One of the largest Turkish diaspora groups in Europe and the largest ethnic minority group in the Netherlands, Dutch Turks and their identity have been increasingly problematized against a rightward shift in the Dutch integration debate over the last two decades. The AKP government in Turkey has sought an unprecedented active policy towards engaging with the Turkish diaspora in Europe in recent years. While providing an outlet for young Dutch Turks who feel increasingly alienated from Dutch society, this has added to the tensions by providing grounds for reductionist analyses of Dutch-Turkish identity by critics of the community that ignore how the community was shaped in light of Dutch integration policies.
Origins of a Community
Dutch Turks form the largest minority in the Netherlands, accounting for around two percent of the total population, or just over 400,000. Migration to the Netherlands from Turkey took off as a result of the country’s post-war economic boom. Much like other Western European states, the Netherlands started to bring in so-called “guest workers” from Southern European and North African states. Turkish and Kurdish workers, mainly from Eastern Turkey and the Black Sea region, started to arrive from the mid-1960s until the Netherlands brought its guest worker programs to an end in 1974, with the onset of the global oil crisis. After the suspension of the programs, migration continued through family unification. Guest workers and their families were joined by Turkish and Kurdish asylum seekers following Turkey’s coup d’état in 1980. After the 1980s, family unification was replaced by family formation, with Dutch Turks finding partners in Turkey and bringing them to the Netherlands. Today, there is roughly an even split between first-generation migrants and the second-generation born in the Netherlands.
There is a consensus in the literature that the identity of first-generation Dutch Turks differs substantively from their second-generation counterparts. First-generation Dutch Turks are seen as segregated, meaning that they maintain tight-knit connections within their group of origin and identify little with the Netherlands and the native Dutch. The second generation’s identity is more “hybrid,” with strong connections to their Turkish roots as well as Dutch society.
The second generation’s identity is more ‘hybrid,’ with strong connections to their Turkish roots as well as Dutch society.
Dutch Turks’ organizational strength and social cohesion is often cited as the underlying reason for their strong identification with their ancestral homeland compared to other ethnic minorities in the Netherlands. Initially, Dutch integration policy emphasized self-organization and education in minorities’ own languages in line with the “pillarization” of Dutch society itself, which was compartmentalized along socio-political lines. While these so-called pillars lost their impact by the late 1960s with the secularization of Dutch society, the model continued to be applied to ethnic minorities. The Dutch government aimed to facilitate equal opportunities for minorities and the Dutch people in a multicultural society; however, this was with the understanding that minorities were “guests” that would eventually return to their countries or immigrant pillars would eventually collapse into the Dutch liberal order as earlier, native Dutch pillars had done.
Within this framework, Dutch Turks were able to build strong organizations along the lines of Turkish political cleavages but the strength of these organizations was unique to the Turkish community. Explanations provided for this divergence in the literature point to the highly politicized nature of Turkish society in Turkey, as well as Turks’ high degree of national pride due to historical legacy, which creates stronger bonds between members of the community. Thus, organized around the concept of Turkishness, Dutch Turks have related to Dutch society through their Turkish identities. Perhaps the most influential of these organizations, the Dutch operation of the Diyanet – the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs – was established in the late 1970s. While the Diyanet has become a crucial part of the recent Dutch integration debate, it was established to meet the needs of the growing Turkish population in the Netherlands, with the Turkish state providing staff and funding.
The Dutch understanding of integration shifted in the 1980s and early 1990s. Disproportionate levels of unemployment and dependency on the welfare state within minorities led to a new view that the multicultural approach that had been the core of Dutch integration policy was the cause of these issues. Consequently, Dutch integration policy began to focus on participation in society through the job market and education. In this phase, Turks were still regarded as a relatively successful minority, with their dense social network contributing to success in the Dutch job market.
