John Grace interviews Paul Sniderman in the Guardian today about his research with Louk Hagendoorn When Ways of Life Collide which found that deep divisions between locals and Muslim immigrants existed much earlier than anyone had previously suspected in the tolerant, democratic Netherlands.
“There was this feeling,” Sniderman says, “that because the Dutch government was so openly committed to pursuing a policy of multiculturalism, and because there had been no trouble between Muslims and the Dutch, then that policy must be working.
“Yet we discovered something quite different. While any society will always have its fair share of bigots, we also found that governmental multiculturalism made the problem worse. By arguing that all groups in society should be allowed to live according to their own beliefs and customs, they were encouraging people to see themselves as different from one another. And not just a little bit different, but fundamentally different. So it fostered a them-and-us attitude to politics.”
At one level, this is all very obvious. The more value you attach to questions of identity, the more reaction you are likely to get, with the result that people who don’t normally care very much about ideas of national identity can be provoked into extreme attitudes. But there are ironies and nuances at work. For one thing, Dutch policies of multiculturalism had their origins in racism rather than liberalism: the idea that minorities should maintain their traditions stemmed from the belief that their presence would be only temporary and that sooner or later they would be going “back home”. So the idea that multiculturalism might backfire shouldn’t be quite as shocking as it seems.
But what also emerges from this study is the thinness of the line between difference and prejudice. “We found that views typically held by otherwise tolerant Dutch people – that Muslims treated women badly and were too authoritarian with their children – were counterbalanced by Muslim attitudes towards the Dutch,” says Sniderman. “Muslims believed the Dutch were disrespectful towards women and failed to discipline their children properly. So this wasn’t about prejudices held by religious fanatics on both sides; it was a genuine conflict of values between two communities. It was the focus on these differences, through the pursuit of multiculturalism, that tipped the balance towards prejudice in some cases.”