From the left, a call to end the current Dutch notion of tolerance
AMSTERDAM: Two years ago, the Dutch could quietly congratulate themselves on having brought what seemed to be a fair measure of consensus and reason to the meanest intersection in their national political life: the one where integration of Muslim immigrants crossed Dutch identity.
In the run-up to choosing a new government in 2006, just 24 percent of the voters considered the issue important, and only 4 percent regarded it as the election's central theme.
What a turnabout, it seemed - and whatever the reason (spent passions, optimism, resignation?), it was a soothing respite for a country whose history of tolerance was the first in 21st-century Europe to clash with the on-street realities of its growing Muslim population.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, the Netherlands had lived through something akin to a populist revolt against accommodating Islamic immigrants led by Pim Fortuyn, who was later murdered; the assassination of the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, accused of blasphemy by a homegrown Muslim killer; and the bitter departure from the Netherlands of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali woman who became a member of Parliament before being marked for death for her criticism of radical Islam.
Now something fairly remarkable is happening again.
Two weeks ago, the country's biggest left-wing political grouping, the Labor Party, which has responsibility for integration as a member of the coalition government led by the Christian Democrats, issued a position paper calling for the end of the failed model of Dutch "tolerance."
It came at the same time Nicolas Sarkozy was making a case in France for greater opportunities for minorities that also contained an admission that the French notion of equality "doesn't work anymore."
But there was a difference. If judged on the standard scale of caution in dealing with cultural clashes and Muslims' obligations to their new homes in Europe, the language of the Dutch position paper and Lilianne Ploumen, Labor's chairperson, was exceptional.
The paper said: "The mistake we can never repeat is stifling criticism of cultures and religions for reasons of tolerance."
Government and politicians had too long failed to acknowledge the feelings of "loss and estrangement" felt by Dutch society facing parallel communities that disregard its language, laws and customs.
Newcomers, according to Ploumen, must avoid "self-designated victimization."
She asserted, "the grip of the homeland has to disappear" for these immigrants who, news reports indicate, also retain their original nationality at a rate of about 80 percent once becoming Dutch citizens.
Instead of reflexively offering tolerance with the expectation that things would work out in the long run, she said, the government strategy should be "bringing our values into confrontation with people who think otherwise."
There was more: punishment for trouble-making young people has to become so effective such that when they emerge from jail they are not automatically big shots, Ploumen said.
For Ploumen, talking to the local media, "The street is mine, too. I don't want to walk away if they're standing in my path.
"Without a strategy to deal with these issues, all discussion about creating opportunities and acceptance of diversity will be blocked by suspicion and negative experience."
And that comes from the heart of the traditional, democratic European left, where placing the onus of compatibility on immigrants never found such comfort before.
It's a point of view that makes reference to work and education as essential, but without the emphasis that they are the single path to integration.
Rather, Labor's line seems to stand on its head the old equation of jobs-plus-education equals integration. Conforming to Dutch society's social standards now comes first. Strikingly, it turns its back on cultural relativism and uses the word emancipation in discussing the process of outsiders' becoming Dutch.
For the Netherlands' Arab and Turkish population (about 6 percent of a total of 16 million) it refers to jobs and educational opportunities as "machines of emancipation." Yet it also suggests that employment and advancement will not come in full measure until there is a consciousness engagement in Dutch life by immigrants that goes far beyond the present level.
Indeed, Ploumen says, "Integration calls on the greatest effort from the new Dutch. Let go of where you come from; choose the Netherlands unconditionally." Immigrants must "take responsibility for this country" and cherish and protect its Dutch essence.
Not clear enough? Ploumen insists, "The success of the integration process is hindered by the disproportionate number of non-natives involved in criminality and trouble-making, by men who refuse to shake hands with women, by burqas and separate courses for women on citizenship.
"We have to stop the existence of parallel societies within our society."
And the obligations of the native Dutch? Ploumen's answer is, "People who have their roots here have to offer space to traditions, religions and cultures which are new to Dutch society" - but without fear of expressing criticism. "Hurting feelings is allowed, and criticism of religion, too."
The why of this happening now when a recession could accelerate new social tensions, particularly among nonskilled workers, has a couple of explanations.
A petty, political one: It involves a Labor Party on an uptick, with its the party chief, Wouter Bos, who serves as finance minister, showing optimism that the Dutch can avoid a deep recession. The cynical take has him casting the party's new integration policy as a fresh bid to consolidate momentum ahead of elections for the European Parliament in June.
A kinder, gentler explanation (that comes, remarkably, from Frits Bolkestein, the former Liberal Party leader, European commissioner, and no friend of the socialists, who began writing in 1991 about the enormous challenge posed to Europe by Muslim immigration):
"The multi-cultis just aren't making the running anymore. It's a brave step towards a new normalcy in this country. "