Posts Tagged 'amsterdam'

A phone that’s not satisfied just with being smart

By Harry van Versendaal

“Every so often you come across some article on Africa’s ‘blood minerals’ or the suicides at Foxconn,” says Nassos Katsamanis in reference to the Taiwanese contract manufacturer whose 1.2 million employees in China assemble consumer products for electronics giants such as Apple, Sony and Nokia.

From his verdant balcony in the central Athens neighborhood of Mets you can see apartment buildings crawling up the slopes of Mount Hymettus. Scattered on the living room floor are his son’s wooden toys. Little Andreas has still not turned 2, but he can already tell rubbish from recycling.

“It’s important to know that what you consume – the way you live your life at the end of the day – is not a burden on another man or the environment,” says the 34-year-old who works as a researcher on voice recognition technologies at the National Technical University of Athens. In his palm, he holds a Fairphone, the world’s first so-called “ethical” mobile device which was recently shipped to him from the Netherlands.

Fairphone came about in response to growing criticism over the fact that mainstream electronics products, including those sleek cell phones, are produced using minerals which are mined in conflict-riven areas in Central Africa. When buying one of these products, consumers also help finance mass killings and rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Meanwhile, these gadgets are assembled in factories with despicable working conditions and environmental standards.

Fairphone, on the other hand, ensures consumers that the tin and tantalum used in its device are conflict-free.

“As soon as I read about the project, I identified with it to some extent,” says Katsamanis, admitting that the effort is still in the early stages. Fairphone, which started out in 2010 as a public awareness campaign concerning conflict minerals in consumer electronics organized by three Dutch NGOs, evolved into a social enterprise three years later.

Fairphone, which like most mainstream companies also manufactures its phone in China, has created a worker-controlled fund which aims at improving employees’ labor conditions and wage levels. For every device produced at the site, the company and the factory each invest 2.50 euros in the fund. Meanwhile, the company tries to be as transparent as possible by releasing a cost breakdown report of where every euro is spent and by regularly publishing social assessment reports on its factory.

The Android-powered device has a micro-USB port (a charger is not provided with the phone; the idea is that there is at least one sitting in one of your drawers at home), dual SIM slots and a removable battery. The phone can be upgraded, repaired (heads-up: if you can’t fix it yourself, you will need to post it to the company’s service department in Holland), and, when the time comes, recycled by Fairphone after it has been shipped to the company free of charge. Everything has been designed with an eye on increasing the handset’s life cycle and reducing waste. It is estimated that about 140 million cell phones end up in rubbish dumps every year in the US alone.

“I like the philosophy behind it. It’s like the old desktop computers which you could open up to switch the motherboard or add some extra memory,” Katsamanis says.

Storytelling device

From the company’s headquarters in Amsterdam, public engagement officer Daria Koreniushkina can’t hide her enthusiasm about the project. Following a successful crowdfunding campaign, the company has sold more than 55,000 handsets in a year and a half. However, “the phone is not the goal itself,” says the Russian, one of Fairphone’s 31 staff from 14 countries.

“It’s more a storytelling device. It talks about the bigger picture, what goes inside the phone and the complicated production processes and the problems related to it.

“Our goal is to create a fairer economy and our example to actually inspire the whole industry to change things and make interventions in the supply chain.”

Legislation signed by the Obama administration in 2010 compels US companies to identify the sources of minerals in their components, while a traceability scheme has been introduced by the United Nations. Firms such as Apple and Samsung have taken some steps in a more sustainable direction, however they claim that certification of origin is not always feasible due to the large number of intermediaries in the production process.

“We realize that we are very tiny at the moment and that alone we cannot bring about change. We would like other brands to join our mission and then we would have fulfilled our mission,” says Koreniushkina.

Would that not make Fairphone, well, redundant?

“We would like it if other companies started to produce their own ‘fair’ phone and then compete with them in terms of fairness rather than market share,” Koreniushkina says, adding that the production of a 100 percent fair phone is practically impossible because there are thousands of standards that could be improved.

“Another issue is, what do you consider fair?” she says.

