It is, in theory, a groundbreaking plan. Will the Education Inspectorate soon also supervise organizations? Outside the education? Minister Dennis Wiersma (Education, VVD) wants to make this possible. According to him, the inspectorate should also check organizations that provide informal lessons to children. It would mean that tens of thousands of Dutch organizations – Koran schools, Bible classes, cultural associations – could suddenly receive inspectors after a signal about abuse.

    But that, again, is the theory. Because the letter that Wiersma sent to the House of Representatives on Friday about his plans ends with the statement that a crucial ‘precondition’ is still missing. The minister does not yet know exactly what informal schools should be inspected for. The intention is to tackle ‘anti-integrative’ or undemocratic education – but there is not yet a definition of what that means.

    And that has been missing for a long time. