Can Europe Make It?

The failures of Holland’s pro-immigrant party

Was it inevitable that Think became a negative force for liberalism? One Dutch citizen tries to hold onto the middle ground in a polarizing world.

Chris van Dijk
26 February 2017

"Refugees welcome, Racism is Not" demonstration on February 6, 2016 at Dokwerker square in Amsterdam, Nethelands.Paulo Amorim/Press Association.All rights reserved.The emergence of Denk (Think), the pro-immigrant party, has caused quite the stir in Holland’s political debates. Even though the party is not expected to win more than two seats in the upcoming March 15 election, they have received consistent media attention, much of it critical.

The party has claimed media bias, stating that other parties do not receive nearly the same amount of scrutiny. Yet, even if this were true, repeating this claim will inevitably weaken them. While populist parties have been thriving on calling out the media as a public enemy, Think only give their right-wing counterparts – most notably the populist The Party of Freedom – more power if they persist in such a strategy. Its attempt at an anti-establishment stance will only push voters in the other direction and further the polemic strain coursing through Dutch political discourse. This anti-establishment posture does not belong to them: it has been claimed by the euro-skeptic populists and for the time being, this will not be overthrown.

Even worse, its ongoing partisanship has only strengthened the Party of Freedom’s claim that a foreign Islamic force is trying to undermine their liberal values. In a time when a strong liberal voice is needed to combat the false narrative of populism, Think has unfortunately only confirmed their legitimacy. Started by Tunahan Kuzu and Selçuk Öztürk, two deserters from the Parti van der Arbeit (PVDA), due to their disagreement with its integration policy, increasing controversies have surrounded this breakaway, beginning with Kuzu’s refusal to condemn Erdogan’s regime, refusing to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide and refusing to shake Netanyahu’s hand. The latest brouhaha was over their use of internet bots to counter dissenting Facebook commentators.

Becoming the other side of the coin

The last thing Think needed to do was become the extreme-counterpart of The Party of Freedom. Yet in order to gain the continued allegiance of their immigrant following, Think seems to have followed this course. The differences between these two parties encompass all you need to know about the increasingly bitter polarities of Dutch politics. While The Party of Freedom bellows for Holland to close its borders and to fend off the so-called ‘Islamification’ of its culture, Think instead wants its country to happily accept a flow of immigrants with differing values, and calls openly for restraints on the integration process. According to Think, the problem lies less with the immigrant’s refusal to adapt to the country's customs and much more with native intolerance to their ways of life.

Look only at their respective logo's – the Party of Freedom’s bird soaring in liberty, while Think’s two hands hold each other in collusion, to get the picture. Simply put, one party warns about the dangers of the anti-democratic forces of Islam, while the other denounces the anti-democratic forces of racism and xenophobia. The Party of Freedom presents itself as the party that gives voice to the average Dutch citizen that isn’t heard by their elitist politicians, while Think claims to give voice to those who feel that they don’t belong in Dutch society. One obviously appeals to anti-immigrant sentiment while the other party appeals to the immigrants who have been beginning to feel increasingly unwelcome as the political discourse concerning immigrants has hardened.

In the end, only The Party of Freedom has any real prospects of victory. You might claim that this is because The Party of Freedom has been around far longer than Think with more time to build a strong following. Think is hardly two years old, so it’s certainly not impossible that in the future they will gain more seats in parliament. For this to work however, they have to overcome the perception of being only the other side of the coin of the extreme-right. For a party that says it speaks for all, however, favouritism towards immigrants seems to dictate too many of their proposed policies. These policies will inevitably appeal to less voters than The Party of Freedom’s laughable one page election programme filled with impossible financial promises. But also, for many, Think’s proposed policies have an authoritarian ring to them and it’s not hard to see why.

Racism registry

For example, take a look at their proposed ‘racism registry’. Think wants to instill a new kind of state surveillance where individuals are registered for using racist slurs which will make it hard for them to find employment in a respectable business. This policy seems fraught with problems and destined for abuse. Employers will be able to blackmail employees. Critics and satirists could be silenced. It will undoubtedly manifest in censorship and strengthen the claim of the extreme-right that liberals are trying to curb free speech and are more worried about offending minorities than their own citizens. Policing racism is not going to quell racism. Racism is a complicated issue that demands constant debate in order for it to be effective, especially in a country like Holland where free speech has always been of huge importance. If you police people to think a certain way, it only backfires.           

