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The quarter finals against populism: national identity in the Dutch elections

Date:15 March 2017
Author:Roos Feringa
The quarter finals against populism
The quarter finals against populism

Renée van der Harst – Wagenvoorde has written an analysis of the campaigning period  and how it differs from previous years of the Dutch parliamental elections that will take place on the 15th of March. Renée is a postdoctoral research fellow and the funding officer of the Centre of Religion and the Public Domain. 

Today is Election Day in the Netherlands. Although it is only a minor player in the international political playfield, the international press is watching closely what will happen in the Netherlands today.123 With upcoming elections in several other European countries later this year, including France, Germany, possibly Austria and Italy, Prime Minister Mark Rutte even called today’s elections “the quarter finals to beat the wrong sort of populism”.[1] The semi-finals would be the elections in France, starting next month, and the finals the German elections, in September. After Brexit and Trump’s victory, no one dares to guarantee the victory of traditional parties over right wing, populist, anti-immigrant parties, or as Rutte put it: we shouldn’t “rely on the polls that tricked us before”. These elections, especially  if  populist anti-immigrant parties win, will determine Europe’s future. The Dutch results are expected to be an important prediction for the outcomes in other countries.

One of the key issues in this election, like in so many of the campaigns we have seen fought in the last 12 months, has been national identity and sovereignty, and the complex place of religion in those discussions. That these issues have become so prominent in the Netherlands, an avowedly secular country, is notable, to say the least. Yet recent Dutch history provides some clues as to how this prominence of religion and national identity has come about.

From tolerance to national identity

The Netherlands has long been famous for its supposed tolerance and lack of nationalism.[2] However, in the past two decades, remarkable frame shifts have taken place, shifts that have not gone unnoticed in other countries. Last week, the German WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) broadcasted the documentary ‘Ausgerechnet Holland’ ( Holland, of all ), in which the makers investigated the seemingly sudden change in the Dutch political landscape and the rise of populism. They asked: “Holland, wasn’t that once the cosmopolitan, tolerant dream?” What happened in the meantime? How is it possible that a country that both in self-perception and by others was often seen as an open, tolerant and highly secularised society in which anything was possible – from smoking pot to abortion, from gay marriage to euthanasia – has become a country in which populism and anti-immigrant sentiments are becoming leading voices?

One of the explanations that has been put forward to make sense of this apparent shift is the historical phenomenon of pillarization. From roughly 1900 to 1960, the Netherlands was characterised by a segmentation of society into religious and ideological blocks. It was a prosperous country, in which people from different ideological or religious blocks were only in touch with people from their own pillar, and where political decisions were made between the elite representatives of the pillars, who shared cosmopolitan ideals. When guest workers entered the Netherlands in the second half of the twentieth century, they were welcomed to participate in society, but because they didn’t belong to any of the existing pillars, there was relatively little contact between Dutch people and these newcomers. Besides, the presence of migrants (mainly guest workers and colonial migrants) was considered temporary, and therefore, policies were aimed at preservation of the migrants’ identitiy in the socio-economic sphere.[3]

In the 1960s, things started to change. Due to prosperity, globalization, and the emergence of the welfare state, the demand for more individual freedom arose.[4] The younger generation wanted to liberate themselves from the strict bonds and rules of both their parents and the church. Secularisation and sexual revolution went hand in hand and in the next thirty to forty years, the Netherlands became one of the most secularised and progressive countries in the Western world.[5] The pinnacle of this trend has been the so-called ‘purple coalition’ that governed the country between 1994 and 2002.[6] While the (political) elite remained close to their cosmopolitan ideals, tensions arose below the surface. Where Dutch people had become highly individualized and “secularised”, they saw how their Islamic fellow citizens had remained closer to their “pillar”. “They” shared a common identity, rooted in Islam. But what has remained of “us”? How can we define what we share, after we got rid of our ideological or religious ties? Slowly but surely, Dutch people felt that they had downplayed their cultural standards to make room for difference and diversity. The once so popular ideal of tolerance and openness to diversity started to crack.[7] Dutch people, strengthened by rising populist voices in politics, started to long for a unifying principle (again), for a shared identity. Last year, for instance, the Dutch public service television initiated a socio-cultural experiment, “Typisch Nederlands” ( Typically Dutch)  aimed at investigating what “Dutchness” entailed. The programme was trending topic on Twitter during the entire season.[8] And so we arrive at today’s elections with a major focus on “the Dutch identity”.

