Dutch Turks: a diaspora under the shadow of Turkish politics

By Yörük Bahçeli

While the repercussions of last month’s coup attempt rock Turkey by the day, its effects have reached beyond the country, causing sometimes violent divisions within the diaspora. Though the rapidly developing Turkish community in the Netherlands possesses the means to relate to Dutch society on a more individualistic level, recent events are a reminder that the influence of the Turkish government on Dutch Turks is an undeniable force.

Dutch Turks

Recent events in Turkey have had repercussions among the Turkish diaspora in the Netherlands, highlighting existing differences among Dutch Turks and their attitudes to the Turkish government. Image source: Dutch Government Information Service

Of the 5.5 million Turks who live outside of country, 4.6 million of them reside in Western Europe. The diaspora in the Netherlands, a community of approximately 400,000, is one of the largest. Following the coup attempt on 15 July, a number of buildings believed to be occupied by organizations with connections to the Gülen movement were targeted in the Netherlands. Attacks involved Molotov cocktails and arson. A list of Turkish businesses to boycott due to their connections to the movement was also circulated on social media. Owners of these businesses told local media they were threatened and had reported the incidents to the police.

Similar incidents broke out in Germany and Austria, which are also home to large Turkish communities. Most recently, President Erdoğan attempted to address an anti-coup rally in Cologne, but his request was rejected by the Federal Constitutional Court.

Migration to the Netherlands started when Turks and Kurds arrived as guest workers from the mid-1960s. They were joined by Turkish and Kurdish asylum seekers following the 1980 coup d’etat. A small community of Armenian and Syrian Orthodox emerged as they arrived as asylum seekers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Today, there is a roughly even split between first generation migrants and the second generation born in the Netherlands.

“All of us feel something towards the developments in Turkey. That is quite normal. But it is not normal that tensions thousands of kilometres away lead to threats in the Netherlands,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte wrote in a Facebook response to the events.

“That Gülen supporters in Turkey are being accused of attempting a coup says nothing about Turkish-Dutch store owners in the Netherlands having anything to do with it,” he added.

A question of integration

The interest of diaspora communities in their country of ancestry is by no means surprising. Prime Minister Rutte’s response raises old questions regarding the way the diaspora relates to Dutch society. Research about integration in the Netherlands conducted for the government shows that 20 per cent of Dutch Turks are “oriented” towards Turkey rather than the Netherlands, primarily interacting with Turks, while approximately a half identified as predominantly Turkish rather than Dutch.

The results also identified distrust towards Dutch politics and media amongst Turkish youths, hindering them from seeing themselves as part of Dutch society. Similar results were found for the country’s Moroccan minority, the second largest minority following the Turks.

Jurriaan Omlo, an independent researcher who specializes in multiculturalism, told Independent Turkey that the Turkish community is much more cohesive than the Moroccans, meaning that it relates to Dutch society more as a collective body compared to less cohesive minorities.

“Social cohesion within the Turkish community is stronger; the Moroccans are much more individualistic. The dominant integration definition says more individualistic communities are better integrated,” he said.

“The Turkish community is a more closed community. This has advantages, but also problems,” he added.

Omlo also stressed the importance of cohesion within sub groups of the Turkish minority, among groups such as AKP-sympathizers, Gülenists, Alevis, and Kurds, which have manifested themselves in the recent tensions the diaspora has experienced.

Comparing Dutch Turks to other minority groups, Omlo said that Turks, like the Moroccan minority, have a different starting point in relation to the Netherlands than the Surinamese and Dutch Carribean, who are seen as better integrated. He said the latter have a longer-standing connection to the Netherlands and the Dutch language due to their colonial heritages.

The motivation of the Turkish diaspora to mobilize for political causes in Turkey was clearly manifested by turnout for Turkey’s November general election. The AKP received 52 per cent of votes. In the Netherlands, 46 per cent of eligible Dutch Turks cast their votes. There was a 16-point increase in turnout between the June and November elections, demonstrating that Dutch Turks are deeply influenced and driven by political tensions in their ancestral country. This appears to benefit the ruling party; the AKP saw the greatest increase in its votes between the two elections.

The cohesion of the Turkish diaspora has also been attributed to the presence of well-developed religious organizations. In 2014, Social Affairs Minister Lodewijk Asscher pledged to monitor a number of Turkish-Islamic organizations, which were identified as obstructing cultural integration.

