Can Europe Make It?

Transcending tolerance? The evolution of Dutch DNA

Visitors to the Amsterdam Museum are now met with the immodest claim that tolerance is part and parcel of the “Amsterdam DNA”. The concept of tolerance as understood now, and in bygone decades, needs critical interrogation if we are to advance a good society for all.

Pooyan Tamimi Arab Lammert de Jong
8 August 2013

Tolerance: part of Dutch DNA? Flickr/Andrew Black. Some rights reserved.

In the past decade, the Netherlands has lost much of its international allure as a bastion of religious tolerance. The very idea of tolerating the religious other, today Muslims, has come under huge pressure, especially since the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist who was born and raised in Amsterdam. The image of this murdered critic of Islam still speaks volumes in the Netherlands. His legacy is widely interpreted as one of standing up to religious hypocrisy.

Van Gogh’s close friend and well known comedian Hans Teeuwen appeared this July on national television for a lengthy interview in which the topic of Muslims and toleration was also raised. Like many who share his opinions, Teeuwen conflated respect for others with the principle of free speech. Politically overcorrect leftist critics, according to Teeuwen, confuse free speech with Islamophobia. In short, Muslims are the ones who need to become more tolerant, not the native Dutch population, which in Teeuwen’s perspective has reached civilisational maturity.

Indeed, visitors to the Amsterdam Museum are met with the immodest claim that tolerance is part and parcel of the “Amsterdam DNA.” That is quite a statement, and certainly not an opinion espoused by Dutch philosophers such as Spinoza. This concept of tolerance as we now understand it, and as it has evolved throughout Dutch history, needs critical interrogation if there is to be any chance of building a good society for all.

Dutch history offers ample opportunity for such a critical reflection. This year marks the tricentenary of the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. The city organized a festival of events to celebrate the Treaty and its relation to contemporary life, which featured a lecture from the author Karen Armstrong in which she suggested that mere tolerance should be overtaken and replaced by a compassionate understanding of religious pluralism.

As two concerned Dutch citizens, one with roots in the not-so-tolerant orthodox Protestant past, and the other in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the urgency for Muslims today of religious toleration, and the urgency of compassion for ‘the other’ in general, form an essential part of our lives. We challenge Armstrong’s rejection of “mere” tolerance however, and question the compassion she urged.

Despite being an imperfect and contradictory concept, when faced with the popularity of critics of Islam such as Teeuwen, tolerance, we believe is an inescapable necessity. Contrary to Teeuwen’s own claim, tolerance is not something that European Christians have acquired in the past once and for all, so that it is not really an issue any longer for the true Dutch. It is rather a key concept for an ongoing critical evaluation of nativist nostalgia, in situ, for a Netherlands without Muslims.

According to the festival organizers, the Treaty of Utrecht was a “turning point in world history.” Statesmen of the most powerful European nations came together in Utrecht to effectively end two centuries of religious wars. The late American philosopher John Rawls believed that the development of modern western democracies is unthinkable without this historical background:

“The social and historical conditions of modern democratic regimes have their origins in the Wars of Religion following the Reformation and the subsequent development of the principle of toleration, and in the growth of constitutional government and of large industrial market economies. These conditions profoundly affect the requirements of a workable conception of justice: among other things, such a conception must allow for a diversity of general and comprehensive doctrines, and for the plurality of conflicting, and indeed incommensurable, conceptions of the meaning, value and purpose of human life […] affirmed by the citizens of democratic societies.

This diversity of doctrines - the fact of pluralism - is not a mere historical condition that will soon pass away; it is, I believe, a permanent feature of the public culture of modern democracies.”

If the Treaty of Utrecht was a constitutive step forward for modern democracy, it is because the fact of pluralism urges us to constantly (re-) produce virtues such as tolerance, derived from the “sense of fairness”, which can be passed on to following generations. As Rawls saw it, we are also bound by the historical development of the principle of toleration. But today, this has become problematic, due to what philosopher Rajeev Bhargava (2011) has described in openDemocracy as “unprecedented religious diversity.”