From national identity to religion

When we look at the current campaign, and compare it to previous campaigns, it is striking to see 1) that there is such an enormous focus on national identity; 2) that the focus on national identity is related to issues around religion; and 3) that religion is interpreted as a category, as a cultural marker of identity.

In the elections of 2012, the most important themes were the economy, healthcare and the importance of the European Union[9]. Now that the economic situation of the country has improved,[10] and with the refugee crisis and several terrorist attacks in Europe in our collective memory, people feel a threat “from outside”, and especially from Islam. There have been riots about the positioning of shelters for refugees and the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam party of Geert Wilder is, even on this Election Day, still in the race for becoming the largest party.[11] In two of the main debates of this campaign, the party leaders had to debate about threats to the national culture or identity. I will focus on these two debates in my argumentation. In the first debate, the statement was: “Islam is a threat to Dutch identity”. So here we see that the perceived threat is made concrete with reference to Islam. Although the five party leaders that were present at that debate all voted against this statement[12], the fact that they debated this question would have been absolutely unthinkable until very, very recently. The populist and anti-immigrant rhetoric has become so mainstream that it is acceptable for broadcasting companies to put such statements forward in the debates.

In the answers to this statement, the party leaders emphasised that Islam  as such  is not a threat, and that many Muslims are ‘good citizens’.[13] They did, however, also mention that fundamentalist Muslims and Islamists should be treated forcefully, that IS is a real danger, and that radical Islam can be a real threat to our individual freedom. Strikingly, when the party leader of the liberal middle party asked the party leader of the Christian-democratic party whether he sees Muslims as second-class citizens, or whether they are equal to other citizens, there was no real answer. Taking the historical developments into account, and reading between the lines, there is this sense of incompatibility of Islam and Dutch culture present in the campaign. Dutch culture is interpreted in a liberal and progressive way, whereas Islam is implicitly – and sometimes explicitly – constructed as backward and oppressive. When you hear the party leaders speak about Dutch culture, they unequivocally answer in terms of freedom and equality as defining characteristics of  The Dutch , whereas they hasten themselves to make a distinction into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims, mainly depending on how liberal they are. This is a first way in which a specific religion is interpreted as a category in the campaign.

When we take a look at the second major debate, the party leaders had to discuss the statement: “The Netherlands has not protected its culture enough”. Four party leaders were to respond to this question: the leaders of the Christian-democratic party, the socio-democratic party, the left-wing green party and the party for the elderly. Interesting patterns emerged in their responses. Whether the politicians voted in favour or against this statement, they all used similar rhetoric through which they emphasised that there are typical Dutch norms and values.[14] In more concrete terms, they referred to individual freedom and tolerance, gay marriage and the equality between men and women.[15] In political philosophical terms, these quite diverse parties thus all view the Netherlands mainly as a liberal country, in which the liberal values of freedom and equality are the defining characteristics.

One of the most puzzling comments about typical Dutch culture came from Sybrand Buma, the leader of the Christian-democratic party. He claimed that equality between men and women is a pivotal element in Dutch culture, and something that has been present here for “thousands of years”. He even went further and hinted to the positive role of Christianity in this emancipatory trend. In the past weeks, much has been written about how mistaken he has been in these claims, articles that pointed out that especially Christian parties have slowed down the process of emancipation of women. What I find more intriguing, however, is the fact that he drew a line connecting the Christian roots of the Netherlands and important progressive values. The historical fact that the Netherlands has been a Christian country and the fact that progressive values are widely shared in the Netherlands, were combined into an argument to claim that Christianity leads to progressive values. It thus seems as if ‘religion’ is used purely as a category to distinguish one group from another based on progressive values. Because Buma simultaneously mentioned the threat of radical Islam, this reasoning consolidates the distinction between Islam and Christianity. In this line of thought, Christianity is relatively harmless and its bad or backward aspects have been overcome, while Islam is and always remains potentially dangerous. It adds to the idea that our national values (which were claimed to be Christian by nature) need to be protected from forces from outside.

