to do with integration or acceptance. In Amsterdam, the Catholics were tolerated by the Protestants, yet they had to be discreet about their faith. They had to pray in the attic, in the shadows.

Today, historians focus less on the romantic struggle for greater freedom and more on the power struggle waged by and in the Republic itself. Less Erasmus and more Machiavelli.

Beyond Tolerance

So how are we – and tolerance – doing in the Netherlands in 2019? The answer will naturally differ depending on who you ask. I can only offer my own response.

As far as I’m concerned, in the Netherlands the era of purely pragmatic tolerance is long gone. Our country is no longer characterised by social and religious compartmentalisation, as it was in the 20th century when we experienced the final after-effects of the Republic’s tolerance.

In the 21st century our differences in background, preference, sexual orientation, belief or religion, etcetera are no longer something to be accepted by a homogenous majority or elite (albeit perhaps with reluctance and denial). They are something to be celebrated. They have become an essential part of our common identity.

Despite our differences we still want to be part of a larger whole. We want to use our differences as building blocks in the sheltering house we call society. Together, we feel at home here. And, together, we are proud of that fact. More and more people in our society now feel at home. Feel they belong.

As everyone should know by now, our largest immigrant groups – Moroccans, Turks, Surinamese and Antilleans – are doing better in the sphere of education. One in three children with a Moroccan background is now attending senior-general or pre-university secondary education. In 2005 that figure was one in five. And the figures are even better among the children of Afghan and Iraqi refugees.

Yes, it’s true that ‘traditional’ immigrant groups are more dependent on benefits than Dutch people without a migration background. But the level of dependence of the second generation is lower than that of their parents.

And, as in all other domains, the difference is smallest in the youngest cohort. In other words, we’re moving in the right direction. And fast.

Yes, it’s true that when it comes to crime Dutch people with a migration background are overrepresented in relative terms. But the proportion of people registered as suspects of an offence has roughly halved across all groups in the past 13 years. That goes for Dutch people without a migration background, and for the four largest groups of non-Western origin. Here too, the second generation is doing better than the first. Here too, the trend is positive.

So, in fact, migrants in the Netherlands are doing well. It’s tempting to point to one or two highly visible ‘successes’. But I’m uncomfortable with people saying things like, ‘As a Moroccan-Dutch person in the Netherlands you can be mayor of Rotterdam or president of the House of Representatives if you set your mind to it.’

That makes it seem as if you only count – as if you’re only truly integrated – if you do something extraordinary that only a couple of people a decade can hope to emulate. That cannot be our yardstick.

As well as striking success stories, people also point – and I understand why – to outliers at the other extreme. Callous Moroccan-Dutch drug criminals who undermine our society. An unacceptable group that warrants nothing less than the full force of the State’s authority.

And yes, these outliers – positive and negative – are interesting. But the large groups of people in the middle are more interesting.

The Tolerance Paradox

I’ve spent some time on this, because facts are important. And not only the facts that fit my world view. I can also clearly see where things are going wrong. Badly wrong. When intolerance threatens to get the upper hand, we have to intervene.

Karl Popper defined the ‘paradox of tolerance’ as follows: if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually taken away by intolerance. So in order to remain tolerant, a society cannot tolerate intolerance.

Popper wasn’t saying that undesirable ideas or behaviour should be prohibited. That can happen only when there is a specific infringement on the freedoms of others. If children at Salafist religious schools are taught that people with different beliefs or religious convictions deserve the death penalty, that is not acceptable in any circumstances. We must respond vigorously, although I doubt this justifies amending the Constitution.

What’s clear is that, in such a case, we’ve reached the limit that Popper referred to.

I find it disturbing to see hundreds of Dutch demonstrators on Rotterdam’s Erasmus Bridge waving a foreign flag and cheering a foreign leader. It’s a symptom of a weakened desire to belong unconditionally. And we should be alert to it.

But this example moves us away from Popper’s limit:

If a non-Western immigrant couple visit the GP, they refuse to shake hands and the husband insists on speaking for his wife, I find that uncomfortable – to put it mildly – because such behaviour clashes fundamentally with my own beliefs and world view.

But I won’t cite it as proof that the entire group’s desire to belong is in decline. Nor would I want the State to intervene. It’s important to acknowledge the fundamental differences between these examples. And to step back and look at the bigger picture.

