A Question of Compatibility

Islamophobia in Europe's gay capital

by Lance Gloss

Illustration by Celeste Matsui

published November 4, 2016

People from 180 countries are long-term residents in Amsterdam. By this measure, it is the most international municipality on Earth, and also one of the most visited. It is known as a haven of liberalism and tolerance: a place where atheists and medieval seditionists, pot-smokers and transgender people come to be themselves. But this identity has not prevented Amsterdam, or the rest of the Netherlands, from growing tense in the face of the refugee crisis. Of late, the country has become a major site of rising right-wing, anti-immigration opinion among white Europeans. In Amsterdam, xenophobia is aimed heavily at Moroccan-Dutch citizens and increasingly toward Syrian refugees. Furthermore, this ‘Gay Capital’ has been central to the mobilization of LGBTQ rights as a justification for Islamophobia.

 “We have been too tolerant of the intolerant” is a go-to platitude for Geert Wilders when he speaks about Moroccan-Dutch people. Wilders is an anchor of the Netherland’s anti-Islamic camp, as leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV), which began as his one-man party in 2005 and is now the third-largest party in Parliament. The PVV motioned for a total ban on immigration from Muslim countries in 2007—eight years before Donald Trump proposed this in the United States. In an op-ed in the daily Algemeen Dagblad, entitled “Muslims, Free Yourselves and Leave Islam,” Wilders outlined his reasoning. “The more Islamic apostates there are,” he wrote, “the less misogyny, the less hatred of gays, the less anti-Semitism, the less oppression, the less terror and violence, and the more freedom there will be.” In Wilders’ view, LGBTQ rights and Islam are “incompatible.” His program for the 2017 election includes the banning of the Quran. In a country where the vast majority of people of color have roots in primarily countries with sizeable Muslim populations—especially Turkey, Morocco, Suriname, and Indonesia—the implications of such a proposal are nothing short of disastrous.

In attaching his political racism to the popular discourse of Dutch progressivism, Wilders has been able to make allies across the Dutch political spectrum, while distancing the PVV from other anti-queer, anti-immigrant parties in Europe, like France’s National Front (FN) and Austria’s Freedom Party. Many LGTBQ groups have lambasted the PVV’s appropriation of their cause. COC Nederland—one of the oldest LGBTQ organizations in the world—has called his statements “an attack on the values of our country.” Yet, the PVV’s predicted share of the 2017 vote has only grown, and their views have gained increasing influence with the second-largest party, the Labour Party.

These days, Dutch news is saturated with statements from LGBTQ people—particularly white gay men—claiming that they feel less welcome than in the past. Like a “stranger on my own doorstep,” explains Piet, a gay resident of Nieuw West, to the Independent. The popular reports “widespread fear after wave of reports of gay couples who were bullied” in the Amsterdam’s Nieuw West neighborhood. The Indy spoke to one gay couple, who had moved out of Amsterdam to a small town on the Belgian border. “We couldn’t really be ourselves there anymore,” says Marijn. “Not like it was, because new people [nieuwe mensen] look at you funny.” “New people” is one of many proxy terms for allochthoon—a term introduced in the 1972 census for anyone who is not ethnic-Dutch. In everyday speech and in political discourse, allochthoon is used to describe almost exclusively people of color—particularly people with Muslim backgrounds, who make up nearly a quarter of the population in Amsterdam and neighboring Rotterdam.




 The Dutch national image is anchored in what some sociologists have termed “post-progressivism.” One white Amsterdam resident, Willem, encapsulated this ethos to the Indy in a typical fashion: “Oh, we don’t really have discrimination here. We did that already.”