The political climate in the aftermath of 9/11 and the murders of anti-Islamic populist leader Pim Fortuyn and film director Theo van Gogh led to a dramatic turn in the Dutch understanding of integration. Particularly, the murder of van Gogh – who was killed by a Dutch Moroccan born in Amsterdam – intensified the debate on identity and raised questions around the tensions caused by dual nationality, multiculturalism, and integration. Integration demands turned to active citizenship, requiring minorities to relate to Dutch society on more individual levels. Integration came to mean accepting shared Dutch norms and values and knowledge of Dutch language and culture. Policymakers, who felt they could no longer rely on the self-internalization of Dutch values, stiffened the integration regulations that had been in place since the 1990s. Long-term immigrants were required to pass a civic integration test proving basic knowledge of Dutch society and culture. However, these regulations have not been applicable to Turks since 2011 when a court ruled they were against the European Union’s association agreement with Turkey.
Integration came to mean accepting shared Dutch norms and values and knowledge of Dutch language and culture.
The change in the Dutch approach to integration has seen minorities labeled as “parallel communities” withdrawn from Dutch society, applying their own group norms, values, and laws that are at odds with those of Dutch society. Perhaps the vulnerability of Dutch Turks comes precisely from the factor that deemed them better integrated in earlier phases of the integration debate: their organizational strength. Recent data shows that 54 percent of Dutch Turks primarily identify as Turkish rather than Dutch, though 49 percent of Dutch Turks still said they feel a strong connection with the Netherlands. Reflecting on the shift in the Dutch approach to integration, the Turkish diaspora has felt increasingly alienated from Dutch society, disengaged from traditional parties – citing deteriorating morale about their chances and life in the Netherlands – and encountering increased levels of discrimination. Ultimately, prior to the Dutch general election in 2017, 40 percent of Dutch Turks, alongside Dutch Moroccans, said they did not feel welcome in the Netherlands.
It is within the context of this changing conception of integration in the Netherlands that Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power. While past Turkish governments had generally refrained from interfering with European Turks’ relationships with their local societies, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then prime minister, made repeated calls for European Turks to preserve their Turkish identities and refrain from assimilating into European societies, emphasizing the maintenance of Turkish culture and belief. In one major incident in 2013, Erdoğan attempted to prevent the adoption of a Dutch-Turkish baby by a lesbian couple as part of a broader campaign to prevent children of Turkish descent from forgetting their roots after adoption.
Beyond these more discursive interventions, the AKP has also taken an unprecedented active approach to influencing the diaspora. It established the Presidency of Foreign Turks and Relative Communities (YTB) under the prime ministry in 2010 to support projects seeking to combat discrimination and preserve Turkish family values and culture within the diaspora. The AKP actively lobbies through the Dutch arm of its European organization: the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD). The right of Turkish citizens abroad to vote in elections, which has been in place since the presidential elections in 2014, has provided the AKP with an additional avenue to build and maintain its connection to the community. The party sent letters to Dutch-Turkish voters in several of the last elections, urging them to support the AKP.
Polls taken in the lead-up to the recent Dutch elections in 2017 show that young Dutch Turks in particular are orienting themselves more and more towards Turkey as they feel unwelcome in the Netherlands. Young Dutch Turks see Erdoğan standing up for their Turkish national and Islamic identity at a time when they feel less and less accepted in Dutch society, which makes them feel less Dutch. However, the AKP’s active approach and claims over the diaspora – although providing an outlet for some alienated members of the community – has only made the experience of Dutch Turks more difficult, especially against a narrow conception of integration. This arguably provides critics of Dutch-Turkish integration with reductionist analyses to explain the community’s perceived shortcomings.
Dutch media and public debate routinely emphasize the large share of Dutch Turks supporting the AKP.
The right to vote in Turkish elections provides mixed clues about the role Turkish politics plays in the identities of Dutch Turks. Dutch media and public debate routinely emphasize the large share of Dutch Turks supporting the AKP. In the recent Turkish constitutional referendum, for instance, 70 percent of Dutch Turks who participated supported the changes to the executive system proposed by the AKP, compared to 51 percent in Turkey. However, the fact that turnout among Dutch Turks was only 47 percent is rarely mentioned. The results could equally be interpreted to say that only 33 percent of Dutch Turks actively support Erdoğan and the AKP, and less than half are dedicated enough to Turkish politics to cast a vote in the first place. Yet, this angle is seldom presented.
DENK: An Authentic Voice?
One of the best examples of the Turkish diaspora’s impact on Dutch politics is the formation of a political party named DENK by two Dutch Turks and its participation for the first time in Dutch elections. The party’s two founders, Tunahan Kuzu and Selçuk Öztürk, were expelled from the Labour Party in 2014 when they opposed a government proposal to monitor several Turkish religious organizations for obstructing the integration of Dutch Turks in Dutch society. DENK has intrinsically been connected to the Turkish government as one of the organizations the Dutch government proposed monitoring was the Diyanet. However, when we recall the roots of the Diyanet in the Netherlands as a remnant of the Dutch multicultural approach towards minorities, Kuzu and Öztürk’s reaction can equally be read as a stance against changes to Dutch integration policy.
The reaction to DENK from Dutch political parties and the media has been fairly negative, demonstrating an inability to accept that the roots of the party are from the Netherlands. It is often seen as a migrants’ party, with its lawmakers labeled as “the long arm of Ankara” due to the way Kuzu and Öztürk left the Labour Party and the party’s reactions to Turkish affairs, particularly after the failed coup attempt in July 2016. DENK’s leaders attended an anti-coup rally in Rotterdam, where most Dutch Turks live, and have not spoken out against the way the Turkish state has dealt with dissidents following the coup attempt, often responding to criticisms of Turkey’s policies by citing its security concerns. Other Dutch political parties have interpreted this as support for President Erdoğan and the AKP. However, DENK’s lawmakers have not only faced these accusations in debates on Turkey; their views on Dutch policy affairs are also questioned in accordance to their views on Turkish politics, something that other politicians do not face. Throughout the lead-up to the Dutch general election in March 2017, DENK’s leaders were often questioned on their views on Turkish politics rather than what the party proposed to do in the Netherlands, a potentially reductionist approach that fails to see the party’s roots in the purely Dutch experience of the diaspora.
AKP Minister Kaya’s treatment led to a mass protest by hundreds of Dutch Turks in Rotterdam, ending with 12 arrests.
There is little evidence of the party having active connections to Ankara other than reports that a DENK parliamentary candidate offered his restaurant to Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu when the original venue for his referendum campaign was no longer available during the Dutch-Turkish diplomatic crisis in March 2017. Ultimately, DENK is thought to have gained most of its support from Dutch Turks despite a message designed to appeal to all minorities in the Netherlands. Although polls showed that most of DENK’s supporters endorsed the AKP as well, the causal mechanism linking the two remains unclear.
Leaving DENK aside, there is also little evidence of Ankara influencing Dutch Turks systematically through financial support, as implied in the term the “long arm of Ankara.” However, in 2016, the Turkish consulate in the Netherlands urged Dutch Turks to report any statements made against Erdoğan through a hotline, and there have been claims of Diyanet imams gathering information about Gülen supporters and critics of Erdoğan in the Netherlands. Research shows, however, that Turkish television and social media are more influential on Dutch Turks than financial support, with over 80 percent watching Turkish television daily. Among this pool of frequent television watchers, around 90 percent of viewing time is spent watching Turkish television exclusively. This does not mean that Ankara lacks the means to interfere with Turkish organizations systematically, but until more systematic effects are proven, “the long arm of Ankara” seems to refer more to individualistic, cognitive means of garnering support for the AKP rather than systematic ones.
Following the coup attempt in July 2016, members of the Gülen movement – followers of self-exiled imam Fethullah Gülen who have been accused of fomenting the coup attempt and are collectively labeled as a terrorist organization, the so-called “FETÖ” in Turkey – faced threats from other Dutch Turks, including arson attacks and calls to boycott businesses deemed part of the movement, which were blamed on Erdoğan supporters in the country. Such businesses and organizations were also listed in articles by the Turkish state news agency and pro-government media. The tensions raised questions as to how and why a conflict from Turkey was exported to the Netherlands. In October 2016, the Dutch parliament decided to hold a hearing with Dutch-Turkish organizations regarding the repercussions of the failed coup attempt in the Netherlands as a means of gathering information about the consequences of the coup attempt for Dutch Turks and Dutch-Turkish organizations the financial connections of these organizations to the Turkish state. Shortly after the hearing, a majority in parliament voted to stop talks with Dutch-Turkish organizations, arguing that they only represent a small share of Dutch Turks, and recommended that the state continue its dialogue with Dutch Turks through schools, districts, and neighborhoods instead. Beyond whether or not the organizations represent a sizeable group within the Dutch Turkish community, it remains unclear why government policy and media reports address Dutch Turks collectively while they are expected to integrate into Dutch society on an individual basis. It is further unclear why organizations whose extent of connection to the community appears limited are identified as the main avenue of dialogue.