The groups included Diyanet, a partner of the Turkish religious affairs presidency, which provides religious services to the Turkish diaspora and Milli Görüş, a movement close to the AKP. The Gülen movement in the Netherlands was also part of the list. The movement operates a number of non-governmental organizations and schools, though it is difficult to identify an exact number due to the opaque structure of the movement.

Dutch Turks2

A list of Dutch organizations and businesses allegedly linked to Fethullah Gülen’s network, circulated on social media with demands for boycotts. Image source: Yörük Bahçeli

The decision to pursue investigations followed government research demonstrating that although these organizations positively affected the performance of their members in education and the labour market, they also led to a strengthening of Turkish-Islamic identity at the expense of integration.

Two deputies were expelled from the Labour Party for opposing the move. They founded a new party, DENK, which has countered the Dutch approach to minorities, advocating acceptance instead of integration. However, the party has recently been criticized for picking and choosing between attacks against Muslim minorities and attending an anti-coup rally in Rotterdam. It has yet to be seen what effect the party will have on the Turkish diaspora.

AKP: here to stay

Although cohesion is a reality of the Dutch-Turkish community, Omlo warned against assuming the community is not integrated.

“We should not exaggerate cohesion. I can imagine that social cohesion will decline in the coming years,” he said, citing the widening of the middle class among Dutch Turks since the mid 1990s, which is likely to facilitate a more individualistic rather than communal outlook towards Dutch society.

He added that Dutch Turks were becoming increasingly critical of the situation on Turkey and speaking out, expecting these Turks to have an eventual impact on the more closed-off sections of the Dutch-Turkish community.

However, the undeniable influence of the Turkish government and its politics on the diaspora has long created a question of mobilizational assymmetry which remains important. It is a well-established fact that the Turkish minority, unlike others, is mobilized in parallel to political cleavages and parties in Turkey itself. The religious movements the Dutch government has sought to investigate are a prime example of precisely this.

Moreover, successive Turkish political movements have sought to extend their ties to the European diaspora and the diaspora in the Netherlands, but the AKP as a ruling party has taken this further than past governments. It continues to influence the diaspora both indirectly, through social organizations, and overtly.

Organizations like the Union of European Turkish Democrats have been criticized for lobbying and mobilizing the diaspora in favour of the AKP. While the organization’s declared mission is to support the political, social and cultural development of European Turks, it is seen as the AKP’s arm in the country. Its parent organization in Germany organized a rally for Erdogan preceding the 2014 presidential election. It also organized the protest to which Erdogan’s teleconference address was blocked last week.

The Turkish Prime Ministry, through its Foreign Turks and Relative Communities Presidency, also has strong connections to the diaspora. Established in 2010, the presidency allocated a maximum yearly budget of 1,520,000 Turkish liras in 2015 to support projects that sought to reach out to foreign Turks in a range of fields, from combatting discrimination to the preservation of family values and culture. Diyanet, which provides religious services to Turks abroad through the Turkish Prime Ministry, is also a key player. Most of the Turkish diaspora’s mosques in the Netherlands are run by Diyanet.

The Turkish state has also interfered with Dutch Turks overtly regarding both social and political issues. In 2013, Erdoğan, then prime minister, tried to interfere with the adoption of a Dutch child born to a Turkish family by a lesbian couple.

It has also interfered with the political activities of the diaspora since Dutch Turks gained the right to vote. Prior to the November Turkish general election, Dutch Turks received a letter urging them to vote for the AKP. The letter, penned by then-prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, called the diaspora to vote based on the government’s services to Turks living outside the country.

The government has also concerned itself with the political expression of the diaspora when it comes to the politics of Turkey. In April, the Turkish consulate in the Netherlands urged the community to report any statements made against Erdoğan through a hot-line, which caused outrage in the Dutch parliament. Around the same time, a Dutch-Turkish journalist critical of Erdoğan was arrested upon her arrival in Turkey, a move seen as an attempt by the Turkish state to limit the freedom of speech of a diaspora member.

Dutch Turks may be moving up further and further in the Dutch social ladder, making it more likely that they will relate to Dutch society in more individualstic ways. However, the mobilizational capacities of groups linked to Turkey are unlikely to diminish any time soon. Recent incidents of intra-diaspora violence, when considered in light of the government’s elaborate network of influence in the country, show that the sub-group cohesion of those who sympathize with the AKP are likely to be enhanced. Many fear unrest in schools between children upon the return of Dutch Turks from their summer holidays. We have yet to see how the continued impact of tensions will play out in the community.

Leave a Reply