On November 1, the Dutch Parliament adopted a motion that children visiting mosques as part of school outings must not be compelled to pray according to Muslim rite. The motion, which the government must now implement in law, came after the emergence of video material showing blonde Dutch pupils kneeling and bowing according to Islamic precepts at a local mosque .(( https://www.rtlnieuws.nl/nieuws/nederland/artikel/4476301/knielen-de-moskee-scholen-mogen-het-niet-langer-verplichten ))
As part of the school curriculum in religious education, Dutch children visit the places of worship of different faiths. Yet it is pupils’ visits to mosques that have sparked concern: the leaked video shows a giggling bunch of children and a joking Imam, instructing the children on the body positions necessary to complete the Muslim prayer.(( https://www.ad.nl/binnenland/sgp-in-verweer-tegen-moskeeles-laat-kind-niet-buigen-voor-allah~a1114f4d/ ))
An ‘Islamic conquest strategy’
The video material was published by the right-wing Civitas Christiana foundation, an organisation engaged in supporting a range of conservative cultural causes. (Civitas Christiana’s biggest campaign focuses on retaining Zwarte Piet, a folkloric figure acting as companion of Saint Nicholas. The character of Zwarte Piet – literally ‘Black Pete’ – has come under fire for being racist, in particular due to his compulsory blackface make-up.)(( https://cultuurondervuur.nu/wie-zijn-wij/ ))
Civitas Christiana asserts that making children bow to Allah in the mosque represents “the first step towards conversion to Islam”: prayer, the foundation asserts, “is not innocent but part of the Islamic conquest strategy.”(( https://cultuurondervuur.nu/bestel-nu-het-rapport-over-verplichte-schoolexcursies-naar-moskeeen/ ))
Bringing the controversy to parliament
The report was taken up by the Reformed Political Party (Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij, SGP). The SGP is an orthodox Calvinist party, in existence since 1918. Its voters are mainly based in the so-called Dutch bible belt, a stretch of constituencies with a high number of conservative Calvinist voters.
The SGP addressed schools’ mosque visits in the context of parliamentary debates on the education budget with the responsible Minister Arie Slob. Initially, the SGP demanded that parents be given the legal right to keep their children away from school trips to the mosque.(( https://cultuurondervuur.nu/minister-slob-breng-een-eind-aan-moskeebezoeken/ )) Subsequently, the party had to settle for less: instead of having the right to withdraw from the visits altogether, children can now refuse to engage in religious acts at Muslim places of worship.
Alliance with the centre-right mainstream
Significant was, however, also the coalition that supported the SGP-led motion: It was backed by Prime Minster Mark Rutte’s VVD party, as well as by the two Christian Democratic parties CDA and CU, Rutte’s junior coalition partners in government.
Ah, gevonden. pic.twitter.com/mRbUmaVEnG
— Daniël Rommens (@drommens) November 6, 2018
The parliamentary motion explicitly addresses “kneeling in mosques”.
Such a willingness to work with other parties is a relatively recent development in the SGP’s 100-year history. For most of its existence, it acted as a confessional party and took scant interest in everyday politics. To be sure, SGP politicians routinely called for a theocratic government in the Netherlands – a demand that earned them the moniker poldertaliban, derived from the low-lying marshlands (‘polder’) home to the party’s base. Overall, however, the party opted for splendid isolationism in a Dutch society perceived as morally corrupt.
This began to change in the 2000s; a dynamic that accelerated under new party leader Kees van der Staaij, who took over in 2010: in a “velvet revolution”, van der Staaij shifted the party towards greater political engagement and activism.(( https://www.nd.nl/nieuws/politiek/de-sgp-is-niet-langer-de-poldertaliban.896738.lynkx ))
PVV as the new ally
In this context, Islam emerged as the central preoccupation of the new SGP. In 2017, the party congress adopted an ‘Islam manifesto’ warning of the Islamisation of the Netherlands. (The text can be accessed here.) Political historian Ewout Klei sees the SGP as having undergone a “true metamorphosis”: its “new natural ally […] is the PVV” – the far right anti-immigrant, anti-Islam party of Geert Wilders.(( https://www.trouw.nl/home/sgp-is-allang-geen-poldertaliban-meer~a3857b6c/ ))
The SGP’s party programme on Islam now reads like the programme of any other right-wing faction: it calls for banning face veils in certain settings, prosecuting ‘hate preachers’ and organisations ‘spreading hate’, banning polygamy, and limiting the construction of mosques and minarets.(( https://www.sgp.nl/standpunten/i/islam#standpunt-islam )) Kees van der Staaij himself has asserted that “Islam is a threat” to the Netherlands.(( https://nos.nl/artikel/2160364-van-der-staaij-sgp-islam-is-wel-bedreiging.html ))
Arriving at this stance involves considerable intellectual gymnastics on the SGP’s part, however. If the party now presents Islam as oppressive of women, homosexuals, and non-believers, then all these accusations fit the SGP’s own traditional political agenda perfectly.
The party was founded as a virulently anti-Catholic political formation; it has always considered homosexuality to be in breach of God’s law; and it has traditionally advocated restricting the suffrage to male heads of households and excluded women from party membership until it was forced to end this practice by the courts in 2006.
This points to the fact that, as such, the party shares many concerns with the most Islamically conservative quarters. Indeed, the SGP’s original demand that (Christian) children be exempt from mosque visits strikingly echoes conservative Muslim calls to release Muslim children from the obligation to attend co-educational swimming classes.
An Islamic, rather than liberal, enemy
In fact, as late as 2005, the party did not turn against Islam unequivocally. Instead, the SGP conceived of itself as engaged in a war on two fronts – a war against liberalism and a war against Islam. At the time, the party line was that “[i]t makes little sense to say: our priority lies with the liberal front, or with the Islamic front, and on both fronts there must be a spiritual battle, in which the coalitions will vary.”(( https://www.doorbraak.eu/gebladerte/11206f76.htm ))
While the SGP was still amenable to a potential ‘coalition’ with Islamic actors to fight the forces of secularist liberalism in 2005, this gradually changed over the following years. As the motion on schools’ mosque visits shows, it is this turn to the ‘Islamic front’ that has allowed the SGP to become compatible with the entire gamut of the larger Dutch centre-right and right-wing parties – parties that had earlier derided the SGP as backward fundamentalists.
To be sure, the SGP’s electoral share remains small: it obtains roughly 2 per cent of the popular vote, translating into 3 out of 150 seats in the Dutch lower house of parliament. Yet the recent controversy surrounding children’s prayers shows that the party may be able to use even such a limited platform for successful agenda-setting.