Dutch Tolerance Exposed by Majlie de Puy Kamp

Majlie de Puy Kamp

On September 22nd 2011, Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders called for a referendum to ban the building of new minarets in the Netherlands. Wilders said the towers hurt his eyes and are the embodiment of a rising desert ideology. A couple of days earlier, the Dutch government agreed to a ban on wearing the burqa in public.[1] The proposed legislation is supposed to ban any type of face-covering clothing in public places, which includes educational institutions, hospitals and even public transportation.

In the 2010 general election Wilders’ anti-Islam party, the PVV (‘Partij voor de Vrijheid’, Party for Freedom) saw its biggest rise yet going from 9 seats in parliament to 24. This scary increase in what people say is narrow-mindedness is significant for Dutch society, usually labeled as being extremely tolerant. It shows a shift in the political-sphere, but more importantly, in the entire Dutch attitude towards immigrants, especially those from Turkey and Morocco.

For the Netherlands, where the prisons resemble low budget hotels, where every big city has its own Red Light District, where gay marriage is widely supported and applauded and where loose drug laws and a low drinking age have attracted many tourists from all over the world, this sudden expression of intolerance is a big change. Where did that come from?

9/11 had its impact all over the world – in the Netherlands as well. In 2002, Pim Fortuyn, a Dutch right-wing anti-Islam politician was murdered. Fortuyn claimed that Islam was a fundamental threat to modern progress.[2] In 2004, Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker with outspoken republican views, was murdered for his film Submission, which criticized the way women are treated in the Islamic world. His killer, a Dutch-Moslem, pinned a five-page letter threatening Western countries onto van Gogh’s chest. Political murders like the Fortuyn case are very rare in the Netherlands, the last murder similar to this one was during the 17th century.

So what happened? How did a country known for its tolerance and acceptance get to political murders and hate crimes?

A conversation with a Dutch taxi driver a couple years back showed me the beginning of the problem. While chitchatting about nothing too important we suddenly arrived at the “Muslim-problem” in the Netherlands. He told me he personally had had no problem with the Turkish and Moroccan Muslims living in Holland until a few months ago when one of the Muslim holidays required the participants to slaughter an animal. Being devoted believers, his upstairs neighbors had killed a goat or sheep on their balcony before embarking on the festivities that followed. Not only did the taxi driver have to de-traumatize his little daughter who had woken up from the screaming of the animal, he also had to scrub the blood from his own balcony as it had dripped down from up above. I finally understood why Fortuyns’ and Wilders’ hateful politics appealed to him, and others like him.

Have the Dutch lost their ‘tolerance’? Or did the Turkish and Moroccan immigrant only recently start killing animals on their balconies? The immigrants have been in Holland for nearly sixty years, yet the real problems between the immigrants and the native population didn’t arise until about ten years ago. So what happened? 

In this paper I will explore the clash between the apparent tolerance of Dutch culture and the Dutch Muslim communities to a point where we are actually discussing banning the building of new mosques and the wearing of burqa’s. I will argue that the clashes we are experiencing now might not be due to an inability of the Dutch culture to peacefully coexist with the immigrant cultures but more the result of  cross cultural misunderstanding and severe miscommunication and misinterpretations of both cultures.

First I will discuss the origin of Dutch so-called tolerance. Then I will focus on Dutch values and principles, the constitution and the separation of church and state because these topics dominate the current debate. They are apparently the fundamental issues on which Dutch culture clashes with minority cultures. Hereafter I will take a closer look at a possible underlying issue creating the integration problems. Finally I will tie these issues to Geert Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions.



Dutch tolerance is a globally known phenomenon and the world has looked at the Netherlands as an example for progressive and integrated policies on social issues such as gay rights, drugs and prostitution laws for years. However, tolerance may not be the right word for what has been going on in Holland. A pillarized society in which different people live side by side yet only really interact with those from the same group may be a more accurate description of Dutch society. The Dutch pride themselves on their long tradition of tolerance, but this was part of a broader system of noninterference.[3]

“Until the 1960s, political scientists identified the Netherlands as a pillarized, consociational society divided into tightly integrated communities (i.e., pillars) formed on the basis of religion or ideology. The most important of these pillars emerged as a result of political mobilization in the nineteenth century and centered on Protestantism, Catholicism, socialism and liberalism.”[4] This meant in practice that all communities would live in the same cities or villages but never really interacted because they had their own schools, churches, shops, sport clubs and political parties. Every community “tolerated” the others because they didn’t mingle.

