New Cultural Citizenship: Sohelia Najand and the Possibility to Solve the Problem of Multiculturalism in the Netherlands

Multiculturalism has over four decades been floating as a persistent issue in the Netherlands, a critical issue that needs delicate handling. It was a result from the major labour immigration in the 1960s bringing people from mainly Spain, Marocco and Turkey into the Netherlands (Source: Study Package Multicultureel Nederland).  The two latter mentioned countries are known as Moslem countries and naturally those immigrants came into the Netherlands along with their cultural attributes including what they believe (religion), what they respect as their daily guidance (values and norms), what they eat (cuisine), what they listen to (music) and so many other things to mention, creating an ethnic diversity within the Dutch society that used to be mono-ethnic.

In response to these changes in the society, a consensus ideology of multiculturalism was created by political class in 1970s, expressed in the phrase “Integratie met behoud van eigen taal en cultuur” (Source: Multiculturalism in the Netherlands, Wikipedia Online).  This credo is in line with what Justus Uitermark et al write in their journal “Reinventing Multiculturalism: Urban Citizenship and the Negotiation of Ethnic Diversity in Amsterdam” that  “New citizens are allowed to retain their cultural identities and express them and the interests related to them in the public sphere, including core institutions such as the school system, the military, and the media.”  However, as remarked by Sohelia Najand*, this multiculturalism does not enrich everyone’s lives. In fact the diversity can be seen to undermine social cohesion and increase the feelings of insecurity and uneasiness. Yet, Najand questions the existing opinion about cultural diversity as being the problem and integration as being the solution for the multiculturalism problem. She proposes an idea of ‘new cultural citizenship’, of uniting three elements of cultural diversity, postmodern individualism and collective responsibilities,  and I take it as something that will possibly work in dealing with the multiculturalism issue in the Netherlands.

First of all, Najand’s perspective in viewing the cultural diversity is very promising in my opinion. As I mentioned before, the immigrants came into the Netherlands along with their cultural attributes and migrating into a new land does not mean that they have to pull out their root and change it with the new one. Since cultural diversities do exist, seeing it as a problem will not improve the situation. Cultural diversity cannot be erased and instead of treating it as an enemy, Najand bases the new cultural citizenship on diversity.

The next element of the new cultural citizenship is individualism. It is very obvious that in this modern era, people become increasingly more independent and consequently the social cohesion will be eroded since this trend cannot be avoided anymore. I am personally amazed by the tremendous invention and rapid development of internet and telecommunication advances that are promising people to bring each other closer than before. Unfortunately people are likely to maintain relationship or initiate a new contact only with those who have the same origin or religion or background. In his article, “Living Apart or Together? Multiculturalism at A Neighbourhood Level”, Peer Smeet even doubts whether more contact will lead to more mutual empathy and he also pointed out that it can also lead to indifference or even hostility to others. People tend to seek contact with those similar to themselves. Najand also emphasizes that lack of knowledge about the other and uncertainty about recognition by the other leads to fear and hampers individual’s development. Therefore, taking into account that individualism is something that is happening right here and right now, I see Najand’s concept of uniting postmodern individualism, cultural diversity and the third element of collective responsibility as a good solution. It is like having a potluck party when every single person (individualism) who comes brings various food (cultural diversity) and everyone contributes to make the party as enjoyable as possible (collective responsibility).

Naturally, achieving this new cultural citizen is not going to be easy. Enlightenment needs to be enhanced among all people in the Netherlands, immigrants and local people, young and old, men and women, from elite politics to working class people, all of them must be made aware about this new concept. In this particular case, young people play a quite significant role for the continuity of the new cultural citizen. They are the key to a better future and the way to enlighten them is through education which unfortunately focuses more on how to produce people who are competent only for the labour market. Najand also notes this critical issue, suggesting that people need to put more trust and support for the young people, making them feel more recognized by society so that they will feel that they really belong in the society and therefore they contribute willingly to the community.

In this matter, obviously we cannot rely 100% percent on education. Another form that delivers understanding and the spread of knowledge about new cultural citizenship needs to be observed. Art and culture, as proposed by Najand, can create new social spaces and  I support Najand’s remark about art which provides an almost limitless framework for the interpretation of experiences  and social commitment. It is amazing to see how art and culture can affect and inspire people. I quote an excerpt of Leo Tolstoy’s book “What is Art?” where he states that:

“The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of   hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. To take the simplest example; one man laughs, and another who hears becomes merry; or a man weeps, and another who hears feels sorrow. A man is excited or irritated, and another man seeing him comes to a similar state of mind. By his movements or by the sounds of his voice, a man expresses courage and determination or sadness and calmness, and this state of mind passes on to others. A man suffers, expressing his sufferings by groans and spasms, and this suffering transmits itself to other people; a man expresses his feeling of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to certain objects, persons, or phenomena, and others are infected by the same feelings of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to the same objects, persons, and phenomena.”

Art delivers messages to a broad dimension through expressions, triggering people to think about who they are and who others are. Art also reflects what is happening in the society and offers imagination that may lead to possibilities in the future of the society. One example is what Ayaan Hirsi Ali could do through her script for Theo van Gogh’s film “Submission”. She voiced what a Moslem woman feels and has to deal with all her life. This art creation provide people with knowledge about what is happening, what the problem is, and how people can bring the problem into context and work on the best possible solution.

To sum up briefly, since immigrants make up around 19% of the Netherlands’ total population, multiculturalism will continue to exist and the best possible solution will need to be implemented. The three elements namely postmodern individualism, cultural diversity and collective responsibility, which are united, in order to achieve the new cultural citizen should lead to a better future for the people in the Netherlands to coexist with the immigrants since diversity is seen as a base rather than a problem in a multicultural society. Utilizing the diversity in the form of art provides an enlightenment which will drive all forms of people for a better understanding about their society and the spread of knowledge about other people so that the new cultural citizens can be successfully created.  Will the harmony of ‘living together’ no longer be a utopian dream for every single person living in the Netherlands?

*Sohelia Najand is Dutch artist born in Teheran, Iran. To her, art is movement, awareness and revelation of human relationships, on the level of the personal as well as on of social processes and meanings. She is also one of the founders of the foundation InterArt, where she is the artistic director. She travels through the Netherlands to follow social developments and, through workshops and as a supervisor, she imparts her vision as an artist and the vision of InterArt on the New Cultural Citizenship, of which InterArt is the founder.


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