Sunday, October 23, 2011

Pim Fortuyn: The Villain that became a Hero

Dutch Islamophobia got its start long before 9-11.

About a month ago,  The Center for American Progress put out its Fear, Inc. report about the "roots" of the Islamophobia industry in America.  This report focuses on America only, but the ideas that "Islam is an ideology" and "Muslims are violent" got its start in the Netherlands and long before the September 11th attacks. Somehow, probably through the Internet, but mostly through the travels of Geert Wilders, Dutch Islamophobia has been exported to America. However - the horrible legacy of Pim Fortuyn on the Dutch nation is important to understand before we can understand the transformation of Dutch Muslims into Public Enemy Number One in the Dutch nation.

The meteoric rise of Fortuyn has been the subject of social scientific inquiry and a couple of studies give us insight into what drove the Dutch into turning this hateful villain into a hero.  The most studied topic related to Fortuyn is how the May 2002 elections (days after Fortuyn was murdered), produced a "seismic shift" in the Dutch political landscape.  These studies have common strands running through them. These common strands are also important in understanding the altering of Dutch national identity and how Dutch national identity was infected with Fortuyn-type Islamophobia.  This new Dutch disease has now been exported to America. Some of the more noted symptoms of Dutch Islamophobia were present at last year's Murfreesboro Islamic community center issue.  Judging by the legal arguments of US federal attorneys, who had to argue that Islam is, indeed, a religion, the arguments of the opposition included classical Pim Fortuyn arguments, pick up by Geert Wilders, that Islam is not a religion, but an ideology and a "backward culture" that should not receive protections as a religion.

In the 1990s Pim Fortuyn became disenchanted with academic life as a Marxist-leaning sociology professor and took up writing for the conservative magazine Elsevier. It was in the 1990s that Fortuyn became a "critic of Islam"  and a "greater hero than William the Orange" (sic!).  Several political and social events took place that accelerated the rise of Fortuyn. The main political event was the growing dissatisfaction with the Purple Coalition, made up of social democrats and conservatives. The Purple Coalition produced wealth for a few at the expense of public schools, hospitals, and immigrants were left alone in their own communities to solve their own problems (Lechner 2008, 72-73; Sniderman and Hagendoorn 2007, 18).


The Muslim Question and the new Dutch disease of Islamophobia.

It was in 1991 when Frits Bolkenstein claimed that immigrants were a threat to Dutch society. Bolkenstein claimed that “Islamic values” of these immigrants were incompatible with Dutch values.  Bolkenstien demanded stronger push to against immigrants to “integrate into Dutch culture.”  This view was shocking, as it was the view from the radical right, and not the leader of a major political party like the liberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD). Today, these ideas are now mainstream in Dutch and European politics (Roggeband and Vliegenthart 2007, 524), and have even been exported to North America.

Philip Marfleet (2003) describes Samuel Huntington’s 1993 “clash of civilizations” thesis  as global cultural conflict theory that was a way for the United States to find new enemies in the post-Cold War world and provide for American self identification through defining of “Others.” Huntington’s thesis was supported by well known neoconservatives and well known Muslim haters: Charles Krauthammer, Daniel Pipes, Robert Kaplin and Morton Zuckerman. Huntington's  “clash” in relation to Europe played into the growing issue of immigrants as an “alien” presence in Europe and the notion that growing Muslim communities would lead to irreconcilable split between Muslim and Christian communities. These alien Muslim communities would provide for a “Islamisation” or a divide of domestic society in favor of  "Islamic values"  (71, 77).

Huntington brought up apocalyptic images of the “threat” against the European Union imposed by hordes of immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, both at home in Europe, as well as abroad. Pim Fortuyn described himself as the “Samual Huntington of Dutch politics.”   In 1997, Fortuyn penned Tegen de islamisering van onze cultuur (Against the islamisation of our culture) and points us in the direction that the notion of “islamisation” as a threat.  Fortuyn described this book as “a Dutch version of Huntington’s book.” Fortuyn argued for a monoculture and for Judaic-Christian-Humanist culture to take preference and dominate over others. Fortuyn argued that all across Europe mainly Muslim immigrant “invaders” failed to familiarize themselves with the host country’s culture.  The Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF) advocated forced integration of immigrants and restrictions on immigration from Muslim countries, among other harsher things.  (Marfleet 2003 77, 78, 79, 83;  Pellikaana, et al 2007 292 ).