The Diplomatic Crisis
When Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu planned a trip to Rotterdam to campaign in favor of the “yes” vote in the referendum to implement a presidential executive system in Turkey, the Dutch government and the Mayor of Rotterdam canceled his landing permit, citing threats to public order. Another cabinet minister Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, Minister of Family and Social Policy for Turkey, attempted to campaign in Rotterdam instead but was detained by Dutch authorities when she arrived at the Turkish consulate. Kaya’s treatment led to a mass protest by hundreds of Dutch Turks in Rotterdam, ending with 12 arrests.
“Tensions persist between the two countries after the Netherlands withdrew its ambassador to Turkey.
While the protests were seen as a clear example of the AKP’s mobilization of Dutch Turks, one must look at the local questions of identity that drove the protesters, with many Dutch Turks citing discrimination and their status as victims of double standards in their response to the events. As one of the leaders of Milli Görüş (an organization in the Netherlands, separate from its name-fellow in Turkey), Yusuf Altuntaş, said in an interview, the events were also a reaction to the rightward shift of the Dutch political scene and debate. The public reaction to the protest largely failed to capture this, with media and politicians extrapolating on the failure of the integration of Dutch Turks through the participation of several hundred out of over 400,000 in the protests. The underlying assumption – with reference to the “long arm” again – was that protesters were there because the Turkish government demanded them to be and that they were oriented towards Turkey rather than the Netherlands. Protesters were seen as attending because they supported the AKP’s side in the Turkish referendum, which was not necessarily the case. Discussions in the aftermath of the protests and the lead up to the Dutch election went as far as calling for the suspension of dual nationality, which were by the Turkish government’s reference to Dutch Turks as “our citizens.”
Ultimately, polls showed that one-quarter of Dutch voters, especially those choosing Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and Geert Wilders’s anti-Islamic Freedom Party, were influenced by the protests. They cited fear of the escalation of tensions and their effect on the position of Dutch Turks in Dutch society, especially given many parties’ hardliner stance against minorities. Meanwhile, Dutch intervention preventing Turkish authorities from campaigning in the Netherlands was seen as providing Erdoğan and the AKP with opportunities to deflect attention from European criticism against the increasing authoritarianism prevailing in Turkey and argue that Turkey needed a strong executive system – which would be secured by a yes vote in the referendum – against hostile foreign powers seeking to meddle in Turkey’s affairs. Thus, the tensions ultimately benefitted the ruling parties in both the Netherlands and Turkey, yet they were detrimental for Dutch Turks.
Following the debacle, little change has been seen in the Dutch behavior of questioning the political standpoints of Dutch Turks. The perceived incompatibility between support for the AKP and Dutch Turks’ integration into the Netherlands continues to be emphasized, without regard for why this is the case. The recent re-emergence of ending dialogue with Turkish organizations after the Minister of Social Affairs for the Netherlands said to promise an MP of Turkish descent that he will put an end to dialogue with Turkish organizations is another case in point.
With a new Dutch government dominated by right-wing parties that competed in the election on an anti-immigration platform, the Dutch government is narrowing its integration policies, which is unlikely to bode well for sentiments towards established minorities. Tensions persist between the two countries after talks to restore ties recently failed and the Netherlands withdrew its ambassador to Turkey. Furthermore, on February 15th, a majority in the Dutch parliament approved two motions recognizing the Armenian Genocide, which is expected to further sour relations between the Netherlands and Turkey.
As the discussion has demonstrated, Dutch Turks continue to be assessed within an individualistic framework of integration while remnants of decades of a multicultural, communal understanding of integration remain intact – both in the Dutch approach to the community as well as the AKP’s outreach attempts. Following the events in 2017, there is still little creative thinking in terms of how this strategy might be replaced with a system more consistent with the current Dutch integration approach as well as taking into account Dutch and Turkish past experiences with integration. Nonetheless, the effects of the decades-long conception of integration need to be factored into any new system.
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