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When Ways of Life Collide:
Multiculturalism and Its Discontents in the Netherlands
Paul M. Sniderman & Louk Hagendoorn

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THIS IS A BOOK about a vulnerability of liberal democracy. The subject is the incorporation of immigrant minorities in Western Europe. The issue is multiculturalism.

It is a story of ironies from the beginning. The argument for multiculturalism now is made on grounds of principle, but the policy originally was adopted out of convenience. The assumption was that immigrants would be needed for the economy for only a short while. Then they would (and should) leave. Their ties to the country and culture they came from, therefore, should be maintained. Hence the government programs to sustain the culture of minority immigrants—to ensure, for example, that they continued to speak the language of the country they came from, even if they did not master the one they were in. The objective was to equip them to leave—which is to say, to discourage them from staying.1

A decade later, as though it were quite natural, a policy that began with one aim was committed to the opposite one. The government redoubled its efforts to support traditional institutions and values of immigrants, not to equip them to return to their former country but to embed them in their new one. Multiculturalism had taken off. Principle had become the driving force, with costs or risks a secondary consideration, when a consideration at all. The countries that have made the most ambitious commitment to multiculturalism, the Netherlands and Great Britain, made the commitment first; they debated the consequences only later. Informed circles agreed until recently that multiculturalism was the right policy—right as a matter of effective public policy, but above all right morally.

It is easy to see why. Large-scale immigration of cultural minorities was underway throughout Western Europe. Cultural diversity was a fact of life. Those responsible for political and social institutions had to deal with a host of immediate problems. Race riots were the most threatening, although not necessarily the most urgent. The conditions of life for immigrants in the early years were appalling; and the intolerance that welcomed them was rightly seen in the context of recent history. The Holocaust had taken place in the lifetime of many who now had responsibility for the political and economic institutions of liberal democracy. Against this background, to oppose multiculturalism was to demonstrate a lack of humanity. It was not merely a moral duty to combat prejudice against disadvantaged minorities; it was a badge of honor.

Prejudice is a powerful force behind opposition to multiculturalism. But opposition to multiculturalism is not the same as intolerance. Paradoxically, multiculturalism now is being challenged from opposing sides in Western European democracies—from those at their periphery because they are not committed to the values of liberal democracy, and from those at their center because they are committed to them. This study is an effort to understand why.


Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in 1969 in Mogadishu Somalia as the daughter of Hirsi Magan. When she was twenty-two, her parents arranged a marriage to a Somalian nephew in Canada. Her story is that on her way to Canada, she made her escape to the Netherlands and abandoned her faith, becoming a critic of Muslim treatment of women in the Netherlands.2 In all its variants, multiculturalism is committed to achieving a greater measure of equality between cultures; but it was precisely a difference in cultures that legitimized the inequality of Muslim women in Western European countries. As a critic of Muslim treatment of women, Ali became a critic of multiculturalism. She achieved prominence almost instantaneously, although not the kind one seeks. After only one appearance on television, Muslim extremists immediately threatened Ali with death.3 September 11 and the assassinations and mass murders that followed in its wake made all things, if not possible, certainly conceivable. Ayaan Hirsi Ali became the first public figure to go into hiding in the Netherlands since the Nazi persecution of Jews hiding during World War II. She had escaped from a traditional society only to be forced into hiding in a liberal one.

Ali had to hide, but she didn’t have to be silent. She made a short film about Muslim women, calling attention to the illiberal aspects of Islam as she perceived them. The movie, Submission, which was shown on Dutch television on a late summer night in August 2004, begins by showing a veiled female body overlaid with lines from the Koran—an explicit attack on Muslim fear of female sexuality. Submission is a censure of traditional Muslim views of the status of women. One of Ayaan’s close friends who assisted her in making the movie was Theo van Gogh. A nephew of the artist Vincent van Gogh, he had a deserved reputation for offensiveness and vulgarity. Van Gogh repeatedly labeled Muslims as people who have intercourse with a species of mountain ram.4 Following the release of the film, van Gogh was threatened. On an early November morning in 2004, he was shot seven times, stabbed in the chest, and had his throat slit. The assassin turned out to be a young Moroccan man, second generation, well educated, fluent in Dutch. Only a few years earlier he had been featured in a Dutch magazine, his picture on its cover, touted as an example of the success of integrating Muslims into Dutch society. Subsequently beset by personal and family difficulties, he had become an affiliate of an international gang of Muslim terrorists.


