ODVV interview: Press Muslim coverage in the...
Islam is the second largest religion in the Netherlands and it’s reported that there are nearly one million Muslims in the country of 17 million. The first mosques were established in the Netherlands in early 17th century, after a small number of Ottoman traders started to settle in the nation’s port cities. Studies show that almost without exception, the Muslims of the Netherlands have a migrant background. The plurality of the Muslims of the Netherlands are of Turkish or Moroccan origin while there exist smaller groups from such countries as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Somalia.
A significant majority of the Dutch population believe religion shouldn’t play a determining role in politics and education, and the country is highly secular. According to Statistics Netherlands, the majority of Dutch people said in 2017 that they are not religious and don’t attend religious services. The same report indicates only ten percent of Dutch attend a religious service on a weekly basis. Far-right parties opposed to immigrants and Muslims maintain a strong presence in Dutch politics and recently secured a sweeping victory in the March 20 provincial elections. The outcome of the elections, which saw the Forum for Democracy (FvD) party win 86 seats will determine the shape of Dutch politics for years to come.
The Netherlands is reasonably expected to be a tolerant society. However, a recent study by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights has found that the country is currently ranked as the second worst place in the European Union to be a Muslim. The study revealed that 42 percent of Muslims in the Netherlands experience discrimination due to their origin and 30 percent feel discriminated against because of their faith.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has done an interview with Dr. Ineke van der Valk, a researcher at the University of Leiden’s Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs specializing in racism and anti-Muslim discrimination to ask questions about Islamophobia in the Netherlands and the interrelationship between Dutch Muslims and the wider society. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: To what extent is Islamophobia a serious concern in the Netherlands? Do people buy into the propaganda campaign of the right-wing extremists and individuals such as Geert Wilders and his party about Islam?
A: Islamophobia certainly is a matter of concern to the Dutch population, government and policymakers, just as all forms of discrimination against different groups of people on the basis of their religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual preferences and disabilities. Legislation against discrimination is enshrined in the Constitution, in penal law and in civil law, notably in the Equal Treatment Act. At a local level, the Municipal Anti-Discrimination Service Act guarantees that every citizen has the possibility to report discrimination in their place of residence and to receive independent support from a regional or municipal anti-discrimination service. These regional and municipal anti-discrimination services also have a responsibility to inform citizens, schools and businesses on discrimination and anti-discrimination.
However, these formal prohibitions and policies although of utmost importance do not always prevent people from being discriminated and does not automatically protect them against prejudices and stereotypes. In particular not when such prejudices and stereotypes are part of propagandistic activities of xenophobic political parties, such as Wilders’ PVV. The people who voted in favour of the PVV did not all do so because of his anti-Islam stances. Many of them voted in his favor because of his rather leftist socio-economic program. In general 68% of the population is against any form of discrimination.
Q: In June 2018, Geert Wilders announced that he would be running a cartoon competition against the prophet of Islam Muhammad – he called off the event in August. He had sparked the widespread frustration of the Muslims in 2008 by producing the short film “Fitna”. Where are the limits and boundaries of free speech in the Netherlands when it comes to the religious beliefs and sanctities of the Muslims and other people of faith?
A: In the Netherlands the Islamic religion is officially recognized and protected on an equal footing with other denominations such as Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism. Islam is considered one of the three most important monotheist world religions. State–religion relations in the Netherlands are characterized by the model of pluralistic cooperation.
The state must treat all religions in an impartial way. One of the rights that are relevant in this respect is the freedom of religion. The freedom of religion is guaranteed by constitutional law. It protects having or not having religious convictions. It also protects the expression of this conviction in private and public, collective and individual cults and rites such as in the context of prayers and funerals. The Netherlands has a reasonably extensive range of legal instruments giving protection against discrimination in general and thus also with respect to discrimination based on religion.
However, there are also formal shortcomings and complications that sometimes make it difficult to implement the law. In general, basic rights such as the freedom of expression are limited by the rights and freedoms of others. Conversely, the ban on discrimination may clash with other basic rights, such as the freedom of expression or freedom of religion. In this context, by the end of 2016 a proposal of law was discussed in Parliament to change criminal law and eliminate articles on group defamation and on incitement to hatred. The intention of this revision was to enlarge the freedom of expression. A majority of the House of Representatives voted against the proposal because it was considered to weaken antidiscrimination legislation. In addition procedural obstacles may obstruct people from being able to enforce their rights. Finally, the laws are general, and not everything can be regulated by law. This applies in particular to behavioral norms and to matters that are regarded as part of a person’s private life.
Q: It was in the middle of last year when the Dutch Parliament banned the wearing of full-face veil or Niqab for the Muslim women in public places. Are the Muslims of the Netherlands free and safe to practice their faith without persecution? Are the government and the parliament planning to restrict the freedoms of the Muslims?
