And has the far-right politician managed to steer the country in his own nationalist direction without being in power?
Amsterdam, Utrecht, The Hague – As the Netherlands heads to the polls on Wednesday, an election campaign focused on identity issues and dominated by anti-Islam leader Geert Wilders has left some Muslims reflecting on their place in Dutch society.
With his campaign of “de-Islamising” the Netherlands, Wilders of the far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) has pledged to ban the Quran and shut all mosques. In December, a Dutch court found Wilders guilty of inciting discrimination against Dutch Moroccans with his infamous “fewer Moroccans” comment.
The claim that Islam is a threat to Dutch identity and questions over whether the Netherlands has done enough to preserve its own culture have been debated alongside policy issues at national election debates.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who leads the liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, launched his election campaign with a letter (link in Dutch) calling on those who reject Dutch values to leave the country. Targeting people who he said “attack gays, jeer at women in mini-skirts, and call ordinary Dutch people racists,” the letter was widely interpreted as addressed to ethnic minorities.
Five percent of the country’s population is Muslim, mostly of Turkish and Moroccan descent. A recent government report shows that 40 percent no longer feel at home in the country.
“Even if I’m born here, I don’t feel at home,” says 35-year-old Fatma Kaya, whose grandparents migrated from Turkey to the Netherlands, speaking to Al Jazeera under a pseudonym.
“Every day, from morning to evening, it’s about Muslims,” Kaya says, reflecting on the political discourse and the media coverage of the election.
This focus on Muslims has made Dutch-born bartender Toria El Gharbouni, 38, feel as though she’s under surveillance.
“Now, I’m looking at older Dutch people, are they watching me? I’ve been pushed in a corner, under a spotlight. Look, she’s Moroccan, she’s Muslim!”
Tofik Dibi, 36, a former MP for the Green Left party who was also born in the country, says he’s ceased to refer to himself as a Dutch Moroccan due to the way this identity has come to be understood.
“At a certain point, I said I’m a Moroccan,” he says.
“It’s like a declaration of independence,” Dibi elaborates. “I experienced that no matter how much you try to integrate, you will always be seen as a Moroccan.”
He stopped identifying as Dutch Moroccan after a parliamentary debate in 2013 titled “the Moroccan problem” on criminality among Moroccan boys. He was appalled that an entire group of people were being tied to a social issue.
“So, you’re going to play it like this? I’m not going to be one of you any more,” Dibi says of his decision.
Kaya and Dibi say hostility towards Muslims is about being framed as the “other”.
Dibi says he doesn’t like to distinguish between Islamophobia and racism.
“The way it works is exactly the same. It’s always your appearance that’s dominant,” he explains.
“I think a lot of Dutch people feel like they are being left behind, while people who don’t look like them are surpassing them,” he says of poorer white voters who have expressed anger as the descendants of immigrants progress up the social ladder.
But rejection isn’t only something ethnic minorities experience; some converts to Islam say they also feel the same way.
“I’m still Dutch, of course. I love my country, but at the same time, borders are less important for me,” says Arnoud van Doorn, 50, a former chairman of the PVV’s local division in The Hague, who converted to Islam after his expulsion from the party in 2011.
“I also thought Islam was a threat. I was influenced by the media and everything. I thought it was a good thing to join, to fight for our values,” Van Doorn explains.
After a couple of years, he says he started to feel uncomfortable about the PVV’s take on Islam.
Van Doorn recalls asking himself, with over 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, “How can they all be bad?”
Researching the religion and speaking to Muslims led to his decision to convert.
But now, he says, “Feeling welcome shouldn’t be an issue, but I feel less welcome” in the Netherlands.
Another convert to Islam, Liesbeth Hofman, 34, says she has never thought about herself as Dutch. She grew up among foreigners living in The Hague. “I’m just part of the world,” she says.
Wearing a hijab, she feels people look at her differently. “I still feel the same, but I feel people are not looking the same at me, like I’m not Dutch. Some call me a traitor,” she says, adding that she gets shouted at on the streets from time to time.
