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After tolerance

About the author
Theo Veenkamp was head of the Netherlands Agency for the Reception of Asylum–Seekers and head of strategy at the Dutch ministry of justice.

The assassination in Amsterdam of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh on 2 November 2004 – most probably by an Islamist radical – has had a paradoxical effect in the Netherlands. It has struck an enormous blow to the ideal of “multiculturalism”, yet the unignorable reality of “multiculture” seems imprinted on the national psyche more deeply than ever.

The paradox is reflected in the conflicting responses to the killing. Assaults – on Muslim schools, mosques, and churches – follow worthy demonstrations of Moroccan elders carrying banners pleading for dialogue, and of Dutch–Moroccan youngsters bicycling en masse through Amsterdam in red t–shirts proclaiming “against radicalism”. Small and visibly multicultural gatherings lay flowers on the spot where Theo van Gogh died, and discuss heatedly what happened, why, and how to continue to live alongside one another.

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Retired senior politicians diagnose terrible confusion in the Dutch nation. Skinheads and more traditionally–attired citizens intently follow the memorial service to Theo van Gogh on a huge screen outside the cemetery, while quietly and equally intently disagreeing with each other about the next desirable course of action: counter–violence or counter–argument.

During his visit to a completely burned–down Muslim school in Uden, prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende is moved to hear a young pupil ask if the name of the school can be changed so that he can learn and play in peace. That same evening, a large number of Uden citizens from all backgrounds march silently from the municipal hall to the ruins of the school; some carry banners saying: “our multicultural society will never disappear, whatever may happen”. Queen Beatrix, on an unannounced visit to a multicultural workshop of Amsterdam youngsters preparing to found an urban think–tank, stresses the paramount importance of accepting the equal value of all who live in Dutch society despite all sorts of differences.

More and more people, from all sides, say that they are scared.

Yes to multiculture, no to multiculturalism

Against this backdrop, openDemocracy’s frank, open and constructive discussion about multiculturalism seems not only timely but urgent. I would like to contribute to this ongoing debate by exploring three questions:

  • do we really need to say goodbye to multiculturalism?
  • if so, what should replace it?
  • if we want to act to reduce friction and increase social cohesion, where should we be firm and principled and where flexible and pragmatic?

I do not claim to have the definitive answers, but I would like to explore one avenue that could be promising and have it scrutinised and tested in the only way a democracy can solve its problems: in free, open and constructive debate.

My starting–point in answering these questions, then, is the belief that – in Europe as a whole as well as Holland – we need a new kind of language to express old aspirations, the better to clarify encroaching confusion; and a new practical approach that seems workable to all sides and offers a shared perspective for building mutual confidence and trust over the long term.

In this respect, I find David Theo Goldberg‘s distinction with which I began – between “multiculture” as a description of the type of society that most Europeans now live in and “multiculturalism” as a concept that expresses the essence of a possible bridge to a better world – most helpful.

It seems evident that “multiculture” has continuing utility, for even though “culture” itself is an unclear and ambiguous notion, most people would readily recognise that – whether they like it or not – they live in multicultural societies, a fact they experience every day because they can see, hear and smell it. But to pose “multiculturalism” as a sort of social ideal to be worked towards is far more problematic. Indeed, I think it is time to give up on the term – partly because the assumptions embodied in the full concept entail misleading conclusions, and partly because the vague and multiple meanings of “culture” itself are an obstacle to clear policy.

The danger on my street

Multiculturalism as an ideal, in implying that a mix of cultures is intrinsically preferable and that it will more or less automatically generate a better society, is doubly misleading. I am afraid that reality is much more complex than such simplistic notions suggest.

I think, by contrast, that both multi– and monoculture “just happen” under a variety of influences – economic, social, political, personal; that each can constitute, and often at the same time, both opportunity and threat; and that which potential prevails depends on many factors defying generalisation. Among these factors is the type of culture–generating characteristics involved in a social pattern – income, education, religion, ethnicity, history; and the defining context for a specific mono– or multiculture – movement from rural to urban area or vice– versa, a long history of conflicts, upward mobility, the influx of ethnically and religiously different migrants.

To give an illustration of this contingent reality as it appeared “on my street”: I once lived in a predominantly white multi–income and multi–education street whose large majority of residents probably knew nothing about each other’s religion. The rich lived on one side in relatively expensive drive–in dwellings, the low–income neighbours lived across the street in heavily–subsidised but decent houses. All of us met at the supermarket, in the doctor’s waiting–room, at school meetings and sometimes even on the beaches of Marbella. But informal bonding hardly every crossed the street, and only those neighbours active in a church or political party crossed the “invisible” border in the middle of the road.

Theo Veenkamp was the co–architect of the “people flow” thought–experiment, a joint project between Demos and openDemocracy, examining how Europe might best cope with global migration over the next fifty years. See the Demos booklet and openDemocracy’s debate, including Theo Veenkamp’s own articles.

The situation was like a polite, peaceful coexistence; no smouldering timebombs lurked under the road that separated and connected our houses. Maybe most important, nothing in particular was required for this coexistence to function. But what if the inhabitants of the drive–in dwellings had been all–white and Christian, and those in the subsidised houses all non–white and Muslim?

Nobody can tell, except that the polite and peaceful coexistence would surely not have emerged by itself; it would have to be worked for, and it would always be incomplete and vulnerable – simply because there was more deep–rooted and potentially divisive diversity involved.

In short, it is equally possible that such a street – triggered by constructive but not–naive catalysts on both sides, and if necessary helped by authorities and institutions – would turn into a micro–cosmopolitan enclave that nobody wished to leave; and that – triggered by destructive closed minds on both sides and “helped” in the wrong way by authorities and institutions – into an inhospitable and dangerous place from which everybody wanted to flee.

What people want

What does this embedded potential for destruction and construction imply for the aspiration underlying multiculturalism? The answer, the direction we must take, lies in the way many regular people in Holland react to the unheard–of events happening in their country, their village and their street.

Many of them seem to go through a fourfold process akin to an awakening:

  • after all, it can happen here
  • intolerance and hate, if you scratch the surface, are waiting for their chance here as much as anywhere in the world
  • we won’t let it happen
  • but how?

This process convinces me of three things:

▪ the majority of the population realises that history cannot be turned back, and that Holland will remain forever a multicultural society ▪ many people on all sides realise that mistakes have been made in the past which have contributed to the current situation, where we suddenly find ourselves on the brink of uncontrollable polarisation ▪ many on all sides realise that they have to act, and that some things have to be done differently from now on.

The reassuring aspect of these understandings is that many, both in the ruling establishment and in the population at large, are quite well aware in general of what has to be done: relentlessly battle domestically and internationally the terrorism committed by the small minority, while creating and sustaining humane conditions for the large peaceful majority via schools, jobs, neighbourhood safety, shared citizenship, talking and doing things together.

Their uncomfortable aspect is that the specifics of achieving this, already rather complex, become additionally so by deep–rooted divisions of opinion about effective methods for dealing with the negative effects of multiculture. These concern a variety of difficult questions: how far human rights must be sacrificed for the sake of fighting terrorism, how much compulsion should be used in preventing no–go areas or schools of only one ethnic composition, whether it is better to accept monocultural neighbourhoods of whatever colour or to try to spread multiculture as evenly as possible across all communities.

Just, multiple, connected, coexistence

Stuart Hall’s impressive article about the “new forces that are subdividing shared space in London” convinces me that many of these disputes need to be laid aside in favour of the search for a new overarching strategic concept to address the reality of the multicultural societies in countries like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Amsterdam and Rotterdam are not London, but developments in London offer a glimpse of what could happen in the delta–metropolitan area of Holland, of which the first signs can be seen already.

Stuart Hall describes how the old, “porous” and therefore interconnected cosmopolitan city is gradually transforming itself into a “cluster of discrete differentiated warring enclaves”. He describes how, gradually, “new kinds of differences – religious, social, cultural – intrude directly into the heart of this western metropolitan city”, and how increasingly the city does no longer seems able “to resolve the wider contradictions of the globalisation that it reflects and embodies”.

He also describes how intriguing and promising examples of “syncretism and globalisation from below” spring up in some neighbourhoods, but at the same time how vulnerable and temporary these usually are in view of the powerful forces that are shaping the emerging new divisions in London.