Before September 11, multiculturalism was openly challenged only by political figures on the right—most often the extreme right. Since then, the issue of multiculturalism and Muslims has moved to the center of Western European politics. This is dramatically so in the site of our study, the Netherlands, but it is broadly so throughout Western Europe. It would seem obvious that the strains over Muslims and multiculturalism follow from September 11 and its consequences. We shall show, however, that the fundamental divisions were there before September 11; which is also to say, not because of September 11.

This is a study of a tangle of conflicts: over tolerance, identity, the role of elites in liberal democracies, and even the values of liberal democracy. All were apparent before September 11.

The first line of conflict—between the tolerant and the intolerant—is so much easier to see than the others that it has seemed to many thoughtful people to be the heart—even the whole—of the problem. In Western Europe, as everywhere, a substantial portion of society is prejudiced. They have a litany of complaints about minorities—and not just about this or that minority but about one minority after another. Their prejudice gives them a political rudder to steer by. They do not need to know policy details. All they need to know is how they feel about minorities. The more they dislike them, the more likely they are to reject policies that help them and to support those that exclude them.

It would be foolish to overlook the persisting power of prejudice. But it would be nearly as serious a mistake to underestimate the power of liberal democracies in containing it politically. That is partly because the most susceptible to prejudice in a liberal democracy are those who are at its margins socially and politically. They dislike minorities because they themselves are poor and poorly educated. But because they are poor and poorly educated, they are less likely to act politically on their prejudices; even when they do, they are less likely to be politically influential than their fellow citizens at the center of society. More is at work than prejudice in popular reactions to multiculturalism.

People cannot flourish, the argument for multiculturalism runs, unless they can become who they truly and fully are. They—we— are not isolated atoms, each complete by himself or herself. We belong to larger communities, each with its customs, accomplishments, memories of what was, and images of what should be. For people to realize their full worth, they must appreciate the worth of their collective identity; still more, the culture they live in must recognize the full worth of their collective identity.5 But ethnic and religious immigrants in Western Europe live in societies that historically have not valued their cultures. The larger society is thus obliged to support the institutions symbolizing and sustaining the collective identities of minorities just as it does those symbolizing and sustaining the identity of the majority.

There is a generosity of spirit here. Britain and the Netherlands have promoted multiculturalism to expand opportunities for minorities to enjoy a better life and to win a respected place of their own in their new society. It is all the more unfortunate, as our findings will show, that the outcome has been the opposite—to encourage exclusion rather than inclusion. The policy put in place to achieve conciliation has created division—certainly of majority against minority, perhaps also of minority against majority.6 The question is why.

Multiculturalism, like Joseph’s coat of many colors, comes in many variations.7 But in one degree or another, they strive to call attention to differences and to minimize the overlap between them.8 To some degree this is true for all minorities, but it is true in the highest degree for Muslims, since the points of difference are so visible and go so deep.

What are the consequences of making issues of cultural and national identity a focal point of political argument? We had a good idea about one consequence before we began this study, and no idea at all about the second. The consequence we anticipated was this: To the extent that members of the majority attach importance to their national identity, the more likely they will be to perceive their cultural identity to be threatened. In turn, perceiving minorities as threatening, they reject them.9 We shall show that both components are true. Valuing a collective identity increases the likelihood of seeing it threatened; seeing it threatened increases the likelihood the majority will reject the minority. This is an important result but not a surprising one. It signals that there is a constituency that can be galvanized in opposition to immigrant minorities. Although public opinion studies can only be suggestive, we shall present results indicating that this constituency is a large one.

