Europe on Edge: Immigration fears boost Dutch far right

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — That Duindorp has no immigrant community to speak of is part of its charm for Willem van Vliet, who runs the “Willem and Toet” fish bar in the neighborhood’s small parade of shops, serving crispy homemade shrimp croquettes and other Dutch snacks.

When Van Vliet, a friendly bear of a man, leaves the quiet confines of Duindorp, with its neat brick houses, fresh sea air and cackling gulls wheeling overhead, and travels the few miles (kilometers) into the center of The Hague to the city’s more culturally diverse neighborhoods, the cook sees a Netherlands not enriched by immigration, but ravaged by it.

“In the last years, too many people have come to Holland with no education, no work experience, and they are coming here only for money from the government, and enough is enough,” he said. “We lost our country.”

Such views make this corner of the Netherlands one of the epicenters for the disruptive wave of populism sweeping across Europe, gate-crashing its politics, testing its institutions and clouding its future. European populist leaders are exploiting the concerns of people like Van Vliet that immigration, particularly Muslim immigration, threatens to swamp them and their traditions, with the eventual risk of them or their children becoming strangers in their own lands.

Demonstrators protesting against the arrival of Muslim immigrants to Europe in The Hague, Netherlands, April 10, 2016. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

Demonstrators protesting against the arrival of Muslim immigrants to Europe in The Hague, Netherlands, April 10, 2016. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

Of the Netherlands’ 17 million people, just over one in five now has a foreign background. That number rises to roughly half-and-half in the four largest melting-pot cities: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague.

The specter of uncontrolled floods of migrants from countries that don’t share Europe’s Christian heritage is a principal selling point for the extremist, far-right brand of politics promoted by firebrand populists Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France.

For critics, Wilders and Le Pen are stoking anti-immigrant feelings, not simply diagnosing them. By harping on anti-Islam themes, they are accused of making the xenophobic views that Europe shunned after the Nazi horrors of World War II more mainstream again. Wilders was convicted in December of inciting discrimination for a rabble-rousing speech against the Moroccan population, which he has said includes “a lot of Moroccan scum.”

For their supporters, Wilders and Le Pen simply tell it like it is. Paradoxically, hostility against immigrants is sometimes sharpest in places, like Duindorp, that have not absorbed large numbers of people from overseas. Some of those who most vehemently repeat Wilders and Le Pen’s arguments that Islam is poisoning Europe don’t actually have regular personal contact with Muslims. Many cite terrorism claimed by Islamic extremists in Europe as a major cause of their concerns.

French far-right National Front (FN) party candidate for the presidential election Marine Le Pen waves, as she arrives at a campaign rally at the Zenith de Nantes venue in Saint-Herblain on February 26, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jean-Francois Monier)

French far-right National Front (FN) party candidate for the presidential election Marine Le Pen waves, as she arrives at a campaign rally at the Zenith de Nantes venue in Saint-Herblain on February 26, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jean-Francois Monier)

The No. 1 pledge on Wilders’ election manifesto, which fits onto just one page, is to “de-Islamize the Netherlands,” by banning the Quran and immigration from Muslim countries and shutting the country’s estimated 475 mosques. About 5 percent of the Dutch population, at least 850,000 people, is now Muslim.

Duindorp has no mosques and few Muslims. Its several thousand people are overwhelmingly white, most born locally.

Yet Duindorp is Wilders territory. When his Party for Freedom got hammered in the last parliamentary election in 2012, Duindorp bucked the trend. At Duindorp’s community center that serves as a polling station, where retirees come for billiards and company, 352 people cast votes for Wilders, more than for the two largest parties combined.

Wilders should score well again on March 15, when the Netherlands votes in the first of a series of European elections, followed by France, Germany and possibly Italy. The elections will show whether the populist storm that broke last year with Britain’s “Brexit” vote is gathering strength or blowing over.

Leo Pronk, a community leader in Duindorp, said Wilders’ anti-Islam message hooks voters who “don’t know any better.” There are jobs in Duindorp, with many self-employed in building trades, but few of its kids attend university, Pronk said. Because “windows were smashed, people were threatened” in the past, immigrants “don’t want to live here,” he said. To describe the neighborhood’s suspicions of outsiders, Pronk quoted a Dutch saying: “What a farmer doesn’t know, he doesn’t eat.”

“Wilders is saying what the low-educated people want to hear … ‘Immigrants are taking our jobs, they are raping our women,’” said Pronk, who doesn’t vote for him.

In his Duindorp workshop, sailmaker Frederik Quaedvlieg agreed that people perhaps fear what they don’t know.

“Here you get accepted or not. If you are accepted, everyone says ‘Hi!’ No problem. If you are not accepted, you feel it and you have to get out,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of people here who really complain about immigration and about foreigners taking their jobs, but they get the social welfare and they stay at home and smoke weed all day.”

Islam is relatively new in the Netherlands, and its spread has come as increasing numbers of native Dutch have abandoned religion. Those attending religious services at least once per month have dropped from about one in four in 1999 to about one in six now.

In The Hague’s most culturally diverse neighborhoods, many women wear Muslim headscarves. In the market, young Muslim women eating battered fried fish, a Dutch favorite, took dainty, careful bites to avoid splashing grease on their hijabs.