Today, in particular, the presence of Islam in western European countries has forced merely intra-religious conceptions of toleration to seriously reconsider inter-religious toleration. To really deal with pluralism in the form of multiple religions, Bhargava’s critique may suggest that we have to abandon the ideal of tolerance altogether. However, such a line of reasoning fails to learn the lessons of intra-religious hostilities in European history. For centuries, the churches of Catholics and Protestants continued to fight each other. Even during World War II, a schism followed debates within the orthodox Dutch Reformed Church on the question of whether the snake had literally spoken in paradise or not. Families were divided and did not speak to one another. Adults stayed away from their parents’ funerals; grandparents ignored grandchildren or were not allowed to know them. This dramatic lack of intra-religious tolerance for each others’ beliefs and opinions had social expulsion as its consequence. And that at a time when thousands of Dutch Jewish citizens were being sent to their death in the Nazi extermination camps.

Compassion and tolerance

Karen Armstrong holds the view that what is truly urgent today is not tolerance, but compassion. For Armstrong, the core of all the world religions and philosophies of life is the same Golden Rule: Do not do unto others what you do not want others to do unto you. Compassion is what enables the practice of this universal insight. In her lecture, she referred to the Islamic characterization of God as al-rahman, the merciful. The etymological connection to the Arabic word for womb, rahem, makes it possible to interpret the mercy of the Islamic deity as a “tough love,” like that of a mother for a child, not an open ended love without responsibility. The question remains why Armstrong believes that tolerance should be transcended, not just in practice but also as an ideal.

Armstrong said she “did not like” the word tolerance, because it is rooted in bearing something or enduring a kind of pain. Toleration requires us to bear the burden that the other is the cause of, to endure the pain that the presence of the other prompts. Tolerance is just tough, without love - a kind of disciplinary self-control, or what political philosopher Veit Bader describes as a “minimalist” moral value. Compassion on the other hand is ambitious, and a more maximalist virtue, which presupposes active interest in and engagement with the other.

In many instances, tolerance is a kind of disciplinary self-control; a learning process forced by cohabitation and occasionally induced by constitutions and the law. The civil rights movement in the USA did not ask for tolerance or compassion but demanded equal rights. When these rights were won, the African American citizens did not expect a compassionate welcome at the voting booths. But they knew that segregationist whites had to tolerate them, because a majority in Congress had allocated them citizens’ rights that, for so long, had been denied to African Americans. And in the long run, enforced tolerant practice does breed tolerance. Through a process of homeostasis, segregationist whites became integrated into an ever more tolerant USA. Toleration can be seen as an ongoing process of institutionalization of tolerant practices by law, in the courts, at school and at work, in the neighborhood and on the streets.

Armstrong’s second, more convincing, argument against tolerance exposes an inherent contradiction residing in the idea of putting up with the other’s presence, namely that lurking in the background of the principle of tolerance are unequal power relations. What matters in her argument, which is very much to the point, is that within tolerance resides a dominant “us” that determines what can be allowed for “others.”

This argument has also been made, for example, by anthropologist Talal Asad, who writes that the meaning of tolerance in liberal European societies today is that the presence of Muslims in Europe can be endured, but that they are therefore not seen as ‘of Europe’. The contradiction of tolerance is that it excludes what it hopes to include. Asad expands this critique to “liberalism” itself, which he finds intrinsically violent. But by emphasizing this, Asad creates a dichotomy between Islam and modernity, Muslims and liberals, which fails to actually describe the hopes and aspirations of Muslims who do support and want fully to participate in European liberal democracies.

A 2007 note on Dutch identity by Henk Kamp, the current Minister of Economic Affairs, on behalf of the Liberal Party, makes Armstrong’s and Asad’s point for them:

“For most Dutchmen their country is also the land of their ancestors and progeny. The Dutch share their low, flat land and its waters, their freedom, prosperity, traditions and eccentricities. They also share their open mind for the world and their willingness to let people with a different cultural background fully participate.”

Kamp, like the Amsterdam Museum, describes the Netherlands as essentially tolerant, but in doing so also brands the so-called “non-western allochthonous” population as the others who are allowed to participate by an autochthonous population. They are “allowed” by an “us” to “fully participate.” Nativism trumps civil rights and a political conception of identity. 

Nevertheless, are the arguments of Armstrong and Asad sufficient for letting the concept go altogether? Was compassion more important for the Treaty of Utrecht than, as Veit Bader puts it, a minimalist “gritting teeth tolerance”?  

