A patch of green amid growing anti-multiculturalism in the Netherlands
The Dutch summer holidays were just getting underway when Anders Breivik murdered 77 people in Norway. The gruesome details, and the killer's reference to a Dutch MP as a source of inspiration, seemed to form an apocalyptic cloud over the holiday atmosphere.Anti-Muslim MP Geert Wilders, a staunch critic of multiculturalism, had warned of a "tsunami of alien power that increasingly dominates local culture".
At local level, a district councillor offering a tacit pocket of resistance to anti-multiculturalism is Kees Diepeveen. He doesn't shout to be heard. "Dutch politics nowadays is polarised and tense. People use strong language at a level that just doesn't make sense."
Nor does he push for a spot in the media limelight. A dedicated Green Left politician, he cycles around North Amsterdam, gently manoeuvring his way into the hearts and minds of his voters in a largely mixed-race, low-income district.
"I try to instil in immigrants the importance of being proud both of their origins and of being a member of this society. This is a personal richness in one's life." A richness bequeathed to him in the Calvinist village of his own upbringing and which, Diepeveen argues, makes it easier to cross over any class or social barrier later in life.
Poverty: lack of opportunity
His solemn voice livens up when he talks about a Weekend School, set up to give teenagers from deprived areas a chance to learn about subjects outside the standard curriculum - journalism, philosophy, visual arts - with a view to widening career choices.
"Poverty isn't just lack of income. It's mostly lack of opportunity. If you're not given this opportunity, then you enter a spiral - a bleak outlook and a fear of the future. And fear is enough to vote against the establishment."
In "North", as Diepeveen's part of the city is known as, 21.6 percent of the population voted for Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV) in last June's national polls, compared to the Amsterdam average of 9.4 percent.
There's a clear divide between the neat rows of net-curtained ethnic Dutch streets and the blocks of flats lined with satellite dishes, the Moroccan and Turkish districts. Diepeveen reaches both sides, but hasn't brought them together.
His legislation on housing improvement, sports facilities, urban green spaces and energy schemes has left its mark on the whole community.
Muslim women have double hurdle
To immigrant women's business initiatives, he has lent a generous ear "because, being Muslim and women, they have a double hurdle to cross over. The participation of Muslim women in society is crucial to its stability." At his 50th birthday party two years ago, many Muslim women arrived at the steps of the party venue laden with home-cooked dishes.
When it comes to being green, Diepeveen walks the talk. His family doesn't own a car, they've installed solar panels and the heating is never higher than 18 degrees. "There are blankets in the living room for the cold evenings," his English wife, Nicola, told me.
Diepeveen pauses as we sit in his basement kitchen, situated on a centuries-old dyke full of charm and solar panels - with no immigrant neighbours. "On many social issues, Wilders is part of the conservative left, the politics of the past. Green Left represents a progressive left."
But how left is Green Left? Wilders' Freedom Party has become synonymous with a ‘far-right' tag. Yet - embodying a new definition of what constitutes far-right - it was Wilders' PVV that joined the Socialist Party in opposing the proposals to raise the retirement age to 67 and to send a new mission to Afghanistan for training local police.
In the public debate on Wilders' accountability in the Norway massacre, the word ‘responsibility' seems to resound. With his Calvinist roots, Diepeveen understands its meaning. "My parents were active church members, but socially progressive at the same time, aware of their duty in society."
Leaning over to one side, as if pushed by the burden of that responsibility, he laments the turnaround from tolerance to polarisation in the past decade: "Wilders is not responsible for Breivik in a direct cause and effect way. But he's responsible for creating a climate of anxiety. Because he's dependent on it, he feeds it. The PVV is a revenge movement."
The professional future of Kees as a district councillor will be affected by that ‘revenge'. The government - with backing from Wilders - has voted to abolish district councils in Amsterdam and Rotterdam.Perhaps Diepeveen can cycle to The Hague and deliver a compassionate voice to counterbalance the current hardline climate of national politics.
Radio Netherlands World/ Jacqueline Nolan