The second consequence of making issues of identity a focal point of political argument, the one we had not anticipated, reveals more fully the risk of identity politics. Just as it is true that some people are more concerned about a threat to their cultural identity than others, it is also true that the same person can be more concerned about such a threat in some circumstances than in others. It is obvious how people who perceive a threat will respond when issues of cultural identity are brought to the fore. It is by no means obvious how people who do not believe that there is a threat to the national culture will respond.

Here are two scenarios. In the first, when politicians bring issues of collective identity to the fore, it sparks a reaction among those already concerned about issues of identity. In the second, it also sparks a reaction among those who ordinarily are not concerned about issues of identity.

The politics of the two scenarios differ profoundly. To the degree the first applies, it is relatively easy on the one hand for political leaders to evoke an anti-immigrant reaction from those already predisposed against immigrants but difficult for them to do more. To the degree the second scenario applies, it is easier for political leaders to break out of the core constituency concerned with issues of identity and provoke exclusionary reactions in the electorate as a whole.

Which scenario better captures the dynamic of identity politics in Western Europe? We carried out special purpose experiments to observe how ordinary citizens respond when issues of national or cultural identity become salient. The experiments are designed to answer two questions that are worth distinguishing. The first has to do with how easily an exclusionary reaction can be elicited. It is one thing for people to react negatively to minorities when a spotlight is trained on issues of identity or when the institutions and values of their society are openly threatened. It is another thing for them to react to just a word or phrase. The second has to do with how wide the circle is in the larger society that reacts when their national identity is made salient. Obviously, those at the periphery of society will react. But what about those at its center? They are markedly more tolerant and markedly less likely to believe that the majority culture is threatened. And yet, as we shall see, they, too, can be brought into the circle of opposition by making collective identities salient.

Of course, a reaction can be evoked from virtually anyone in extreme circumstances. When a bank robber waving a shotgun tells customers in the bank to raise their hands, everyone’s hands go up. Our experimental strategy was just the opposite. Rather than hitting people over the head with a hammer, we aimed, as it were, to brush against them with a feather. To be able to provoke a reaction with modest experimental “manipulations” points to an underlying sensitivity to issues of national and cultural identity; still more, it points to a capacity to mobilize support for exclusionary reactions to immigrants in the electorate as a whole, not just in the segment already concerned about threats to cultural or national identity.

It is eerie, for us, to write these words. Four years after we did our study, the political landscape in the Netherlands was turned upside down by a charismatic figure campaigning against multiculturalism. Of course, our findings did not “predict” this. But they do point to the “flash” potential of identity politics—the speed with which large numbers can be mobilized in opposition to multiculturalism. There is, we fear, a bitter irony here. Striving in the fashion that political leaders have to spotlight and honor differences in the culture and values of majority and minority, they have evoked the very exclusionary reaction they meant to avoid—and what is more, evoked it from those who otherwise would not have been concerned about differences in identity.


Citizens only get to choose from the choices offered. Beginning in the 1980s a consensus among political elites developed on multiculturalism—more exactly, a consensus in some countries in Western Europe embedded in a larger antiracism consensus in all. The fact of consensus itself became one more reason for still more consensus. The more who identified racism with opposition to multiculturalism, the fewer who would openly criticize it and the more complete the consensus would appear to be. Periodic examples of public figures whose careers were damaged, or ended, by public statements that were construed as “insensitive” made sure the lesson of political correctness was well learned.

Of course, some disagreed. But it was not necessary to think that encouraging multiculturalism was the right thing to do, only that contesting it was the wrong thing to do. The center-left wanted to promote diversity; the center-right wanted to avoid backlash. So in Great Britain and the Netherlands, the mainstream party of the left sponsored multiculturalism, while the mainstream party of the right acquiesced in it. Together, the programmatic convictions of the one and the principled acquiescence of the other removed the issue of multiculturalism from electoral politics.