The company fends off criticism that the Fairphone is a luxury choice aimed exclusive at well-off Western consumers.

“One of the things we would like to prove is that ethical production is not necessarily more expensive. Our phone is not priced as a luxury product,” Koreniushkina says. At 325 euros, the Fairphone is no more expensive than other midrange smartphones.

“Our target group is basically everyone, because nowadays almost everyone has a mobile phone,” she says, although the company stops short of prompting people to get rid of their working phones.

“We always encourage people to keep their phone because we think that the phone you already own, if working, is the most sustainable one. We don’t want to create more waste.”

Back in Athens, Katsamanis says that the stubborn economic crisis is not an obstacle to the success of the Fairphone.

“I do not think things would be any different if people were better off. In fact the crisis could provoke people into thinking that the real cost is not the price of the phone. The point is to think in terms of cause and effect, in a broader context,” he says.

If figures are any guide, few people think that way. Just 21 orders have been placed from Greece to date.

http://www.fairphone.com
#WeAreFairphone

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Big dreamer in a small country

By Harry van Versendaal

Kader Abdolah had never heard, nor read, let alone spoken, Dutch until he was 33. Twenty-four years later, he has published 17 books in this “beautiful language,” as he likes to say.

Born Hossein Sadjadi Ghaemmaghami Farahani in Arik, Iran, from early on he was driven by that rare — and at the same time tormenting — sense of destiny.

“I had a dream. I wanted to be a big, well-known Persian writer. Like my great-great grandfather. And I wanted to be a president, a beloved president,” he says.

From the ranks of a left-wing underground group, Abdolah, a physics graduate from the University of Tehran, opposed both the Shah and later Ayatollah Khomeini’s fundamentalist regime. He began writing under the pseudonym Kader Abdolah, a combination of the names of two murdered Kurdish friends.

A tall bespectacled man with a shock of black hair and a thick white mustache, Abdolah cuts a rather eccentric figure. He speaks in clipped, emphatic sentences with a heavy Persian accent, describing how in 1985 he was forced to leave Iran and escape into Turkey.

“I did not want to leave my homeland. I did not want to leave my language. It just happened,” he says.

Unable to afford an illegal passage into the United States, three years later he ended up in Holland as a political refugee. When he first got to the Netherlands it was, of course, raining. “What could a young Persian man do in Amsterdam? I did what every tourist does: I went to the Red Light District,” he says. He would soon come across a Persian carpet shop. After greeting a fellow Iranian behind the counter in his native tongue, he went on to disclose his ambition to become a big Persian writer.

He still recalls the shop owner’s somewhat sarcastic response: “Your dream is very big, the Netherlands is very small.”

Abdolah moved to a small village not far from the German border and tried to do some writing in Persian. “But, suddenly, I was nobody. I was a refuge. I was not able to explain myself.”

He decided to leave Europe. He paid money for a fake passport in a bid to sneak into America. But he was arrested at Schiphol Airport. A few months later, he made a fresh attempt, with a new passport. Again he failed. On his third attempt, he finally managed to board a plane to New York. “When I got there, the man behind the security desk looked into my eyes and then at my passport. He looked into my eyes again and then back at my passport. I was once again arrested, and sent back to the Netherlands.”

“It was then that I remembered an old Persian saying: ‘If you fail at something for the third time, use a different language.’ And that is what I did,” he says.

Abdolah’s early attempts to write in Dutch were a failure. His writings were full of mistakes. But he did not give up. With the help of a Dutch language teacher, he gradually improved until he mastered the new tool — often incorporating his own literary pecularities.

His first pieces appeared in local newspapers and then he made his author debut with the 1993 collection of short stories “De adelaars” (Eagles). In 2006, he published “Het huis van de moskee” (The House of the Mosque), the story of a family living in a provincial Iranian city over the course of three decades. The book started flying off the shelves, selling more than 300,000 copies in Holland. It has since been voted the second-greatest Dutch novel of all time and been translated into 27 languages.