The persuasive logic of this analysis leads me to envisage a fresh strategic concept that would have two emphases: providing a clear overall direction for the type of multicultural society citizens want to maintain and develop, while allowing for maximal use and stimulation of the constructive and survival–oriented energy of all the society’s participants, regardless of the specific path anyone chooses.

My first draft of this concept might be called “Just Multiple Connected Coexistence” (JMCC) – whose four elements are equally essential.

The first element, “multiple”, entails an acceptance in principle of whatever constructive pattern people themselves choose. This implies no preference for white, black or multicultural neighbourhoods or schools as such. We do have a preference for equal and minimum standards of living, quality and security although we acknowledge that ways to achieve these may be very different in each case.

The reason for this acceptance is simple: people have different strategies for survival and growth, according to choice or necessity; they will be most successful by being able to access a strategy that suits them best. If this requires governments and institutions operating differently in differently circumstances, so be it.

This, in short, is a pragmatic starting–point. Where multiple coexistence is shaped by strong underlying forces which generate the potential for tensions, it is wiser to let these forces run their course and influence them indirectly – by, for instance, inventive physical planning – than to stimulate extra frictions by trying directly to channel their course, if necessary with force and without much chance of success. This flexible, pragmatic approach focuses all energy on directly addressing the potential triggers for friction as they develop.

The second element of JMCC, “connected”, implies an acknowledgement that modern multicultural society is becoming so all–pervasive and multifaceted that physical and psychological withdrawal into one’s own perceived micro–world becomes a natural and understandable reaction. But such a reaction, if unchecked, could undermine the minimum of cohesion and shared emotions, memories and values necessary for any society to sustain itself. Thus, an essential component of JMCC is active promotion of all sorts of connections between micro–worlds.

The result of this policy would be that (assuming that the social isolation of communities could be measured) all types of communities – Stuart Hall’s flashy cosmopolitan neighbourhoods, “white–flight” suburbs and decayed inner–city areas – all acquired a sufficiently positive index of social connectedness. Interconnectedness would be a key way to prevent and address tensions resulting from certain kinds of multiple coexistence – ranging from maintaining and restoring “porousness”, facilitating people’s movement from one space to another, to sharing a common language and participation in the common, public space.

The third element in JMCC, “just”, is one altogether missing in multiculturalism. It refers to the leading, uncompromising and overarching principle that characterises society despite its freedom to choose any strategy to respond to its multicultural character: namely, the rule of law.

The rule of law also means not rule by religion, race, the market, violence, media, or money. It includes the choice of parliamentary democracy as a way of creating law and the separation of powers to implement and apply law. It also includes adherence to those human rights that are enshrined in constitutions and international treaties.

It is characteristic of the present situation that it seems necessary to stress the importance of this crucial element, once so self–evident to old and new citizens alike after past victories over totalitarian forces bent upon destroying the rule of law. We now have to learn anew, and the hard way, that the rule of law and everything connected to it is a vulnerable, delicate but beautiful plant that requires sophisticated and never–ending care from all; it can never be taken for granted.

The fourth element in JMCC is “coexistence”. This may not appear to dreamers of a better world a very ambitious concept. But present conditions are such that if we were able truly to achieve “only” Just Multiple Connected Coexistence, that in itself would constitute a near–miracle. First things come first: let’s focus our energy on bringing closer this minimum condition for a better world. That will already be a hell of a job.

Diversity and leadership

This brings me to a few concluding remarks about diversity and leadership. More than ever before, we need diversity to deal effectively with the complexities that we and the generations before us have brought into being in the process of trying to create a better world. If we fail to use the constructive energy and creativity that diversity makes possible, we rob ourselves of powerful means for survival and further development.

Yet like all sources of powerful energy diversity has to be carefully managed and contained, otherwise constructive diversity could turn into destructive divisiveness. Multiculturalism as an ideal is too shallow and superficial to serve as a beacon for those who want to promote and manage diversity in its most constructive direction. Permanently transforming diversity, a typical characteristic of our globalising world, demands leadership of the highest quality making use of deeper strategic concepts that reflect the complexity of the new tasks involved.

A case–study of the kind of leadership that new conditions demand occurred when I was responsible for the reception of asylum–seekers in the Netherlands during a period when their influx was at its height. In the Netherlands, the agency for the reception of asylum–seekers is responsible for scouting potential reception–centres. In this case, we identified suitable accommodation in a small town near The Hague.