This so-called post-progressivism relies on a national narrative of tolerance, rooted in centuries of coexistence by Dutch Protestants and Catholics. Following WWII, the Netherlands transitioned from the most church-going nation in Europe to the least, and became a mecca of tolerance for non-conformists—provos, feminists, squatters, and the marginalized LGBTQ community. The Dutch government embraced a secular, pro-gay rights stance, precipitating the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2001—a global first. Amsterdam has largely retained this image. Iamsterdam, a dominant tourism enterprise, proclaims on its website that “80% of American homosexuals who visit Europe call in on Amsterdam.” They may visit the pink granite triangles of the Homomonument, party on Pink Saturday, or float down the canals at the Pride Parade.

In a country that prides itself on protecting LGBTQ people, the rising number of hate crimes against queer people in Amsterdam has been a source of great concern. This rise in hate crimes has caused the government to do more research into the populations that they think may be responsible. A highly publicized statistic from the last government report on Dutch Gender and LGBT-Equality states that “four times as many students of Turkish (45.9%) and Moroccan (34.5%) origin have a negative attitude to homosexuality” when compared to ethnic-Dutch students (8.7%). Another report by this Ministry notes that Muslim youth are overrepresented among those convicted of violence against gays in Amsterdam, having been identified in two-thirds of violent cases.

Many point in reply to biases held by Dutch police. A recent expose by anthropologist Paul Mutsaers found that discrimination was evident in police conduct and police training academies; at local stations, officers “hang newspaper reports on the bulletin board on which heads of Islam and migrants are negatively circled.” Artists and activists recently called for inquiries into “structural racism and the discrimination by the Hague police” after police used violence against a group of Moroccan-Dutch men accused of petty crimes in 2015.

Discrimination against allochthonen extends far beyond the police. The median income for allochthoon households today is more than 25% lower than that of white households, according to a GINI Project report. Allochthoon students have lower marks, more violent classroom environments, and higher dropout rates than white students. Of students with Moroccan descent, more than half will be strapped with a criminal record by age 24. Many will live in what the government terms “super-diverse” neighborhoods targeted for redevelopment, in which social housing is replaced by high-rent and owner-occupied flats.

In the last decade, structural oppression has been compounded by a surge of Islamophobia. This wave can be traced back through two high profile deaths. The first, in 2002, was the assassination of Pim Fortuyn, a gay, conservative politician who called Islam a “backward culture.” This was followed in 2004 by the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, whose works included a short documentary about the abuse of women in Islam entitled Submission (2002), and 06/05 (2004), a film about the killing of Fortuyn. He was shot and stabbed by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Moroccan-Dutch man. Following the attack, mosques were vandalized; Molotov cocktails were thrown at mosques, a church, and schools, with few convictions. 

In the midst of such divisiveness, others are working to bridge the gaps between more conservative Islamic values and mainstream Dutch secularism. This is particularly true for the growing proportion of Muslims and former Muslims in Amsterdam’s LGBTQ community. To assist Muslim youths struggling with their sexual identities, organizations like Safe Harbor have been inundated with participants and volunteers. In a lauded gesture, a “Moroccan boat” joined the Gay Pride Parade for the first time this year.

Furthermore, as Salim, a gay Muslim Amsterdammer, pointed out in an interview with Humanity in Action, “Every religion says you can’t be gay. It’s not just Muslims.” His point is crucial—for most of its history, even Amsterdam did not tolerate non-normative sexualities on religious grounds. Homosexuality is outlawed in the Bible, and as a Christian nation, the Netherlands had a national identity constructed around these moral codes. Furthermore, as former Indy editor Raillan Brooks records in the Village Voice, European powers are largely responsible for the criminalization of homosexuality in the Middle East and North Africa. Brooks notes, “the Ottoman Empire… decriminalized gay sex in 1858, nearly 150 years before the U.S. As imperial European powers metastasized across the region in the nineteenth century, they spread laws that recriminalized homosexuality.”  Thus, the popular conflation of the West with ‘tolerance’ and Islam with ‘intolerance’ is historically off-base.