Abdolah may not have become president — at least not yet — but he has certainly become a big writer in his newfound country. And in a sign of his receptiveness to Dutch habits, he went on to produce a more Euro-friendly translation of the Quran, the central religious text of Islam, which earned him contempt from more traditional Muslims.

“You need to reach deep into the soul of a society and culture before you can appeal to its audience,” he says. “Writing in Dutch is good for me, and it is good for the Dutch,” he adds, explaining how his work has enabled him to show the natives their own beauty, as well as how to better appreciate it. That beauty, thanks to immigrants like himself, is of an ever-changing, more colorful kind.

As Dutch society changes, the language is changing too. “The Dutch language has always been beautiful. But I made it even more beautiful than it was.”

______________________________

The text is based on a discussion at the European Parliament Office in Athens, organized by the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and the Dutch Embassy in Athens. Kader Abdolah’s book “De boodschapper” (The Messenger) has just been made available in Greek from Kastaniotis publishers.

The European switchboard

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

A recent cartoon in The Economist showed Catherine Ashton sitting behind a desk with five telephones. The problem is many people still do not know who Ms Ashton is, what she does or what she looks like. Worse, perhaps, most people don’t give a damn.

The cartoon was an allusion to Henry Kissinger’s famous quip: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” the former US secretary of state once said, in a remark that drove home the old continent’s lack of a single voice. Little has changed since then. As membership has ballooned to 27 states, the European home has remained little more than an amalgam of national fixations, as nation states are reluctant to give up serious chunks of sovereignty.

The Lisbon Treaty, the European Union’s last piece of institutional engineering which was propelled into being in late 2009 following a decade of tedious horse-trading and frustrating setbacks (including an embarrassing rejection by Irish voters in a public referendum), was supposed to change all that by installing a president of the European Council and a foreign policy supremo. However, the subsequent decision to appoint a duo of political lightweights — former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy as president and Baroness Ashton, a British Labour peer, as high representative for foreign affairs and security policy — quickly dampened the hopes of Euro-optimists. It was like wishing for the job to be done badly, critics scoffed at the time.

A joke circulating in the corridors of Brussels, The Economist reported, has Ashton informing Hillary Clinton that she now has a single telephone number so that Washington can reach Europe, but when the US secretary of state finally does so, she gets a message: “For French foreign policy, press 1. For British policy, press 2…” Few Europeans would disagree about the switchboard analogy (though, to be fair, #1 should connect you to Berlin).

“We have installed too many phone lines,” said Panayiotis Ioakimidis, professor of international and European studies at the University of Athens and a member of the local ELIAMEP think tank, during a recent discussion at the Foreign Ministry in Athens. “We have five presidents speaking for Europe and that spells confusion,” he said. New posts keep springing up, making the EU look like the Lernaean Hydra of institutions. Next to Van Rompuy and Ashton there is Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament, and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Eurogroup.

The Lisbon Treaty — which followed the ill-fated EU constitution and the Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice treaties — was designed to make the bloc more effective, more visible and more legitimate. But success has so far been minimal on all levels. By installing a two-headed presidency, the new blueprint has institutionalized the EU’s split identity at the highest level. Undefined and overlapping duties between the top dogs have occasionally resulted in turf wars while the excessive number of presidents has given the EU more visibility — but not in the way it had hoped. The treaty has at least strengthened the role of the bloc’s perennial underdog, the European Parliament, but has not necessarily made it more democratic. The MEPs may be elected but they are hardly accountable: They are little known to ordinary citizens while the impact of their decisions is limited.

Political pygmy

Impact is also wanting on the global scene as the Union’s diplomatic power is no match for its economic clout — the EU is after all the world’s largest trading bloc. A self-styled champion of freedom and human rights, Brussels has come under fire for its sluggish response to the pro-democracy riots in Tunisia and, more recently, Egypt. “The Tunisians are not going to postpone their revolution for a year so that the EU can issue a response,” Piotr Maciej Kaczynski of the Center for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think tank, told the Foreign Ministry discussion.