I understand why those at the political extremes – the politicians who rely on stoking fear – choose not to do this, as sad as that may be. But it worries me that we sometimes seem to have lost the nuance in the centre ground as well.

Because, even from the centre, we are hearing that too many aspects of migration and integration aren’t working. That there is a lack of reciprocity on the part of newcomers to the Netherlands.

In my view, this is painting with too broad a brush. The facts give the lie to the claim that migration ‘isn’t working’. And as for reciprocity, I also take a less sombre view.

Consider the group of Moroccan-Dutch nationals requesting support this week in their fight against compulsory dual nationality imposed by Morocco. They are Dutch nationals, and they are asking for – and deserve – our support.

Of course, we can point to classical antiquity. To Christianity and the Enlightenment. Some politicians do just that. They say that the ‘values’ of that time are under pressure. That we are gradually losing our identity. An identity so self-evident that we never even thought to address it.

But I see that very differently.

Identity is not some static, monolithic given. I am a woman, a Catholic, a progressive liberal, a democrat and a Dutch national. I was once a diplomat, and I am now a politician. I am a wife and the mother of four children. In some situations I’m one of those specific elements, and sometimes I’m all of them at once.

Identity is not carved in stone. It is formed in our heart, our mind, our soul and our experience. It is the evolving and always-fascinating form our humanity takes.

Of course, there is also no clear path from classical antiquity to Christianity, to the Enlightenment, and to modern democracy under the rule of law, rising in a straight line towards freedom and equality. We now consider these values to be central, but we shape their form and substance in our own way. We owe a debt to our predecessors and the thinkers who shaped our society. But our ideals of freedom and equality are different from those of Jefferson and Washington, who were slave owners, and Marat and Robespierre, who employed the guillotine. Many principles from those different periods which some are so keen to extol were mutually incompatible.

‘Typically Dutch’

The things we now consider ‘typically Dutch’ were once hard-fought gains, wrested from the conservative forces of the time. Then, as now, there were more champions of the status quo than of change. Then, as now, the status quo was a more comfortable place, because it already existed. People knew where they stood.

We consider gay marriage – or rather, marriage for everyone – a typically Dutch phenomenon. But for centuries that wasn’t the case, because for centuries it didn’t exist. The LGBTI community in the Netherlands have only been able to marry the partner of their choosing for the last 20 years.

I’m proud that the Netherlands was the first country to make marriage possible for everyone. And you can be proud that the Remonstrants were vocal supporters of this change.

But this wasn’t some long-established given. It wasn’t a direct consequence of our culture and history. For many years people argued vehemently for and against.

We also see gender equality as a typically Dutch achievement. But right up until the late 19th century the subordinate position of women was considered so ‘logical’ that the country’s leaders didn’t even bother to explicitly bar women from holding public office. And the Constitution of 1848 didn’t say anything about women being barred from voting and standing for election.

According to the letter of the law, then, women could participate fully. I’m sure you can guess what happened: the ‘spirit’ of the law was what counted! It went without saying that when the Constitution referred to ‘Dutch people’, it was referring to men. The subordination of women wasn’t abolished until the 1950s, when they were granted full legal capacity.

And it wasn’t until 1975 that equal pay for men and women became law. It didn’t just happen on its own. Even the principle of religious freedom itself had a long road to travel. The ban on processions (in practice a measure targeting Catholics), for example, wasn’t removed from the statute books until 1983. These freedoms and achievements were the result of a – peaceful – struggle.

A New Struggle

We now face a new struggle. The past – both distant and recent – has shown that we can’t take our freedoms and achievements for granted. Tolerance itself is under pressure. By that I mean the loss of our cultural self-assurance, the loss of a certain optimism. Today’s culture is saturated with the sense that we are losing something.

In his latest novel, Serotonin, Michel Houellebecq describes a society on its last legs, ready to explode. ‘No one will ever be happy again,’ he writes. ‘Happiness today is nothing but an old dream, the past conditions for its existence are simply no longer being fulfilled.’

And in Grand Hotel Europa, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer says, ‘What Europe can offer the world is its past… I don’t want to reach the conclusion, like the hotel in which I’m staying and the continent for which it is named, that my best years are behind me.’

Two writers. Two radically different world views. One shared observation: we are losing something.

