The Limits of 'Live and Let Live'

How Muslim immigration is exposing Dutch tolerance

A dear friend of mine, who has worked her whole life as a nurse and doesn't have a racist bone in her body, recently said to me, "They're taking over the country." And I asked her, "But my dear, who's taking over the country?" "The Muslims, of course. Ten years from now we'll be forced to worship with them, and I'll be forced to wear a headscarf. That's the future of our country." The claim was a startling one. Dutch society has always been known for its tolerance, based on a passion for liberty and a keen sense of pragmatism. For decades no one social group was ever large enough to dominate others, and smaller groups were never so tiny that they could be swallowed up by the majority. That explains why Protestants, Roman Catholics, socialists and liberals managed to share the country for generations. So why now would someone who has only good things to say about other people feel that her basic values are under threat from a relatively small minority?

The answer lies in the unusual nature of Dutch tolerance, which ultimately had little to do with interest in the beliefs or values of other communities. Instead, it involved separation of different groups. Since the 1600s, the Netherlands has been a society of minorities, with a "live and let live" attitude. Up to the 1970s, there was remarkably little interaction between groups. Each community took care of training people to become good citizens - strictly within its own realm. In cases that affected society as a whole and that needed to be resolved jointly, the leaders of the different communities would talk to each other and come up with a compromise.

But those compromises were less about finding a common solution than coming up with a quid pro quo. For instance, when social democrats called for universal suffrage at the beginning of the last century, they could get a majority in Parliament only by granting conservatives public financing of Christian schools. Although they fiercely opposed the idea of giving tax money to religious schools, they accepted it as a quid pro quo.

With communities living separate lives, there was never any need to learn to deal with diversity. But over time communities isintegrated or outsourced their issues to the government, leaving behind a society of individuals conditioned to be acutely aware of their own rights and their neighbors' obligations but much less aware of their own obligations, their neighbors' rights or their responsibility for the common good.

Meantime, starting in the early 1970s, the Netherlands began to face labor shortages, and industry and the government invited tens of thousands of men, mainly from Turkey and Morocco, to lend a hand. It was assumed that these guest workers would go back home once they were no longer needed. But most stayed, and asked their families to join them. They were tolerated in the traditional Dutch live-and-let-live way, without any thought given to the need to integrate them. We did not want to be a country of immigrants, so we clung to the fiction that these people were "guests," even when the third generation was born.

What happened next is what would happen with guests anywhere. You are too polite to tell them that their behavior is not what you would expect of a member of your own family, too polite to write out dinner-table rules for them to read. They are too embarrassed to ask, and they withdraw from the conversation at dinner because they feel awkward and unwelcome, in spite of the polite smiles around them. Everyone is just waiting for an opportunity to leave the table, fed up with the uncomfortable silences.

Against this backdrop came September 11, followed within a year by our first political murder in centuries (by an animal-rights fanatic) and then by a second one (this time by a Muslim fanatic). A conservative mindset took over, bred by profound feelings of uncertainty. And the most visible agents of change were, and still are, the newcomers in our society, who became the target of fear. September 11 made this fear very easy to name: Islam. And all at once, more than 350,000 people whom we had previously thought of as Turks and 350,000 people whom we had known until then as Moroccans all became "Muslims."

Like any Western society, the Netherlands has its share of racists. Yet fear of Islam also affects mainstream sentiment because the perception that Muslims want to impose their values on society sets off alarm bells in a culture that has always been based on live and let live. Indeed, more often than not, fear of Islam has nothing to do with Islam itself. Instead, fear of the loss of control over the events that are shaping one's destiny is being projected onto other groups, and Muslims in particular.

Some of the most popular politicians in the Netherlands have capitalized on this by linking Islam with an attack on freedom of speech and the other values we cherish, carefully and skillfully cultivating the illusion that if you remove Muslims from society, everything will go back to the way it was in the '50s. So what is the correct response? The only way to bring communities back together is by reforming the political system so that people are empowered to have a stake in shaping their own destinies. The way the Dutch political system is structured still reflects the live-and-let-live society. We still depend on political parties that in the past represented well-defined communities. But there is never a clear choice, the way there is in a "winner take all" system like that of the United States. We always end up with coalitions that make compromises that no one fully embraces. Sadly, the constitutional change that would solve this problem is made impossible because it takes only one third of Parliament to block any amendment to the Constitution.

For now, the political system is a fact of life. Fortunately, there are other ways to improve relations between communities. One is by ensuring that all people feel at home in their country, without being forced to give up their identity, but in full knowledge of what is expected of them in Dutch society. You cannot ask people to change who they are, but you can certainly ask them to change how they behave if their behavior is unacceptable. The rules of behavior therefore need to be made far more explicit, and legal norms need to be better enforced, regardless of people's background. We also need to begin true integration—that is, bringing individuals and their communities together to find common solutions to problems, not the old quid pro quo model. In spite of the many challenges, we do know a thing or two about how to do this. Successful integration starts with interaction at different levels: first in sports, then in the arts, then in education, then in the economy. After a while, people who begin as foreigners slowly turn into hyphenated citizens and in the end lose the hyphen. Muslim communities in Europe are by and large becoming more successful at reconciling their faith with the secular societies in which they live. This happened to the people who came to the Netherlands, too, after Indonesia became independent in 1949, and more recently to people from Suriname. It is happening right now with the Turkish-Dutch community, and I am sure it will happen with other minorities like the Moroccan-Dutch.

The Netherlands must also accept that it is an immigration society, and learn from the successes of other immigration societies while avoiding their failures. First and foremost: let's start listening to each other instead of just shouting in each other's ears. If we start there, I am sure the day will come when my friend will read the beginning of this article and say: "Did I really say that?"

From the Newsweek magazine issue dated May 25, 2009