Tuesday 23 January 2018

How divided city became fertile ground for far right

Dutch riot police charges after riots broke out at a pro Erdogan demonstration outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam, Netherlands on Saturday night (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Dutch riot police charges after riots broke out at a pro Erdogan demonstration outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam, Netherlands on Saturday night (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Roland Oliphant

The scenes of disorder outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam on Saturday night have sparked a diplomatic crisis and injected further acrimony into a general election already defined by a debate about identity.

But for Tania Hoogwerf, a right-wing councillor in this industrial port, it was an inevitable explosion of tensions in an increasingly divided city and country.

"It was not a total surprise. We have known for a while there is a big issue with integration, and especially with Turkish people in Rotterdam," she said. And Rotterdam, she added, "is like a laboratory for the whole country".

With half its 630,000 inhabitants having a parent born abroad and Turkish minorities making up almost a quarter of the population in some districts, Rotterdam is one of the most diverse cities in the country - a legacy of its history as one of the world's busiest commercial ports.

But the city is also an electoral stronghold for Geert Wilders, and ground zero for a debate about integration, national identity, and Islam he has succeeded in putting on the agenda of yesterday's parliamentary election.

The Netherlands' electoral system means Mr Wilders is unlikely to be forming a government, even if, as polls suggest, his party takes the second largest faction in parliament. Few parties say they are willing to join Mr Wilders in coalition.

But his success in turning the election into a referendum on national identity and, by extension, the European Union, is undisputed.

That is partly because his words are falling on fertile ground.

"There are problems with integration among some of the communities that have come over in the past few decades," said Said Bouharrou, vice chairman and spokesman for the BMMN council of Moroccan mosques in the Netherlands.

Mr Bouharrou said the polarised debate, including Mr Wilders' comments about "Moroccan scum," has contributed to an atmosphere of unease.

There has been a rise in hate crimes including hate mail to mosques and people grabbing women's hijabs. All those things are attractive to radical preachers from the Middle East keen to exploit a sense of alienation, he warned.

At first glance, the Dutch problem with integration can be difficult to spot. Of the Netherlands' 17 million citizens, only four million are of non-Dutch ethnic origin. Less than a million, or about 4.6pc, of the population are of Turkish or Moroccan origin.

Beijerlandselaan, in one of the city's most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, feels more mixed than ghettoised. Turkish-owned dressmaking and carpet shops jostle for space with Chinese hardware stores, Moroccan-owned Halal butchers, and African grocers. There are plenty of white faces, and while some women are seen in headscarfs, few, if any, wear the full veil. "For years, you could come here, and just live freely if you worked hard," said Abdullah G (60), who runs a halal butcher. "I don't feel good about how people are talking now."

But tensions are keenly felt enough to make an impact on local politics long before Mr Wilders surged to national prominence.

"His manner is not my manner," said Ms Hoogwerf, a spokesman on integration for Leefbaar Rotterdam, the largest party in the coalition city government with Labour, and a candidate for the far-right VNL (For the Netherlands) party in the Dutch elections. "But I get what he is saying."

Right-wing councillor Ms Hoogwerf said Sharia courts trap vulnerable women in illegal marriages, she argued. They deplore gay rights. She said she is horrified at a reported increase in anti-Islamic hate crimes.

But national identity, integration, and even political Islam only explain one part of the appeal of the populist right.

"There's been a crisis here almost since the financial crisis of 2009. We have three million earning less than the national average," said Mr Bouharrou.


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