This cross-party consensus turned the politics of tolerance upside down. When parties compete, politics operates bottom up with political leaders responding to electoral pressures from below. When they collude, it operates top down with elites in control of the public agenda and thus able to remove some issues from contention. But politicians have means other than agenda control to exert influence. We want to bring to light one of them, not the most important but possibly the most intriguing—namely, conformity pressures. There is, we shall show, a paradox. On the one hand, the more importance that people attach to conformity as a social value, the more likely they are to oppose multiculturalism. On the other hand, the more importance they attach to conformity, the more susceptible they are to social pressure. The result for party leaders on both left and right is the same: that part of their constituency most likely to oppose multiculturalism is the same part whose opposition is most easy to contain.


Finally, there is the conflict between Western European and Muslim values. In some ways, it is the most obvious aspect of the current situation; in others, the most elusive: obvious because there is a collision of values; elusive because, for reasons not immediately obvious, this collision of values need not entail conflict.

This collision of values gives currency to a phrase of the day: “the conflict of civilizations.” Conflict on this scale, however, is not what we have in mind. To speak of a conflict of civilizations suggests that the points of difference are comprehensive and the conflict irreconcilable. We do not believe either applies here. When we speak of ways of life colliding, we have in mind genuine differences about what is right and wrong embedded in a larger context of common ground. The points of difference, though sharp, are limited; the area of agreement, though not complete, is large. The points of conflict go to both groups’ understanding of their way of life; and because they concern not what people think about abstract principles but what choices they make—indeed, cannot avoid making—in their everyday lives, the points of difference cut deep.

It is a truism that a conflict of values leads to conflict between groups and, if a conflict already exists, aggravates it. It is all the more interesting, then, that this is a truism that is false. There is a collision of values: Western Europeans take exception to Muslim treatment of women and children; Muslims to Western European treatment of women and children. The Muslim minority is in no position to demand that the majority conform to their values. The majority is in a position to demand the minority conform to theirs. It is only reasonable to suppose that they will do so. Reasonable but, as we shall show, wrong. Many Dutch take strong exception to Muslim practices but have a positive attitude toward Muslims themselves. They are as supportive of the right of Muslims to follow their own way of life in the Netherlands as those who have a positive attitude toward Muslims in all respects.

We readily acknowledge that there is an obvious objection. There is no reason to doubt that that the Dutch mean what they say when they say they dislike the way Muslim men treat Muslim women and the way Muslim parents treat their children. There is some reason, however, to doubt that they mean what they say when they say they like Muslims themselves. After all, they may be saying not what they believe but what they think they are supposed to believe.

This objection has to be right: some people who say nice things about minorities can’t stand them. The question, though, is not whether there are some people like this but whether those who say they object to Muslim treatment of women and children not out of prejudice but from principle in the largest number mean what they say. Acknowledging that in the end one cannot prove a negative, we accept the burden of proof. We will go to some lengths to test whether those who say they like Muslims, although they strongly dislike their treatment of women and children, are being sincere.

We accept the burden of proof because there is a deep misunderstanding of the value of tolerance—about its character and power— among those most concerned about issues of tolerance. They understand it to be a negative disposition—a willingness to put up with another individual or group even though you dislike or disagree with them. It makes sense to think of tolerance requiring people to jump a hurdle to be in a position to be tolerant, if what you have in mind is political tolerance. How can you tell if someone is tolerant if you only ask him if people he agrees with should have the right to express their point of view? Surely the test of tolerance is the willingness to support the right of people you disagree with, even possibly detest, to express their point of view. But we are concerned with another kind of tolerance—social, not political.

The two are quite different. What sense does it make to argue that you can only be in a position to be tolerant of, say, Jews, if you dislike them? If you have to dislike or disagree with a group in order to be in a position to be tolerant of it, then only anti-Semites are in a position to be tolerant of Jews. Social tolerance requires more than political tolerance. It is not enough to be willing to put up with a minority group. At a minimum, it is necessary that one not dislike and reject others because they belong to another ethnic, religious, or racial group. But tolerance does not stop with neutrality. To be truly tolerant, one must be ready to accept others, to think well of them, and to be well disposed toward them.

