Newcomers are increasingly expected to adapt to Dutch culture. This narrow interpretation of citizenship is exclusive by nature. By focusing on tolerance and social engagement instead, a shared national identity will evolve by itself.
After her successful PhD defense on her research on the relation between religion and citizenship, CRCPD postdoctoral research fellow Renée Wagenvoorde was asked to write a contribution for the Dutch website socialevraagstukken.nl, where academics and other thinkers debate over societal issues. The current post is the English translation of her contribution.
With the growing number of asylum seekers reaching the Netherlands, the call for adaptations of newcomers to Dutch culture is becoming stronger. Following minister Asschers’ ideas for introducing a participation contract,1 politicians and opinion makers are now suggesting that refugees must sign an ‘adaptation contract’.2 The underlying idea is that the largest part of the asylum seekers originates from countries that are, both culturally and religiously, very different from the Netherlands. Therefore, it is claimed, it would be reasonable and desirable that these people sign a contract with which they agree to the core values of Dutch society, as soon as possible after arrival. This contract would at least include the acceptance of homosexuality, of freedom of expression and of the equality of men and women. This call for an ‘adaptation contract’ corresponds to the larger trend in Dutch integration policy, in which newcomers are increasingly expected to adapt to ‘the Dutch culture’.
Integration: political emphasis on adaptation to culture
Integration policy documents simultaneously state that citizenship is the ultimate goal of integration. However, absorbing into a vaguely formulated national culture is not the only possibility of achieving good citizenship. I therefore investigated how we can better understand the notion of citizenship. Which elements can be distinguished in thinking on citizenship? What do we expect from citizens? And where does the political emphasis on cultural adaptation come from?
Regarding the latter question, I had two hypotheses. On the one hand, I expected the government policies to be a reflection of political philosophical theories on citizenship. After all, there are numerous advisory councils and scientific institutes that inform politics. Through these channels, I expected, diverse normative bodies of thought would silt through in policy. My other expectation was that Dutch politics tries to express the vox populi, and that the growing call for adaptation would resonate in public thinking on citizenship.
Both of these hypotheses proved to be wrong. The question of embracing a shared identity was hardly present in political philosophical thinking and citizens’ opinions. On the contrary, citizens consider this element to be the least important characteristic of a good citizen. Also in political philosophy, various theories are very critical towards the idea of a top-down implementation of a shared national culture. But if a shared national culture is not the essence of good citizenship, what then is?
The Big Five of Citizenship
My answer to this question is the Big Five model of Dutch citizenship. In this model, citizenship consists of five dimensions: law-abidingness, tolerance, social engagement, political engagement and shared identity. These dimensions are present in various ways in political philosophical theories, in integration policies and in the opinions of Dutch citizens. The content of and specific focus on specific dimensions obviously depends on the normative or political position that a person or theories takes. Neo-republicanism, for instance, emphasizes political engagement, while communitarianism focuses on a shared culture, and Dutch citizens mainly emphasize social engagement.
To give direction to the political debate over citizenship, I present my normative interpretation of the Big Five of citizenship. I view citizenship as an hierarchical, pyramid shaped concept, of which law-abidingness forms the lowest, most elementary building block. This necessary condition is non-negotiable. The idea to spread (a shortened version of) the constitution in refugee centers is, I believe, an acceptable expression of acknowledging the importance of law-abidingness. Every inhabitant has to abide by the laws of the country.
National identity runs the risk of exclusion
The next two building blocks are the ones that the government could promote and facilitate: tolerance and social engagement. If we accept the multicultural nature of our society as a given, tolerance becomes a necessary characteristic of a good citizen. In a society with people coming from diverse backgrounds, with different beliefs, it is of utmost importance that people accept other opinions. The current emphasis on national identity, however, runs the risk of excluding certain groups from good citizenship. This regards both migrants and native people who do not embrace certain values. One could think of groups of orthodox Christians who consider homosexuality to be a sin. The non-discrimination principle that is laid down in the constitution, does not mean that citizens are not allowed to think differently on topics like homosexuality or the position of women. However, the emphasis on embracing progressive values as central element of integration policy seems to suggest so.
Because I think it is important that an understanding of citizenship should be inclusive and comprehensive, I suggest to do away with the emphasis on national identity (as condition for citizenship) and instead focus on tolerance and social engagement. Citizens consider these elements as most important characteristics of a good citizen, and as citizenship needs to be shaped also from the bottom-up, I see opportunities here for politicians to draft less exclusionary policies. Besides, the groups that currently run the risk of being excluded (for instance, orthodox Christians and Muslims), are precisely the ones that provide major contribution to society (in the form of voluntary service work, and donations to charity, for instance).
Promote tolerance and social engagement
The fourth building block of the pyramid is political engagement, which is often reduced to voting in elections, and is regarded to be an important aspect of citizenship in that sense. Lastly, we find shared identity as the top stone of the pyramid. I expect that, when the government promotes and facilitates tolerance and social engagement better, citizens will automatically feel more connected to society. In doing so, this approach opens up space for diversity, through which the feeling of a shared identity can be seen as a positive outcome of rather than as a condition for good citizenship.
Renée Wagenvoorde is postdoctoral research fellow and funding officer at the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, University of Groningen. Her book ‘Is Citizenship Secular’ was published in September.
1 Minister Asscher of Social Affairs introduced the idea of a participation contract in 2013. With this participation contract, he wanted migrants who register in a Dutch municipality to sign a contract with which they declare that they endorse the Dutch basic rights and the constitutional state (De Volkskrant, 20 February 2013).
2 As was suggested by, among others, Esther Voet, in an interview with Radio 1 on September 9 (http://www.radio1.nl/item/314830-Vluchtelingen), or in the council meeting in Alphen aan den Rijn of 15 oktober (http://www.dichtbij.nl/alphen/regionaal-nieuws/artikel/4170651/raad-stemt-unaniem-voor-opvang-vluchtelingen-in-alphen.aspx?trk=blk_reacties_Fotos) to name some examples.