Schools tensions mount

Searchlight, August 2003

In recent months, tension between ethnic groups in schools all over the Netherlands has grown so much, that the new Christian Democrat minister of Education, Maria van der Hoeven, has introduced guidelines for schools to help them regulate the clothes worn by pupils.

Discussion about the wearing of the Nikaab, a traditional conservative female Muslim garment that covers the entire body except for the eyes, by girls an Amsterdam school, spread to other schools even though the Nikaab or other traditional Muslim clothes were nowhere to be seen in them.

In the end, the Dutch Commission for Equality decided to recommend that the Nikaab should not be worn in school on the grounds that this form of dress frustrates teacher-pupil communication. Although the Commission's guidelines are not formal rules most of its advice is followed.

The wearing of the traditional Muslim headscarf had already been the subject of fierce discussion in Dutch society, not least after the late right-wing populist, Pim Fortuyn, declared what he called a "cold war" on Islam.

Some schools in the country, especially those with a strong Christian identity do not allow female Muslim pupils to wear headscarves, completely ignoring the fact that many Muslim girls wear the scarf as a signal of identity rather than as an expression of fundamentalism.

The discussion over whether the prohibition of wearing a headscarf is against freedom of religion or within the principle of schools not making exceptions for particular religions is still going.

Discussion of these issues in itself is not unhealthy, but recent months have shown something else: the growth of clashes between white pupils sporting the full skinhead outfit and Moroccan youngsters at some schools in the smaller towns.

On the one hand, it is a new phenomenon that "foreigners" - third generation Turks or Moroccans, mainly are no longer only found in the bigger cities, but also in smaller towns an villages, thanks to integration or upward economic mobility. On the other hand, Dutch society has grown "harsher" and criticisms of the multicultural society by politicians are now being picked up by white youth who feel themselves threatened.

In this way, youngsters start to assume extremist positions and dressing up as street gang members, skinheads or punks. In addition, rows and clashes break out, not only between white youth and "foreign" youth but have also for example, at a school in Limburg, in the south of the Netherlands between white youngsters who have ranged themselves into rival groups of "skinheads" and "alternative youth".

Both the schools and the Dutch public have been plunged into shock by the knowledge that "skinhead"-dressed youngsters display about Hitler's date of birth and their hatred of Jews. This knowledge has been largely gleaned from Internet and has nothing to do with them being directly involved in racist or fascist groups. More worrying is that these efforts to "organize" themselves erupt into violence against mosques or refugees.

Especially popular among the white youth who allow themselves to be swept up by this development is the self-made elaboration of the name "Lonsdale", a brand much favoured by nazi skins. "Let us Dutch together slowly execute the foreigners," it reads in Dutch.

Also notable is the clever way these kids deal with the (until now purely incidental) prohibition of parts of their outfits. They know all about the Fred Perry shirts, the "code" number 88, the white shoelaces etc. and are aware that their opponents also know the coded meaning of this gear.

The identification with these styles has serious consequences. In a small town near Eindhoven, a gang of racist youth armed with baseball bats and helmets terrorised a Somalian family for weeks before the police intervened and arrested six of them.

In other villages groups of 20 till 30 white youngsters profile themselves as extreme rightwing and spray graffiti with swastikas and glorifying Fortuyn. Gangs of white youth in cars and on scooters intimidate migrants in small towns and, on one occasion, a gun was used to threaten a migrant who was told; "Return to your country or we will shoot you".

In some city councils in the province of Brabant, questions are now being raised because of the sheer number of harassment complaints that have been filed by foreign people. Schools and youth centres are trying to react with education and discussion about fascism, Nazism and the Holocaust.

At the beginning of June, a previously unheard-of "Committee of Concerned Civilians" damaged the gate locks of the mosque in Eindhoven, closing it off with a big chain, and sent a statement to the local press. Then the mayor of Eindhoven was threatened to close down the mosque. Two weeks later, a petrol bomb was hurled into the quarters of the Islamic school in Eindhoven. The 5 youngsters, aged 16-23, who were arrested some weeks later, claimed to "just hate foreigners and the multicultural society". According to police-investigations, the 5 are not involved in any rightwing or fascist groups.

It was, of course, only a matter of time before Nationalist Youth Brabant (NJB), a section of the nazi National Movement (NB) which is occupying a huge former military complex nearby as base for its activities, would try to mobilise this hate.

The NJB distributed a leaflet in the small town of Eersel, demanding that; "Dutch people should be the boss again in their own country" and calling for "struggle against the people in power, not against the Somalian refugees".

"Those in power won't sleep a minute less," said the text, "if they learn of an attack on a refugee. They will only use it to take measures against those who really oppose them". A day later, though, anti-Islam posters were slapped up all over Eindhoven.

MPs from the social democratic PvdA have raised questions in parliament about ethnic tensions in schools and the education minister has confirmed the fact that for the moment, at least a lot of so-called "white power youth" have no real ambition to become members of racist or fascist organizations, but just hate the multicultural society and download extreme ideas and codes from the internet.

The same minister then drew up the above-mentioned guidelines about headscarves. Clothes, which are associated with racism and the extreme right, however, are generally permitted on the grounds of the freedom of speech although they can now be banned when it is necessary to prevent disorder at school.

With its guidelines, the Dutch government is hoping to combat the polarization of school students but what will it do about the extreme right-wing youngsters when they are not at school and when they organize themselves into violent gangs outside the school environment?

This is a problem for the whole of Dutch society and it is probably only a matter of time before there is a fatality resulting from the mounting racial tension and hatred. Thus, it is also the responsibility of the whole of society, not least politicians and those who help shape public opinion, to desist from stirring up the kind of racial tension that can be seen almost every week in the media.

In the meantime, racist and fascist parties and organisations are being given a free platform to try to latch onto an unprecedented number of youngsters who are showing themselves capable of carrying hate crimes without belonging to the extreme right.

By Jeroen Bosch of Alert! in Utrecht