The Ongoing Public Debate on Islam in the Netherlands

Jan Jaap de Ruiter discusses the public debate on Islam and sharīʿa in the Netherlands shortly before the March 15th parliamentary elections.

Update from the author, March 20, 2017: The parliamentary elections on March 15th resulted in a modest gain of the populist voice. Though the Netherlands will continue to have a coalition government, the end of the elections is not the end of populism in the Netherlands. Instead, it can now be regarded as a permanent political element, and it will continue to influence Dutch society and the debate on Islam and sharīʿa in the Netherlands.

The public debate on Islam and sharīʿa in the Netherlands is lively. A danger overshadowing this discussion is the polarizing rhetoric of populist parties. In view of the upcoming parliamentary elections on March 15, 2017, it should not come as a surprise that there is an intense, and at times grim, public debate on sharīʿa, Islam, and Muslims in the country. In that debate, one would do well to heed informed perspectives from academics who can help shed light on the content of the debates rather than polarizing rhetoric that cannot.


The Netherlands has a population of 17 million people, nearly 1 million of whom are Muslims or people with an Islamic background. The country has 11 universities, of which 6 have departments of Arabic or Islamic studies, where academics work on a wide array of themes connected to the Arab, Southeast Asian, and Muslim worlds. Leiden University hosts LUCIS, the Centre for the Study of Islam and Society, and the Free University of Amsterdam houses the Centre for Islamic Theology. Furthermore, the country counts over 450 mosques where Muslims from different ethnic origins congregate. The kingdom is characterized as well by the presence of a populist party with a profoundly anti-Islam agenda: the Party for Freedom of Mr. Geert Wilders, at present with 12 seats out of the 150 in the Dutch Parliament.[1]

In the Netherlands, there is a long tradition of scholarship on Arabic and Islam, both of which are essential to understanding Islamic law. One of the first chairs of Arabic language in Europe was established at Leiden University, and was occupied by Thomas Erpenius (1584–1624) in 1613. In addition, Professor Snouck Hurgronje (1857–1936) was one of the most influential academics in the field of Islamic studies and law during his time. However, with the growing presence of Muslims in the country, representatives of other disciplines have joined a debate previously reserved for trained Arabists and Islamicists. I will summarize just three issues that have come to the fore in the buildup to the 2017 elections.

The Recent Debates

Debate 1: Academic Work in the Public Eye

These debates started in October 2016 with the publication of Dr. Machteld Zee’s (Faculty of Law, Leiden University) doctoral thesis, which was later edited in book-form for a general audience, and published as Heilige identiteiten: Op weg naar een shariastaat? [Holy Identities: On the Way Towards a Sharīʿa State?] (translations from Dutch into English are mine). Her book explores various elements of multicultural ideology that were featured in research that Zee had conducted on “sharīʿa councils” in the United Kingdom. Those councils typically settle issues of a private nature between Muslims. She was given the opportunity to attend some sessions of these councils, and her conclusion was that they are misogynistic and at odds with national legislation concerning the position of women. She linked her criticisms of the councils to criticisms of “multicultural elites” (2016, pp. 16–17): “In most cases without ever having visited a sharīʿa council, the multicultural elites think that it is not such a bad idea to have sharīʿa councils in the West.” She concludes with the question: “Are we on the way towards a sharīʿa state?”

The publication of her book engendered considerable debate. Some critical voices were those of Professor Annelies Moors at the University of Amsterdam and that of her colleague, Dr. Martijn de Koning, both specialists in the anthropology of Islam. Their criticism focused on the fact that Zee’s conclusions were based, in their view, on very limited fieldwork. Professor Maurits Berger, who is on the board of the aforementioned LUCIS Centre, contributed to the debate as well. He commented in a blog post that Muslims are entitled, or should be entitled, to pursue their own family law practices within the limits of Dutch law, just as Catholics and Protestants have been doing for many centuries. The controversy over Zee’s analysis of Sharīʿa Councils has continued in the public discourse, with no rapprochement between the various interlocutors.

Debate 2: Debate over the Methodology of an Academic Study

A second debate on Islam or sharīʿa in the public sphere broke out concerning a study carried out by Professor Moors and Dr. de Koning. The study was called “Chatting about Marriage with Female Migrants to Syria:” a study of 22 young Dutch Muslim women who traveled to Syria from Europe. The conclusion of the study was that these women went to ISIS-held territory voluntarily, but that they hardly, if at all, occupied themselves with military activism  in the caliphate’s jihād—the classical Islamic law term for the rules of war, used by ISIS often in attempt to justify their violent actions even though they are against the classical norms. Instead, the study concluded that the women were mostly concerned with doing household work and, if applicable, raising children. The study sought to address women’s agency in the regulation of marriage in war-torn Syria. One critic complained that the study failed to adhere, or require its team members, to unbiased academic standards. This debate too persisted without rapprochement. Without resolving the claims on either side, the takeaway is that the debate here, too, highlights the importance of academics to debates shaping public discourse about Islam and sharīʿa in the Netherlands.

Debate 3: Another Book, Another Debate

Finally, in January 2017, there was a debate at the De Balie Center in Amsterdam to discuss the book, Waarom haten ze ons eigenlijk [Why Do They Hate Us After All?]. Edited by Frits Bosch, the book contains contributions by people of diverse ideological backgrounds partaking in the public debate on Islam, including one by me. During the debate at De Balie (available here in Dutch), participating academics—including myself–ultimately discussed how to solve the “Islam problem.” Suggestions to “limit the number of Muslims per Western country to 1 or 2 percent” came from the public; one of the panelists, the Belgian publicist Wim van Rooy, suggested “the prohibition of the Koran,” [the main source of Islamic law and practice], “the closure of all mosques,” and “discriminating between Jews and Christians on the one hand and Muslims on the other.” Van Rooy, known for statements like “Islam is the new Nazism,” declared that he did know of one solution for the “Islam problem” but that it was “not enforceable because of international treaties.” The De Balie debate led to a national row, and the cleavage in the country could not have been clearer.

These three debates about Islam and about sharīʿa in the Netherlands could have possibly retained some nuance if kept within the standards of academic rigor. But academic rigor was often lacking, and I cannot but conclude that the rise of Geert Wilders and Dutch populism have come to influence the national debate on Islam. The debate does not end here obviously. The parliamentary elections on March 15th will undoubtedly bring about a change in the political landscape, and therefore a change in the debate on Islam as well. Only time will tell where it will end up, but the March 15th elections will perhaps give us a clue as to the direction it is heading.

Jan Jaap de Ruiter is an Arabist and assistant professor at Tilburg University (the Netherlands). He specializes in Arabic and Islamic Studies and is active in Dutch public debates on Islam, integration, and multiculturalism. For more information on his publications and media appearances, or to contact the author directly, see his website.

[1] At the time of this writing, the party of Wilders formally has 15 seats. However, during the last parliamentary period it lost 3, resulting in an informal tally of 12 current seats.

Editor’s Note, March 16, 2017: This opinion piece has been revised by the editors to correct factual errors.

The views and opinions expressed are only the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of SHARIAsource.