A: Given the constitutional right of freedom of religion including the principle of neutrality of the state, the state should not interfere with the way religion is practiced unless in cases foreseen by the law that is in case of infringement of the law. This neutrality implies that no signs of religious belonging such as a headscarf or a cross in important public functions such as the police – since 2011 – and the judiciary are permitted. This is different for less important public functions and private businesses where the wearing of signs of religious belonging is considered a dimension of the freedom of religion. Its prohibition without reasonable arguments is seen as a form of discrimination as many rulings of the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights show. This is different again for the burqa because considerations of safety are at stake for clothes that totally cover the face. In case of the face-covering burqa, safety is seen as more important than the freedom of wearing the clothes of one’s choice. By the way, this also holds for non-religious face-covering clothes such as helmets or the bivouak hat.
In 2016 a majority in the Dutch House of Representatives voted for a law regarding the partial interdiction of face-covering attire. In mid-2018 the Senate approved the law as well. Although the law aims at non-religious face covering as well, it is self-evident that the primary targets are the burqa and niqab. The present proposal aims to ban face covering in a limited number of public domains such as the care sector, state institutions and public transport. Transgression of the law will be punished with a fine of 405 euros. By accepting this proposal, the House of Representatives ignored the negative advice of the Council of State.The Council argued that the government did not present evidence of the necessity and usefulness of such a law. A sufficient analysis and explanation of the supposed social problems resulting from face covering attire was lacking, according to the Council that holds the view that such social problems do not really exist. Only an estimated two to 400 women wear the burqa. The Council holds the view that more importantly this law infringes the freedom of religion that is guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (EHCR). ECRI, the anti-racism committee of the Council of Europe, also urged the Dutch government to withdraw the draft law.
There are no plans, as far as the government is concerned, to restrict the freedom of Muslims. Although acts of discriminatory aggression against mosques unfortunately do occur – around 25 cases per year – we cannot speak of persecution and these acts are not condoned by the authorities – neither are they by the majority of the public opinion.
Q: Does the portrayal of the mass media of Muslims and immigrants affect the quality of living of the Muslims and their relationship with the non-Muslim population? I noted that you’ve been covering the negative coverage of the Dutch media of Muslims in your studies. Why do the media in the Netherlands present an unbalanced image of Muslims?
A: We know from a socio-psychological study in nine EU countries that an underlying cause of discrimination against Muslims besides a general human tendency to discriminate is the fear of Islamist terrorist attacks. Although research shows a general anti-Muslim bias in the press, this does not automatically mean a conscious effort to negative presentation, although this also exists in particular in new social media and in some other media outlets. Such negative presentation of Muslims and Islam is in particular prevalent on two popular weblogs, as my analysis shows.
In general, especially since 9/11, press coverage of Muslims and Islam has become more negative. Muslims are discussed in the context of negative news facts such as terrorist attacks. Sometimes Muslims are seen as a homogenous entity without internal variations and differences. But again sometimes these variations in Muslim communities are taken into consideration. Opposition in these cases does not so much target Muslims as such but those with a more fundamentalist worldview that is expressed culturally in attire and ways of life that are segregated from mainstream Dutch society, opposing highly cherished mainstream democratic values such as the equality between men and women, democracy and the constitutional state and the separation of the church and the state.
Q: How prevalent are physical attacks against the Muslims in public places such as the restaurants, trains and train stations, schools and universities, streets and shopping centers? Do you consider this side of Islamophobia to be serious and threatening in the country?
A: Physical attacks are not very prevalent; indeed they are rather exceptional but they do occur. I would say that any of this kind of acts is a transgression of human rights; if there is one it is one too much. We know of 16 cases of physical violence in 2016 and 24 in 2017. Around half of these occurred on the street.
Q: Is there a meaningful cooperation between the police, municipalities, government organizations and Islamic communities to respond properly to Islamophobic attacks? Does the government take Islamophobia and its public manifestations such as assault on the mosques and vandalizing of the Islamic centers seriously?
A: Since hate crimes against mosques have appeared more and more on the political agenda, the responsibility of the state to protect mosques against discriminatory aggression and extremist attacks is equally subject to public debate. State agencies, police and other stakeholders have meetings with boards and regional platforms of mosques on a regular basis in relation to their safety and other topics of mutual interest. The safety of the mosque is primarily the responsibility of the board of the mosque itself. However, the board may apply for support by the state. It is up to the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism to assess the seriousness of the case and the necessary means to protect the mosque. Recently, in various cases local authorities have in addition supported mosques to address the problem of aggression with security measures such as gates, cameras, extra police controls and so on.
A study commissioned by the Ministry and carried out by the author investigated factors of risk and protection in relation to aggression against mosques. A follow-up project developed an advisory report for mosques, municipalities and the police services about what to do in cases of aggression against mosques. At the initiative of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, the leaflet “Guidelines for a Safe Mosque” has been developed and published. It contains recommendations for mosques, municipalities and the police to prevent and to handle tensions and aggression against mosques.
Topics of discussion are prevention, early signalling, safety measures, how to react in cases of aggression, prevention of escalation and follow-up after the incident occurs. Within the police services a research project was carried out to assess the unwillingness to report experiences of discrimination among Muslims. A follow-up project to stimulate people to report experiences of discrimination was carried out with local stakeholders in regional meetings. Indeed only a limited number of people do report discriminatory experiences to the police and other antidiscrimination agencies. Reasons not to report vary. They do not think reporting will make a difference, they do not trust the police, they do not want to be confronted with the experience again, lack of time and so on.
By: Kourosh Ziabari