In 1992, the Dutch government and other European governments signed the Treaty of Maastricht, which concluded the transfer of many policy responsibilities from the national European governments to the centralized institutions of the European Union. There was a minority of intellectual skepticism against this centralization of national autonomy but a much broader popular sentiment feared the loss of national cultural identity. Fifteen years later in 2007, this popular sentiment culminated in the rejection of the European Constitution in a referendum by the Dutch voters. But we can also conclude that although the Treaty of Maastricht did weaken national governments, it strengthened the popular awareness of regional identity at the cost of national identities that have been promoted especially in the nineteenth century. At the same time, a more abstract European identity also emerged, and this is paradoxically used against new cultural influences from recent Muslim immigration. In the Netherlands, these anti-Muslim sentiments are vocalized by the flamboyant neo-right politician Geert Wilders. Wilders was born and raised in Limburg, the most southern province in the Netherlands, and it is his political heartland. Wilders’ party the PVV won twice as many votes in Limburg as the national average, 11% versus 5.8%. What are the underlying historic roots beneath this Limburgic phenomenon?
The Netherlands, literally the low countries, became part of the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne. At his death the empire was divided and the low countries became part of Middle Francia. Through intermarriage and political strife, most of the current Netherlands fell under the Duchy of Burgundy, which became a part of the House of Habsburg and consequently fell under Spanish control, with the exception of Limburg. The duchy of Gulik or Jülich and the province of Liège controlled most of Limburg and were themselves still part of the Holy Roman Empire, which existed from 800 to 1806. As such, the province of Limburg stood heavily under the cultural influence of the empire.
New and Old Enemies
While the predominantly Protestant low countries fought a war against the Catholic Spanish rule for independence and religious freedom, Limburg remained well anchored in the empire. And while the Protestant hostility was derived toward the new threat of Catholic repression, Catholic fears remained largely concentrated not on the threat from within, but on the arch enemy of Christianity: Islam. This was and still is partly due to geographical circumstances. Protestantism largely settled in the northern territories, while Catholicism remained firmly in place in the southern territories that border up to today the Islamic territories. This political-geographical reality of course was reflected in the ideological wars of the time.
It was not until 1839 that Catholic Limburg was finally included in the Protestant Netherlands. Dutch historiography however is still predominantly centered around the history of its main provinces Holland and its capital Amsterdam. This imperialist attitude of Holland and Amsterdam toward its periphery up to today is the source of cultural tensions within the Netherlands, causing a sentiment of resentment toward everything Hollandic or outside influence in Limburg especially, the last of the Dutch provinces that underwent the process of Hollandic cultural nationalisation.
While political correctness turned a blind eye to real social problems in the inner cities with second and third generation immigrants, this Hollandic centricism remained even blinder to the brooding fear of Islam in Limburg.
Urban versus Rural
But this resentment against outside influence itself does not explain sufficient why a province that traditionally has lay on a part of Europe where competing powers pulled and pushed for influence, comparable with a region like the Balkan (you could call Limburg the Balkan of the North), turns now so strongly against Islamic influences and not against for instance the national Dutch government. There is a significant difference between the attitude toward Islamic immigrants in Holland and that same attitude in Limburg, even if they find a mutual enemy. First and foremost, there aren’t as many muslims in Limburg as in Holland. Measured by the number of mosque organizations and buildings alone (an inacurate indicator of the number of believers) there’s only 39 mosque organizations and only 8 mosque buildings in Limburg versus hundreds of organizations and dozens in the provinces of Holland and Utrecht, the Randstad area. Estimates measure 50.000 muslims in Limburg versus 85.000 in a city like Amsterdam alone (a city with a smaller population than Limburg).
Whereas anti-muslim sentiments in cities are based on real social problems with second and third generation of muslim immigrants, the anti-muslim sentiments in rural areas are based on a fear of Islam. Utrecht, Rotterdam, the Hague and Amsterdam -the cities of South Holland, North Holland and Utrecht- merged together to form an urban heartland that is now commonly referred to as the Randstad, Limburg remained a largely rural hinterland for both the Randstad as the industrial Ruhr Area in Germany.
The Limburgic Revival
The European Union not only transfered powers from national governments to European institutions, but it also promoted decentralization of power and responsibilities to the regions. One of the regions to profit from this greater regional independence was Limburg. Being historically tied closer to Germany and Liege, with strong social and economic dependencies, Limburg refocused itself on playing a role as the new economic heart of the wider region beyond the borders. This also had the effect to boost self-awareness in a province that was usually characterized as demoralized under the yoke of a politically, economically and culturally dominant Holland.
This new self-awareness encourages a more audacious expression of old ideologies that are rooted in the historic culture of the geography. In Limburg there is a fertile soil for anti-Muslim sentiment that has been kept alive by the Catholic ideology. The oldest Dutch literary sources are courtly novels originating from the area of Limburg in the periphery of the court of the Holy Roman Empire. They tell of exotic adventures of brave and noble knights fighting against the brutal dark forces of the Saracenes, of crusading knights who reminisce a fair love at home. Geert Wilders is a knight to some, a Don Quichote to others.