Cosmopolis column in the Hindu Business Line (published 24 March, 2017)
Earlier this month, in an election result that ushered a continental sigh of relief, the Dutch dealt a blow to the aspirations of the far-right, anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders. Many outsiders cheered the verdict. On the heels of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, a success for Wilders would have signalled a growing wave of right-wing populism sweeping the West.
Once it became clear that Wilders had failed, international interest in the Dutch election evaporated. By virtue of their size or political power or media muscle, there are a handful of countries whose domestic affairs become global stories. One thinks immediately of the United States, but India is also slowly joining this group (note the considerable global attention given to the elections in Uttar Pradesh). The Netherlands doesn’t normally find itself at centre stage. Even though it is a wealthy, formerly imperial western European country, it is also a curiously marginal place.
And yet, its own struggles with identity and multiculturalism offer a microcosm of the crisis facing the West.
Over a decade ago, I was lucky enough to win a fellowship to spend a summer in the Netherlands. Along with a handful of American and Dutch university students, I learned about the history of tolerance (and intolerance) in the Netherlands, from the Holocaust (which eradicated over 75 per cent of Dutch Jews) to the “integration” of Turkish and Moroccan Muslim immigrant communities. I was housed with a lovely family in the western reaches of Amsterdam. On my first morning there, I had the quintessentially Dutch experience of being driven into the centre of the city on the back of a bicycle, clinging nervously to my “host mother” as we skirted tram-tracks and dived over little bridges, tracing the paths of Amsterdam’s canals.
It was a delicate time to study such issues in the Netherlands. Months earlier, a Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent had stabbed to death the director Theo van Gogh who had made a film critical of Islam. Politicians and commentators were all trying to come to terms with the killing and its implications.
We had the chance to speak with a slew of civil society leaders, from the mayor of Amsterdam to the imams of mosques. We learned how the radicalisation of (a relatively small number of) Dutch Muslim youth was often a rebellion against the Islam of their parents, who were steeped in the folk faith and customs of rural Anatolia in Turkey and the Rif mountains in Morocco. Islamist politics, by contrast, seemed quite modern and allowed some Dutch Muslims an affirming identity in opposition to a society that excluded them.
Over the course of that summer, it became clear to me that no honest appraisal of the situation in the Netherlands could overlook the racism endured by Muslim immigrants, who faced discrimination in many corners, from trying to secure employment to interactions with the police. Even if their families had been in the Netherlands for generations, many Muslims found themselves still treated as other, deemed “allochtoon” or outsider because of their skin colour and religion. They couldn’t conceive of themselves as fully Dutch because they weren’t allowed to.
Without the cosmopolitan ideal of American or Canadian identity (open, at least in principle, to everybody) or the helpless pluralism of Indianness, the Dutch struggle to include others in their collective sense of self. You see this same difficulty in other European countries, which though informed by different colonial histories, have had trouble in expanding their understanding of who they are as a nation to include non-white people. That inability lies at the root of the political and societal convulsions roiling the continent.
In this vein, I was impressed by the insight of a municipal programme called ‘We Amsterdammers’ that sought to strengthen the bonds between young black and Muslim youth to the city they lived in. Belonging to a nation requires a leap of imagination, a leap that can be easily blocked by the experience of racism. Belonging to a particular place, on the other hand, is unquestionable, a matter of residence more than culture. For many non-white people, the major cities of the West do offer a kind of inclusion and openness that nation-states do not. I have cousins born and raised in London who think of the city as their only home, but look at the wider UK as an almost alien land.
In 2005, Amsterdam offered me a vision of the way our ideas of nationhood have to evolve. Walking around heavily immigrant neighbourhoods, I was always struck by the profusion of satellite dishes cluttering the balconies and façades of tenement buildings. Previous generations of immigrants in the West were often cut off from their lands of origin. Modern telecommunications help many immigrants maintain ties to the people, events, news, and culture of home. This is not to say that one cannot, for example, watch Algerian TV and be French at the same time, but rather that modern identities are more mingled. There is rarely a clean break between immigrants and the places they came from.
That fact of the 21st century is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, it’s simply a fact that has to be understood. Cities such as Amsterdam, London and New York are and must continue to be places that breed familiarity with difference. If nationalism in the West is becoming a divisive and dark force, cities provide a more hopeful alternative