Is This the Death of Dutch Multiculturalism?

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Toussaint Kluiters / United Photos / Reuters

Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party leaves a courtroom in Amsterdam June 23, 2011.

When an Amsterdam court acquitted far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders of all charges of discrimination and inciting hatred against Muslims on June 23, it seemed a fitting climax to a week that saw the end of the decade-long Dutch experiment with integration. Judges ruled that although the comments the politician made in the Dutch press and on the internet between October 2006 and March 2008 comparing Islam to Nazism may be offensive, they are nonetheless legal and part of a legitimate government debate — one that's taken on tones that were unthinkable — or at least unspeakable — only a few years ago.

"The good news is it's legal to be critical about Islam," Wilders told reporters after his acquittal. "And this is something that we need because the Islamization of our societies is a major problem and a threat to our freedom. And I'm allowed to say so."

"I'm very disappointed," said Dutch Moroccan Zenap al-Garboni, as she smeared cream cheese on her children's bagels in a restaurant near the courthouse shortly after the verdict. "He's creating hate against Islam." Added her 11-year-old daughter Amra: "When I see him speaking on TV it really scares Me ... for all the children, it's really scary to see and I think it shouldn't be like that."

Wilders has never shied away from attacking Islam, despite having to live under constant protection since 2004, when controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim extremist. Wilders has called for a ban on the Koran — which he compared to Hitler's Mein Kampf — and a "head-rag tax." He's also on record as saying the Netherlands should close its doors to Muslim immigrants and even take away the nationality of some who are already there. And his short film Fitna juxtaposes images of the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist acts with verses from the Koran.

In court last week, Presiding Judge Marcel van Oosten called some of those comments "crude and denigrating," but ruled that they fall within the scope of protected speech — especially because his remarks were made during the country's heated debates on multiculturalism.

Others disagree. "He got away with Islamaphobic expressions that, in light of the U.N. Convention against Racism, should have fallen within the scope of our criminal law," says Egbert Dommering, a lawyer and professor at the University of Amsterdam. While Wilders has declared his acquittal a victory for free speech, Dommering says "it's a victory for free speech for himself, but it will lead to a deterioration in the quality of debate and a legitimization of using strong language against the Muslim religion which is in fact aimed against people." Wilders has always maintained he's against Islam and not its practitioners, a distinction that's legal under Dutch law.

Wilders' acquittal seems to be a sign that his once radical views have become mainstream in a country that for decades was viewed as one of the most liberal and tolerant in the world. "The judgment doesn't turn the tide," says Dommering, "but it's symbolic of what's going on in the Netherlands." Wilders is already an enormously popular politician — many analysts say the ruling will only make him more so — and his PVV party is the third largest in parliament. Although not a formal partner in the ruling conservative coalition, PVV's backing is crucial in giving it a voting majority. In turn, the government supports many of Wilders' anti-immigrant positions — from limiting immigration to banning face-covering attire.

The verdict came just days after Dutch ministers backed away from current integration policy and announced plans to cut funding for programs designed to help immigrants. Saying Dutch values must come first, Home Affairs Minister Piet Hein Donner told parliament that the government "will distance itself from the relativism contained in the model of a multicultural society." A June 19 poll found that three-quarters of the Dutch support the cabinet's slashing of funds that go toward aiding immigrants.

"In the 1990s, saying a multicultural society should end was ruled discriminatory," says Channa Samkalden, a lawyer at the firm Böhler Advocaten who specializes in free speech and freedom of religion. She's referring to the case of another anti-immigration politician, Hans Janmaat, who was prone to saying "full is full" and "our people first." Says Samkalden: "We've simply changed our minds on what's allowable."

For Ronnie Eisenmann, head of the board of the Amsterdam Jewish Community, the latest twists in the Dutch culture wars reek of political strategy. "The fact that politicians say multiculturalism has failed doesn't mean you can ignore that a multicultural society exits," he says. "They're saying it because they want to cut funding." Muslim and Jewish organizations have recently come together to oppose a ban to ritual slaughter that parliament members approved on Tuesday — a ban that Wilders supports.

But while Amsterdam's politicians may be declaring the death of multiculturalism, the picture on the streets tell a different story. At Sunday's Roots Festival in the Oosterpark — a musical celebration of all things cultural not rooted in Western Europe — stands selling Turkish kebabs co-exist happily with Dutch herring sellers and African artists. "I think the politicians don't know what they're talking about," said Amsterdam student Shola Verschuren. Originally from Nigeria, she is currently taking government-funded Dutch lessons, classes that would get the axe under the cabinet's current plans. "I will be angry if they're cut," she says. "Integration rocks."