The result of the European far right’s agitating the European Union and national governments on “tougher” policies against mainly Muslim immigrants has been policies of exclusion and, after the September 11 attacks, defining Muslim communities as “threats for terrorism.” The EU then adapted some of the approaches advocated by the far right in pursuit of Fortress Europe, mainly against those immigrants who were "culturally different" as a tacit  "threat to European and national cultures and identity.” All across Europe the old biological racism was replaced by ethnocentric notions of “superior European culture”  (Marfleet 2003 77, 78, 79).

The awful legacy of this “hero” on the Dutch nation.

The Dutch media’s role in this appalling legacy.  According to Roggeband and Vliegenthart (2007) the Muslim question has dominated the Dutch media during the most of the study period of 1995 to 2004 and the question of Muslims has been framed as an issue of immigrants since the early 1990s by the Dutch media. The presence of the Muslim Question is correlated with the Rushdie affair (2007 535, 536).  The Dutch media helped perpetuate the notion that Islam was viewed as incompatible with Western values.  The Dutch media also played an important part in the spread of the Islamophobic notions of Frits Bolkenstein and Pim Fortuyn  (Roggeband and Vliegenthart 2007, 536 ).

Ruud Koopmans and Jasper Muis (2009) found that public visibility was indeed high for Fortuyn, even as immigration to the Netherlands was actually stable and even declined from 1994 to 2001. Fortuyn, it seems, also incited public discontent with immigrants – but he needed the Dutch mass media to incite this public discontent. Media attention to Fortuyn played a “decisive role” in Fortuyn’s ability to mobilize public support and express his claims in the public sphere. Opinion polls also had a positive effect on Fortuyn’s visibility in the media: The more popular, the more media access Fortuyn was given in the media, revolving in a viscous cycle (646, 659).
Public visibility and consonance in the media significantly affected public

opinion support for Fortuyn. Support by other actors in the public sphere was

beneficial, but criticism was not harmful for his position in the weekly polls.

Ventilating critical reactions in order to undermine the legitimacy of political

opponents may have partly backfired. Negative reactions to Fortuyn could

serve as an important indirect channel that, contrary to the intention of those

who criticised Fortuyn, partly boosted popular support for him by creating

more consonance and visibility for his claims (Koopmans and Muis 2009, 659.)

The issue of ethnic integration used to be stable in Dutch politics, but between 1998 and 2002, according to Oosterwaal and Torenvlied (2010), political polarization on ethnic integration jumped by 30% and  to 55% by 2003. The Dutch public tended to be a bit more xenophobic that the elected leaders and between 1998 and 2003, as there was also a decrease of Dutch citizens who described themselves as “tolerant” (271, 270).  These years were dominated by the un-Dutch antics of Fortuyn and the loss of the Dutch tradition of tolerance marks a loss for the Dutch nation as a whole. This loss of support for the Dutch tradition of tolerance coincides with researchers’ findings on the rise of Pim Fortuyn – and the media played their fair share in this loss of this Dutch tradition.

Making the Dutch people very afraid of “Muslims” was Fortuyn’s stock and trade. In promoting this fear, Fortuyn created myths about ”Muslims” and the Dutch media gave him ready access to spread these myths.  Fortuyn fostered insecurity in the Dutch nation over issues like immigration and crime, but also the defense of “Dutch values” from “fundamental Islam” and “imposition of Sharia law” in the Netherlands. The “backward culture” of “Islam” was a threat to Dutch values of liberalism, which includes humanism and acceptance of homosexuality. Fortuyn was the one who proposed abolishing the anti-discrimination portion of Article One of the Dutch Constitution “because Islam discriminates against Gays and women.” The proposal was even too much for the nationalistic Leefbaar Nederland (Livable Netherlands) and the board bounced Fortuyn from the party (Moroska 2009 ;  Cherribi 2010 148 )

According Sipco Vellenga (2008) it became more acceptable to criticize Islam after Fortuyn and his “breakthrough” in Dutch politics. The “free debate” brought about by Fortuyn was one of a harsh tone that was often offensive to Muslims and transformed into an “Us” – native Dutch – and “Them” – Muslims (of all nationality groups). The weak voice of Muslims highlighted their disadvantage and a lack of intellectual leaders in their communities compounded the problem of Muslims being excluded from the “debate” about Muslims (464-467). Another factor was the September 11 attacks on the US and the notion of “clash of civilizations,” which Fortuyn cashed in on:
The post-9/11 discussion over the clash of civilizations made the antimigrants

sentiments acceptable and the established parties, in particular the

parties constituting the purple coalition, failed to realize the substantial

dissatisfaction with the multicultural society. Pim Fortuyn saw this political

opportunity and he was able to put the issues of migrants and the multicultural

society on the new political agenda (Huib Pellikaana, et al. 2007 287).

