In a Diverse Corner of the Netherlands, Geert Wilders Didn’t Win

Muslims in the Utrecht area ponder what it means to be Dutch as a far-right leader sweeps to electoral victory

In a Diverse Corner of the Netherlands, Geert Wilders Didn’t Win
The Netherlands’ far-right leader Geert Wilders celebrates his party’s win in the general election in November. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

On the day after the party of far-right lawmaker Geert Wilders won the Dutch national election, 19-year-old Suda and her friends wondered if they should pack their suitcases. Wilders’ anti-Islam, anti-immigration rhetoric felt like a threat for the pharmacy student, whose parents came to the Netherlands from Turkey. But now, just over two weeks later, that fear has dissipated and given way to a reckoning — and somewhat uneasy affirmation — of what it means to be a Dutch Muslim and a person of color in the Netherlands.

“Of course, we are not going anywhere, this is our country,” she told New Lines on Mosque Square in the Lombok neighborhood of Utrecht in the center of the country.

The experience of Suda, who did not wish to give her last name, is familiar to many of the residents in the densely populated, largely working-class area that is home to people from dozens of nations, including Turkey, Morocco, Suriname, Senegal and the Balkans. In many ways, Lombok can be seen as a microcosm of the ethnically diverse parts of the Netherlands, where 1 in 5 people are either immigrants or their children. A large number are descendants of the foreign workers who were invited to the country in the 1960s and 70s, mostly from Turkey and Morocco, during the Dutch building boom.

Wilders’ “Party for Freedom” (PVV) won 37 of the 150 seats in Parliament in the Nov. 22 election, shocking both his own country and the world. Though Wilders now looks poised to succeed long-standing Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the PVV still needs to form a coalition with others, from Rutte’s center-right party as well as the left, in order to govern the country. Coming second was the Green-Labor alliance, called PvdA/GL, with 25 seats. DENK, a party based on minority rights with a large Muslim voter base, came in 12th place, earning three seats.

In Lombok, the picture looks radically different: Residents at its eight polling stations gave the Greens and Labor the most votes, and DENK came in third.

“We don’t want to remove our headscarves,” Suda said, referring to the PVV’s plan to ban Islamic attire from public buildings — a goal that may now be achievable thanks to a ruling last month by the European Union’s highest court permitting member states to prohibit employees from wearing signs of religious belief. The PVV’s campaign platform also called for the Netherlands to leave the EU, an “asylum stop,” and the end of Islamic schools and even mosques. In an attempt to ameliorate his critics, Wilders said he was placing his previous promise to ban the Quran on hold.

Lombok personifies a multicultural Dutch society that defies almost everything Wilders and his party stand for. “Most people appreciate the social fabric of the neighborhood,” explained the Moroccan-born parliamentary leader of DENK, Farid Azarkan. “The non-Muslims are less susceptible to lies about Muslims, about Moroccans, about Islam,” he said in a telephone interview, referring to claims by Wilders that Moroccans are responsible for disproportionate amounts of crime and that Islam is not a religion but a “totalitarian ideology.”

While part of the Muslim and immigrant population moved over the past decade to new suburbs on Utrecht’s outskirts, they had already formed the social fabric of Lombok to the extent that, on the whole, they feel safe and secure.

Peter Hagenaar, a local activist and organizer, recalled how, in the 1980s, residents fought the municipality that wanted to demolish some of the center to make way for a wide new road. “White Dutch locals and immigrants stood up against that together and won. … Look how the neighborhood thrives now.”

The gentrification sweeping through Dutch cities has also hit Lombok in recent years, but its main artery, Kanaal Street, is lined with small shops and restaurants whose owners trace their roots around the world. Mosque Square, at the top of Kanaal Street, is named after the Ulu Mosque, whose two minarets glow bright blue in the evenings.

Locals are now wondering if their feelings of relative safety in the face of the surprise Wilders win are valid. “Had I been living in a bubble?” asked Yakup Aydemir, a 42-year-old social worker and co-owner of the “Little Max” cafe in Kanaal Street. He described himself as open-minded, saying his cafe’s clientele were diverse, “from elderly Dutch-Moroccans to the new generation who order oat milk coffee.” Aydemir, the son of Turkish immigrants, has spent his whole life in Lombok; it feels inconceivable to him that the PVV swept to victory. “What did I miss? But then I realized: I haven’t really left Lombok in quite some time. That must be it.”