The case of the azan 

The morning that Armstrong delivered her lecture in Utrecht’s cathedral began with the voice of a Turkish imam. It was moving to hear the Islamic call for prayer, the azan, in such a celebration of inter-religious peace. The invited imam works at Amsterdam’s Fatih Mosque in the city centre. The Fatih Mosque is one of the very few centrally located in the capital, but because it used to be a Catholic church, bystanders usually don’t realize that there is a mosque very close to the Westerkerk and the Anne Frank House. Like several other mosques in the Netherlands, they would like to be able to symbolically call for prayer. Although the call for prayer is constitutionally guaranteed in the Netherlands, many Muslims feel that they should not provoke non-Muslims, especially in the city centre.

But what if the azan were to be heard one afternoon in an ordinary neighbourhood in a small town? Would it have the same reception: would residents be moved, as visitors to Utrecht’s St. Martin Cathedral were? In 2012, the town of Deventer organised several informative meetings about the call for prayer. Many residents became angry about a proposal to amplify the call for prayer in the afternoon. In a matter of days, the mosque’s chairman received over sixty mostly negative replies. He and his fellow Muslims cited their equal rights as citizens of the Netherlands. The azan’s opponents demanded their cultural assimilation. They demanded cultural recognition from their neighbours. You have to see how tense such a situation can rapidly become with your own eyes to appreciate the minimalist “gritting teeth tolerance”. There was hardly any “compassion” during any of these meetings. Maximalist ethical requirements such as an active interest in the other, curiosity, engagement, and critical self-examination were not at all what governed the protracted arguments. 

Finally, the municipality conducted a poll to enforce a local modus vivendi, a miniature version of a peace “treaty”. Based on an acoustic map made by the municipality, not everyone was allowed to participate in the poll, and those who did not vote against the azan de facto voted for it. The main problem, however, was not a case of neutral noise annoyance, but a symbolic rejection of Islam as a public religion. The azan was seen as symbolically out of place in the Netherlands. Roughly one third of the residents finally voted against the azan, after months of arguments and two trial weeks. Because they failed to raise a fifty per cent active resistance to the azan, the municipality decided that it would not interfere further in the matter and that the local mosque could, as the law states, use its loudspeakers.

One of the mosque’s opponents emphasised how the outcome had wrecked any good will she previously held towards the mosque: “Sometimes, I’m even frightened by my own reaction to Muslims, but this is what happens when we’re forced to accept something that we don’t want.” Experiencing such new pluralities is a learning process, and at times really painful. It continuously requires patience from all sides. 

A third way? 

A third way would be to look for something in between mere tolerance and Armstrong’s demanding standard of compassion. Bhargava has called this position critical respect, “something more than toleration but somewhat less than equal respect for all religions”. We could also recall Gayatri Spivak’s resonating notion of “critical intimacy.” Critical respect does not allow total indifference, and requires an amount of curiosity in the other’s religion. But it also preserves a critical distance from that religion at the same time. Spivak’s critical intimacy does not criticize from a distance, but complements distance with reflective insider perspectives.

However, these are not positions an average working class citizen - those who feel alienated by the presence of the Muslim call to prayer next door - has a chance to take. Nor can it be assumed that everyone can do this in theory. However great the urgency of notions like compassion or critical respect may be, the necessity for imperfect but crucial liberal concepts like tolerance will remain with us.

Religious tolerance must be taught, or even enforced. In Deventer, tolerance has been enforced to an extent in the case of the azan. Protected by the Constitution and by pragmatic municipal practice, the local Dutch-Turkish Muslims were allowed to use loudspeakers daily in the afternoons. Is such an enforced tolerance a contradiction in terms, as the local mosque’s opponents claim?

Tolerance is not a given virtue or state of mind, but builds on experience, prescription and cohabitation. Tolerance can’t be taken for granted; it must be defended as a political platform on which further engagement can be built, decided by democratic politics, however imperfect. In a liberal democracy, it must be assumed that not-so-compassionate majorities tend to be intolerant of minorities. That is why the protection of minorities is one of the pillars of the Netherlands’ Constitution alongside the principles of free speech and non-discrimination. That is why on Gay Day 2013, the Dutch government allocated a budget to smooth the “coming out” of gay and lesbian citizens who still face cultural restrictions. Not because “they” must become like “us”, but rather to protect their right to be as they are.

It is therefore imperative that we dream not only about alternatives to tolerance, but about alternative conceptions of tolerance as well. 


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