Secular parties in the debate used similar argumentation to maintain the importance of progressive values for our culture. They did not agree on whether these values need more protection, but these values are, here too, something to draw a line between people who are Dutch (and are perceived to automatically share these values) and (especially traditionalist) newcomers who need to (learn to) embrace these values.

In whatever way liberal and progressive values are positioned as defining characteristics of Dutch national identity (which all parties seem to do), there is an argumentation behind it that interprets the Dutch national culture in an essentialist way, as a fixed and solid whole, as a category to distinguish “us” from “them”. This argumentation runs as follows. First, there is the idea that cultures are rooted in traditions. Depending on the political ideology, for the Dutch culture this tradition is seen as Christian, as Judeo-Christian(-humanist), or as secular. Second, culture is perceived to be the main source of inspiration for identity, and there are defining characteristics of culture that citizens can identify with. For the Netherlands, these defining characteristics are liberal progressive values, such as the equality of men and women and the acceptance of gay-marriage. These two steps in the argumentation lead to an essentialist interpretation of culture as identity marker, as a distinguishing factor that separates “us” from “them”. Further, by interpreting culture in this way, the position of religion is a tricky one. In this same essentialist understanding, religion is namely seen as one of the major sources of inspiration for identity, because religion is often seen as a tradition. It is through this type of argumentation that Islam as a category has become a topic to debate in the current campaign; it is through this type of argumentation that the threats to national identity are on the political agenda; and it is through this type of argumentation that populist parties are on the rise all around Europe.

[1] Rutte made these statements in a press-conference on Monday night, before a one-to-one debate with Geert Wilders, the leader of the Party for Freedom, the anti-immigrant populist party. Can you provide a link to this?

[2] Van der Veer, P. (2006). Pim Fortuyn, Theo van Gogh, and the Politics of Tolerance in the Netherlands,  Public Culture  18 (1): 111 – 124.

[3] Scholten, P. (2011). Constructing Dutch Immigrant Policy: Research-Policy Relations and Immigrant Integration Policy-Making in the Netherlands.  British Journal of Politics and International Relations 13 , 75-92.

[4] Mepschen, P., & Duyvendak, J. W. (2012). European sexual nationalisms: The culturalization of citizenship and the sexual politics of belonging and exclusion.  Perspectives on Europe 42 (1), 70-76.

[5] Idem.

[6] Lucardie, P. (2008). The Netherlands: Populism versus Pillarization, in:  Twenty-first Century Populism: The spectre of Western European democracy , Albertazzi and McDonnell (eds), Palgrave MacMillan, 151-165.

[7] Hurenkamp, M., & Tonkens, E. (2011).  De Onbeholpen Samenleving: Burgerschap aan het begin van de  21e Eeuw . Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

[8] Wagenvoorde, R.A. (2015).  Is Citizenship Secular? Conceptualising the relation between religion and citizenship in contemporary Dutch society . Zürich: LIT Verlag.




[12] It must be said that both Mark Rutte, the prime minister and party leader of the right-wing liberal party and Geert Wilders, party leader of the populist, anti-immigrant party, were not present during this debate.

[13] Mahmood Mamdani, and other critical scholars of religion, have challenged this terminology of good Muslim versus bad Muslim.


[15] Henk Krol, the party leader of 50Plus, first stated that “people who come here, just need to be proud of our norms and values. Later on, he referred to his personal involvement in the figth for the acceptance of gay marriage in the Netherlands, and talked about a perceived loss of tolerance when comparing the Netherlands of today to the Netherlands of 2002, when gay marriage became legal. Lodewijk Asscher, the leader of the labour party, and Jesse Klaver, the leader of the green party, both emphasised individual freedom and tolerance as defining characteristics of the Netherlands. They emphasised equality of citizens by saying that “The Netherlands belongs to all of us”. Sybrand Buma, the leader of the Christian-democratic party, said: “we should rise up against hate speech and against radical Islam. And we should be more strict on integration.” The whole debate is available here:


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