What is at stake is not a disagreement over definitions. The issue is whether, in real life, a deep conflict of values leads a majority to reject a minority. That value conflict exacerbates group conflict is the obvious expectation; it certainly was our expectation. But like so many others, we underestimated the power of tolerance. Those who believe there is a conflict between Western European and Muslim values, but who nonetheless have a positive view of Muslims, are as supportive of the right of Muslim immigrants to follow their own way of life in the Netherlands as those who reject the idea that there is a conflict of values.

The fundamental issue, it turns out, is not diversity but loyalty. Do Muslim minorities want to adopt the country they have come to and its core values as theirs? Or do they want to live in it, but not be a part of it, reserving their fundamental loyalty for the country they came from and its culture and institutions? They are questions that cut deep. Many, including many of the most tolerant, believe that Muslim immigrants continue to give their loyalty to the country they came from, not the country they have come to. Among the many ironies of our story, this is perhaps the most gratuitous. Multiculturalism encouraged an ambiguity of commitment. On the one side, political and intellectual elites ruled out a declaration of identification with the larger society as inappropriate. On the other side, Muslim leaders have acted as though identification with the larger society was unnecessary. Both could have made different choices; if either had, there well may not have been a pervasive suspicion about the loyalty of the Muslim community as a whole before the overt demonstration of disloyalty of a few.


“God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands” goes a popular Dutch saying. Much of the Netherlands is surrounded by water, and a large part of it would be underwater but for the creation of dykes. The distances are small; it takes less than two hours by car to cross the country from east to west, and about three hours to cross it from north to south. The opposite side of the coin is that the population density is the highest in Europe and among the highest in the world.

The Netherlands is also a country with a tradition of tolerance. As early as the seventeenth century, Amsterdam was a popular capital in Europe, partly because of its liberal and tolerant climate, still more because of its “embarrassment of riches,” as Schama has characterized it.10 Certainly because of the first, and possibly because of the second, the Netherlands offered asylum to religious and political refugees who could find protection from persecution and enjoy freedom of thought and belief. Thus the image of the Netherlands as a tolerant country came into being. It is now known for more contemporary forms of tolerance—coffee shops selling soft drugs, legal prostitution, euthanasia, and gay marriage.

The Netherlands historically has been a country of emigration, albeit one with a tradition of immigration: rich Protestants from the southern Dutch provinces during the Eighty Years’ War; German seasonal workers since the sixteenth century; Jews after 1619; and French Huguenots at the end of the seventeenth century. Gypsies moved in and out throughout this whole period.11 The twentieth century witnessed the arrival of yet other foreign populations. In the 1920s groups of Chinese laid off by Dutch steamships settled in Rotterdam and Amsterdam.12 In the 1950s about 40,000 South Moluccans13 together with some 200,000 Indo-Dutch “returned” with the Dutch colonial army after the declaration of independence of the state of Indonesia, a late Dutch colony. The 1960s in turn welcomed some smaller groups of Italian, Spanish, and Yugoslav labor immigrants.

All the same, the real reversal from a country of emigration to an immigration country—although this was never officially admitted— occurred in the 1970s. Responding to a shortage of unskilled labor in the 1970s, the government approved of and assisted in labor recruitment in Morocco, in North Africa, and Turkey in the Middle East. Almost simultaneously Surinamese and Antilleans emigrated to the Netherlands from the Caribbean Dutch colonies. In addition, refugees from Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, and other African countries streamed into the Netherlands in the 1980s and 1990s, while at the same time the Turkish and Moroccan groups further grew as relatives joined family members already in the Netherlands. Currently about 2.6 million people in the Netherlands qualify as immigrants by their birth or that of one of their parents. Most broadly defined, some 17 percent of the Dutch population is of foreign descent. The largest groups are the Surinamese, Turks, and Moroccans, each numbering between 225,000 and 300,000, andthe Antilleans, which number about 100,000. Refugees number about 150,000, and other smaller groups include Moluccans and Southern Europeans.14 The prognosis is that Muslims will outnumber the Dutch in the three largest cities in the Netherlands within the decade. All are less well-off than the native Dutch. But of the four largest groups, the Muslims, the Turks, and the Moroccans are the least well-off.