Van Doorn, who now chairs a local party based on Islamic principles in The Hague, believes anti-Muslim sentiment stems from economic elites who are afraid of losing power.
Hofman sees it is a cultural issue.
“People always think about Holland as a Christian country. “They say, ‘Why are Muslims here? They’re taking over’.”
Mustafa Emili, a 26-year-old public administration student of Turkish descent, says he hasn’t been alienated from his Dutch identity, but from the political solutions on offer.
“What kind of rhetoric is this? Variables that aren’t important when an atheist or humanist makes a mistake are brought into play when it’s a Muslim,” he says of the discussions that link ethnicity and religion to crime and social problems.
Mustafa, a member of the Christian Democrats, is disappointed by the way his party has become part of that trend.
He says he will not vote for them this time around.
“They say multiculturalism has failed,” he says. “Have they conducted an experiment?”
For some, a growing sense of alienation feeds serious fears about the future.
“It makes me apprehensive to feel like I’m surrounded by people who are able to vote for someone who would strip me of all my rights in a heartbeat,” Dibi says.
Hofman agrees. “We shouldn’t be afraid of Wilders – we should be afraid of his voters. His followers believe him.”
Rasit Bal, chairman of Contact Organ Muslims, which liaises between the Dutch government and Muslim organisations, is most concerned about the prospect of attacks on mosques, which have increased in recent years. Attacks have included arson, smashed windows, threatening letters and stigmatising graffiti. Though cooperation with state authorities has gained momentum, Bal says this hasn’t reassured those who pray at the mosques he works with.
Others are worried about the curbing of civil rights.
Van Doorn is alarmed by the PVV’s anti-Muslim proposals and fears further restrictions after the recent ban on niqabs in public areas. Dibi fears Muslims could face Trump-like measures if there’s an attack in the country. “After something like that, it will sound completely reasonable to many people to register Muslims,” he says.
Simon Cohen, who chairs the Coalition of Rotterdammers for Each Other, fights fear by bringing his Jewish community into dialogue with Muslims.
“We have had these feelings for years, while for Muslims, they are rather new. Jews give examples of how they have the experience in the last 30 to 50 years and Muslims receive some help through that,” he says.
Regardless of how they feel about their identity, first-generation immigrants and their second-generation descendants demand an equal place in Dutch society.
“I didn’t come here on a boat. They didn’t come to Morocco to fetch me from some village to make me work here. I was born here,” Dibi says. “I’m co-owner of this place.”
Civil rights activist Abdou Menebhi, who came to the Netherlands in 1975, is startled when I ask whether he feels welcome in the Netherlands. “Welcome? I’m Dutch! It has nothing to do with being welcome or not. It’s more about whether I feel safe and happy,” he says.
This Dutch self-image is by no means universal. “I’m Turkish, even if I have a Dutch passport,” says teaching assistant Seher, who did not want to disclose her last name. Now aged 47, she migrated to the Netherlands as a 16-year-old bride.
Kaya, born in the Netherlands, has always felt Turkish as well. But this doesn’t mean she doesn’t make the same demands as those who feel Dutch. “I want to be addressed as Dutch, unless I indicate otherwise.”
For those who have remained on the sidelines until now, political participation has gained significance.
Both El Gharbouni and Kaya are voting for the first time.
“Now that Wilders came around, people woke up,” says El Gharbouni, who sees the chances of Wilders winning the highest number of seats as pushing people around her to vote.
Kaya has never felt a party has represented her before, but now, she is a member of the political party DENK – Dutch for “Think”.
Led by politicians of Turkish and Moroccan descent, the party’s call for an inclusive society resonates with her. “DENK has been really illuminating at this dark time,” she says.
Dibi believes change will come from younger Dutch generations, who don’t look at the second and third generations as guests in the way their parents do.
“There’s a lot of hope, but it’s just that, we have to deal with this first. I think this is going to be the big fight. I can feel it in my bones.”