August 3, 2007

‘Letter from the Field’: Felix Forster ’09 Explores Human Rights in Amsterdam

Mathematics-economics major spent summer in Netherlands through Humanity in Action

Felix Forster ’09 (Rostock, Germany) is a mathematics-economics major. He spent his summer studying human rights in Amsterdam, Netherlands, through the Humanity in Action fellowship program. The following is a first person account of experiences.

On May 29, I boarded the bus from Easton, Pa., to Washington, D.C. An orientation meeting in the capital marked the beginning of Humanity in Action – a four-week summer fellowship on human rights and minority issues. One of five groups, I was joined by 19 other fellows sent to Amsterdam in order to study these topics with a specific focus on the Netherlands. While it would be impossible to summarize the entire experience in a short article, the following descriptions will give insight into some important aspects of a Dutch story of minorities and my experiences in-between U.S. and European societies.

In preparation for our time in the Netherlands, we were asked to read Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam – a book describing the circumstances surrounding the death of Theo van Gogh, an extremely provocative Dutch filmmaker. Van Gogh had verbally attacked almost every group in society – whether ethnic, religious, or sexual. However, when he displayed verses from the Koran on naked women’s bodies, called Muslims “goat f–kers,” and placed two stuffed goats on his TV-show – “in case somebody should feel the urge,” he was killed by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch Islamic extremist. The cultural clash that is embedded in this tragedy depicts limits of tolerance and multiculturalism, of which I had previously not been aware. Furthermore, it also revealed for me distinct differences between the role of minorities in the U.S. and in Europe.

Having fallen in love with the beauty of difference that arises out of truly multicultural environments, I have always felt an innate aversion toward the idea that integration and acceptance might fail. Nevertheless, Amsterdam did teach me a lesson this summer, that living separately might be the best option in some instances. When strolling past windows with almost naked women offering their bodies in the red light district, or when listening to a Professor of Gay and Lesbian studies calling for legal public sex, I began to understand that more conservative individuals might not feel comfortable in such a liberal Amsterdam. When, additionally, a Theo van Gogh, believes that the high-held Dutch freedom of speech “includes the freedom to insult,” then a Mohammed Bouyeri’s willingness to accept imprisonment is a measure for the pain, which some individuals might feel due to van Gogh’s expressions. In these instances, togetherness is impossible, if both cultural beliefs are to be maintained.

One of the most-heard options, in case the multicultural society fails, was to “send the Moroccans, Turkish, or Surinamese back home.” However, what is home? This question of belonging, I found to be the striking difference between the way minorities are viewed in America and in Europe. The U.S. is a country that is almost completely comprised of immigrants or their descendants. Therefore, heritage and origin are often regarded as positive and interesting, and most importantly no obstacle to becoming or being American.

Western Europe, on the other hand, including the Netherlands, has been inhabited by more or less the same white people for centuries. Anybody with brown or black skin, or Mohammed as a first name, must therefore be an immigrant. And these immigrants come to the Netherlands, work in Dutch jobs, and bring rise to Turkish Shoarma shops, where Heineken pubs were previously. They are more easily perceived as a threat to Dutch society than “foreigners” are in the States. In the Netherlands, the question of origin is thus often an insult more than it is a sign of interest, and healthy integration with both sides maintaining their identity is extremely difficult.

The notion that immigrants take something from the Dutch reinstated my perception of how important economic security is to multiculturalism. If the white Dutch as well as immigrants and their descendants have access to good education, employment, and health insurance, then both sides are more likely to compromise part of their identity and culture – at least in the public sphere. This has been evident in Westerpark, one of the middle class districts in Amsterdam; there, even though a challenge, diversity is regarded as a positive addition to society. People of many different backgrounds feel economically secure, and thus otherness seems less of a threat and more of valuable feature.

According to this belief in the need for a solid economic foundation, I decided to study the role of the underground economy in the Bijlmer as the research project featured in the HIA summer fellowship. The Bijlmer is, with 85 percent non-white Dutch, the most colorful and one of the most troubled districts of Amsterdam. Unemployment, social welfare, and low income rates are higher than in the rest of the city. Through interviews with various individuals, including illegal taxi drivers and city council members, I found the underground economy to be a stepping stone for immigrants into an economically more secure and better integrated Amsterdam. The full report is available on the HIA website – – under publications.

Overall, the Humanity in Action Fellowship has been an enormously enriching experience with a multitude of minority and human rights issues being covered. Just as I had to pick topics for this article, I will also have to select the most important ones to follow up on in the future. Whether I should pick the integration of Moroccans in a western city like Amsterdam or the lack of participation in secondary schools in Uganda, economics seems to be of great use. And I am extremely glad that my intended profession as a development economist will likely find application in some humanitarian way.

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