The tolerance in this society was based on the idea that everyone had the same rights and could live his life accordingly as long as you didn’t trouble those with different beliefs. Sounds like tolerance right? Look closer though, is it tolerance when you simply allow others to have different opinions yet don’t want your children to play with theirs? Is it tolerance when you allow for different schools but only want your children to attend the one that teaches your beliefs? Is it tolerance when you allow for different political perspectives in your country but only hire employees with the same perspective as you?

In the Netherlands, can we really speak of tolerance towards those different from us, or do we tolerate others as long as they don’t interfere in our own lives? In case of the latter, can we still call that tolerance?

At the end of the 1960s, this pillarized society collapsed due to the social revolutions of the turbulent 60s.[5] Now it became important to not only allow others to be different, but to actually create equality among the differences. The Dutch went from tolerating differences to actually accepting them and interacting with them. Political parties merged, Protestants and Catholics intermarried and their children attended the same schools. Tolerance was born. Everyone should be treated the same and have the same opportunities. The sense of fairness and success was all based on equality.

This sense of fairness and equality applies to the integration problems as well. When the guest laborers were brought to the Netherlands, they all needed to have the same opportunities as the Dutch population. This idea was stretched so far that the government began communicating with the immigrants in their native language, because that is what they did for the Dutch population as well. The first generation immigrants were not required to learn the Dutch language, instead governmental buildings had signs in Arabic and children in Muslim schools continued to study Arabic.

Obviously, this system had to collapse at some point. The downfall of the pillarized society that the Netherlands experienced in the 1960s and the notion of tolerance that followed in fact only extended to the differences within the Dutch culture. Tolerance in relation to other cultures had not yet been put to the test - until now. When Islamic cultures were introduced, the discrepancies between Dutch and Muslim cultures surfaced and these differences were clearly more severe than the differences Holland had experienced within its own culture. The Netherlands still has not managed to successfully integrate both cultures into the same society. Dutch tolerance has apparently reached its limits and seems an overrated concept. Integration difficulties and minority problems have been on top of the political agenda for years, but no real solutions have been reached. The current debate on the immigration and integration issues focus mainly on the supposed rivalry between Dutch culture and Muslim culture on their fundamental values. It is due to these contradicting values that Dutch and Muslim cultures allegedly clash.


Principles and Values, Human Rights and the Secular State

Immigrants are often told they have to comply with three basic elements of Dutch culture: Dutch principles and values, human rights and the secular state.  Research shows however that there is much debate about what the Dutch principles and values really are.[6] Freedom, equality and tolerance usually make the cut but even among these concepts there is much friction and lack of clarity.

The problem with all of these so-called “Dutch” values is that is suggests that a consensus exists among the Dutch population as to what these values and principles are, and only once you are familiar with them it is possible for you to integrate into Dutch society. Truth be told, a consensus is nowhere to be found. Each individual in the Netherlands has his or her own interpretation of what these values and principles are or ought to be.

Moreover, it could be argued that the imposition of such values and principles, granted that we know what they are, onto newcomers is fundamentally anti-Dutch because the Dutch believe the government should not interfere in personal lives. It is the responsibility of people to determine for themselves – within the boundaries that the constitution and the law create – what their beliefs and morals ought to be.[7] This freedom and responsibility is essentially what it takes to be Dutch. Which means immigrants should be free to hold on to their beliefs and values and – as long as they respect the Dutch judicial and social systems – they can become just as “Dutch” as anyone else.

The Dutch constitution and the human rights it promotes create another problematic issue. Politicians like Wilders and Fortuyn will often claim that the cultures of our immigrants clash with our constitution and notion of human rights. Especially the freedom of religion clause in the constitution allows for much debate. Does this religious freedom mean that it is ok to say that homosexuality is a disease? Does it mean it’s all right to slaughter an animal on your balcony in the middle of the city? Doesn’t this religious freedom allow Muslim girls to wear their headscarves when they want to? Interpretation is key, you can see the dilemma.

