Rather Turkish than Papist?: Dutch Debates on Religious Diversity

August 13th, 2012 1:55 pm

Margriet Westers

On June 9, 2010 elections for the parliament were held in my country, the Netherlands. Since the former government, usually formed by a coalition of two or three parties, fell on the issue of the presence of Dutch army forces in Afghanistan, there have been a lot of debates and discussions about the new government. The Dutch seemed to be extremely divided between left-wing and right-wing political parties and a growing minority in the Netherlands decided to vote for the PVV, the Party for Freedom led by Geert Wilders, a major political opponent of a multireligious and multicultural society, whose key issues in politics are immigration, freedom of speech and Islam. The PVV got 24 out of 150 seats in the parliament – which means that about 1,5 million out of 17 million Dutch people voted for this political party. In this article, I want to describe the movement of the PVV and share my opinion on the role of the Church in these current debates on religion and society in the Netherlands.

First, it might be helpful to give a few facts about the presence of Islam in the Netherlands: about 1 million people in the Netherlands are Muslim. Most of them live in the four major cities: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. Often, they are concentrated in low-income neighbourhoods with poor housing, chronic unemployment and high levels of crime. There are two well-known Dutch Muslim politicians, Ahmed Aboutaleb (the mayor of Rotterdam) and Nebahat Albayrak (the former State Secretary for Justice).


Going back through history, it amazes me how things can change over centuries. “Rather Turkish than Papist” was a slogan used by the Dutch mercenary naval forces (“Sea Beggars”) in their fight against Catholic Spain during the Dutch Revolt at the end of the 16th century. The slogan was the product of debates on tolerance in the Netherlands. In these debates, the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire was referred to as an example of an empire in which diversity of religion had proved successful. These discussions in the Netherlands started as the Calvinists were persecuted by the Catholic Spanish King Philip II. The Calvinist Dutch people preferred Turkish Islamic rule over Spanish Catholic rule and the Protestant William of Orange even appealed to the Ottoman sultan for help in the war against Philip II.

In present-day Netherlands, Christianity is decreasing and Muslims have become a growing religious minority. The idea of Islamic rule as opposed to Christian (be it Catholic or Protestant) is something feared by a significant number of people in the Netherlands. The death of Theo van Gogh, a Dutch film director assassinated by Mohammed Bouyeri in 2004 because of his critical film on Islam, Submission (produced together with Ayaan Hirsi Ali), even sharpened the debates on Islam and Dutch culture. Nowadays, this debate is dominated by Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom.

The Party for Freedom and Geert Wilders

As mentioned, the PVV is currently the major political opponent of a multireligious and multicultural society. With a strong focus on nationalism and the “Judeo-Christian history” of the Netherlands, Geert Wilders and the PVV condemn the growth of Islam and the waves of immigration in the 1960s and 1970s that influenced the religious and cultural identity of the Netherlands. In two interviews, Wilders stated that “Islam is the greatest danger threatening us”. In the past, he has spoken of a “tsunami of Islamisation in the Netherlands” and said, “Before you know it, there will be more mosques than churches!”[i] These statements show how Wilders and his party think of Islam: a dangerous ideology threatening Western society based on Judeo-Christian values.

Wilders often relates Islam to Moroccan and Turkish culture (where the majority of Dutch immigrants are from) and strongly opposes immigration from non-western countries to the Netherlands. In 2008, he wrote and commissioned a short film called Fitna about Quranic-inspired motivations for terrorism. In this film, Wilders states that Islam is basically a radical, terrorist ideology and that the Quran provides religious legitimatization for terrorist activities. The film caused great controversy in the Netherlands and abroad. On 12 February 2009, Wilders was denied entrance to the United Kingdom when he was invited by one of the members of the House of the Lords to show Fitna. In October 2009, the British tribunal overturned the ban, so that Wilders could enter the UK to show his film.

The Church’s Role in Political Debates on Religious Freedom

Learning from Christians in Countries with a Muslim Majority

In the last elections, the number of Christians that decided to vote PVV has increased. An article, that I recently read in a Christian magazine, said that this has partly to do with Wilders’ support of Israel. Moreover, these Christians recognized their fear of Islam in Wilders’ hostility toward Islamic culture and beliefs. Having read this, I realized how much Dutch churches can learn from their fellow Christians in, for example, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia – places where Christians and Muslims have lived together for a far longer time

The majority of Christians who voted PVV belong to reformed or evangelical (reformed) churches that strongly focus on salvation through Jesus Christ alone. Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation. I used to think that this explained why these Christians tend to vote for the Party for Freedom: since their theology is based on exclusive views in which one is either saved or not, their attitude toward people with different beliefs – be it secularism, New Age or Islam – is one of conversion instead of conversation. But I was wrong on this point.