Nor has the new setup been very impressive in handling the euro crisis. Worse for the federalist technocrats in Brussels, developments like Greece’s near-default and the creation of a bailout mechanism for Europe’s spendthrift countries have shifted power to the governments in Berlin and Paris. “Expectations were too high,” said Janis Emmanouilidis, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussls. He said some Eurocrats tried to sell the product beyond its real value. “This is obviously not a perfect treaty. However it is the treaty we have to live with for a certain period of time and we have to make the most out of it,” Emmanouilidis said.

Van Rompuy, for one, is certainly trying. The Flemish politician, a devout Catholic with a soft spot for writing haikus, may be an unknown quantity to people outside the small Benelux nation but he has an excellent record of conciliation and negotiation (Belgians refer to him as the “miracle man” for keeping the country glued together). “Tony Blair would be wrong,” Emmanouilidis said of the former British premier who was once favorite for the job. “So would anyone else that would be tempted to behave like a president of the EU.”

It is still too early to judge the EU’s new rulebook. The new equilibrium will take years to consolidate. Unlike Ashton, who seems to have been reduced to switchboard operator status, Van Rompuy is still testing the system to see how far he can go. The Greek debt crisis, where he deftly bridged the original divide between France and Germany, and Belgium’s presidency in the second half of 2010 were a wind of political Fortuna which won him considerable credit. Many critics underestimated the Belgian, Emmanouilidis said, but we should keep in mind that he started from scratch. It is important that the first occupant defines the post for the next generation of council presidents.

The EU has never been great at grappling with the existential question about its place in the world — particularly as its relative weight is in decline. The bloc’s contradictions cause inevitable tension and deadlocks. Progress can sometimes be frustratingly slow. “But when historians look back they will see a treaty that was as important as the Maastricht treaty,” Emmanouilidis said. “It is by no means perfect. It does not give all the right answers. But this is not the end of History.”

Preparing for D-day

By Harry van Versendaal

It was 1995 when Juul Bovenberg’s father became seriously ill. After a short but painful spell on his sickbed, Mr Bovenberg asked his GP to take away his suffering by taking away his life. The family and the doctor agreed to the man’s final wish to choose a dignified death over endless, unavoidable pain.

When the GP visited the house to carry out the euthanasia, for once Bovenberg’s attention was not focused on her ill father. In fact, the 23-year-old Juul could not help stare at the man who had come to end her father’s life.

“I noticed how nervous he was. His whole body was shivering, and I saw his relief after he was done. As his car left the driveway, I realized how difficult this must have been for him. He was the one to actually pull the trigger. I asked myself: How will he return home; what does he feel right now?” she explains now.

But it would be years before Bovenberg, a Dutch filmmaker in her late 30s, would begin to search for an answer. In 2009, she made a documentary inspired by that incident. “A Deadly Dilemma: Euthanasia from a Doctor’s Perspective” – which was screened last week at the 2nd International Health Film Festival on Kos – follows three Dutch GPs during each of their preparations for and the sequel to performing euthanasia on one of their patients. The movie, which won the jury’s second prize for medium-length films, came after last year’s screening of John Zaritsky’s “The Suicide Tourist,” a compelling documentary about an American Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patient’s decision to make use of assisted suicide in a Swiss clinic.

Voluntary euthanasia has been legal in the Netherlands since 2002. Doctors are allowed to help terminally ill patients to die, provided they follow a set of strict regulations designed to prevent abuse. Patients must be terminally ill adults facing a future of “unbearable” suffering. They must have made a voluntary, considered and persistent request to die, while a second, independent physician must give the green light before the procedure is carried out. Holland was one of the first countries to legalize mercy killing, although the practice had been unofficially tolerated for decades.

Voluntary euthanasia and/or assisted suicide, which has also been legalized in Belgium, Luxemburg, Switzerland and the US states of Oregon and Washington, is still very much the subject of controversy involving moral, medical, religious and philosophical questions. Notwithstanding the title of Bovenberg’s documentary, the doctors featuring in it seem to have no second thoughts about the ethics of the practice. What they do seem to carry is the mammoth emotional burden about being the ones to shut down the circuit. “You are not trained to kill someone,” one of them says in the movie. An ethical decision is not necessarily an easy decision.