In the last few years, the Syrian refugee crisis has raised the stakes even higher on an already contentious conversation. The Netherlands has welcomed relatively few refugees from the conflict in Syria. According to The Guardian’s January 2016 estimate, only 47,500 refugees reside in the country. There are 266 asylum applications in the country per 100,000 citizens—almost exactly the EU average. This rate is far lower in many other European states, such as France (114) and the UK (60), where anti-immigrant sentiment has flourished. Meanwhile Lebanon hosts over one million asylum-seekers and Jordan hosts almost 1.5 million; both countries are less than half as populous as the Netherlands.

Many Islamophobic politicians have capitalized on the fear of an influx of refugees. Reported incidents of violence against LGBTQ people in refugee camps have further bolstered their rhetoric around Islam’s inherent intolerance. According to COC Nederland, there were at least 21 cases of anti-gay violence at refugee centers in Europe in six months from October 2015. Among them was Omar Abdelghani, who told the Indy he feared “being tortured, imprisoned, even raped” for his sexuality in his home country—incidences of which have spiked since the war broke out in 2011, according to VICE. Some of the refugees he encountered at the center outside Amsterdam, says Omar, were “the same people I ran away from.” He received serious threats and was pushed around. 

COC Nederland is lobbying for the creation of a LGBTQ-only refugee center in the Netherlands, like one created in Berlin earlier this year. They emphasize that their primary goal is education rather than separation, and that Dutch values about LGBTQ rights can be lived out by all. While maintaining that Wilders’ xenophobia is toxic, they concede that “in emergency situations, there needs to be a facility for people being bullied, threatened,” according to COC spokesperson Philip Tijsma.




As the refugee crisis continues, Wilders’ line has become increasingly appealing to an international audience. Some of Europe’s far-right parties are changing their tune to harmonize with Wilders’.  Marine Le Pen, President of France’s conservative National Front, has recently switched to the support of same-sex marriage equality, after decades of opposition to LGBTQ rights. She now polls a significantly larger share of Paris’ gay vote (26%) than its straight vote (16%).

Recent events in the United States have created a similar opportunity for the US Republican party to follow Wilders’ line. In June of this year, a gunman committed to ISIS killed 49 and injured 53 others at a gay nightclub in Orlando, FL. Trump took the opportunity to affirm his suspect commitments to LGBTQ Americans, and to suggest that Islam is a threat to their welfare. Wilders himself spoke at this year’s Republican National Convention in support of Donald Trump’s Islamophobic political program weeks after the shooting, condemning Western leaders who “allowed millions of Muslim immigrants to come from Islamic countries to our free Western societies.”  US Republican leader Newt Gingrich chimed in that week, proclaiming that “if our enemies had their way, gays, lesbians and transgender citizens would be put to death as they are today in the Islamic State and Iran.”

On Monday, Oct. 31, Geert Wilders came to court under charges of inciting hatred toward Muslims. That is, he was supposed to come to court. He didn’t show. Instead, he made a morning tweet: “NL has huge problem with Moroccans. To be silent about it is cowardly. 43% of Dutch want fewer Moroccans. No verdict will change that.” And, in a recent poll—conducted by the PVV—43% of people did indeed hold this opinion. 55% opposed his trial. Wilders says he is defending his right to free speech by refusing trial for voicing his opinions. He has called it a “political trial,” aimed at unseating him, and it may well be. Others who sing the same tune—for example, Hans Spekman of the Labor Party, who proclaimed, “We must humiliate Moroccans”—are not being brought to court.

The fallout for his non-appearance is not yet clear, but it would be a mistake to assume that, were he to be indicted, the sentiments that the PVV has stoked would disappear. It is as unlikely that Islam will disappear from Europe as it is that European states will institute Sharia law, as the far-right has loudly claimed. The first step is to unseat the image of Islam as a monolith, in collision with an equally monolithic set of Western values. We should instead center human rights on culture and identity. In an era of globalization and flux in which encounters across social distance are increasingly common, developing means to reconcile, rather than reify, differences is of the utmost importance. 


LANCE GLOSS B’18 sits below sea level.