Aleksandra Moroska (2009) writes that Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF) was allowed to exist in Dutch politics, as it was seen as defending national and liberal values, and thus avoided stigma and marginalization. Fortuyn appeared to be defending Dutch values of liberalism and tolerance from intolerance of Islam (311).  Fortuyn’s murder a few days before the May 2002 election resulted in a huge sympathy vote for his LPF and this vote resulted in 26 seats. According to Huib Pellikaana, Sarah L. de Langeb and Tom van der Meerc  (2007) Fortuyn and his LPF introduced a new line of conflict, the cultural line, that was ignored by the mainstream political parties, but was a concern of the public. The introduction of this cultural line has now caused a sudden shift in the Dutch party system, as all political parties had to shift to this new line. (286-287).  The coalition with Christian democratic CDA and liberal VVD lasted only 86 days as internal conflicts made it impossible to govern with the radical LPF (Oosterwaal and Torenvlied 2010 260).

Conclusion – The researchers and authors that have studied the “massive shift” in Dutch politics and “volatile Dutch political landscape” conclude that the "changes" may be permanent.   The “dullness” of Dutch politics is now replaced with the hate and fear of especially Muslim immigrants (van Holsteyn and Irwin 2003, 42). The other reason to be concerned about the “political shift” not mentioned by the authors is just what such a prospect of Pim Fortuyn - or Geert Wilders – as minister-president would mean for the less than one million Dutch Muslims?  For the Netherlands as a liberal democracy? The authors give us the impression that the Dutch Muslims, the main target of radicals like Fortuyn and Wilders, are not a part of the discourse in their own country. Part of the horrible legacy of Fortuyn is loss of Dutch traditions and  an acceptance of public  intolerance and incivility.

The Islamophobia that has infected much of the Western world, including the US, probably got its start from the mouth of Frits Bolkenstein in 1991, ten years before the attacks on the US and a couple of years before Huntington’s “clash” ideology. Fortuyn picked up on the “clash” ideology and used it to bolster his own project of exclusion. The simple and sad truth is that a combination of fear, post-September 11, the awful conduct of the Dutch media, along with “charm,” helped Fortuyn attack and destroy his own country’s culture and national identity.  America’s own Islamophobic networks owe their debt to Pim Fortuyn, as Fortuyn’s ideas are front and center everyday in the dirty business of dividing societies, promoting conflict, exclusion and violence.



Cherribi, Sam. 2010. In the House of War. Dutch Islam Observed. Oxford University Press: New York.

Koopmans, Ruud and Jasper Muis. 2009. The rise of right-wing populist Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands: A discursive opportunity. European Journal of Political Research. 48: 642-664.  (accessed on September 10, 2011).

Lechner, Frank J. 2008. The Netherlands. Globalization and National Identity. New York: Routledge.

Marfleet, Philip. 2003. The “Clash” Thesis. War and Ethnic Boundaries in Europe. Arab Studies Quarterly. Vol. 25. No. 1-2, Winter/Spring, 71-87. (accessed on September 10, 2011).

Moroska, Aleksandra. Right-Wing Populism & Euroscepticism in Western and Eastern Europe– List Pim Fortuyn and League of Polish Families. Comparative Approach. In Euroscepticism and European Integration, eds. Erna Matanovic and Andelko Milardovic, 297-323.  Zagreb: Political Science Research Center.

Oosterwaal, Annemarije and Rene Torenvlied. 2010. Politics Divided from Society? Three Explanations for Trends in Societal and Political Polarisation in the Netherlands.  Western European Politics. Vol. 33, No. 2, (March)  258-279.  (accessed on July 11, 2011).

Pellikaana, Huib, Sarah L. de Langeb and Tom van der Meerc. 2007. Fortuyn’s Legacy: Party System Change in the Netherlands. Comparative European Politics. 5, 282-302. (accessed on July 11, 2011).

Roggeband, Conny and Rens Vliegenthart. 2007. Divergent Framing: The Public Debate on Migration in the Netherlands, 1995-2004. Western European Politics. Vol. 30, No. 3, (May), 524-548. (accessed on September 10, 2011).

Sniderman, Paul M. and Louk Hagendoorn.  2007. When Ways of Life Collide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Van Holsteyn, Joop and Galen Irwin. 2003. Never a Dull Moment: Pim Fortuyn and the Dutch Parliamentary Election of 2002. Western European Politics. Vol 26, No. 2 (August)  41-66. (accessed on July 11, 2011).

Vellenga, Sipco. 2008. The Dutch and British Public Debate on Islam: Responses to the Killing of Theo van Gogh and the London Bombings Compared. Islam & Christian-Muslim Relations. Vol. 19 Issue 4 (October), 449-471. (accessed July 11, 2011).

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