“I didn’t want to make a film about the moral aspect of euthanasia,” Bovenberg says. “It is about the feelings of GPs in a country where euthanasia is legal. Even for doctors that morally accept euthanasia, it remains a heavy subject, having to apply it. A lot of people have the wrong idea about euthanasia in the Netherlands, as if this does not mean anything to a doctor. But a doctor has feelings too.”

In the movie, we see the doctors holding their regular meetings with their terminally ill patients, discussing with them and their relatives as they regress. The process is emotionally difficult and, in some cases, practically almost impossible. A heavily paralyzed woman suffering from ALS struggles to communicate with the doctor by moving her thumb and, when this becomes impossible, with slight nods of her head. Her husband sits alone in the backyard. The doctor is worried that her rapidly deteriorating patient will soon no longer be able to give her (legally required) consent. In the end, she doesn’t have to, as the woman dies of natural causes.

Another doctor frequents the gym to sweat out his stress. He chats with colleagues and takes care of “normal” patients. And then comes D-day. He prepares the lethal potion. Driving his car to the house of his patient, a shockingly calm and cool-headed man suffering from a hereditary metabolic disease, the poison sitting in a brown bag on the back seat, he wonders about his patient’s feelings about physical contact. “Is he the type to hug and embrace?”

Bovenberg, who lives on a houseboat in Amsterdam, studied documentary and production at the Dutch Film and Television Academy (NFTVA) in Amsterdam. She is the winner of the prestigious Nipkowschijf award for the VPRO Dutch television series “Veldpost.” Her “Looking for Loedertje” was nominated for the Dutch Academy Award while “Laura is my Father” was nominated at the Cinekid Festival. “A Deadly Dilemma” is her twelfth movie.

“Why do you do it?” the director asks the third doctor, who is preparing to end the life of a young woman who has cancer. “In the end, because of my love for my patients,” he replies.

Ultimately, they all feel they have done the right thing; they all feel relieved. But don’t get the wrong impression. “You never get used to it. It’s the hardest thing to do.”

No title please, we’re Dutch

By Harry van Versendaal

This time, it came painfully late. Andres Iniesta’s volley in the 116th minute of the World Cup final made sure the Dutch returned home from Johannesburg empty-handed.

It was a typical finish to a very untypical tournament for the Dutch. Long synonymous with daring, free-flowing, attacking football, the men in orange arrived in South Africa with an uncomfortably teutonic philosophy: Win by any means. (In fact it was the Germans who played like the Dutch this time, with their refreshing display of fascinating, modern football.)

Bert van Marwijk, the squad’s unassuming coach, made no secret of the new dogma. Total football is dead, he proclaimed ahead of the Brazil clash in the quarterfinals which ironically saw the Selecao, the tournament’s second favorites behind Spain, lose in classic Dutch fashion. After scoring a goal early in the first half, a complacent Brazilian side played as if it were already through to the next stage. Following a rather messy win against Uruguay in the semifinals, van Marwijk explained himself in simple, Rehhagelesque words: “I like good football. But I also like winning.”

Fans of Holland’s total football and its later-day reincarnation were dismayed at van Marwijk’s Calvinist-style rejection of unnecessary beauty for the sake of defensive pragmatism. The typically outspoken Johan Cruyff – the most famous exponent of Holland’s “totaalvoetbal” in the 1960s and 70s and, interestingly, the man who exported the trend from Amsterdam’s Ajax to Barcelona – also complained that Holland had lost its soul. “I thought that my country would never renounce their style,” he grumbled after an artless, and at times brutal, final on Sunday which saw the Netherlands collect a record nine yellow cards before being reduced to 10 men. “I was wrong. Of course I’m not hanging all 11 of them by the same rope – but almost. They didn’t want the ball,” the Dutch football icon said.

The truth is that sharp playmaker Wesley Sneijder, dashing winger Arjen Robben and (Holland’s biggest disappointment in this Word Cup) quicksilver striker Robin van Persie are the only players in the team that can make your heart beat faster. The three, none of whom play in the Dutch league, are stylistically miles away from the two midfield destroyers Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, hailed by many commentators as the true heart of this squad. De Jong’s karate kick into the chest of Xabi Alonso, one of the haunting images of this final, was emblematic of the cynical, unusually head-shaved Nederland.

