Sunday, 16 November 2014

Why the Netherlands should welcome a Party for the Turks

Last week, in between the national debate/civil war surrounding Zwarte Piet, the Labour Party
Selçuk Öztürk and Tunuhan Kuzu Foto ANP / Martijn Beekman
expelled two of its MPs. Tunuhan Kuzu and Selçuk Öztürk broke party ranks to criticise Labour Minister for Immigration Lodewijk Asscher and parliamentary spokesman Ahmed Marcouch. They believed that their criticism against Turkish integration movements showed the party favoured assimilation instead of integration. A few days later the media uncovered that the two MPs had conflicted with the Labour party management for a long time already and that they wished to form a political movement for the Turkish-Dutch community. In the wake of these events, many pundits have commented that these MPs are 'radicalised' and that they are puppets of the Turkish state. Kuzu and Öztürk have been immediately discredited as 'foreigners' and 'outsiders' by the national media. I think that these comments are extremely unhelpful, and instead we should welcome this new movement with open arms.

A Paradoxical Country

Robert Dahl, founder of the modern study of political science, once quipped about the Netherlands that "your country theoretically cannot exist". He was speaking in light of the pillarisation of Dutch society, where various groups (Catholics, Protestants, the working class and liberals) lived segregated from each other. Such segregation often leads to (violent) conflict, as people fail to understand or empathise with the concerns of other groups and the political system disenfranchises those not in power. The reason this did not happen in the Netherlands was that the political elite of each 'pillar' had frequent contact with each other and traded off each other’s concerns. This system is called 'consociationalism'.

In the 1960s and 1970s these pillars lost most of their meaning, due to a variety of factors such as secularisation and increased class mobility. At the same time the Netherlands experienced a wave of migration in the form of the so-called 'gastarbeiders' and from people from the Surinamese and Dutch-Indies colonies who came to move to the Netherlands. The largest and most-connected migrant groups in the Netherlands, the Turkish, Moroccan and Surinamese migrants, found their roots in this period. They did not however manage to create a political party nor any particular successful media organisation for themselves. This lack of political representation was reinforced by the idea that these migrants would be temporary - instead, a large group remained to live in the Netherlands, and the largest cities in the Netherlands - Rotterdam, The Hague and Amsterdam - are now comprised of almost half people from a migration background.

While pillarisation declined, lasting elements of this political system dominate Dutch political thought throughout this day. We still have a closed circle of elite organisations who give input to our political system, and it is hard for new interests to break through to the political sphere. This helped in some way to delay the break-through of the xenophobic Geert Wilders fronted noise. However, this system now also prevents minorities from successfully voicing their concerns with the Netherlands as is.

A Clash of Cultures?

Labour has long held that they meaningfully incorporated the voice of migrants within their party. Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb and Member of Parliament Ahmed Marcouch are important political leaders who share a Moroccan background. The problem here is that these politicians articulate only one half of the views expressed by the migrant electorate, that of more repression of criminal migrants and an assimilatory integration policy. This is in part because these politicians have been selected and promoted by the autochtone elite of the Labour party, who also have a decisive say in the party's view on migration. Indeed, Marcouch has to largely defend the policies as set out by Lodewijk Asscher in a Labour-VVD coalition. It is therefore insufficient to say that the migrant electorate is meaningfully represented. Indeed, the episode surrounding Kuzu and Öztürk shows that there is meaningful support for an integration policy that favours a melting pot approach. Importantly, the Moroccan-Dutch population has more frequent contact with the rest of Dutch society, whereas the Turkish community often favours staying within their own community. Their interests on migration policies therefore often come into conflict.

This paragraph has been provocatively titled 'a clash of culture'. Indeed, the Dutch political elite, lead in this debate by Geert Wilders, have subscribed to the Huntingtonesque view of a clash of civilisations. That is why the current Dutch political landscape is dominated by discussions surrounding 'polderjihadi's' and controversial bans on the Quran, hijabs and burka's (this one succesful!) has floated around Parliament in recent years. I believe that this is not the correct way to look at the political conflict happening now in the Netherlands. Migrant communities in the Netherlands don't want to push their values, but instead want their values to be respected within their own private sphere. 

Kuzu and Öztürk have shown that the concerns of migrants are primary about policy. A large group of the Turkish vote wishes to be able to live in the Netherlands while maintaining their Turkish identity. They therefore oppose a government that views organisations such as Milli Görüs and Süleymanl as "suspect" because these organisations wish to preserve strong ties with Turkey. This group is significant in the Netherlands, and consists of at least 30,000 voters (half a seat in Parliament). This is the number of preferential votes that Kuzu and Öztürk have received at the last election. A roughly similar amount of votes went to Fatma Koşer Kaya (D66) in 2008, following her refusal to state a view on the Armenian Genocide.

Why a Turkish movement must be welcomed

Let us go back to the paradox of Dutch society: normally, a country with diverse and segregated groups has a high potential for political conflict. The Dutch system counteracted this potential by having frequent contact between segregated groups on an elite level. However, current Dutch society is excluding important and large social groups. It would follow that this leads to conflict. That doesn't necessarily mean physical violence, but it does mean at the very least a very aggressive public debate and a lingering feeling of distrust among the disenfranchised electorate. This in turn creates  a toxic brand of politics where if new parties do break through they place themselves in a victim role and there is a mutual refusal to co-operate in parliament. Arguably the same thing happened with the xenophobic right. Janmaat was actively excluded in the 1980s, when the only meaningful engagement was to call him a racist, with actual attempts made on his life by left-radicals. As a consequence Pim Fortuyn and later Geert Wilders managed to build a political legacy on anti-establishment rhetoric, which has proven very difficult to whittle down and engage with.

The current media landscape shows a similar approach to Tunuhan Kozuk and Selçan Öztürk. In part these men are to blame for this themselves as they broke party discipline, a sacred principle of Dutch politics. But media reporting goes beyond outcries against their ‘backstabbing’ of the Labour party.. They are portrayed as sinister, radicalised individuals. Much has been made of an angry comment that Öztürk aimed at Marcouch, where in a heated argument he shouted “may you be punished by Allah”. It has been widely publicised that they receive (immaterial) support from Turkish government officials. In a media landscape that is dominated by stories about nationalities being stripped from individuals who travel to Syria and North Iraq to fight in a jihad, those accusations are particularly loaded. The consequence is that the legitimate viewpoints of Kuzu and Öztürk and the 30,000 people who explicitly voted for them are ignored and brushed away.

The parallels with Janmaat in the 1980s are unsettling. Parallels can also be made with the violent discussions surrounding Zwarte Piet. Here too a minority without political support tried to push their concerns on the agenda. When activist Quincy Gario was arrested by the police for campaigning during a Sinterklaas event he was arrested by the police. Online vitriol has reached such great heights that almost every public figure who has expressed an opinion on the matter has received death threats. It shows that if you try to put a new concern on the political agenda in the Netherlands you are met with an unassailable backlash from the establishment.  

The Dutch political elite must not shun the movement that will be formed by Kuzu and Öztürk. If they choose to do so, they will ignore the opinion of a significant part of the electorate and create the breeding ground for further political conflict. Instead of following the nefarious frames of Geert Wilders and populist-right commentators, political parties and the media must make an earnest effort to discuss and weigh off the legitimate concerns that the Turkish-Dutch population can now push in the public debate.

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