The town mayor was a solid and seasoned administrator who knew her citizens well and had learned to act on the basis of a rule of thumb: 80% of her citizens are in general quite willing to behave in a civilised and tolerant manner, 10% make a real principle of this (even willing to make sacrifices for it), while the other 10% are fundamentally and irreparably intolerant and hostile.

She and her fellow administrators began the arduous task of preparing the citizens for a potentially controversial decision, the opening of a reception–centre for asylum–seekers in their midst. Things were going reasonably well until two things happened on a single day: the minister responsible for the reception of asylum–seekers was caught on television confiding to a journalist that she did not know how to keep pace with their influx, and a report was published by the Dutch Social and Cultural Planning Office that by around 2020–2030 the majority of people under 20 years old in Holland’s four main cities would be of non–Dutch origin (moreover, no government official made any accompanying statement on the conclusions of this report).

The mayor told me that in the few days after these incidents, both amplified by the media, a large part of her 80% “middle ground” shifted clearly to the intolerant and hostile 10%. It was extremely difficult for her and the staff of the reception agency to restore confidence to such an extent that a reception centre would be at least tolerated.

Also in openDemocracy on the Netherlands’ painful confrontation with itself after the assassination of Pim Fortuyn in 2002:

  • Tjebbe van Tijen, “The sorrow of the Netherlands” ( May 2002)
  • Dienke Hondius, “‘Become like us’: the Dutch and racism” (December 2003)
  • To access these and other articles, please subscribe to openDemocracy

The situation today – in Holland, and in many other parts of Europe – is much more serious than in this small town. The main difference is that Islamist radicals are fundamentally challenging the monopoly of power resting in the hands of government. This monopoly of power is in the end the cornerstone for protecting the rule of law against its enemies; confidence in the public leaders who hold it, trust in their capacity to manage this existential threat, now seems a prerequisite for embarking upon a journey in the direction of something like Just Multiple Connected Coexistence.

This poses a fundamental challenge – for political leaders; for all with some sort of authority who operate in the public domain; and for all responsible citizens. It is to find ways to become more effective both in fighting the totalitarian few, and in journeying together in harmony with the peaceful many, regardless of their race and religion – and all this within the confines of the rule of law.

The Dutch conversation

The period after the assassination of Theo van Gogh is marked by three groundswells in Holland. First, an avalanche of local and grassroots initiatives for dialogue and reconciliation: from Jews, Muslims and Christians breaking the fast together in the local mosque, to the formation of living multicultural protective walls. Second, an unnerving increase in mutual hostility and fear, expressed in many small but cutting mutual insults and in a tangible rise in the number of people seriously discussing emigration or re–migration. Third, a doubling of anonymous reports to the police of suspicious, possibly terrorism–linked activities, many of which (according to the police) turn out be quite substantial and helpful.

In the complex multi–party political landscape of the Netherlands, cabinet and parliament are visibly wrestling with the possible new shape of leadership the situation requires. In parallel, a rich debate is erupting in the media, in which all relevant parties participate and all conceivable angles are articulated.

For a variety of reasons I never thought of my compatriots as being in general more tolerant, in the true sense of the word, than anyone else. The Dutch history of intolerance and racism, if we are honest, matches our history of tolerance. For those who believed what the outside world thought about us it is indeed a rude awakening.

But, I am proud to conclude, we do have something to offer. Holland is not only the first modern republic of the world, and today a republican monarchy, but also one founded on a conscious choice for tolerance and diversity. Erasmus and William of Orange, the nation’s founding father, laid the cornerstones of a deeply–rooted, at times almost invisible, but quite durable common frame of reference, which helped us over successive generations always in the end to find refuge – despite our equally deeply–rooted divisions and intolerance – in constructive consensus.

The election (on 15 November) on Dutch TV of the “greatest Dutch person of all time” is therefore quite typical of my quaint and inspiring country. Pim Fortuyn was declared the winner, but the next morning it turned out that many more votes were given to William of Orange, votes that could not be counted on time because of a technical failure.

No fight is identical to the previous one, and no journey either. But it is my absolute conviction that working together on something like Just Multiple Connected Coexistence can be done, and – considering the balance of the reactions during the painful period since 2 November – also in Holland.


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