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How a Religious Tolerant Past Affects the Present

December 7, 2012

by  Anouk Smeekes, Maykel Verkuyten and Edwin Poppe, Utrecht University

“The Netherlands is characterized by a tradition of religious tolerance, respect and responsibility. The needless offending of certain convictions and communities does not belong to this. . . .The Dutch government will honor this tradition and issues an appeal to everyone to do the same.”

Mevlana Mosque, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Mevlana Mosque, Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Jan Peter Balkenende, the former Dutch prime minister, made this statement during a press conference about the anti-Islam movie ‘Fitna’ that was released in 2008 in the Netherlands by MP Geert Wilders. Balkenende, by invoking a representation of Dutch national history as one of religious tolerance and respect, argued for acceptance of cultural and religious diversity in the present.

Such appeals to national history are common in Western European debates about national identity and the increasing presence of ethnic and religious minority groups. However, research that looks at how historical understanding of national identity affect current intergroup relations is scarce (but see Smeekes, Verkuyten, & Poppe, 2011).

Would a religious tolerant representation of national history (as used by the former Dutch prime minister) have positive consequences for how native majority members evaluate Muslim immigrants? We investigated this question in three studies recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Smeekes, Verkuyten, & Poppe, 2012). We predicted that a religious tolerant representation of national history would particularly result in more positive attitudes towards Muslim immigrants for natives who feel strongly attached to their national identity.

We based our prediction on self-categorization theory (SCT; Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987), which proposes that people who feel strongly attached to their group are more likely to act in accordance with the norms and beliefs of that group. This means that when norms of religious tolerance historically define the nation, especially people who feel strongly attached to their national group should behave accordingly, and this is likely to have positive consequences for their evaluation of immigrant out-groups, such as Muslims. This prediction is interesting and innovative, because it goes against the often reported finding that natives who strongly identify with their national group membership tend to be more negative towards immigrant groups.

In the current Western European context, social and political debates on cultural diversity particularly evolve around rights of Muslims to publicly confirm and enact their religious identity, such as wearing a headscarf, Islamic schools or the building of mosques. These rights are publicly contested and are often presented as corroding traditional national culture. However, it is likely that those who understand their national history and identity as one of religious tolerance and openness will show more acceptance of Muslim expressive rights. In addition, and in line with SCT, we hypothesized that this relationship would be particularly strong for natives who highly identify with their nation.

To test this idea we conducted a first study in which we asked native Dutch participants to indicate to what extent they endorsed the idea that the Netherlands is characterized by a history and tradition of religious tolerance and respect. We then measured the extent to which they felt attached to their Dutch identity, and their acceptance of Muslim expressive rights (e.g., wearing a headscarf, existence of Islamic schools, publicly celebrating Islamic festivities). Results showed that endorsing a representation of historical religious tolerance was associated with more acceptance of Muslim expressive rights, particularly for highly identified natives.

In addition to examining whether endorsing a representation of historical religious tolerance was associated with more acceptance of Muslim expressive rights for high identifiers, we were also interested in understanding how this relationship could be explained. Drawing on previous work on identity incompatibility (Sindic & Reicher, 2009), we predicted that high identifiers who endorse a representation of historical religious tolerance are more accepting of Muslim rights, because they perceive less identity incompatibility between the native and Muslim way of life (e.g., “The traditional Dutch culture clashes with that of Muslims”). A self-defining history of religious tolerance implies that different subgroups have always been able to express their identity at the same time, and this is likely to result in more acceptance of rights for Muslims to publicly confirm and express their identity.

We tested this prediction in two subsequent studies using both survey and experimental designs. Results showed that when a representation of historical religious tolerance was endorsed (Study 2) or experimentally induced (Study 3) Dutch natives reported lower perceptions of identity incompatibility, which, in turn, resulted in more acceptance of Muslim rights. In line with our expectations, the positive effect of this historical representation on acceptance of Muslim rights, via reduced perceptions of identity incompatibility, was particularly strong for highly identified nationals.

Taken together, the findings of our studies suggest that when national history is perceived as characterized by religious tolerance and respect, this results in more positive attitudes towards Muslim immigrants, especially among natives who feel strongly attached to their national identity. The reason for this is that understanding national history as being one of religious tolerance reduces the perception that the Dutch and Muslim way of life are incompatible.

These findings underscore the importance of taking representations of group history into account when studying current intergroup relations. It is by interpreting national history that people define and understand their national identity, and this influences how they perceive religious and ethnic minority groups.


Author Information

Anouk Smeekes is anouk11a PhD student at the European Research Centre on Migration and Ethnic Relations (ERCOMER), at Utrecht University. Her research investigates the relationship between representations of group history, perceptions of group continuity, group processes and intergroup relations. More information about her work can be found at http://www.ercomer.eu/researchers-2/anouk-smeekes/

Maykel Vermaykel3kuyten is professor of Migration and Ethnic Relations at Utrecht University and Research Director of ERCOMER. His research examines ethnic identity and interethnic relations, with a focus on the nature of ethnic, religious and national identities, and their interrelationships. More information about his work can be found at http://www.ercomer.eu/researchers-2/prof-dr-maykel-verkuyten/

Edwin poppePoppe is assistant professor of Migration and Ethnic Relations at Utrecht University and Researcher at ERCOMER. His research examines tolerance, prejudice and ethnic relations, with a focus on Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation. More information about his work can be found at http://www.ercomer.eu/researchers-2/dr-edwin-poppe/


References

 Sindic, D., & Reicher, S. D. (2009). “Our way of life is worth defending”: Testing a model of attitudes towards superordinate group membership through a study of Scots’ attitudes towards Britain. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 114-129.

Smeekes, A., Verkuyten, M., & Poppe, E. (2011). Mobilising opposition towards Muslim immigrants: National identification and the representation of national history. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 265-280.

Turner, J. C., Hogg, M. A., Oakes, P. J., Reicher, S. D., & Wetherell, M. S. (1987). Rediscovering the social group: A self-categorization theory. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Image Credit: Ruud Zwart, Rotterdam, The Netherlands and the Wikicommons

(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mevlana-moskee.jpg)

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