This same constitution states that everyone deserves to be treated equally. Discrimination based on religion, life philosophies, political affiliations, race, gender or any other grounds is illegal. Again it’s a beautiful thought and an honorable goal. Unfortunately, it raises the same uncertainties. Do we allow headscarves in school because it is a symbol of a certain life philosophy, which everyone deserves to have. Or do we ban the scarves because it symbolizes the unequal treatment of women in an Islamic society?[8]

Though a constitution obviously embodies a cornerstone in any society, it is very difficult to find a guiding hand in those sets of laws for the immigration and integration issues the Netherlands copes with.

The last argument always discussed is the difference between the Dutch secular state and the Islamic fusion of church (well, in this case mosque) and state.

The Dutch are proud of their religion-free government and often feel superior to those societies in which the church has a role in public life.[9] Expressions of religious affiliations in public by civil servants in Holland is absolutely not done, while in other societies the trustworthiness and respect of civil servants is based on their connection to the church and God. Here too you can easily see the cultural clash between the Dutch population and the Muslim immigrants.

This prized secular state however, is not as secular as many people might think it is. This separation of church and state must go both ways. The church is not supposed to have any influence on state matters just as the state should not have any influence on religious matters either. Lately, however, the Dutch government has been allowed to investigate religious classes offered in Islamic schools because they fear anti-Western teachings. This is not a very secular practice, which makes it rather hypocritical to judge societies in which church and state overlap as well.

What I’ve tried to show here is that the Dutch values and principles, which immigrants apparently need to conform to in order to smooth over the integration process, are not as clear and straightforward as we would have hoped. Confusion and debate about all supposedly “core” values exist even among the Dutch population. Insisting that immigrants conform to them is almost asking the impossible. Moreover, even if there are any Dutch core values to be upheld, conformation is definitely not one of them.

Also, since the constitution is largely subject to interpretation, it becomes a rather weak argument for cultural conflict because it could be argued both in favor of the Dutch culture and the immigrant cultures. Finally, the secular state which leaves the Dutch feeling superior over their immigrant counterparts is really not all that secular and should therefore not be used as an argument for conformation.

All these obscurities complicate the integration process as neither the Dutch population nor the minorities have a clear picture of how to behave in relation to each other. Miscommunication between the natives and immigrants is the result of wrongful stereotyping of both cultures rather than the result of factual differences between the cultures. [10]



The Dutch put great emphasis on equality. Though we allow different cultures and perspectives, and we also want to be treated the same. We want Muslim children to be enrolled in Dutch schools because we want all the children to be equal, but at the same time we don’t know how to deal with the headscarves issue because this, in our eyes, creates inequality. We want minorities to have the same opportunities and rights as the majority but often forget that the laws are based on the majority Dutch culture. Our sense of equality is very different from the sense of equality within Muslim communities. The same is true for our perspective of fairness and many other concepts embedded in any culture. “In its Note of Minorities of 1983 the Dutch government says to strive for a society in which the members of the minority groups living in Holland, individually and as groups, will have equal opportunities and full chances of developing. Its policy is to aim at creating the conditions required for emancipation and participation in society.”[11]

The Dutch believe themselves to be extremely tolerant because they treat everyone equally however, “everybody” in the past meant everyone within the Dutch culture. I would like to argue that our tolerance has been put to the test when we started interacting with completely opposing cultures and the results have not been all that positive.

Equality does not mean treating people who are different as though they are the same as you. Cultural differences are real and pretending not to see them doesn’t make you tolerant, it makes you ignorant.

The integration issues the Netherlands is experiencing with Turkish and Moroccan minorities are not due to the incompatibility of the different cultures to coexist, rather it’s due to the misunderstanding and miscommunication of both cultures.[12] Governmental agencies focusing on integration policies often consist of Dutch people who, with their Dutch perspectives, strive to create more equality in the Netherlands and eliminate any underdog positions minorities might have. Though noble and definitely worthwhile, they’re using the wrong tools to tackle the problem. They hold onto the identity of the first generation immigrants in their policies. Culture however, and especially the cultures of immigrants, is dynamic. Holding onto generalizing stereotypes is dysfunctional.[13] Later generations of immigrants no longer identify as strongly with their Muslim culture and attributing this identity to them makes, especially the younger ones, develop an “angry young men” lifestyle.[14] If the goal is to enable successful integration of minorities into the Dutch society, than treating those minorities as though they purely Dutch or Turkish/Moroccan is simply not going to make that happen because you’re pushing them into a role they can’t play, you’re treating them as though they are someone they’re not

Real tolerance is not only allowing people to be different, but actually acting on this difference and respecting it. A well functioning and harmonious cross-cultural society is based on cross-cultural understanding and respect. In order to understand our differences, it is valuable to examine Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions. This theory forms the basis of all cultures and many, if not all, of our cross-cultural conflicts can be rooted back to these simple dimensions.