Down the road is the fish shop and restaurant that 47-year-old Said Belani runs. When the PVV declared victory, his teenage daughter asked if their dual Dutch-Moroccan citizenship would now be in jeopardy. “I hugged her and told her not to worry,” he said, somewhat bewildered. “I was surprised. How did these results match the Netherlands that I live in, with the Netherlands that I imagine exists here?”

Wilders’ pledge to slash immigration may be politically untenable, but his success is not unsurprising. Fears about large-scale uncontrolled immigration are rife across Europe, compounded by the cost of living crisis and the energy instability caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Wilders’ refrain to “Give the Netherlands back to the Dutch” sounds similar to Italian Prime Minister’s Giorgia Meloni’s cry of “Italy and the Italians first!” In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally Party performed well in recent parliamentary elections, and Austria’s right-wing populist Freedom Party has made a comeback.

Lack of trust in politicians is also high across the continent, and some of Wilders’ win may be attributable to the wholesale rejection of politics seen across Europe. Yucel Aydemir, the chairman of the board at Lombok’s Ulu Mosque (no relation to the cafe owner), pondered for a moment the often-made claim by Wilders voters that they voted for him out of protest. “They apparently don’t see him as the racist that he is. How can it be a ‘signal’ to vote for him?”

Nearby, also on Kanaal Street, is a small flower shop that opened almost a century ago. Inside, its saleswoman, in her 30s, explained her decision to vote for the PVV. “We need to curb migration and Wilders promises to do that,” she told New Lines, speaking on condition of anonymity due to how she voted. She recalled how, after her divorce, she needed to move in with her mother, with her own daughter in tow, because of a lack of affordable housing. “You get a house more easily if you arrive by boat,” she said, fishing about in her pocket for her phone. “Wilders’ plans to ban headscarves and the Quran are ridiculous. But can I show you something?” She opened a WhatsApp group for local shopkeepers and showed me a picture of a man lying on the ground in a nearby car park, perhaps unconscious from drink. “He’s from a safe country,” she said mockingly, referring to a phrase used by Dutch politicians across the spectrum for people from countries that are considered safe, such as Tunisia and Morocco, but who apply for asylum anyway.

The squeeze on housing — a crisis mostly spurred by the influx of foreign students and workers in combination with a construction slowdown, according to research by local media citing government data — may be why even members of the Muslim communities are taking issue with people from “safe countries.” Asylum seekers only contribute a small fraction of total migration to the Netherlands, but this hasn’t stopped Aydemir, of the Ulu Mosque, from complaining about how some homeless people come to the ablution area to shower. “It’s not okay,” he said. “They beg or talk too loudly, or enter the mosque with dirty shoes.” Bicycle mechanic Yasin Ugur agreed. “People vote for Wilders because of asylum seekers and yes, maybe that’s getting out of hand a bit. But a Muslim can never vote for Wilders.”

Muslims make up approximately 5% of the Dutch population of some 18 million, but in Lombok, their proportion is considerably higher. Perhaps it is their feelings of safety in numbers, but many of the neighborhood’s Muslim residents feel Wilders’ plan to ban mosques is preposterous with little legal grounding: The freedom of religion is enshrined in the Dutch constitution. “He can’t change the constitution so easily, but what if he bans headscarves in public buildings or takes other measures that may be possible within existing laws?” asked DENK’s Azarkan. “Those are not measures you can easily reverse again after society adapts to it. It’s a sliding scale.” What’s important, he stressed, is that people think about what a Wilders government would mean for their own lives. “I do that by asking whether people would like Wilders as the head teacher of their children’s school, or as the boss of their company. Nobody wants that.”

On a recent early Friday afternoon, it’s busy on Lombok’s Mosque Square. The afternoon prayer has just finished and people mill about, chatting and having a smoke. Inside, the mosque’s imam and chairman Aydemir are sitting next to each other, discussing the laid-back reaction of the local Muslims to Wilders’ win. There are even rumors that large groups of Dutch Muslims across the country voted for Wilders, which have since been dispelled by the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad. Aydemir said not a single member of his congregation would have done so and suggests that the outward appearance of ease could be his flock’s way of suppressing anxiety. “Many who come to this mosque are indeed scared. And it is not without reason,” he said.

But Suda, the student, feels very safe as she heads from Mosque Square into Kanaal Street. “This is home,” she said. “But I do look over my shoulder when I travel elsewhere in the Netherlands.”

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