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Secularism and cooperation

The Netherlands does not have a state religion, nor does it have a policy of officially recognising religious denominations. However, the relationship between the Dutch state and religion has always been characterised by extensive involvement of the state with religious expression in public life. In 1917, for example, the settlement of the ‘education struggle’ meant the adoption of Article 23 of the Dutch Constitution, establishing complete state funding for schools with a religious (Christian) identity, while safeguarding the freedom of those schools to determine their curricula. This settlement laid the foundation of what is known as the Dutch ‘pillarisation’ (verzuiling). Under this system, society was deeply divided into distinct and mutually antagonistic religious and ideological groups. A stable democracy was made possible through overarching cooperation at the elite level, and by allowing each group as much autonomy as possible. Muslim immigrants used the remnants of the ‘pillar’ model, according to which religious organisations were still considered a legitimate form of representation and community organisation. Muslims have the same right as other religious groups and, if they rely on the same principles as those applied to other religious groups such as Christians, they can obtain recognition for their claims (although often after considerable struggle).
However, the gradual shift towards a more secularised society in the Netherlands, from the 1960s on, has led to the emergence of opinion makers and politicians defending the secular outlook of Dutch society, making ‘secular’ not only a descriptive term but also a normative way of referring to part of identity politics in Dutch society.

D 28 September 2012    AMartijn de Koning

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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