‘When I came back, the Netherlands had completely changed’

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“Why exactly hadn’t I felt at home in the Netherlands for years? Why couldn’t I fit in?” Froukje Santing didn’t recognise the Netherlands anymore after 17 years abroad as a correspondent in Turkey. She was shocked at people’s attitude towards immigrants and Muslims. In the book, Dwars op de Tijdgeest (At Odds with the Times), she provides an answer to her questions.

After working for years as a correspondent in Turkey - including for Radio Netherlands Worldwide - and after a short-lived marriage to a Turkish man, Santing returned to the Netherlands in 1999. She began work as a journalist but felt alienated. In her book, she describes the first period back home as “solitary years of fretting”. Her feeling of alienation was sometimes to do with small things.

Eating together, home together
“For instance, I found it odd to eat or drink alone in public. I didn’t do that in Turkey. During the first years I was back in the Netherlands, there were people with trolleys selling drinks and snacks in trains. I found it difficult to buy something without offering the person sitting opposite me something. People just thought I was peculiar.”

“Another thing that struck me was how if you had a meeting somewhere, afterwards everyone just went their own way. People didn’t travel home together. They’d honk their horn as they drove passed a colleague at the bus stop without offering to give them a lift. How cold. People treat each other shabbily.”

Muslims and immigrants
Besides the little dissatisfactions, Santing was bothered by a much bigger worry - about how Dutch people treat Muslims and migrants now, in the years after the 9/11 attacks and the murder of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist in 2004.

“I knew there were lots of ideas bubbling away under the surface, but I didn’t think that the Netherlands would completely change. People who would have been termed second-generation Turkish or Moroccan were now suddenly ‘Muslim’ and had to justify themselves. They had to keep on distancing themselves from people who used Islam as justification for terrorist attacks.”

A student again
She feels Dutch media and academics too often view immigrants as a problem, from a position of 'Western superiority'. She found this went so against the grain that she gave up her work and went back to studying full-time. Santing wanted to find out for herself who Dutch Muslims were.

In her book, she describes interviews with religious and non-religious immigrants and people in between.

“There’s no one Islam. We have to treat people as individuals. I make a case for once more allowing people to be ‘different’. We live in the Netherlands, a much nicer country than we imagine.”

Bending the rules
Then, there’s Santing’s half-Dutch half-Turkish daughter, Marleen, to whom the book is dedicated. Sometimes she feels more Dutch, sometimes more Turkish.

Even though she’s not Muslim, the Turkish consulate in the Netherlands put a tick in the box, ‘Muslim’ in her Turkish passport, without asking. But Marleen wasn’t really bothered. When she was on holiday in Jerusalem and wanted to visit the Al-Aqsa mosque, that tick in her passport meant she could enter the building outside regular visiting times.

“To me that shows how certain things are still problematic, such as how countries deal with religion and nationality. But my daughter uses these rigid rules, like so many people nowadays, in a creative way.”