Again, Think’s demand to change street signs and government buildings reflecting Holland’s colonial history will only infuriate the average citizen. The demand for more awareness of this colonial history would have sufficed, without reverting to their ‘political correctness’. Compared to its neighbours and European siblings Holland does not consider itself as having much of a nationalistic streak: it is not in the habit of glamorizing its past. Therefore many Dutch people see the demand to alter the names of streets and monuments to hide a colonial past seems more like some form of victimization than a call for justice. 

The demand to ban words such as ‘allochtoon’ and ‘ autochtoon’, both common words describing foreigners, adds to this suspicion. It’s understandable, since these words have become insulting to many, but banning such words will surely only add to the problem. Think also merits most of the blame for politicizing the ridiculous Black Pete debacle. If you want to raise awareness of institutionalized racism, disrupting children’s festivities will hardly do you any favors. Think’s obsession with the issue amounts to political pandering as shameless as Freedom’s fervent opposition to it. But Black Pete has been a regular fixture of traditional Dutch society and even non-nationalists are beginning to feel that their culture is under threat from aggressive protests. The attempt to compare the phenomenon with South Africa-type apartheid, as many claim, only makes them laugh. Associated with social justice warriors looking for any excuse for white guilt, to many it simply seems grossly over the top.

Such controversies as those around Black Pete meanwhile distract from the actual racism ingrained in society, the examples of which truly cause harm to both immigrants and minorities. So that rather than an asset to liberal perspectives, the issue has become a bane to them at a time when we need social forces to fight the xenophobia that is festering through the rise in nationalism that comes with the increasingly powerful Party of Freedom.

In some respects Think have given a voice to many Muslims who don’t feel safe in their own country any more, but it has failed to become a voice for unification. Instead, it has become the party of angry immigrants, rather like the Party of Freedom has become the party of angry white men. Think’s biggest failure is not just that its policies are too extreme and alienating for the general populace, but that they have failed in their core message – the need for a more tolerant and inclusive Holland – as their hypocrisies and double standards have become consistently exposed. 

Think’s disingenuous brand of tolerance

To understand Think’s more profound failure, one must first understand the initial appeal of The Party of Freedom as the only party standing up against the Islamic threat. For too long, liberals have failed to properly address the problem of Islam, stating that its extreme elements are confined to a minority fringe. Many people are concerned, not only by acts of terror, but by the position of women in this religion, which Theo van Gogh first brought to light in his short documentary, ‘Submission’, while also shining a light on Ayaan Hirshi Ali’s youth and such issues as female mutilation, the treatment of gays, together with the literal-minded obedience being taught in Islamic-minded schools. These issues all deserved open debate, but many of the left came too quickly to the defence by accusing such critics of being bigots. This drew people to far-right parties who dared to speak ill of a religion that inspires some of its adherents to commit unspeakable acts of terror.

Many Dutch people were still reeling from the assassinations of popular figures such as populist politician Pim Fortuyn and filmmaker Theo van Gogh, two men who had been very outspoken about their opinions of Islam. Now they felt that one couldn’t open up about the dangers of Islamic religion, for fear of a violent or even fatal retaliation. There and then, there was an urgent need for a left-wing politician that would argue for tolerance at the same time as being unafraid to criticize those elements of currently observed Islam that are opposed to liberal values. Since no candidate stepped forward for this, wasn’t it inevitable that extreme right-wing forces would capitalize on this set of fears?

This is why Think has failed so far. It could have been a strong opponent of the Party of Freedom had it dared to speak out for a reformation of Islam and for a tolerant and unified Holland. People need to hear more from outspoken liberal Muslims who are honest about the problems of Islam. The voices of Majid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirshi Ali have been vilified by many on the left, even though it’s these voices that could have empowered the leftist stance.

