Into the vortex of identity

From the Netherlands Dinyar Godrej begins a personal exploration into why multiculturalism is coming unstuck, and considers how we can re-engage.

Thirteen years ago, I moved to the Netherlands.

I had become yet one more manifestation of the shifting populations of our planet and, unbeknownst to me, the tiny rivulet of my life was about to be drawn irresistibly into a torrent of argument that would course violently through the country. A torrent of culture, race, religion, class and intolerant rage that would briefly grab the world’s attention.

Like most other immigrants, I was not just moving away from, I was moving towards. I felt a surge of gratitude – quite at odds with my belief in being a world citizen – towards this small country which had made space for me. After all, state after state in Europe seemed to be looking for new ways to strengthen the barriers already in place against new immigrants from outside the sanctified zone of the European Community.

I couldn’t believe my luck when I was offered the chance to attend free Dutch lessons at evening school, with a tram pass to take me to and fro thrown in for good measure. I joined my class of fellow recent immigrants hungry to learn, eager to get on. I felt if I wriggled hard enough in this stream, I would get somewhere.

While I tackled the tongue-twisting vowels and throat-scraping consonants of this new language by night, I temped by day. One of my jobs was with a cleaning company that sent out teams armed with mops and buckets to race through the stairwells of large apartment blocks. Each stairwell had to be done in 10 minutes and the rush meant we never managed to do this most basic of jobs properly. It was soul-destroying work. I noticed at lunch hour, when the teams converged, that we were the widest possible selection of visible minorities, but with no white Dutch people among us – except as supervisors. Some of my co-workers were people who had lived much longer in the country, who spoke the language perfectly well and for whom this was a regular job, not something to move on from.

Then I received a piece of paper from the official channel that ‘translated’ the level of my Indian education into its Dutch equivalent. Some faceless functionary (or maybe a computer programme?) had valued my Bachelors and Masters degrees from Bombay University as counting only for having completed high school in the Netherlands. I began to realize that the equality of opportunity that I’d been dreaming of might be an uphill climb. 

So while there was practical help at hand to further my integration, there were structural problems working against it. Then there were the remarks along the lines of ‘You are different, but those Moroccans…’ or ‘those Turks…’ which stirred an unease in me. This vibrant port city of Rotterdam, with almost half of its citizens of immigrant origin, was beginning to look less like the multicultural haven the city council made it out to be in their many sponsored feasts and festivals. The bubble was about to burst.

The genie of division

First came 9/11. A world-shaking event on another continent that racked up the post-millennial nerves of the entire Western world. Suddenly the rhetoric of the clash of civilizations was up front – for many it was as simple as a civilized ‘us’ and a barbarous ‘them’. I found an increasing number of people staring at me on the streets. I could only imagine this was because of my Asiatic appearance. The presumption behind the stares troubled me; I felt I had been stamped as a possible ‘them’ by people who had no knowledge of me as a person. I began to get some inkling of how other groups of people who stick out because of their appearance must feel. Your whole personhood is reduced to some essential quality which likely has no bearing on your reality.

With elections on the horizon, safety suddenly became the hot political topic. Each political party vehemently assured an anxious population that they’d make it top of their list, which only made everybody even more anxious. Meanwhile, had one walked the streets unaware of all this hot air, it is doubtful one would have noticed any increased threat.

A couple of months later, out of the stoppered bottle of Dutch consensus politics popped a shock-eyed, shaven-headed genie – Pim Fortuyn. He was a fascinating figure – a columnist and celebrity public speaker, and a leather queen of impeccable promiscuity. His political career was being bankrolled by a few powerful friends from the business world. It seemed refreshing that the Dutch were warming not just to an openly gay politician, but one whose voracious sexual history showed up the hypocritical carping about public figures’ sex lives in other countries. It seemed all of a piece with the famed Dutch liberalism – until I took the trouble to find out what he actually had to say.

Fortuyn’s main appeal was his claim that the Netherlands (with the highest population density in Europe) was full; immigration needed to be curbed drastically, with preferably no Muslims to be allowed in. A fanatical imam went on television and called homosexuals pigs; Fortuyn retorted by calling Islam a backward culture. Taunted on the streets of Rotterdam by youngsters of Turkish and Moroccan descent, Fortuyn was only too willing to play the victim and point out their intolerance. When he was called a racist, he claimed he was being ‘demonized’.

Flips and flops

Previously, a political consensus had sought to cap the pressure cooker of a rapidly changing society with a programme of multiculturalism which it had become taboo to criticize. Fortuyn was intent on bringing the entire edifice crashing down and it looked like a good chunk of the general population was only too willing to help.