The Netherlands has always been a country of minorities thanks to the power of religion to divide as well as unite.15 The southern part of the country is traditionally Roman Catholic and the northern part is traditionally Protestant, the latter being further divided into Lutheran, Reformed, and Dutch Reformed. These religious differences were institutionalized in the separate—or “pillarized”—state structures: parallel labor unions, employers unions, newspapers, broad casting stations, medical care organizations, and even universities for Protestants and Roman Catholics.16

This pillarized system collapsed toward the end of the 1960s, partly as a result of increasing secularization of the Dutch society, partly as a result of increasing social as well as geographic mobility. Still, given this history of segmentation, it is not surprising that the party system remains complex. The principal party of the left is the Social Democratic Party (PvdA, Partij van de Arbeid), with two somewhat more radical parties to its left, the Greens (Groen Links) and the Socialists (SP, Socialistische Partij). The principal party of the right is the VVD (Partij voor Vrijheid en Democratie), or the Conservative Liberal Party. In between is D’66 (Democraten ’66) and the fragments of the traditional Christian parties now united in the Christian Democratic Party (CDA, Christen Democratisch Appel). The Social Democrats favor policies to reduce both economic and social inequality. The Liberal Party, while supportive of policies to reduce economic inequality and provide social welfare, is not supportive of policies to reduce social inequality and has more of a market orientation to the economy, though the difference is one of degree, not kind. The Christian Democrats focus their appeal on support for traditional values—expressed in antifeminist, anti-euthanasia, and anti-abortion policies.17

It is, on the one hand, a complex system; on the other hand, it is a surprisingly simple one. The number of parties makes coalition government inescapable; the broad support for a culture of egalitarianism makes possible coalitions that might seem impossible. Thus, the principal party of the left, the Social Democrats, joined hands with the principal party of the right, the Liberals in the 1990s. This coalition allowed the government to negotiate a series of consecutive “gentlemen’s agreements” between labor unions and employers, restraining rising salaries in return for low inflation and employment. The result: the “Dutch Miracle” of unprecedented economic growth in the late 1990s.18

Politically, the Dutch have a collective trauma. The German occupation during World War II stands out as a period of extraordinary humiliation. The institutionalized Dutch memory is that they, the Dutch, failed to resist the German occupiers as they should have— still more, failed to resist the deportation of Dutch Jews as they should have. It cannot be surprising that immigrant minorities have been seen in the light of the Holocaust—powerless and dependent, deserving the help and protection of the Dutch—or that critical views of immigrants are labeled racist and xenophobic. A societal consensus, at the elite level, was formed in support of multiculturalism—and not just of a symbolic variety. In the Netherlands, as much as can be done on behalf of multiculturalism has been done. Minority groups are provided instruction in their own language and culture; separate radio and television programs; government funding to import religious leaders; and subsidies for a wide range of social and religious organizations; “consultation prerogatives” for community leaders; and publicly financed housing set aside for and specifically designed to meet Muslim requirements for strict separation of “public” and “private” spaces.19

In the 1990s, as the multiculturalism program took root, the Netherlands became an increasingly wealthy country. The average income was high, though the taxes were as well. A large part of the income was redistributed through an intricate system of social welfare that had been gradually built in the 1950s and 1960s. It was designed to protect the Dutch against unemployment, illness, and old age and is in sharp contrast to the thin Anglo-Saxon welfare model in Britain and the United States. Unfortunately, the simultaneous exhaustion of natural gas reserves and the expense of so extensive a welfare state required drastic expenditure cuts in the 1980s to lower the government deficit. The result: private wealth and public decay, tight purse strings in the economic realm and unbounded ambitiousness in the cultural.


It is necessary, proponents of multiculturalism contend, to go beyond “mere” tolerance because the heart of the matter is that the majority honor the claims of minorities to their own identities. This ordering of tolerance and identity, we will argue, gets things wrong all the way down. Bringing issues of collective identity to the fore undercuts support for the right of ethnic and religious minorities to follow their own ways of life. Tolerance, not identity, provides the foundation for diversity.

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