Instead, Think has become an ever more hapless political pawn for the Extreme-right by refusing to condemn the obvious. One infamous example was the arrest of Dutch columnist Ebru Amar, who had tweeted various criticisms of Erdogan in Holland and was arrested at her holiday home in Turkey. A Think commentator claimed during an interview that Ebru should have known better and should have respected the law of the land. This spun an immediate media spat which Kuzu said was used to vilify his party. But you can’t claim the anti-establishment high ground if you aren’t standing up for a victim of free speech. When pressed, another Think proponent prevaricated about the party’s opinion on the matter, before finally resorting to defending the law, stating that it was unlawful for a head of state to be insulted in this manner. Soon enough, right-wing forces accused the party of being “the long arm of Erdogan.” And who could blame them? Just as The Party of Freedom must be condemned for their support of Trump and Le Pen, shouldn’t Think be condemned for their support for Erdogan?

This became all the more more evident with Kuzu’s embarrassing refusal to critique Erdogan’s actions after the attempted coup of Turkey in 2016, when the Turkish leader seized the opportunity to purge the opposition. Shortly after the coup, a Dutch parliament hearing was held to condemn Kuzu’s support for the Erdogan regime. Kuzu had attended a Turkish celebration where Turkish immigrants rejoiced in the coup’s failure. Worse still, many Turkish opponents of Erdogan’s regime in Holland had been assaulted by pro-Erdogan supporters, making Kuzu’s defense seem even more outrageous. The Party of Freedom were now united with their more neo-liberal colleagues and leftwingers in condemning Think. But Kuzu stubbornly maintained that there had been “special circumstances” justifying Erdogan’s actions against the judicial system.

This was an opportunity for Think to prove that the inherited culture of its members was not as important to them as the defence of a free democracy. They have failed at the first hurdle, and lost massive amounts of support.

Another major scandal caused by Think’s loyalty to the Turkish state, is the party’s refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. On this, since the genocide involved Christians, Holland’s Christian coalition joins the opposition from The Party of Freedom. In an interview, Kuzu acknowledged that many perished in the 1915 incident, but balked at the term “genocide”, citing historical disputes over numbers and claiming to want an independent inquiry based on research. But among respected historians, the Armenian genocide is a historical fact and should be acknowledged as such. Think states that the outrage of its opponents is political maneuvering, less about truth and more about votes. The question then is; what exactly is their stance if not siding against historical fact?           

The latest controversy concerning the use of internet bots, makes them seem like aggressors who don’t tolerate dissenting opinion. Even if this was an exceptional incident, not part of an ingrained party behaviour, it makes them seem thuggish in the eyes of its opponents, and has just added further damage to the party’s already tarnished image.

A tragic waste                                                       

All this conspires to defeat the potential of this party. They have made it so easy for Holland’s right-wing news media such as No Style and The Daily Standard to make the case that their brand of tolerance is disingenuous. However much it is pointed out that the extreme-right is busy distracting its target audience from the crimes of its loyal adherents, Think is trying to do the same. In an interview, Kuzu insisted that the extreme-right, as seen in the assault on a mosque in Enschede – arson with terrorist intent – is a greater foe to democracy than Islamic terrorism. When the interviewer reminded Kuzu of Theo van Gogh’s murder, Kuzu pointed out that the government had not classed this a terrorist act. Again, Kuzu missed the point: Holland is hungering for Muslim politicians willing to be outspoken critics of their own culture, to render the accusations of the extreme–right null and void.

The sad thing is that their outrage, their feeling of alienation is a real thing; political discourse has hardened, certainly not in favor of minorities. But this discourse desperately needed a voice of unification, not an opposing voice of division. If these voices of division become too loud, this will only exacerbate the poisonous polemic streak in political discourse, cries of outrage will be ignored, empathy will be a commodity sold to whatever faction you are loyal to. People will see few opportunities and little reason to work together. 

We, for sure, need more of the message that the symbol of Think wears proudly on its sleeve: two hands in unison. But when Think extends its hand, people must feel safe in reaching out theirs. Instead of constantly calling out the media for being against them, they must instead reflect on themselves and make the necessary changes. Not just for immigrants, but for the rest of Holland who in the end will certainly not thrive if the rhetoric of anti-multiculturalism and euro-skepticism continues to win over so many of its citizens.

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