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Religion, secularity and SRHR in the Netherlands

In this step, Jelle Wiering gives an introduction concerning the history of religion, secularity and SRHR in the Netherlands.
JELLE WIERING: In the Netherlands, secularity plays an important role in many facets of national culture. Both left wing and right wing political parties often attempt to distance themselves from what they perceive as religion. This distancing from religion seems particularly geared towards organised forms of religion, such as Christianity and Islam. However, the ways that both these religions are represented in these acts of distancing differ. As for Christianity, many Dutch people consider it as being slightly outdated. This idea largely emanates from the collective memory of the Dutch sexual liberation, which is remembered to have taken place in the 1960s. This period is believed by many Dutch people to have extracted sexual pleasure and freedom from the clutches of Christian moralising.
This latter process is often referred to as the Dutch sexual revolution, there in which, as the story goes, sexual liberation and development toward sexual openness gained momentum. This narrative states that before the 1960s, the Netherlands was known as a pillarized country where each Christian denomination and ideological grouping developed its own array of societal organisations. Though each of these pillars was supposedly completely isolated, they are believed to have shared the conviction that speaking about sexuality was a taboo. It is supposed that this awkwardness pertaining to speaking about sexual matters begin to disappear in the 1960s when sexuality became a topic of public discussion, and public opinion on these matters started to change course.
Since this period also heralded the decline of Christianity in the Netherlands, many Dutch people see these processes of sexual liberation and dechurching as linked. In my research among Dutch sexual health organisations, my interlocutors often considered Christianity as a little anachronist. Christians were seen as people who had not yet arrived at modernity. My interlocutors frequently recalled the importance of transformations, assumed to have taken place during the sexual revolution. They even worried that nowadays the Dutch were getting increasingly prudish again. Interestingly, these features of outdatedness and prudishness are not similarly ascribed to Islam. Rather, Islam is seen as a serious potential source of violence. This idea draws on another narrative that is popular in the Netherlands.
Since the 1990s, migrants, and particularly Muslim migrants, have been categorised primarily on the basis of their culture and/or religion against which Dutch values regarding secular and sexual freedoms have been proposed as counter standards. To confront migrants with these supposedly Dutch standards, it has become a popular tool to measure their progress in terms of cultural assimilation. This polarised representation of Muslims and Islam on the one hand and Dutch sexual liberty on the other was propelled by public discussions after the attacks on 9/11. A case in point here is that since shortly after 9/11, why Dutch homosexuals have continuously been framed as part and partial of Dutch secular culture and, as such, national identity and pride.
This framing, however, stands in tension with the large protest against public display of queerness that occurred only a few years earlier. Many sexual health professionals refer to Islam as “Muslim belief.” They take what they see as Islamic notion of sexuality as the total opposite of Dutch notions of sexuality. One sexologist, for example, said–
SEXOLOGIST: So what are the norms and values in the Netherlands? How do men and women treat each other? But let’s take two men kissing– the Syrian Muslim boy cannot just go and beat them because, hey, listen, boy, that’s not just the way it is in the Netherlands. That’s a line you cannot cross. That’s how it is, and you have to accept that.
JELLE WIERING: His comments are not geared specifically towards Islam but rather to a mix of Islam ethnicity and race that is impossible to disentangle. Nevertheless, it is clear that he sees a potential threat to Dutch values from Syrian Muslim boys. In fact, Islam, in general, was frequently believed to constitute the opposite of Dutchness. Again, this juxtaposition implied some interesting differences with Christianity. Islam, for example, was not assumed to be disappearing as time progressed. Rather it was seen as an exotic religion that had arrived in the Netherlands recently. The idea of an anachronism has applied less to Islam than to Christianity. It becomes clear that there are different stereotypical representations of religion.
Christianity is depicted as dusty and outdated whereas Islam suggested to be potentially dangerous. What the Dutch case shows is that religion and taboos in sexuality have historically been aligned to represent the opposite pole to the liberal, non-religious sexuality discourse that is so dominant in the Netherlands.

In this lecture, Jelle Wiering discusses the history of religion, secularity and SRHR in the Netherlands, as a postcolonial setting. As you watch, think about:

  • How do different grand schemes interact in a pluralistic setting?
  • How are migrants viewed based on this grand scheme?
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Religion and Sexual Wellbeing: Pleasure, Piety, and Reproductive Rights

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