Turkish-Dutch “children” stuck in the middle of identity spat

Relations between Turkey and the Netherlands soured after the Dutch – eyeing their own election – refused to let Turkish ministers hold a rally. Dutch Turks tell TRT World they feel as if they’re stuck in a family quarrel.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Dutch Turks demonstrated near the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Family Minister Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya were prevented from accessing the premises.

Melis Alemdar and Murat Sofuoglu Melis Alemdar and Murat Sofuoglu are staff writers at TRT World.

The latest spat between Turkey and the Netherlands has riled both countries while the rest of Europe watched as it reached dramatic proportions.

“It’s like we’re watching a bad Turkish drama,” Cemil Yilmaz, a 32-year old Turkish-Dutch social psychologist, told TRT World.

“It’s as though the father, Turkey, and the mother, the Netherlands, decide to split,” continues Yilmaz, who was born and raised in the Netherlands. “But the process of separation brings constant fighting. And the children are stuck in the middle.”

The “children” in this scenario are the Turkish community in the Netherlands. According to Yilmaz, they’re the ones who have suffered the most from the flaring tensions between the two countries.

The community is almost 400,000 strong, making up more than two percent of the country’s total population of 17 million.

“Mistakes on both sides”

So why did Turkey and the Netherlands come to blows? Turkey, preparing for a referendum on April 16 that aims to change the country’s parliamentary system to a presidential model, wanted to send a minister to the Netherlands to speak with the Turkish community there in support of the government-led “Yes” campaign. The Netherlands blocked the visit, even though Turkish ministers and leaders had been allowed to make speeches in the country in past elections.

The issue followed a similar scenario in Germany in early March, when some German towns banned talks by Turkish ministers. According to Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, about three and a half million Turks live in Germany, the country with the largest Turkish population outside Turkey – Germany had a total population of 82 million at the end of 2015.

Ignoring the ban, Turkey sent Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. The Dutch authorities responded by refusing to allow his plane to land on March 11, citing “security concerns.” Later that weekend, Turkey’s Family Minister Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, who had travelled to Holland from Germany by land, was also prevented from entering the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam. Following the incident, she was deported.

Turkey's Family and Social Affairs Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya was detained by police before being expelled from the Netherlands, contributing to the crisis in Dutch-Turkish relations. (Reuters)

Yilmaz, who works with Dutch government agencies to integrate immigrant youth into society, thinks both countries have made mistakes handling the dispute. He notes that the mayor of Rotterdam previously refused to cancel pro-Kurdish rallies that Dutch-Turks had objections to, citing freedom of speech. Based on this logic, he said, the Netherlands should have allowed the Turkish ministers to campaign. Yilmaz, however, also believes Turkey had misstepped, saying the type of politics practised in the country can come across as “rude and aggressive” in the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands, too, a domestic election appears to have overshadowed diplomatic concerns.

“Many people say the Dutch acted this way because of the impending March 15 elections,” Yilmaz said, adding that the Turkish community is suffering stigmatisation as a result of the spat.  

Ulku Ogut, a young Turkish-Dutch lawyer and city councillor in the Meierijstad municipality, agrees.

“The Turks in the Netherlands were used [by the Dutch politicians] for political gains,” she said. Ogut believes the Dutch prime minister practised “cheap politics” by deporting the Turkish family minister in an attempt to appeal to voters who might otherwise lean towards “the fascist and racist” Geert Wilders.

Despite the rise of anti-migrant sentiment in the Netherlands, the results of the March 15 elections did not favour Wilders. His party came second to Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), riding high on popular support for its hardline stance against the Turkish visits.

By feuding with Turkey on the eve of the Dutch vote, Rutte successfully undermined support for Geert Wilders, the leader of the far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) who is known for his Islamophobic and anti-immigrant views in the Netherlands and beyond.

Like France’s Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and other far-right leaders in the continent, Wilders defends a tough approach toward migrants who do not want to give up their ancestral identities. Wilders’ campaign called on the Dutch to vote for him “if you want to make the Netherlands for the people of the Netherlands” again.

