The Dutch parliament’s lower house approved a measure on Tuesday that would forcibly expel some 26,000 rejected asylum-seekers from the country. This new policy reflects the legacy of Pim Fortuyn, whose short career was centered around a very particular view of immigration, religion and the modern state. He provides an ideal starting point for understanding, this Islam Awareness Week, why Yale has worked so well with its Muslim community, while France has been unable to do the same.
While Fortuyn did rise to prominence on an anti-immigration platform, those who compare him to proto-fascists like France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen or Austria’s Joerg Haider miss the crucial point. Fortuyn wanted to shut his country’s traditionally open door in the name of tolerance itself. In his view, immigrants to the Netherlands, who are largely Muslim, undermined the openness of society. They sometimes gave their women less than full equality, as symbolized by the headscarf. They condemned homosexual practice: the openly gay Fortuyn called that unacceptable homophobia. Muslim immigrants who believed such things, Fortuyn argued forcefully, could have no place in the enlightened West.
Not all Dutch voters agreed with Fortuyn; in fact, an animal-rights activist shot him, the first assassination of a Dutch politician since William of Orange. But he won a large following before his death, and the current center-right government has picked up his platform and run with it. While Western Europe’s immigration problem has many facets, the anti-Muslim angle has received less attention than it deserves.
It is in this context that we must understand the French headscarf ban, which passed the lower house of the French parliament last week and gained the support of some 70 percent of Frenchmen in a BBC poll. Native observers have often invoked their country’s history of anti-clerical secularism to explain the ban’s broad appeal. That is doubtless one factor, but it cannot be all. Dutch suspicion of Muslim immigrants runs just as deep, but the Dutch are not a particularly secular people. The common factor in both debates is the anger of the Dutch and French publics at the presence of outsiders who seem out of step with modernity. And both these liberal, tolerant nations have decided to respond by keeping Muslims out: out of school with laws that restrict their religious practice, or out of the country by force.
The bizarre aspect of this spectacle is that nothing in liberal modernity requires keeping Islam at arm’s length. Yale is as modern an institution as any, and it has had little trouble integrating Muslims. In their discussion of Islamic Awareness Week in Tuesday’s Yale Daily News, members of the Muslim Students Association sounded largely positive about the Yale community’s acceptance of its Muslim members. Their comments suggest that both informal, interpersonal interactions and institutional work, such as the MSA’s cooperation with the Chaplain’s Office, have helped make Yale a place where Muslims are fully welcome. Students did raise some concerns, but none amounted to a fear of outright exclusion.
An institution like the Yale chaplaincy, which exists to ease the practice of various faiths and inspire broader understanding of all, might feel like an imposed religious authority to French sensibilities. As we were reminded last week, however, the Yale Chaplain’s Office has no interest in imposing faith in the classroom, only in giving people of faith some institutional support for their activities. Both officially and unofficially, Yale makes it clear that people of faith are welcome as themselves. Even the Rumpus, which no one would accuse of excessive religious sympathies, named a Muslim woman one of its most beautiful Yalies this year and spoke approvingly of her headscarf.
While Yale’s institutional and cultural support for Muslims soundly rejects the French logic of secularism, however, it is not yet clear whether Fortuyn has followers here. Most Yalies have no problem with the Muslims in their midst, or with the other international students and people of faith on this campus, but nobody is rocking the boat. The Dutch system, which resembles Yale’s in some respects began to break down when voices from the religious immigrant community began challenging western liberal norms, especially on gender and sexuality. Religious and national diversity were fine with Fortuyn, but religious voices preaching some ethics were unacceptable.
What if some members of Yale’s religious community began loudly challenging the prevailing norms on religious grounds? No doubt many Yalies would simply ignore them; we tend to live and let live, even when we disagree. But some would also want them officially silenced. It is worth asking, how much do I really respect my friends’ religious beliefs? Enough to let them challenge me? How the liberal West answers that question will determine whether it follows Fortuyn’s exclusionary path, or learns to live with the serious religious voices globalization is bringing to its doorstep.