Geert Wilders, leader of the right-wing Dutch Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid -- PVV), at the Senate at the Binnenhof in The Hague, Holland, November 17, 2016. (AFP/ANP/Bart Maat)

Geert Wilders, leader of the right-wing Dutch Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid — PVV), at the Senate at the Binnenhof in The Hague, Holland, November 17, 2016. (AFP/ANP/Bart Maat)

The Netherlands’ oldest mosque, in The Hague, was built in 1955. Its imam, Naeem Ahmad, dismisses as “not possible” Wilders’ call for the country to rid itself of Islam.

He says the Muslim community is thriving and generally integrated. The Mobarak Mosque gets New Year greeting cards from its Dutch neighbors. And before the ubiquity of GPS, people would lead worshippers who had trouble finding the building right to the door, he said.

“In what other country would that happen?” he asked. “The majority of the people in the Netherlands are still very liberal, very welcoming.”

The mosque does community outreach, posting leaflets about Islam through doors and gluing stickers around town. One, stuck on a beam in the mosque’s basement, reads: “Muslims for peace. Love for all, hatred for none.”

Ahmad hopes those who disagree with Wilders will stand up and be counted in the election.

“Otherwise the small group, the minority, will take over,” he said.

Those who are receptive to Wilders’ arguments also include wealthier people who could be hurt economically by his proposed policies were he to take power.

The crew of the Maarten-Jacob makes a handsome living, as much as 8,000 euros ($8,450) each per month, trawling fish from the murk of the North Sea. Five of the six men who work the vessel said they’d be voting Wilders, even though his desire to pull the Netherlands out of the European Union could be disastrous for the country’s fishing industry, likely limiting access to European fishing grounds.

As it is, the trawler’s captain already is worried that Britain’s “Brexit” will bar them from English waters, where they catch much of their fish. But for him and his shipmates, anxieties about Islam appear greater still. They come from Urk, a fishing town with roughly 20 churches, all Protestant, for a population of 20,000 people who are among the most devout churchgoers in the country. Urk has no mosque and few immigrants.

A poster featuring a Brexit vote ballot with "out" tagged is on display at a book shop window in Berlin on June 24, 2016. (John MacDougall/AFP)

A poster featuring a Brexit vote ballot with “out” tagged is on display at a book shop window in Berlin on June 24, 2016. (John MacDougall/AFP)

The captain, Jan de Boer, said as they repaired their nets that he has never met a good Muslim.

“Islam is very dangerous,” De Boer said. “It’s a religion of hate.”

“Shut the doors, no more people,” he added. “I’m very scared and I mean it, honestly.”

Fear cuts both ways.

For immigrants and their Dutch-born children, Wilders’ success in thrusting immigration to the top of the political agenda is making them question their place in a country long known for its tolerance and exploration of the world. Dutch mariners were the first Europeans to sail as far as New Zealand, in 1642; they founded New York and gave the word “yacht” and other nautical terms to the English language. More recently, the Netherlands was the first country to legalize same-sex marriage — in 2001.

Yet now many are buying into Wilders’ arguments that tolerance has gone too far, and that the Netherlands cannot risk opening itself any further to a religion he calls dangerously intolerant, Islam. Although other politicians say they won’t work with Wilders, they have shifted to the right to catch some of his electorate.

“The Netherlands that I grew up in are not the Netherlands I live in today,” said Sylvana Simons. The 46-year-old former TV presenter of Surinamese descent has been subjected to sickening online abuse, including photos doctored to make her look like the hanged victim of a lynching, after speaking out about discrimination.

“We’ve told ourselves and we desperately wanted to believe — and believed — that we were the most tolerant country in the world,” she said. “It has proven not to be enough.”

Wilders supporters cite a lack of space as another reason to close the Netherlands’ doors. The Netherlands is densely populated, with some of its land reclaimed from the sea. The country is full, they argue.

“I think 80 percent of people who vote Wilders are afraid of change,” said Denice Spaans, a 30-year-old educator who works with asylum seekers. Those voters include her father, Fred, a hairdresser. The two of them swim together in the North Sea in the mornings but don’t see eye-to-eye politically.

He blames Islam for “80 percent of the crime and the dangers” in the world. He used to cut out and collect newspaper crime stories that involved immigrants until the clippings took up too much space.

“If you have educated Muslims, then it’s not a problem,” Denice said. “But I think it’s uneducated people with old-fashioned mindsets which don’t fit into a modern society like here in Holland.”

Born in The Hague, and seeing himself as part-Dutch and part-Moroccan, 36-year-old Latif Boujada said he no longer feels at home in either country. He sells hijabs, let’s-learn-Arabic books, recordings from the Quran and other Muslim apparel in The Hague’s market. Legions of foreign workers the Netherlands took in the 1970s when it needed labor included Boujada’s father, who moved from Morocco’s Rif Valley for work in the textile industry.

“The Dutch didn’t want to do the dirty jobs. We helped make the country rich. Now they want us to go back,” Boujada said.

Sounding vexed, he said he was stopped by Dutch police and asked to show ID when recently visiting his parents, who have retired to a town northeast of The Hague. In Morocco, he’s treated as a foreigner, too, he added.

“We’re not welcome here or there,” he said. “Holland is not the Holland of 20, 30 years ago.”

But he added defiantly: “We’re not going anywhere. We are staying.”

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