Still, you can hardly blame the coach for wanting to break with a past of beautiful tragedy. As Mike de Vries wrote in Guardian’s sport blog: “Success in itself is a kind of beauty and it is a beauty the Dutch as a World Cup nation has never experienced.” Although playing by far the fanciest football, Dutch teams always seemed to collapse in their most crucial games, as if they came with some sort of self-destruct button – most painfully, in the 1974 World Cup final defeat to Germany. “There is a deep unsolved trauma around this 1974-defeat. Like an unpunished crime,” a Dutch psychoanalyst tells David Winner, a British observer of Holland’s football tradition, in “Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football,” a captivating analysis of the “Dutch syndrome,” defined as a peculiar mixture of football ingenuity and chronic underachievement. It’s enough to say that in terms of trophies, Holland, widely regarded as the best team not to have won the World Cup, ranks next to Greece, each having won a single European Championship title.

Some see more in van Marwijk’s allergy to useless flair than a mere sickness of witnessing Holland lose with style. For sociologist Paul Scheffer, Dutch play in South Africa reflected his nation’s transformation from a progressive, open-minded society to a more self-absorbed, fearful one. “We are more insecure, conservative. You could also call it realism. We have become aware of our vulnerability, so we have a more sober idea of what we can do, what we can be. The more free-floating, high-minded idea of what we represent in the world has got lost a bit in the last 10 years,” the Amsterdam-based professor told the Guardian. “Of course you lose something that was nice but you lose also something that was irritating – I never liked all that moralism.”

Whatever the causes, the Dutch decided it was time for some ugly wins. They arrived in South Africa having scored eight straight victories in the qualifying rounds and then went on to win all six games up to the final. Performances were mostly solid but far from breathtaking. If there is one player that aptly summed up the character of the team, that would be Liverpool’s wide midfielder Dirk Kuyt: industrious, combative, banal.

In the end, the betrayal of the artistic legacy bequeathed by the football generations of Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp for the sake of a safety-first attitude was not enough to fend off the curse of the two lost finals in 1974 and 1978 – nor the psychic powers of Paul the octopus. “This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain. If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing. They were playing anti-football,” Cruyff said.

As Iniesta struck his shot past goalie Maarten Stekelenburg deep into extra time, the fluorescent orange crowds must have experienced a strong sense of deja vu. Only this time, losing did not seem to hurt as much – perhaps the only good thing about losing ugly.



Blond ambition

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Almere, a relatively new, middle-class polder city east of Amsterdam, was virtually unheard of outside the Netherlands – until last week, when it made Europe’s headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The party of Geert Wilders, by far the country’s most controversial figure, won municipal elections there. His Party for Freedom (PVV), which also came second in The Hague, the other of the two municipalities it contested, will be in control of a Dutch city for the first time. More shockingly, Wilders could be kingmaker in the upcoming general elections.

“The result is troubling but was bound to happen,” Sjoerd de Jong, deputy editor-in-chief at NRC Handelsblad, told Athens Plus. “Wilders had already shown his electoral strength in the European elections. The premature demise of the government only helped him cash his cheque.

“The Dutch electorate in general is growing tired of its traditional leaders, which is apparent in the wildly divergent election results of the last 10 or 15 years,” de Jong said of a country once the synonym of political stability for much part in the form of so-called “purple coalition” governments of Christian and social democrats.

PVV’s victory also has symbolic content emblematic of the gradual transformation of the Netherlands, a former colonial nation long seen as a bastion of tolerance and liberal values by account of its soft policy on drugs and prostitution and decades of open-door policy on immigration.

“Wilders’s message of cultural nationalism and protectionism appeals to vague but broad concerns in Dutch society, not only in the working class but also in middle-class areas and cities, like Almere,” de Jong said.

