BERLIN – Soon after she moved into her new neighborhood, Ijburg, on the eastern outskirts of Amsterdam, in 2005, Xandra Lammers started a blog about it. Ijburg is a curious place, an architectural wonder, built in the middle of a lake on reclaimed land and partly on water. She still keeps the blog alive, but curiosity has given way to frustration: It’s all about the unpleasantness of living next to Muslim immigrants.
“I used to vote Labor,” Lammers told me. “I was quite politically correct. But now I no longer am.” She is a determined supporter of Geert Wilders and his anti-immigrant, anti-Islam party, PVV, the front-runner in the Netherlands’ March 15 election. She is also a character in a book by nationalist writer Joost Niemoeller, called “Angry,” published last month and already on the best-seller list. The anger fueling the Wilders campaign is real and tangible in the Netherlands, but — like the anger of Donald Trump’s voters in the U.S. — it’s rooted in the existence of parallel realities in a society where efforts at social and cultural integration have run into major obstacles.
Lammers’ reality is stark. The owner of a translation bureau, she’s a native Amsterdammer, forced out of the city center by steeply rising real estate prices. When she and her husband bought their house on the water in Ijburg, she says the real estate agent didn’t tell her the neighborhood would become the arena of what she calls a “social experiment” — an effort by the city government to put middle class homeowners and social housing renters in one innovative urban development.
Initially, Ijburg had a village feel: People with similar backgrounds bought the houses so they could stay in Amsterdam, and soon they all knew each other. Then the immigrants started moving in, brought over from suburbs where their cheap housing was demolished; 30 percent of Ijburg housing turned out to be earmarked for the social renters.
“We have to share the gardens in some blocks, elevators in others,” Lammers says. “So people started experiencing bad things — cars scratched, elevators urinated in. There’s now a mosque on my street, a radical one.” (The mosque’s Facebook page, removed since locals complained to the authorities, contained references to a radical preacher and to Islamic Brotherhood, an organization some countries consider terrorist).
Some of Lammers immigrant neighbors soon found out what she was writing on her blog, and Moroccan youths started yelling “cancer whore” at her on the street, she says. According to the Amsterdam city government, Ijburg has one of the highest youth crime rates of all the city neighborhoods. Immigrants living in Ijburg have one of the lowest scores in Amsterdam on the Dutch government’s integration scale.
Niemoeller, who presented the first copy of his book to Wilders, says the anger he described had to do with a sense of displacement. In Amsterdam, the middle class can no longer afford to live in the city center because of gentrification and the growing influx of tourists, but the cheaper neighborhoods where they have moved have been rapidly filling with families from Turkey, Morocco, Suriname and the Dutch Antilles. “The atmosphere on the street changes, and people feel they no longer belong,” Niemoeller says. “But there’s no place else to go.” Lammers says she can’t afford to leave her house and still stay in Amsterdam, where her small business operates.
Wilders became an anti-immigrant politician in part because he witnessed a similar change in his neighborhood. In the 1980s and 1990s, he lived in Kanaleneiland, an Utrecht neighborhood that, in those two decades, was transformed from nearly all-white to international, then to Muslim-dominated. Wilders has said in speeches that he was mugged and had to run for safety more than once. A longtime admirer of the Israeli far right, he blamed the changes on the nature of Islam. To him and his supporters, mosques are “hate palaces” and North African muggers are “street terrorists.”
Though Wilders supporters say the immigrants run the streets, they themselves don’t feel that way. Murat, a car mechanic who moved to the Netherlands from Turkey 30 years ago, lives in the city of Almere, built from scratch since 1980 on a drained swamp east of Amsterdam. Almere is multiethnic, with about 30 percent immigrant population — and a city council in which Wilders’ PVV is the biggest party.
“If I tried to write a book about all the times when I was stopped in the street by the police for nothing, just because I have dark hair, or pulled over in my car for no violation, the book would be this thick,” says Murat, spreading his palms about a foot apart. “If I could save enough money, I’d move back to Turkey, but good luck with that here.” Murat says his Turkish name prevents him from getting better-paying jobs, and there are facts to support this: Last year, a Dutch think tank sent out identical resumes under different names and found that a native-born Dutch person’s probability of being invited for a job interview was almost twice as high as a Moroccan immigrant’s.
Then there’s a third perspective — that of the “leftist elite” Wilders is fond of denouncing. Rob Wijnberg, founder of the investigative journalism website De Correspondent, has written columns reaching out to Wilders voters in search of a common ground. When I ask him about the Muslims in his neighborhood — he says there are many — he shrugs. “They’re just my neighbors,” he says.
There’s a factual basis for this worldview, too. The Netherlands is an exceptionally safe country. It has one-third the rape rate and one-fifth the murder rate of the U.S. Amsterdam is a safe city by European standards, too. I wandered in Ijburg after dark and saw no Moroccan teenage gangs hanging out on street corners. The streets were clean and largely deserted. In Utrecht, I walked around Kanaleneiland. The kids frolicking on the Anne Frank School playground were dark-skinned, and the Turkish mosque next to the shopping center lacked a minaret. I felt safe and comfortable.
The problem is bringing all the conflicting — and somewhat justified — worldviews together. It’s especially different in the Netherlands with its history of a pillared society, in which people of different religions and backgrounds never mingled. Marriages between Catholics and Protestants were frowned upon, but the general attitude was live and let live — “liberalism as apathy,” as Wijnberg puts it.
In part because of this traditional attitude, when the immigrants arrived as guest workers in the 1950s to rebuild the Netherlands after World War II and then jump-start its industries, they just formed a separate pillar. They were especially easy for the Dutch to put up with because the government promised to send them back when their work was done. It never happened, of course — but neither really did integration.
“The Netherlands is a segregated society,” Wijnberg says. “It’s not just black versus white, it’s also higher-educated versus lower-educated. Because there are no churches, no schools, even no pubs to which to go together, the only place where we can bump into each other is probably a soccer game.”
As in the U.S., Wilders supporters and their left-wing opponents read different newspapers and watch different TV channels. The idea of integration is less about melding the two sides than forcing one to adopt the other.
Wilders supporters are telling immigrants to adopt the host country’s culture — which, in the Netherlands’ case, includes gay marriage, widely available abortion and euthanasia — or leave. The immigrants say little, but they have closed the corner pub and replaced the traditional butcher’s with a halal one. The leftists want the Wilders supporters to be less xenophobic and more accepting of other cultures — just like them. “We are intolerant of people who are intolerant of our tolerance,” as political historian Hubert Smeets put it.
This being the Netherlands, a trading nation that prides itself on its ability to find a consensus, this tug of war will eventually result in some kind of compromise. Though Wilders probably won’t govern after the March election since no big party wants to form a coalition with PVV, Niemoeller expects his strong showing to shift the national consensus. “We have these almost mystical changes,” he says. “Our elite changed to a ’60s liberal mentality in one summer. We went from rejection to acceptance of euthanasia in one summer — nobody could see why. So maybe we’ll end up agreeing that Islam is a big problem in the same way.”
The consensus is already shifting: The Netherlands has toughened its immigration policies in recent years, making family reunification more difficult, criminalizing illegal residence and moving to stricter curbs on dual nationality. With more Wilders representatives in parliament, further strictures are almost a certainty. Lammers doesn’t expect Wilders to be able to ban all mosques as he promises, but she hopes there will be a crackdown on immigrant crime, and one could see it happening despite a strong Dutch leftist tradition. To swing the pendulum back, the leftist and centrist political forces would need to put forward a unifying agenda of their own, and so far, it has eluded them.
Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky is a writer based in Berlin. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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