Who’s afraid of Denk?

Labour MPs after the 2012 election; Tunahan Kuzu, who left the party to start Denk, is in the centre row in an open-necked white shirt.

At the Dutch election in 2017 one party took more than 200,000 votes from a religious minority concentrated in a few areas of the country. Yet no commentators held up this party’s three seats in Parliament as evidence of the fabric of society eroding at the margins. That’s probably because the party in question was not Denk but the SGP, the testimonial faction that has represented hardline Protestants in the Dutch bible belt since 1918.


Identity politics is commonly supposed to be a new, disturbing, development in the Netherlands, but the persistence of the SGP reflects a more complicated reality. The Netherlands has always been a nation of minorities and its coalition politics requires the various factions to reconcile their differences for the sake of good governance. The pillarisation that was the foundation of society until two generations ago allowed the various communities to preserve their own values while collectively benefiting from democracy and prosperity. Even the small fundamentalist sect represented by the SGP is still given space to practise its archaic doctrine through, for example, being allowed to opt out of the national vaccination programme – despite the fact that unvaccinated children have been a bigger threat to the nation’s health in the last decade than Islamist terrorists.

Denk’s arrival has been widely decried as a threat, even though its 2.1% share of the national vote almost exactly matched the SGP. Large numbers of Muslims had rejected western democracy by aligning themselves with the party of Kuzu and Öztürk, went the reasoning. Exactly how putting up candidates for elected office and voting for them constitutes an affront to democracy remains a puzzle. As Sylvana Simons, whose pro-diversity party Artikel 1 failed to win a seat, remarked to me during the campaign: ‘Identity politics only becomes a problem when people with other identities start associating with each other.’

‘Ordinary Dutch’

Identity has rarely been a contentious issue in the Netherlands up until now because it has largely been determined by consensus. What was new in 2017 was the inclination of the mainstream parties to impose a set of values on newcomers that is far more restrictive than those practised by native Dutch citizens. Mark Rutte headed his election advert ‘aan alle Nederlanders‘, but in the text he used the term exclusively, excoriating the section of the population that ‘labels ordinary Dutch people racists’. Anyone on the receiving end of racism, Rutte implied, is neither Dutch nor ordinary. Lodewijk Asscher’s parting gift as deputy prime minister is a ‘participation contract‘ that all new migrants must sign after enduring a compulsory course on the ‘core values’ of Dutch society. Since the alternative is a €340 fine, it’s no more of a solemn commitment than ticking the terms and conditions box on an online booking. Asscher says new migrants have a duty to live by Dutch customs, such as respecting the equality of women and joining political parties, but where does this leave the incomer who joins the SGP, which spent a decade in the courts fighting (unsuccessfully) for its right to bar women from standing for elected office?

For the immigrant, enforced integration is a minefield of paradoxes. If I ride my bike through a red light, am I failing to observe the rules or conforming to local customs? Why am I a barbarian if I condemn homosexuality on the word of the Koran, but a weigerambtenaar if I do so on the word of the Bible? If a woman is speaking at a public meeting and a group of white men strike up a chorus of daar moet een piemel in, am I obliged to join in? Children growing up in any society learn first the rules, and then the social conventions that frame the rules, and that there is often a wide disparity between the two – for example, most Catholics used contraception for decades while the Vatican explicitly forbade it. But migrants are excluded from this advanced tier of social compliance. For them the rules are set in stone, black and white, with no exceptions. Integrate or suffer the consequences. Do as you are told and don’t make a fuss. Act normal or go away.

The assertion that integration and multiculturalism has failed is routinely peddled by fundamentalist commentators who disregard the mounting evidence to the contrary. There is a small number of migrants who struggle to gain a foothold, not helped by recent moves by Rutte’s government such as withdrawing financial support for language classes. There is a smaller subset that flat-out refuses, but since many of these are well-heeled English-speaking expats, they’re mostly left alone. But thanks to the fine Dutch tradition of keeping exhaustive records, we can see that by just about every objective measure of progress, from income inequality to educational achievement to language proficiency, migrants are closing the gap.

The emergence of Denk comes with plenty of reservations. Its use of fake social media accounts, the video-shaming of rival MPs (especially Parliamentary chair Khadija Arib), the exclusion of critical media outlets: none of these tactics are compatible with respect for the democratic process. During the election campaign the Council of Moroccan Mosques expressed concern about the pressure that Muslims were under to support Denk, for fear of being accused of betraying their community. The party’s uncritical stance on Turkey’s President Erdogan, during his ongoing struggle to separate international statesmanship from Twitter trolling, raises questions about the party’s ability to reconcile the divisions within the Dutch Turkish community. But the question of whether Denk represents a failure of integration is best answered in the light of a comment by Asscher during NOS’s election night coverage. In a discussion on Denk, Asscher admitted that Labour had sometimes put candidates on its list that did not reflect the party’s ethos – in other words, they were selected for their ability to suck up the ethnic vote. It is hard to think of a more cynical or self-serving form of identity politics than this. Labour’s collapse and Denk’s rise, taken together, are the payoff for years of the PvdA’s deciding to treat minority communities as vote farms. Asscher went on to observe, rightly, that Denk now carry a huge responsibility to reflect the wishes and interests of the communities they serve. Time will show whether they are up to the task. But Asscher and his colleagues would benefit from an honest appraisal of their own part in making identity politics the septic issue it has become.


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