Born of expediency rather than principle, the multicultural project had been deeply flawed to begin with. Like any other country, the Netherlands had had waves of in-and-out migration down the ages. But from the middle of the 20th century, larger groups from further afield began to arrive. First, with the Indo-Dutch returning after Indonesian independence and then, in the 1970s, with the largescale recruitment of labourers from Morocco and Turkey to do the work the educated Dutch were unwilling to take on. It was assumed that migrants such as this latter group, who often suffered hellish working conditions, would only be needed for a short time. The Government offered programmes designed to maintain their ties to the cultures of their lands of origin and to ensure their mother tongues didn’t fall out of use. As one source puts it: ‘The objective was to equip them to leave – which is to say, to discourage them from staying.’1

Suddenly the rhetoric of the clash of civilizations was up front – for many it was as simple as a civilized ‘us’ and a barbarous ‘them’

From such paternalistic and discriminatory beginnings, a prevailing liberal egalitarianism in the political climate a decade down the line led to the renewal of such programmes – but now with the opposite intention. Government support for traditional cultural institutions was now intended to embody respect for difference and embed the immigrants into their new country of residence. There was also the fear of race riots in a continent that had seen prejudice and political instigation resulting in the mass murder of the Holocaust. Multiculturalism was the proposed safety valve.

Academics Paul M Sniderman and Louk Hagendoorn claim that: ‘In the Netherlands, as much as can be done on behalf of multiculturalism has been done. Minority groups are provided instruction in their own language and culture; separate radio and television programmes; government funding to import religious leaders; and subsidies for a wide range of social and religious organizations; “consultation prerogatives” for community leaders; and publicly financed housing set aside for and specifically designed to meet Muslim requirements for strict separation of  “public” and “private” spaces.’1 Much of this emerged top-down from the political élite, not via the demands of the groups affected themselves.          

I wonder if it’s possible to look at this list and think: ‘Wow, this will really cement society together.’ Dutch multiculturalism as a policy was running into the same kind of quicksand that similar initiatives in numerous other countries were getting mired in.

The flight of reason

There was a bizarre kind of essentialism at play in making people who had made such a big journey of migration rejoin the culture they had left. Sure, some would have chosen to recreate it, reimagine it even, but to offer it readymade, with state subsidy, possibly limited their choices rather than extending them. It was also certain to alienate other working-class people who shared the new immigrants’ economic disadvantage. Culture itself is such a slippery thing – in government policies the reference is often to the country of origin (the very Western notion of the nation state) or to religion. But quite apart from the numerous people who can’t fit themselves into such assumptions, such an approach often leads to hardened identities. State sponsorship of religion inevitably led to those most interested taking charge – usually the most orthodox and conservative whose views tend to be backed by appeals to authority rather than democratic values. It is argued it also leads to greater cultural assertiveness from people who would otherwise have worn their culture(s) much more lightly.

Stepping back a little, it probably hasn’t escaped your notice that there is a rise in religion-based identity politics in the world and all it seems to be achieving is conflict (read Shoma Chaudhury’s eloquent essay on the situation in India on page 14). This retreat, sometimes into religion, sometimes into virulent nationalism, is being fuelled among other things by nerves: at the repercussions of economic globalization, at the environmental perils facing us, at the seeming intractability of resource-sharing disputes. Identity, instead of being about exercising choice, reasoning and self-creation, becomes a retreat. Economist and philosopher Amartya Sen is most lucid on this aspect, pointing out: ‘The world is frequently taken to be a collection of religions (or of “civilizations” or “cultures”), ignoring the other identities that people have and value, involving class, gender, profession, language, science, morals and politics.’2 To say nothing of sexuality.

Returning to Fortuyn, his strident demagoguery, particularly in front of the television cameras, was whipping up a storm. Polarization of opinion in politics can bear fruit, egging on the decision-making process. But here was a politician with a motley group of supporters, running for office, squarely working the divide for the general public. The media lapped it up and amplified it. A circus of abuse started up – debates became little more than shouting matches, with Muslims being taken to task for their supposedly retrograde ways and Islamist hotheads proving the point with their fundamentalist responses. A torrent of racist hatred swept across the internet. I believe there is a place for offensive and insulting views in a secular democracy, and that place is alongside all other views on the subject. But no society can thrive on insult alone. The media pretended no other voices on the subject existed. Once the temperature is raised in this way everyone starts feeling the heat – other politicians felt compelled to start talking tough; ordinary people who had given little thought to such issues discovered a newfound bluntness. The ultimate irony is that the venting of such extreme views only proved the contagion of conformity rather than any great advances in freethinking. That is to say, quite apart from the sections of the population who would have held such prejudiced views anyway, a vast middle ground now felt persuaded by what was so insistently in the air. And as has been studied by sociologists, once prejudice against one minority group is bolstered, it often gets freely transferred to others.

Retreat into identity

In times of provocation and crisis, the retreat into identity gets hardened. In fact identities are often created to fit the particular narrative. There is an appeal to ‘national’ values which are often no more than values constructed by the dominant majority and to which minorities and newcomers are expected to sign up in order to declare their loyalty. The commitment to equality that modern secular democratic states promise to their citizens begins to warp and appear illusory. (Education and employment statistics are often the hard evidence of the equality deficit – in the Netherlands non-Western minority groups are disadvantaged in both areas, with people of Turkish and Moroccan origin the furthest behind.3)

Commentators on multiculturalism usually agree that equality before the law and having the same laws apply to all is the bedrock upon which cultural theatrics can be played out. The law will be able to filter out ‘special’ demands made by any particular grouping. Fair enough. What the law is less able to ensure is the equal participation of all in the constant creation of the broader narrative. That takes place in the social and political arena.

