- AMSTERDAM – Western Europe’s small democracies have, on the whole, been exceptionally fortunate. Freer and richer than almost anywhere else in the world, countries such as Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland would seem to have little to worry about. This is why the world normally hears less about them than about Afghanistan, say, or Kosovo. Yet all three have been much in the news of late – and not for happy reasons.
The most successful political force in Switzerland today is Christoph Blocher’s Swiss People’s Party. The party’s propaganda material tells its story. A poster shows three white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag. And images of junkies and Muslim women in headscarves are contrasted in a promotional movie with idyllic pictures of Alpine scenery and efficient banks – the People’s Party’s Switzerland.
Vlaams Belang, the Flemish nationalist party, may not be the biggest party in Belgium, but it has done well in local elections. Like the Swiss People’s Party, Vlaams Belang feeds on popular resentment of immigrants – especially Muslim immigrants – of the European Union, and, of course, of the French-speaking Walloons, from whom the Flemish nationalists would like a divorce. This last sentiment is posing a serious threat to Belgium’s survival.
Although the Dutch government is still managed mostly by mainstream, steady-as-you-go Christian Democrats, right-wing populism is growing. Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party wants to ban the Koran, halt Muslim immigration, and deprive delinquents with an immigrant background of Dutch citizenship. The new Proud of the Netherlands Movement, led by Rita Verdonk, the former Minister of Integration, promotes a somewhat more respectable version of this hard line.
These parties and movements share a sense that native-born citizens have been let down by liberal political elites, who seem unable or unwilling to stem the tide of immigration, crime, and Islamist militancy, as well as the erosion of national sovereignty by EU bureaucracy and global capitalism.
Such fears are by no means confined to Europe’s small countries. Nicolas Sarkozy’s election in France has at least something to do with similar feelings. But anxieties about being swamped by foreigners and dominated by outside powers are more acute in smaller countries, whose political elites seem particularly impotent.
The Dutch case is the most surprising, because, unlike Belgium, the Netherlands has no significant tradition of right-wing populism. Nor does it share Switzerland’s insularity. On the contrary, the Dutch pride themselves on their openness and hospitality to foreigners.
The case of Somalia-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the bestselling author of Infidel, best illustrates both the popular resentments and the relative openness that mark contemporary Dutch society. Much criticism and even abuse has been heaped on the Dutch for the way her adopted country has treated her. She has received death threats from Muslim extremists ever since she renounced – indeed, denounced – her Muslim faith, and was forced to live as a virtual fugitive, albeit under the protection of the Dutch state. Before moving to the United States, she was forced out of her apartment in The Hague by complaining neighbors, and almost deprived of her passport. Now that she is a permanent US resident, the Dutch government no longer wants to pay for her protection.
Commentators in the US and elsewhere have accused the Dutch of “unacceptable cowardice.” Salman Rushdie called her “the first refugee from Western Europe since the Holocaust.” French intellectuals, never shy of public posturing, are campaigning to give her French citizenship.
The way the Dutch government handled the affair was not elegant, to say the least. But I’m not sure how many governments do pay for the protection of private citizens who live permanently abroad. The US doesn’t pay to protect its citizens who are under threat even at home.
It is easy to voice contempt of the Dutch government. But what has been lost in all the commentary is the nature of Hirsi Ali’s rise to prominence. It is hard to imagine many countries where a young African woman could become a famous member of parliament only ten years after seeking asylum.
But the reasons for her rise are not entirely salubrious. Whatever the merits – and they are considerable – of her arguments against the bigotry of Islamic or African customs, especially those concerning the treatment of women, she lent respectability to bigotry of a different kind: the native resentment of foreigners, and Muslims in particular.
Indeed, contrary to what some commentators have written, it wasn’t cowardly liberals who hounded Hirsi Ali out of the country because of her politically incorrect views about Islam. She was betrayed by her own former ally, Rita Verdonk, and a variety of Dutch xenophobes, who don’t like an outspoken black female immigrant from Somalia any more than they like Muslims.
But the truth in these matters counts for less than the emotions. And the emotions in this case betray an element of Schadenfreude: look at how even the Dutch, always boasting of their superior tolerance and liberalism, have responded like cowards when their principles are truly tested.
It is true that the Dutch, proud and comfortable inside their narrow borders, have, like the Swiss, often viewed the outside world with a degree of smugness. And for this they are now being punished. That, too, is the natural fate of being a lucky little country in Western Europe.
Ian Buruma is Professor of human rights at Bard College. His most recent book is Murder in Amsterdam: The Killing of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2007.