Cultural diversities

Cultural diversities are usually based on stereotypical prejudices that hold very few truths. The French are snobby, Americans exaggerate, the British are stiff but terribly funny and so on. Stereotypes like these can’t define a culture but there are certain perceptible differences between countries and cultures that are rooted in their histories and are seen through institutions, government structure, laws and judicial systems. These cultural identities often clash.

Geert Hofstede has identified five fundamental cultural pillars. These pillars symbolize the way every culture is structured. The cultural pillars are power distance, individualism vs. collectivism, masculinity vs. femininity, risk aversion and long or short-term orientation.[15] Every culture has a different way of dealing with these issues and these differences create conflict around the world.

In the Netherlands the biggest cultural differences between the native population and the Turkish and Moroccan immigrant are found in the power distance pillar and the collectivist/individualist pillar, therefore I’ll explain those in more detail.


Power distance

In the Netherlands, all minority (mostly Turkish, Moroccan, Dutch Antilles and Surinam) cultures distinguish themselves from the Dutch culture by having greater power distance.[16]  

Cultures with a greater power distance allow for and expect a kind of inequality. This inequality creates a system, a hierarchy, in which members of that particular culture know how to operate. Cultures with a smaller power distance seek to eliminate any kind of inequality from their society. So where the Dutch culture promotes personal initiative, the Turkish and Moroccan culture honors obedience.

In an office environment for example, the Turkish or Moroccan employees will expect great leadership from their bosses and a detailed job description, which they’ll perform perfectly. The Dutch employees however, want to be treated as an equal by their bosses, they thrive on independence and will want to be rewarded for their personal input in a project. The Turkish or Moroccan employee will feel lost without a firm guiding hand and they might even respect their Dutch bosses less if they don’t take a hierarchical approach. For this same reason, Hofstede even claims there might be good cultural reasons for policemen to be more forceful towards immigrant troublemakers than Dutch ones. This, in his view, is not racist it is rather culturally sensitive.[17]


Collectivism vs. Individualism

Dutch and immigrant cultures clash once again in this spectrum. Collectivist cultures focus on the wellbeing of the group, they look for consensus, they are interdependent and view achievements as a group effort rather than a personal record. Individualist cultures however value privacy, independence and personal achievements. Members or an individualistic culture identify themselves as a person whereas members in a collectivist cultures identify with their group. 

Though neither the Dutch nor the Turkish and Moroccan cultures are, relatively speaking, very strongly individualistic or collectivistic, even the slight orientation towards either side creates difficulties. The collectivism in both the Turkish and Moroccan cultures for example, makes that they work better when they are among people from the same culture. Dutch culture however strives to eliminate differences and treat everybody equally, thus separating the immigrant employees and mixing them with the Dutch ones seems the only fair thing to do. This strategy, though completely in line with Dutch principles and values, misses the boat entirely. The Dutch constitution states that everyone has a right to be treated equally, this notion works really well in an individualistic society yet creates chaos and problems in those cultures focused around collectivism.[18]


Unfortunately, it seems as though even the famed Dutch tolerance has difficulties accepting and respecting differences as big as between the West and the Islamic world.  The Dutch may be a tolerant bunch with their coffee shops and prostitution, but even their tolerance has limits. The good news is however, that through cross-cultural education, it is still possible to deepen mutual understanding and create respect.

It seems as though the Dutch government itself had been subject to cross-cultural misunderstanding since their policies hold onto generalized minority identities. With the best intentions they have tried to treat the new Dutch families as though no differences existed. However, through Hofstede’s dimensions we can see that true cross-cultural differences exist and that the ‘soft Dutch approach’ does not provide a solid foundation for a multicultural society. According to Shadid preserving one’s cultural identity is a noble cause yet can be a threat to fluent integration. Shadid even argues that preserving cultural identity might form an obstacle in improving one’s social position.[19]

So instead of simply allowing others to be different, the Dutch should focus on creating cross-cultural understanding and truly accept one’s values, rituals and beliefs. The issue, as any issue of this kind, is strenuous and potentially offending but for different cultures to live together sacrifices must be made and both sides need to make concessions in order to reach consensus.