Nicknamed Mozart or Captain Peroxide for his trademark platinum-dyed hairdo, Wilders is in many ways the political heir to conservative populist Pim Fortuyn. Fortuyn, who was gunned down by a deranged animal rights activist in 2002, was the first politician to challenge the orthodoxy of the Dutch political establishment, which he liked to scoff as the “left-wing church.”

Less charismatic than the over-the-top Fortuyn, Wilders also likes to take shots at the multiculturalist model, once the sacred cow of Holland’s consensus politics. The country’s mainstream parties, long in denial of the simmering tension, failed to address popular discontent with the hard-to-integrate chunk of the nation’s so-called “allochtonen” or foreigners – tension which burst into the open following the violent murder in 2004 of eccentric filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic radical.

That someone could be killed for speaking his mind, even if that meant mocking an alien religion, was an unprecedented shock for the Dutch. If you want to live here, the new motto goes, you have to live by our values.

“Society may be becoming less tolerant of minority eccentricities, especially of religious ones. There’s always been a strong Dutch urge to ‘act normal’ – meaning ‘like one of us’ – which has gained momentum in recent years due to the uncertainties of globalization and immigration,” de Jong said.

Holland is in many ways at the frontline of a pan-European populist reaction against the established political elites, which are being blamed for allowing mass immigration and, particularly, the Islamisation of European societies. At the same time, de Jong points out, Wilders, who started out as a punk youth in the early 80s, is “typically Dutch in his bluntness,” like in his proposal of a “kopvodden-tax,” a tax on headscarves that literally translates as a “head-rag tax.”

“My supporters say: ‘At last there is someone who dares to say what millions of people think.’ That is what I do,” Wilders has said echoing Fortuyn’s famous mantra: “I say what I think and I do as I say.”

Then again, de Jong remarks, many of his followers consider Wilders too extreme, certainly for Dutch tastes. “They voted for him primarily because they wanted to send a signal to the government: We’re concerned about where this society is going and we want you to take us seriously,” he said.

The idea of a disgruntled but silent majority bound by political correctness does not go down well with many analysts.

“This is not how populism works. It’s the other way round. I think Wilders tells people what to think. He exploits people’s fears. Populist parties actually shape people’s views,” said Andre Krouwel, professor of political science at Amsterdam’s Vrije University.

Reality, political expediency or, perhaps, both have pushed Dutch governments away from the live-and-let-live approach on immigration in favor of a tougher, assimilation-oriented policy. Newcomers must now take social integration courses and pass a language test within five years after arrival or risk deportation from the Netherlands, where 6 percent of the population of 16 million are Muslim.

That won’t do for Wilders, who has said he wants a ban on headscarves for civil servants, a halt on migration from Muslim countries and a moratorium on the construction of mosques in a bid to “stop the Islamisation of the Netherlands,” which he considers a threat to freedom. “Fitna,” an anti-Islamic short movie/manifesto made by Wilders, equates Islam with Nazism.

“Wilders has a simple explanation for everything. Migrants are to blame for everything, so if you stop migration, the problems will disappear,” Krouwel said.

Although most studies show that school-dropout, unemployment and crime rates are higher among immigrants, Krouwel said, the problems should be associated with income levels, not religion.

“What Wilders does is replace a social explanation with a religious, cultural one,” he said.

Wilders’s powerful PR machine and populist tactics have certainly helped him but so has the messy political situation. The Dutch government collapsed last month after the Labor Party, the junior partner in the coalition of Christian and social democrats, refused to extend the stay of 2,000 Dutch troops in Afghanistan whose mandate ends in August. Polls ahead of the June election predict an unusually fragmented distribution of power but also a doubling of the PVV’s electoral power to 27 seats, which would make it the second biggest party and potential kingmaker.

De Jong, an experienced journalist and author, is not too pessimistic about the Wilders effect. “His party, if successful in the general elections, will meet with opposition from the established parties but also from labor unions and employers who worry about possible negative effects of his success on the Dutch economy, for instance on exports to Islamic countries,” he said.

“But of course, he will be a force to be reckoned with and one that can certainly influence the course of Dutch politics, even from the opposition.”


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