June 2, 2006
Immigrants in Netherlands use votes to fight back
By Emma Thomasson
ROTTERDAM -- Immigrants in the Netherlands have had enough. Four years ago, populist Pim Fortuyn promised voters in Rotterdam he would stop the building of a huge new mosque near the city's Feyenoord soccer stadium.
Today, the country's biggest mosque is nearing completion and immigrants have helped oust Fortuyn's party from power. While immigrants in France have expressed frustration by rioting, in the Netherlands they are using the ballot box.
"People are saying we are here for 30 years and we have worked hard and done our best to integrate so what gives them the right to talk about us this way and to hurt us?" said Brahim Bourzik, a Moroccan-born former member of Rotterdam's council.
"You cannot say we have a football (soccer) stadium but you cannot have a mosque because they are big," he said. "Why can't you have a very big beautiful building? So it is a mosque, so what?"
In local elections in March, immigrants voted in droves for the opposition Labor Party, helping remove right-wing councils in Rotterdam and elsewhere, a warning shot for the center-right government ahead of the general election in 2007.
About 10 percent of the Dutch population of 16 million is defined as having "non-Western" roots, 1 million of them Muslims, mostly from Turkey and Morocco. Among the young in the big cities such as Rotterdam, immigrants are in the majority.
Bourzik said the dispute over possibly stripping prominent Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali of Dutch citizenship after the Somali-born member of parliament admitted lying to win asylum showed the need for immigrants to fight for their rights.
"There will be a day in Holland, and in Rotterdam, when you cannot act without these groups. If you look at Rotterdam now, it is 47 percent immigrants and we know that immigrants are the only ones having babies," he said.
Preaching that the densely populated country could not absorb any more foreigners, Fortuyn rose to prominence in 2002 when his party came from nowhere to win control of Rotterdam council.
He was shot dead by an animal-rights activist shortly before a national election in May 2002 in which his party came second, but other politicians have taken up his mantra with gusto.
Geert Wilders, a member of parliament seen as an heir to Fortuyn, wants a five-year ban on building new mosques and Muslim schools and a halt to "non-Western" immigration.
"If this trend continues in May 2007, our country will be in the stranglehold of left-wing and center-left coalitions which will undoubtedly return to a policy of irresponsible multiculturalism," he said in his manifesto.
Marianne Vorthoren, 27, a Dutchwoman who converted to Islam, said the Rotterdam mosque and election showed that Muslims were putting down roots.
"It's a shame that people are saying that immigrants have voted rather than saying they are participating as citizens in this country," said Vorthoren, who works for the SPIOR umbrella organization of Muslim organizations in Rotterdam.
"It's a good illustration of how the debate has changed, from it being a sign of emancipation for Muslims to have their own place of worship, to now being seen as a sign of failing integration."
Between 2002 and 2006, Fortuyn's party Livable Rotterdam is accused of doing all it could to make immigrants feel unwelcome in the city, clamping down on social benefit fraud and setting a minimum income for access to housing in rundown areas.
Livable Rotterdam leader Marco Pastors fought the Arab design of the new mosque for 1,200 worshipers and its planned 160-foot minarets, higher than nearby Feyenoord stadium.
When polls ahead of the March vote put Livable behind, even Pastors felt the need to apologize for criticizing
The ruling Christian Democrats (CDA) have also tried to court immigrant voters -- with little success.
The Party for Immigrant Dutch was launched in March in a bid for seats in the 2007 election, although analysts say single-issue parties have had little success in the past and Labor is likely to continue to be the natural political home for newcomers.
A study by the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies at Amsterdam University showed that about 80 percent of immigrants voted for Labor in March, with the trend more pronounced in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, where Labor's Moroccan-born deputy mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb helped attract thousands of extra votes.
"We think the right-wing policies of the government have a lot to do with it. It was also a vote against Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk," said the institute's Anja van Heelsum.
Verdonk has championed the kind of tough immigration policies once advocated by Fortuyn, including plans to expel 26,000 unsuccessful asylum seekers and strict new language and culture tests for potential new arrivals.
This approach seems to play well with white voters and helped her VVD party overtake its CDA coalition partners in polls.
The turbulence that Fortuyn's rise triggered in Dutch politics, once ruled by consensus, looks set to rage on.
"After the white middle finger in 2002, we are now seeing the black middle finger of 2006," Paul Scheffer, Amsterdam University professor of urban sociology, wrote in an article.
"What we must avoid is a relapse into the multicultural dream of yesteryear, because the problems haven't gone away."