In my bachelor thesis for theology, I compared two Christian theologians coming from countries with a Muslim majority on their views of Christian – Muslim relations: Chawkat Moucarry from Syria and Michael Nazir-Ali from Pakistan. I found that Moucarry, though his theology of religions and his ideas about Islam tended toward exclusivism, did not show any intolerance toward his Muslim neighbours (nor did Nazir-Ali, whose ideas were more inclusive). So, part of my conclusion was to say that exclusivism does not necessarily lead to an intolerant attitude toward people who have different beliefs. Therefore, I would like to advise the Church of the Netherlands to learn from Christians, Churches and theologians from countries like Syria and Pakistan, where Christians and Muslims have lived together for a far longer time and where interreligious dialogue is a daily experience.

The Gospel: “There is no fear in love”

My second, but even more important advice to the Christian Churches in my country is about the Gospel itself. I wondered for a long time why Christians vote PVV since ideas on cultural exclusivism and demonising of the (religious) other is, in my opinion, something Christians should strongly oppose. An answer came when I read a quote from a friend of mine, who wrote:

Since when are Christians afraid?

Since when do Christians fear people of other religions?

Since when do Christians fear loss of freedom?

Since when do Christians fear their enemies?

Since when do Christians fear death?

Only when they no longer fear… God.

Of course I will not state that Christians voting for the PVV do not fear God. But I think that this quote asks us a crucial question as Christians: whom do we fear? Why do people, Christians and other people, vote for a party who condemn the religious other, condemns a minority group in our country?

This quote encouraged me when I realized that no politician, no security system, no army can protect us from any person. God in the Bible warns people again and again that they should not trust in false gods, but trust in God alone. The first commandment that God gives to the Israelites in Exodus 20 is, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” And the second starts, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…”

Again and again the people of Israel in the Old Testament failed to do this as we fail to do this now. We trust politicians and security systems instead of God. We create imagined communities of nations and religions that exclude the other. We have made idols of our communities. We have forgotten the true meaning of liberty: to trust in God, in God alone, in the God that identified with the oppressed and marginalized Hebrews in Egypt. Today this same God calls on us to trust in God’s power of liberation. The Biblical history shows how any effort to trust in earthly powers failed – all these idols are, in the end, idols – creations of people who have forgotten to worship their Creator.

Although, I am disappointed because of the growing fear of Islam, I also think there is a wonderful challenge for the Church in the Netherlands today. The elections have shown that it is very obvious that people live in fear. The Church can proclaim the Gospel: the message of hope and liberation, the gospel of the one true God, the message of good news that excludes fear of the other. The Church can challenge the Dutch people: in whom do we trust? Do we trust in politicians, do we trust in security systems, do we trust in culture or nationalism? Without attacking persons or political parties, the Church’s message is political, since both politics and the gospel are based on the question: in whom do we trust? In staying faithful to the Gospel, the Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche) in Nazi Germany opposed the Nazi regime. In staying faithful to the Gospel, the poor in Latin-America formed a liberation theology. In staying faithful to the gospel, I believe the Church in the Netherlands can share the gospel and in doing that, criticize culture and politics by asking: in whom do we trust?

For a time I was not sure whether Christians in the Netherlands would be able to give one clear response to the growing movement of the PVV, since Christians did not seem to speak with one voice: some voted PVV, others did not. But the message of hope and the Christian witness of hope and trust in God alone, is something confessed by all Christians – whether their views are exclusive or inclusive when it comes to salvation, whether they believe that other people should convert to Christianity or not – all Christians share a belief and trust in the one God, the one Creator and Liberator, who demands that we do not trust in earthly powers. Fearing God, we lose fear of other religions, of loss of freedom, enemies and even death. It is by fearing this God that we are able to love one another and to love people that are so different from ourselves. The gospel of hope creates community and communication instead of polarization and hatred. It is precisely the gospel of hope against all hope, of love where the world tends to hate, of bridges where the world creates separation – it is precisely this gospel that speaks of another kingdom, not ruled by earthly powers but by justice and love.

Suggested readings:

Goddard, H. Christians and Muslims: from double standards to mutual understanding, 1995.

Knitter, P.F. Introducing Theologies of Religions, 2002.

Moucarry, C. The Prophet and the Messiah: an Arab Christian’s perspective on Islam and Christianity, 2001.
Nazir-Ali, M. Islam. A Christian Perspective, 1983.

Said, E.W. Orientalism. Western Conceptions of the Orient, 2003.

Margriet Westers has a bachelor’s degree in theology and studies Arabic language and culture at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. She is especially interested in Christian – Muslim dialogue and liberation theology. She participated in a study trip to India on interfaith dialogue in January 2010. From September 2010 to March 2011 she lives in Jerusalem volunteering for Sabeel, an ecumenical grassroots liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

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[i] “Wilders bang voor ‘tsunami van islamisering’” de Volkskrant, 6 October 2006.

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