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Lessons from a Fragmented Society

In these times where Islamophobia roars through the western world, some voices state that Islam is incompatible with our society. This view, propped up by rising far-right movements, stresses how sharply clash some values embedded in this religion with our democratic principles. Therefore, either Islam must be soon contained, or, otherwise, we will have to give up our own principles, leading to a process of Islamization. If Islam proves inherently intolerant, as they hold, it should be banned. Indeed, intolerance is not tolerable.

Nonetheless, this argument hides many inconsistencies. First, the alleged ‘threat’ of Islam to our civilization is not as pressing as they presume. Most of Muslims are currently what they are by family or personal ties, so there is no such a campaign of converting the west. And what is more, it is not appropriate to accuse a religion itself of intolerance, but, more precisely, certain historical or political movements linked with certain aspects of religion.

Therefore, if Islam might seem intolerant it is not because its doctrines are so, but instead because certain ideologies -that are indeed intolerant- designate themselves Islamic and advocate to act on its behalf. One example of this kind of ideologies is wahhabism, a fundamentalist version of Sunnism that dismisses other branches of Islam and is responsible for the expansion of extremist practices, providing the core doctrine of many terrorist groups. In fact, this ideology is directly intertwined with the arab oil exporter countries such as Saudi Araba, the UAE and Qatar. The political interests that underlie behind wahhabism are often confused with its religious basis. So, to be fair, we must judge those political interests and not the religion itself.

A system for improving tolerance and integration

Once it is clear that we must not consider Islam intolerant by itself, it would be convenient to focus on its acceptance and inclusion in our modern societies. In an increasingly globalized world, plural and multicultural societies are the rule and not the exception. We need to abandon old prejudices and evolve into new structures that allow us to integrate this dimension. The main question is how to improve tolerance and integration in our societies.

The Netherlands has a long-lasting reputation of tolerant country. In the late sixteenth century, their independence from the Spanish Empire led to the creation of the United Provinces, a state where an early freedom of religion was instituted. Jews and other prosecuted groups in Europe took refuge in open merchant cities like Rotterdam, The Hague and, of course, Amsterdam. Nowadays, the Dutch people proudly keeps this tradition, and they stand out chiefly for the depenalization of cannabis and the legalization of prostitution. But how is it that they seem so advanced in this respect?

A society divided in pillars

One feature of the Netherlands, which is not very known beyond its borders, is the so-called pillarization. Also known for its Dutch word or verzuiling, pillarization stands for a structure of social, political and economic relations organized in pillars. This system persisted in the Netherlands from the late 1800s until the 1960s, when the society started a process of demolishing pillars, called depillarization or ontzuiling.

The pillarized society was divided into vertical segments or pillars, reflecting a diversity of ideologies. Each pillar was constituted with several institutions: ranging from newspapers, broadcasting organizations, political parties, and trade unions to banks, hospitals, schools and universities. The division was so strong that many people had no contact whatsoever with people from other pillars.

The main pillars in the Netherlands were the Protestant, the Catholic, the Socialist and the Liberal one. Even though the Liberals were at first opposed to the segregation in pillars, they ended up forming its own pillar. After World War II, the Liberals and the Socialists became increasingly critical with the pillarization. Some institutions opened to all pillars in the following years, and society set aside the pillarized structures.

The segregation of society in closed pillars might appear an awful idea a priori. Each pillar works as a microcosmos, like an independent and complete structure. Since there are no links between people from different pillars, pillarization seems to promote mutual indifference and even mutual ignorance, rather than respect for diversity. Moreover, human segregation always has a downside. Excluding systematically the part of the society that does not match one’s natal community does not sound quite reasonable. The contact with different cultures is highly beneficial for a society and, hence, it should be fostered.

Pillarization for improving tolerance

All in all, the pillarization, as happened in the Netherlands, has some advantages too. Abraham Kuyper, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands between 1901 and 1905, developed the concept of sphere sovereignty, the theoretic background for the pillarization of society. The life in society is arranged in independent spheres with specific responsibilities and competences. In this way, no global power can transgress the sovereignty of a certain sphere. The multitude of spheres in equilibrium allows to preserve and respect existing minorities. For this to be possible, each sphere needs to hold equal rights and one cannot dominate another.

Therefore, every sphere or pillar starts in the same position as another. In economic terms, all pillars have access to the same amount of funds and resources to operate. For instance, the education in certain pillar’s ideology, an institution called special education (beijzonder onderwijs in Dutch), was -and still is- financed with public funds as well as the ‘neutral’ public education. Similarly, the state provided each pillar with the tools to build its own set of institutions, so that it could be sustained.

Some scholars have remarked the positivie role that pillars played during the rise of Nazism. Since the Dutch people were firmly anchored in their respective pilllars, fascist ideas were prevented from catching on. This might explain why the Netherlands had so little affiliation to the fascist parties like the NSB.

Pillarization for improving integration

In the 1960s, the process of depillarization took place while thousands of immigrants were arriving to the Netherlands from Muslim countries, such as Turkey or Morocco. The remaining structures of the pillarized society were used to accommodate the new population. By building something akin to an ‘Islamic pillar’, the local administration promoted the creation of institutions supporting Islam and its values. For instance, communities were encouraged to build their own schools through the system of special education, as mentioned above. This model of integration is known as theDutch integration model’ or multiculturalism.

Although the ‘Dutch model’ is generally considered a successful model of integration, it triggered some problems. First, the subsidies were fundamentally granted to religious organizations complying with standards established by unskilled regulators. Therefore, the communities were forced to adjust to stereotypes in order to be suitable. Besides, the administration made no distinctions between different branches of Islam. The inclusion of Muslims from different origins and speaking different languages turned out to be quite problematic.

In conclusion, some elements of the pillarization have a potential for improving tolerance and integration in the society. The Dutch example attests to the harmonious coexistence between diverse communities, by minimizing tensions and avoiding conflicts. One reason for that equilibrium might be the interdependence of both the Dutch economy (requiring extra workforce) and the immigrants (looking for work). Therefore, the specific circumstances of the Netherlands make it difficult for other countries to succeed by adopting the same model. In addition, the integration policies have emphasized more on the empowerment of communities than on its integration. As a result, the society has become increasingly fragmented. In this sense, tolerance means that the state would not discriminate the minorities by allowing that minorities discriminate each other.


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