Changing Patterns in Social Fabric Test Netherlands' Liberal Identity

The long-tolerated red-light district is "not the way I want people to look at Amsterdam," a city councilman says. (Photos By Molly Moore -- The Washington Post)

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By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 23, 2007

AMSTERDAM -- For years, W.B. Kranendonk was a lone ranger in Dutch politics -- the editor of an orthodox Christian newspaper in a nation that has legalized prostitution, euthanasia, abortion and same-sex marriage and allows the personal use of marijuana.

Today, with an orthodox Christian political party in the government for the first time, and with immigration anxieties fueling a national search for identity, the country that has been the world's most socially liberal political laboratory is rethinking its anything-goes policies.

And suddenly, Kranendonk no longer seems so all alone.

"People in high political circles are saying it can't be good to have a society so liberal that everything is allowed," said Kranendonk, editor of Reformist Daily and an increasingly influential voice that resonates in the shifting mainstream of Dutch public opinion. "People are saying we should have values; people are asking for more and more rules in society."

In cities across the Netherlands, mayors and town councils are closing down shops where marijuana is sold, rolled and smoked. Municipalities are shuttering the brothels where prostitutes have been allowed to ply their trade legally. Parliament is considering a ban on the sale of hallucinogenic "magic mushrooms." Orthodox Christian members of parliament have introduced a bill that would allow civil officials with moral objections to refuse to perform gay marriages. And Dutch authorities are trying to curtail the activities of an abortion rights group that assists women in neighboring countries where abortions are illegal.

The effort to rein in the Netherlands' famed social liberties is not limited to the small, newly empowered Christian Union party, which holds two of the 16 ministries in the coalition government formed this year. Increasingly, politicians from the more center-left Labor Party are among the most outspoken proponents of closing some brothels and marijuana shops -- known here as "coffee shops."

"Has the Netherlands changed? Yes," said Frank de Wolf, a Labor Party member of the Amsterdam City Council. "There is not only a different mood among our people and politicians, but there are different problems now."

The Netherlands is going through the same racial, ethnic and religious metamorphosis as the rest of Western Europe: Large influxes of black, Arab and Muslim immigrants are changing the social complexion of an overwhelmingly white, Christian nation struggling with its loss of homogeneity.

But here those anxieties are exacerbated by alarm over the international crime organizations that have infiltrated the country's prostitution and drug trades, the increasing prevalence of trafficking in women and children across its borders, and dismay over the Netherlands' image as an international tourist destination for drugs and sexual debauchery.

"There is an uneasiness about globalization that the Dutch don't have control over their own country anymore," said James C. Kennedy, professor of contemporary history at the Free University of Amsterdam. "There is a more conservative mood in the country that is interested in setting limits and making sure things don't get out of hand."

De Wolf, the Amsterdam councilman, is part of that movement.

"In the past, we looked at legal prostitution as a women's liberation issue; now it's looked at as exploitation of women and should be stopped," said de Wolf, sitting in the offices of the medical complex where he works as an HIV-AIDS researcher.


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