Identity crisis a’ la turka

by Massimiliano Sfregola and Ceren Tunali
English translation: Tommaso Bagna

In Amsterdam, in the surroundings of Jordaan, between narrow streets, trendy outlets and shops filled with cheap gadgets for tourists, fast-food restaurants offering “ethnic” specialities are an integral part of the urban environment. For tourists and residents, kebab or baclava are only part of the postdrinking diet during the weekend but it is often ignored that between those tight square meters of restaurants, frugally furnished, groups of men of all ages drink tea nonstop, chat and look at the news channels streaming from Turkey. Lost in the big melting pot of the capital, those small enclaves of Turkish culture embedded in everyday Dutch life are the subheading testimony of the presence of a community that has written a piece of Dutch history after the war.

Not much has been written about Turks in Holland unlike their fellow citizens (and their descendants) in Germany, although they represent the third largest minority in the Netherlands. According to the statistics of the CBS institute, there are 400 thousand residents with Turkish passport and about 300 thousand Dutch originally from Turkey in the country, while in Amsterdam it is the most significant community numerically speaking. A true nation within the Dutch territory, very well represented in the society  by national politicians, artists, athletes and intellectuals.

According to the researcher Gönül Tol the Turkish-Dutch people are showing a higher degree of integration than their cousins living in Germany, mostly thanks to the traditional protection granted to minorities in the Netherlands. A status that, in the last years, has been suffering from a serious deterioration due to the wave of Islamophobia and the anti-foreigner sentiment shared by a large part of the population. From the murder of Pim Fortuyn onwards, Wilders’ xenophobic propaganda opened a crack in the Dutch multiculturalism, making emerge many contradictions. A review process which also involved the Turkish minority, the largest Muslim community in the country.

Zihni Özdil, academic and columnist of the NRC newspaper is categorical: “I think that the Netherlands has a serious problem of segregation: the situation is even worse than in Turkey. My grandfather came here 50 years ago, I was born in the Netherlands but no one around here would ever call me Dutchman “. Özdil says to 31mag.nl that multiculturalism is an old concept: if people do not create problems, everyone can mind his own business, they used to say, but it does not work like this anymore. Already in the 60s, considered the “golden age” of tolerance, welcoming the gastarbeiders was nothing but a bluff. “They made us believe for years that the Dutch people crowded the stations to welcome foreign workers, but the truth was very different: in 1972, many riots broke out and the hostels where the immigrants were staying were burned. Many of them even risked being lynched”.

Hurriet, 1972 "Ferocia in Olanda, lavoratori turchi picchiati"
Hurriet, 1972
“Fear in The Netherlands, turkish workers assaulted and their goods pillaged””

According to the writer, the main point today is that the young people with Turkish origins do not consider themselves Dutch at all. The result of this distance, should be what he considers a physical and cultural segregation. “Often, at the university, I ask them what are their ambitions for the future, and their answer is always: “I would like to go back to Turkey” Özdil laughs, “Return? But if you were born here!” Some of them try to, but they always end up coming back to Holland, more disappointed than before. They are mad with their homes and see a way out in idealizing the one of theirs grandparents”.

Social identity of the second and third generations of immigrants in Europe is a central issue nowadays but after 11/9 the Dutch tolerance towards minorities, especially the Muslim ones, has radically changed: the success of Wilders’ PVV and nationalist movements is a worrying sign of the decline of multiculturalism.

Mehmet Ülger, a Dutch journalist who was born in Turkey, has followed for years the story of his people. According to him, discrimination is a big problem in the Netherlands but it is not the only one. “The Turkish community is a really closed one” said Ülger “Not only the first generation, comprehensibly excused, but most of them seems not to live in this society: they shop only in Turkish stores, watch Turkish television and do not seem interested in the world around them. They are more interested in subjects related to Turkey”

“All of that carved a deep scar into the new Turkish generations and on their perception of society, everyone is guilty about it” continued the journalist, “the Dutch government, for reducing the problem to a simple matter of language but also the Turkish State for its excessive intrusion. The Diyanet Foundation, for example, is constantly in contact with Ankara and imams, who are civil servants in Turkey, are sent directly from there. This situation represents a huge obstacle in order to guarantee a successful integration “.

The close relation between the Turkish organizations and their community has become, last year, a political case: two parliamentarians of Turkish origins, Selçuk Öztürk and Tunahan Kuzu, elected at the Dutch Parliament on the lists of the Labour Party (PvdA) left their role to protest against the Minister for Social Affairs Lodewijk Asscher. Why? Because Asscher had inserted four Turkish Islamic associations in the list of organizations which should be monitored for anti-radicalization. “The Catholic Church is directed by the Vatican, why doesn’t the government see this as a similar problem?” Says Öztürk to 31mag. “Those that are official organizations, known to the Dutch authorities, with whom the government has active relations. We hope to achieve a higher level of transparency about these NGO’s and we would like the institutions to use this contact in order to better reach the community” continues the parliamentarian. “If we don’t want people to be more radical, dialoguing with them has a crucial importance.”

Turkish nationalists demonstrating in Amsterdam

However, the issue is not just about Islam: the Dutch government has recently raised the alert on sensitive Kurds targets fearing that the tensions between Turkish nationalists and the PKK could explode in Holland. Besides, during the last elections in Turkey even the ones residents abroad were allowed to vote and those in the Netherlands largely sided for Erdogan’s AKP proving that nationalism, in the Turkish-Dutch community, is a feeling that goes far beyond the simple support for the Galatasaray football club and culinary specialities.

“I was born in Istanbul, grew up here and now it has been 3 years since I sat in the Tweede Kamer for the first time” says Tunahan Kuzu “when it is talked about us we are called the ‘Turkish MPs’ but we always answer that we are not in Ankara but in the parliament in Den Haag”. Yet Kuzu admits that it is not just a matter of passport: “The Turkish community is very attached to its roots and a shared culture has a much heavier weight than religion. Moreover, with the increase of Islamophobia, it is understandable that the community identifies itself more and more with Turkey. It is important to remember that the situation is changing rapidly: the younger generations are more included in the community compared to their fathers. The level of education is increasing, they are more into Dutch society and they are achieving significant success in it.” Squeezed between the contradictions of the adoptive land of their parents and the myth of idyllic one of their grandparents, the Turks in the Netherlands are still looking for their place.


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