17 06 02
Migration, integration and multiculturalism: Experiences from The Netherlands, By Arjan Verdooren


Coming from the Netherlands, I have noticed quite some similarities between Sweden and my country of origin. Both are quite egalitarian societies. Both have a relatively large welfare state, a (more or less) symbolic monarchy and very unreliable summer weather. As a Dutchman, I additionally have regular déjà vu feelings when confronted with the Swedish debate and rhetoric around immigration and multicultural society.

The Netherlands, once known for openness and tolerance, made a large shift in its policies and discourse towards migration and multicultural society in the beginning of this century. The attacks of September 11th led, even compared to the US, to an intense backlash against Dutch Muslims. In the following year, upcoming politician Pim Fortuyn -who called for a ‘cold war against Islam’- was killed by a (white) animal rights activist.

Two years later, filmmaker and professional provocateur Theo van Gogh was murdered by a young Moroccan-Dutchman with extremist views. This had an immense psychological and emotional impact and brought to the surface probably longer lingering anti-immigration sentiments among the Dutch population.

These events also created a huge shift in the rhetorics, discourse and policies around migration and multicultural society. This implied a widespread rejection of multiculturalism – the political strategy to accommodate different ethnic communities by acknowledging their cultural heritage. Even though it is very questionable if multiculturalism was ever truly implemented in the Netherlands, it is probably true that it provided a dominant discourse and rhetoric- that was common over the whole range of the political spectre. It was a rhetoric that, for better or worse, ‘culturalized’ immigrants by relating their actions and ideas exclusively to their supposed cultural heritages. It is hence perhaps no surprise that many people related social problems that came with the second generation of immigrants to their cultures of origin as well.

The alternative to multiculturalism was often found in an ethnocentric universalism, that loudly claimed the superiority of Western civilization, the right to say that ‘we are better’ and that ‘integration has failed’; a discourse that political philosopher Baukje Prins aptly called ‘new realism’.

This discourse has been on repeat for the last 15 years, with increasingly stricter policies for ‘integration’, including contracts for newcomers to prove they accept ‘Dutch values’, and obligatory cultural integration courses for newcomers (sometimes even before arrival). This has by no means satisfied the public debate, that with every incident asks for more ‘integration’. In the meantime, it is still unclear and arbitrary when someone’s integration has finally been fulfilled - illustrated by the fact that many native Dutch people that take integration tests out of curiosity fail them.

This continuing emphasis on ‘integration’ –that often rather means assimilation- has only deepened the divisions by inserting constant us-and-them oppositions, symbolic exclusion and suspicions of disloyalty . Young people especially can often be heard to wonder desperately when they will finally be considered ‘integrated’ into the country they were born and/or raised in.  The normalization and encouragement of  ‘speaking one’s mind’ concerning suspicions and contempt for ethnic minorities and Muslims recently found a new low, when a debate in an established Amsterdam debate centre degenerated into a calm exchange of how deportations could best be organized. 

When I first came to Sweden 11 years ago, the discourse on immigration and integration was miles away from that in the NL. By now, I often hear the same arguments and rhetorics that I have heard in the Netherlands for the last 15 years. It concerns me to see Sweden go down the same route, knowing where it has led.   

Something that seems to ironically escape the ‘new realists’ is that the diversity in our societies is a fact that cannot be reversed. This diversity creates change for everyone: both majorities as well as minorities, whether they like it or not. The question is how to change: in a way that we all learn and benefit, or in a way that makes us conservative, rigid and defensive.

Therefore, we need to find new answers to deal with pluriformity. For this end, going back to traditional models of multiculturalism will not suffice. New approaches should be found beyond the potential paternalism, culturalism and moral indifference of multiculturalism, but also beyond a self-congratulatory and superioristic universalism.

This entails a recognition of the diversity within all communities, including the ethnic majority, and an acknowledgement that diversity is a natural state of affairs. At the same time it entails an emphasis on certain basic rules and values that should truly be considered universal, and can hence never be appropriated or claimed as inherently ‘Western’, ‘Dutch’ or ‘Swedish’: non-exclusion and the respect for human dignity. And it entails an emphasis on true dialogue between and sometimes within communities, a dialogue that asks for a suspension of judgment and refraining from feelings of superiority. Instead of focussing on the integration of individual people, it could focus on how to integrate society as a whole, as sociologist Willem Schinkel suggested.

It is my hope that it takes Sweden less time to find these answers than The Netherlands. 

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