It could be the fairest to treat people differently. Not only allowing them to be different, but accepting inequalities within their culture because for others, inequality could be the most fair. This may be a difficult concept to grasp for many Dutch people, but again, education could save the day.




Fortuyn, Pim. De islamisering van onze cultuur. Nederlandse identiteit als fundament. Rotterdam: Karakter Uitgevers B.V., 2001.

Galenkamp, M. "De Multiculturele Samenleving in het Geding."Justiele Verkenningen. 28.5 (2002): 75-84.

Hofstede, G. "Culturele diversiteit in de Nederlandse samenleving."Justiele Verkenningen. 28.5 (2002): 10-19. 

Shadid, W.A. "Cultuurverschil en maatschappelijke marginaliteit."Met het oog op de toekomst. (1995): 27-48.

van der Veer, Peter. "Pim Fortuyn, Theo van Gogh, and the Politics of Tolerance in the Netherlands." 118.

van Koningsveld, P.S., and W.A. Shadid. "Institutionalization and Integration of Islam in the Netherlands." Integration of Islam and Hinduism in Western Europe. (1991): 89-121.

"Holland bans Niqab in Public."OnIslam.net. 17 September 2011. Web. <http://www.onislam.net/english/news/europe/453945-holland-bans-niqab-in-public.html>.





[1] "Holland bans Niqab in Public."OnIslam.net. 17 September 2011. Web. <http://www.onislam.net/english/news/europe/453945-holland-bans-niqab-in-public.html>.

[2] Fortuyn, Pim. De islamisering van onze cultuur. Nederlandse identiteit als fundament. Rotterdam: Karakter Uitgevers B.V., 2001. 9.


[3] van der Veer, Peter. "Pim Fortuyn, Theo van Gogh, and the Politics of Tolerance in the Netherlands."Public Culture. 18.1 (2006): 118. 

[4] van der Veer, Peter. "Pim Fortuyn, Theo van Gogh, and the Politics of Tolerance in the Netherlands." 118.

[5] van der Veer, Peter. "Pim Fortuyn, Theo van Gogh, and the Politics of Tolerance in the Netherlands." 118.

[6] Galenkamp, M. "De Multiculturele Samenleving in het Geding." 75-84.

[7] Galenkamp, M. "De Multiculturele Samenleving in het Geding." 75-84.

[8] Galenkamp, M. "De Multiculturele Samenleving in het Geding." 75-84.

[9] Shadid, W.A. "Cultuurverschil en maatschappelijke marginaliteit."Met het oog op de toekomst. (1995): 27-48. 13.

[10] Shadid, W.A. "Cultuurverschil en maatschappelijke marginaliteit."Met het oog op de toekomst. (1995): 27-48. 19.

[11] van Koningsveld, P.S., and W.A. Shadid. "Institutionalization and Integration of Islam in the Netherlands." Integration of Islam and Hinduism in Western Europe. (1991): 89-121.

[12] Shadid, W.A. "Cultuurverschil en maatschappelijke marginaliteit."Met het oog op de toekomst. (1995): 27-48. 19.

[13] Shadid, W.A. "Cultuurverschil en maatschappelijke marginaliteit."Met het oog op de toekomst. (1995): 27-48. 3.

[14] Shadid, W.A. "Cultuurverschil en maatschappelijke marginaliteit."Met het oog op de toekomst. (1995): 27-48. 17.

[15] Hofstede, G. "Culturele diversiteit in de Nederlandse samenleving."Justiele Verkenningen. 28.5 (2002): 10-19. 

[16] Hofstede, G. "Culturele diversiteit in de Nederlandse samenleving. 10-19.

[17] Hofstede, G. "Culturele diversiteit in de Nederlandse samenleving. 10-19.

[18] Galenkamp, M. "De Multiculturele Samenleving in het Geding."Justiele Verkenningen. 28.5 (2002): 75-84.

[19] Shadid, W.A. "Cultuurverschil en maatschappelijke marginaliteit."Met het oog op de toekomst. (1995): 27-48. 3.



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