One of the big rows of the Fortuyn era was between Muslims (Moroccans and Turks in the public perception) and gay people. There had been instances of name calling and violence against gay people by some Muslim youngsters in Amsterdam, which, while rightly condemned, seemed to grow into a national outrage against all Muslims and their supposed prejudices. There was little room for Muslims who make up their own minds about gay people and who have nothing against them, to say nothing of gay Muslims. A gay couple, friends of mine, had had ‘Jesus is watching you’ scrawled on their letterbox. But there was nothing in the public debate about the pockets of ultra-orthodox Christians who often have tremendously homophobic views. One right-wing Dutch Christian party goes so far as disallowing women, let alone homosexuals, to stand as political candidates. There was nothing about schoolground homophobia – which is certainly not restricted to Muslim children. A voice in the wilderness was Henk Kroll, editor of a popular gay magazine, calling for ‘co-emancipation’. Anger and outrage aren’t enough, he argued; liberation struggles also need to liberate the perceived oppressors. He was perhaps remembering that just a few decades ago gay pride marchers had been blocked by a crowd of angry homegrown homophobes.        

When Fortuyn was murdered by an environmental activist, days before the May 2002 election which might have seen him become the country’s leader, he became a martyr to free speech in the public mind. In the following years his group rapidly sabotaged their own political careers by their ineptitude. But other right-wingers in Dutch politics today, especially those that bait immigrants and Islam, bask in the media spotlight.  

The ructions that have become apparent here are playing out in different ways in many culturally diverse societies today. They are partly due to a fear of change in ever-evolving urban settings, coupled with nostalgia for how things were in the (‘culturally purer’) past. With the current economic crisis, prejudice could deepen and new immigrants become convenient scapegoats for other frustrations. It is time to stop and consider the recent vast changes in the social fabric of our lives brought about by technology and the evolution of our economies: changes we have had to take in our stride because they seemed so inevitable. Why then do we get so upset when the makeup of the population begins to change? And more essentially, what are our leaders doing to overcome the mistrust and polarity that can arise with such change?

No first among equals

If we are committed to an egalitarian society, we cannot keep asserting the cultural primacy of ‘the indigene’ against ‘the foreigner’: it flies in the face of equal citizenship. Muslim panics can be greatly exaggerated: most Muslims living in multicultural societies in the West submit to the laws of the land with no problem (although they would no doubt appreciate action to ensure greater equality in matters such as employment). Hardliners wanting special laws that might be construed as going against basic human rights have yet to win the debate that would enable such laws to come into existence. Indeed, outrages such as forced marriage that were once ignored on the grounds of ‘cultural difference’ by political liberals are today being rightly seen as the human rights issues they are. However, from time to time political loopiness does re-emerge. Recently the Dutch Minister for Emancipation decided to dole out over $170,000 of state subsidy to two Christian organizations that view homosexuality as ‘curable’ and acceptable only if the gay people concerned remain celibate.4 This was done in the name of making homosexuality ‘discussable’ in such groups.

With the current economic crisis, prejudice could deepen and new immigrants become convenient scapegoats for other frustrations

It is policy decisions like these that have also bedevilled multiculturalism and created in many instances fracture rather than bridges, parallel communities living side by side in cities where the faultlines are all too common to see. There are frequent calls for dialogue and multilogue – it is about time efforts were made to start a conversation instead, much more intimate and with fewer entrenched points of reference. There will always be a small number of people who will opt out of the conversation, people with very controlling beliefs who seek only the company of others like them. Such enclaves have always existed and they are not always cultural – think of the hyper-rich who routinely opt out of society with no great difficulty and nary a squeak from anyone. We need to start making diversity work to our advantage, much like biodiversity in nature, and stop making a ‘fetish of difference’.5  The conversation needs to examine honestly problems of race, gender and class that often get hidden under the smokescreen of cultural problems. But before we can begin the conversation we have to realize that cultural identities are neither fixed nor absolute, that the option of cultural choice should be kept open, and that any one person’s individual ‘I’ is so much more than just culture.

  1. Paul M Sniderman and Louk Hagendoorn, When Ways of Life Collide, Princeton University Press, 2007.
  2. Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence, Penguin, 2007.
  3. Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek, Jaarrapport Intergratie 2008, available at
  4. ‘Govt Subsidises “Homosexuality Healers”’, NIS News Bulletin, 22 November 2008.
  5. The biodiversity analogy comes from Phil Wood and Charles Landry, The Intercultural City, Earthscan, 2008; ‘fetish of difference’ is used in Tariq Modood, Multiculturalism, Polity Press, 2007.