Frits Bolkestein’s comments on immigration in the Netherlands, in 1991

In 1991 Frits Bolkestein, then leader of the Dutch VVD party, made a speech to the Liberal International Conference in Luzern, titled ‘On the collapse of the Soviet Union’, which included comments on immigration and Islam in the Netherlands:

“The unsettled situation in Eastern Europe ripples over into Western Europe. Germany in particular has taken in a vast number of refugees from the East. The pressure in The Netherlands from people who want to settle there is also growing inexorably.

Prominent among recent immigrants in The Netherlands are people from Morocco and from Turkey. Many of them settled in my country in the sixties when labour was scarce. These two communities have continued to grow through national increase and also because marriage partners are brought in from the countries of origin.

In a few years’ time The Netherlands will harbour some 400.000 Muslims. It is an nflux such as we have never before had to absorb. Here I come to the theme of this ongress. What should government policy be towards these people who come from different culture and of whom many speak little or no Dutch?

Our official policy used to be: “Integration without prejudice to everyone’s own dentity”. It is now recognised that this slogan was a bit too easy. If everyone’s ultural identity is allowed to persist unimpaired, integration will suffer. And integration there must be, because the Turkish and Moroccan immigrants are ere to stay. That is now recognised by all.

If integration is officially declared government policy, which cultural values must revail: those of the non-Muslim majority or those of the Muslim minority? ere we must go back to our roots. Liberalism has produced some fundamental political principles, such as: the separation of church and state, the freedom of expression, tolerance and non-discrimination. We maintain that these principles hold good not only in Europe and North America but all over the world.

Liberalism claims universal value and worth for these principles. That is its political vision. Here there can be no compromise and no truck.

In many parts of the Muslim world the principles I have mentioned are not honoured. Islam is not only a religion, it is a way of life. In this, its vision goes counter to the liberal separation of church and state.

In many Islamic countries there is little freedom of expression. The case of Salman Rushdie may be extreme but still indicates how far apart we are on this issue. The same goes for tolerance and non-discrimination. The way women are treated in the world of Islam is a stain on the reputation of that great religion. I repeat that on these essential points there can be no compromise. These principles have a value that is not relative but of the essence.

A Dutch government think-think-tank put it as follows: “Very important aspects of our Western culture such as individual freedom and equality are under attack from another culture in a manner which is sometimes militant. In those cases of confrontation where a compromise is in practice not possible, no choice exists but to defend our culture against competing pretensions.” (WRR 1979).

But whosoever rejects the theory of cultural relativity may very well and at the same time accept cultural pluralism.

Everyone in The Netherlands may do and say as he pleases, and eat the food, wear the clothes and profess the religion of his choice. Muslim girls may wear a scarf if they wish, even though that scarf stands for much more than just a head-dress.

But Muslim girls of school-going age must attend class, even though they have reached puberty. Here again our law must take precedence over their custom.

These are no more that cursory remarks about a great and knotty problem. Our relations with these new immigrants from a different culture will feature very high on the list of political priorities in the years to come. Maximum flexibility is called for on all sides. A pragmatic approach is needed but we must also hold on to liberal principles that are of the essence.”