Saturday, February 6, 2010

In spite of numbers, Dutch Muslim are political non-entity by By Brian van der Bol and Mark Hoogstad

Several Muslim parties will participate in Dutch municipal elections on March 3. But in spite of a sizable Muslim electorate, they have so far been unable to garner many votes.

By Brian van der Bol and Mark Hoogstad

The Islam Democrats (ID), represented by a single delegate in The Hague’s city council since 2006, wanted desperately to avoid a swift implosion, as has been the fate of some other young Dutch political parties in recent memory. They failed. The party fell prey to infighting and is now divided into two feuding camps. The party’s plans to participate in the upcoming municipal elections in Rotterdam, Utrecht, and other Dutch cities, have been put on hold.

Mohammed Rabbae, a former member of parliament for the Green party and currently chair of national organisation representing Moroccan interests, expressed his regrets over the schism. “More unity would be good,” he said. Two years ago, Rabbae still believed the ID would blossom into a stable, national political force representing Muslims. “These are people who operate within the limits of Dutch law, but are also able to give a voice to the Islamic community’s grievances. They have done well challenging the dominant stereotypes of Muslims,” Rabbae said.
The power struggle within the ID’s ranks came as no surprise to Rabbae however. “Sectarian and personal interests are often paramount in Islamic movements,” Rabbae said, citing the lack of a “uniting leader” and an established base as contributing factors.

The Netherlands is home to some 825,000 Muslims, according to government statistics, accounting for five percent of the population. In cities like The Hague, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, approximately one in ten residents adhere to the Muslim faith. This makes the electoral potential for Islamic parties significant. But while populist Geert Wilders gathers much of his support by scolding Muslims in the Netherlands, parties that want to unite them are yet to find their constituency.

Rabbae said the Dutch Muslim Party (NMP), led by Henny Kreeft, a former member of the assassinated Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn’s political party, suffered the same problems as the ID. The NMP will participate in seven municipal elections in March, including those in Rotterdam and The Hague. The party will try to appeal to the same narrow slice of the electorate the ID hopes to sway. Talks between the NMP and ID last year yielded no results however. Both parties cannot even agree on why the talks failed.

In The Hague, a city of almost 500,000, a grand total of three Muslim parties will now be participate in local elections. Still, NMP leader Kreeft denies his community is divided. The Netherlands is also home to a multitude of Christian parties, he pointed out. “Would you ask them the same question?” Kreeft wondered. In Rotterdam, with 600,000 people including approximately 30,000 Muslims who can vote, Kreeft’s NMP will be the only Muslim party to partake in the March 3 elections.

‘No Turk will vote for a Morrocan’
Theo Coskun, who leads the Socialist Party in the Rotterdam city council, thinks little of the electoral threat posed by the NMP. “No Turks will vote for a Moroccan. The opposite is even less likely,” he said. Coskun used to go by the typically Dutch surname of Cornelissen, until he married a Turkish-Dutch woman 14 months ago and adopted her last name. Coskun knows Rotterdam’s Muslim community well – a sizable one in a town where 48 percent of the population is of foreign descent. He thinks the NMP will meet the same fate as another Muslim party, the Islamic Party Netherlands, that participated in the last municipal elections and failed to gain even a single seat. In 2006, the IPN got a measly 626 votes, 0.2 percent of all ballots cast.

Coskun likes to put the potential voting figures into what he feels is proper perspective. “A lot of people who call themselves ‘Muslim’ are very secular,” he said. According to Rabbae, himself still a member of the Green party, most Muslims prefer established political parties.

Muslim reluctance to support Islamic parties is often explained by the poor track record Muslim parties have in their countries of origin. Rabbae understands fears that some Muslim immigrants may have, but also referred to the Turkish AK party "that operates well within the limits of established law” he said.
Even though Muslim parties have drawn little support so far, their members believe they can address legitimate political concerns. NMP-founder Henny Kreeft, for instance, feels that Muslim interests are not sufficiently spoken for within existing parties. Muslim politicians needed to “confirm to political profiles” within established parties, he Kreeft said.
Alaattin Erdal, who will lead the Christian democratic CDA in one of Rotterdam's boroughs said Muslims voters like casting their ballots for established parties candidates. They do, however , prefer choosing candidates of shared ethnicity. “Their vote carries more weight that way. Muslims are not looking to be marginalised politically by voting for marginal parties,” Erdal said.

Disappointed by the establishment

Some politicians are on the fence. Abdelhafid Bouzidi, for instance, who led a national committee last year in support of the controversial Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan. Both the Green party and left-wing liberal D66 have offered him a prospective seat on their Rotterdam delegations since. Bouzidi (31) did not take them up on the offer. He is still uncertain what type of political party he should join. “In essence, I fit in well with existing parties. But I have been somewhat disappointed by them. And I am not the only one,” he said.

Bouzidi felt most offended by Ramadan’s dismissal. Ramadan served the local government in an advisory capacity but was fired after his involvement in an Iranian government-funded TV-programme became public. Parties across the political spectrum, including Labour, Greens and Christian democrats, came out in favour of Ramadan’s dismissal. “Still, my gut says the time is not yet ripe for a Muslim party,” Bouzidi said. Ironically, Ramadan has come out saying he doesn't feel Muslim's should isolate themselves in separate political parties.
Still, Rabbae feels a a political party based on Islam would do much to enrich the Dutch political landscape. “Muslims are still feared in the Netherlands, and these feelings are stoked by people like Wilders. It would not hurt if Muslims went on the offensive and demonstrated that it is possible to be both a democrat and a Muslim,” he said.

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Day Opening - February 6

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