Politicians and social critics are allowing themselves to be carried along on the waves of pessimism. They speak in sombre tones of an Occident (in Dutch, literally ‘evening country’) on which the sun is slowly setting. Only a radical change of course, they claim, can save us from the gathering night. I don’t share this sense of despair.

Yes, the Netherlands and Europe are in a period of transition. The transatlantic relationship is under pressure. The prospect of a chaotic Brexit hangs over the EU’s head. Some 68 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their home or country. Our lives are increasingly shaped by the influence of the tech giants.

By 2050, the world’s population will be almost 10 billion. Economic growth and global warming are putting enormous pressure on the ecosystem.

In global terms, inequality has risen sharply since 1980. The poorest half of the world’s population has grown more prosperous, but at the same time the wealth of the richest one per cent has increased twice as fast as that of the poorest 50 per cent.

In the Netherlands itself, households’ disposable income has barely risen since 1980 – a situation which we obviously have to address.

None of these developments is the result of ‘a destruction process’ or ‘auto-immune diseases’ or of ‘elites’ turning against society. These developments involve factors over which 17 million Dutch citizens have limited influence.

There is no stopping the advance of technology. Demographic changes will mean a global population of 10 billion by 2050. And the exhaustion of Earth’s resources means we need to build a new economy.

It is the job of politicians to help equip people to deal with these developments. Distributing resources, reconciling different ambitions and desires, protecting the vulnerable. Offering mechanisms that can settle conflicts and enable everyone in society to flourish.

Politicians aren’t always able to solve these problems fast enough. And that’s when dangers arise. But it is also the job of politicians to find a response to the populist wolves in the woods, who seek scapegoats for the uncertainties of today and tomorrow.

The Future

We are not the prisoners of history. We can determine for ourselves how we move forward. Progress is a winding path that we ourselves must walk. The Netherlands, as a nation and an EU member state, is a story we are still writing.

We can be proud of how we’ve rooted universal rights and values in our nation. In relative terms, we’ve always been successful in this regard, not least thanks to the efforts of the Remonstrants.

But I don’t want to idealise the past. It’s time to take new steps forward. To use history as a servant of the future. And to be ready to fight for what we believe in.

Freedom and tolerance are noble goals. And yes, they are part of our cultural heritage. But anyone who takes in the broad sweep of history can only conclude that they mean little without active effort on our part. They are not simply a given. A statue we can contemplate, patting ourselves on the back as we proudly admire the result of our labours.

On the contrary, for me freedom and tolerance are a rallying call. A framework for our future conduct. For me, the bottom line both now and in the future is ensuring genuine, sincere tolerance of people who think – and behave – differently.

Even if someone holds opinions that are hurtful to others. Even then – especially then – it is important not only to tolerate those who think differently, but to understand them too.

Diversity is the oxygen of our democracy. And yes, diversity entails conflict. But therein lies freedom.

I hope, therefore, that we can tell our children that when they visit this museum. I hope we can give our children a sense of the incredible strength of the community they are part of. I hope we can tell them that the Netherlands has played an extraordinary role in the world’s thinking and behaviour when it comes to ‘freedom’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘openness’, even if these are not uniquely Dutch terms.

Where we have succeeded beyond a doubt is in bringing these ideas to life. Investing them with meaning as they relate to our own actions. Not because everyone embraced them unreservedly. But because people fought for them.

Our children can be proud of this story because they can be its authors too – even if their parents weren’t born in the Netherlands or they themselves weren’t born here. I hope we can tell them that it’s important to know who we were. But that it’s more important to determine who we are.

That is why, after 25 years abroad, I returned to the Netherlands full of conviction. Determined to make a modest contribution to our open, colourful country. It’s an honour be a government minister in the Netherlands. It’s an honour to witness the respectful clashing of fundamentally different political views during the Parliamentary Debate on the Speech from the Throne. It’s an honour to appear on the international stage flying the flags of the Netherlands and the European Union. To see how other countries still recognise the rich history and enormous ambition of this small nation.

That too is thanks to our openness, heterogeneity and diversity.  

Let us cherish those qualities. Let us defend them vigorously. Let us not waste our energy by focusing on our differences. Let us concentrate on where we are now, together. On how to move forward, together. On how to proceed in our myriad forms, together.

Freedom, diversity and respect are, and will remain, the oxygen of our society. Without them there is no future. And with them we have the chance to live, to develop, and to face a better future.

Thank you.