Indeed, according to a Dutch poll by polling company Maurice de Hond, 86 percent of the country’s population supported their government’s decision to ban the Turkish rallies and only 10 percent were against the decision. An overwhelming majority also blamed Turkey for the crisis.

After all, many still wonder why the clash between the two NATO members – longtime “two friendly nations,” in the words of Dutch politician Arnoud van Doorn – escalated so quickly. Many commentators argued it was hardly accidental.

“This has to do with elections surely,” van Doorn told TRT World, speaking on March 14, before the Dutch election. “This election in the Netherlands is also about Islamophobia. Islamophobia is growing especially since the coup [attempt] in Turkey a few times ago.”

“At this time, Wilders and his people are not the biggest problems,” van Doorn observed.

Many political analysts thought that even if Wilders did not make significant gains in yesterday’s election, his anti-migrant views may have won anyway, as they have been co-opted by centrists like Rutte afraid of losing to him.

“The problem is the silent majority and other political parties who are acting irresponsibly by not responding well towards Wilders and his Dutch Freedom Party (PVV),” said Van Doorn, once a member of Wilders’ party before converting to Islam.

Although Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's (right) People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy came first in the general election on March 15, it may have been Geert Wilders' (left) anti-migrant agenda that really won. (Reuters)

Signs of a deeper rift

On July 15, 2016, some members of the Turkish military tried, and failed, to take over the country. They were allegedly under the directions of a self-exiled Turkish cleric living in the US, Fethullah Gulen. Turkey has criticised the silence of Western governments during the coup attempt, and EU-Turkish relations have since been frayed.

“Most of the governments in western Europe have been shocked that this coup did not succeed,” van Doorn agrees. “Since then, relations between Turkey and a lot of Western countries have changed. That’s a worrying situation.”

With the fall of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, there was a strategic alignment among Western countries to limit Muslim influence or Turkish influence in Europe, van Doorn believes.

Now that dynamic has shifted, with the growing Muslim population in many European countries. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the Netherlands, for instance.

In addition, with more assertive policies by Turkey’s current conservative government to reach out to the Turkish diaspora in European countries, Turkish influence is also growing in western Europe, van Doorn observes. Increasingly vocal Muslim communities are unnerving many European politicians, he added.

“That’s why, this is the main reason western Europe is now fighting with Turkey,” he said. “Turkey is now supporting Muslims in Europe and also in the Netherlands.”

Meanwhile, the fight over identity politics continues on other fronts. Le Pen offered her support to the Dutch banning of Turkish campaigning. This was especially the case in France, as politicians gear up for the April presidential vote.  

“Why do we have to tolerate the remarks on our soil that other democracies have refused?” the far-right Front National leader Le Pen tweeted on Sunday. “No Turkish election campaign in France.”

Her centre-right colleague, Francis Fillon, echoed the far-right by also condemning French President Hollande’s decision to allow Turkish rallies in Metz. “By doing this, Mr Hollande betrayed the very notion of EU solidarity,” he declared.

Adding to the drama, the European Court of Justice, which is the EU’s highest court, delivered a controversial decision on wearing hijab in public spaces at work – a ruling made right before the Dutch and French elections. The ruling has legalised the banning of the Islamic headscarf by companies and was applauded by much of Europe’s right.

But some still believe that there is room for relations to be restored. “Well, the first step is we should go back to the diplomatic language. Because the way both Turkish and Dutch governments are talking now, that is not helping at all. We need to deescalate the situation, that is very important,” van Doorn said.   

“So I think behind the scenes, we need to start diplomatic meetings to normalise the situation. Again, in the end we are friendly nations and it is important that this will be solved.”

Now that the election is over, will that hopefully pave the way to a milder approach to Turkey-Netherlands relations as the Dutch go back to their everyday concerns? Or will the threat of far-right parties gaining traction throughout Europe continue to drive even centrist politicians to seek support through identity politics?

Should the threat continue, Turkish minorities living in Europe will find themselves caught in the front line of an ongoing battle.

“This [argument] wasn’t supposed to get out of hand, to escalate [into a crisis]. And those who are stuck in between are the Turks who live here,” the Turkish lawyer, Ogut, said.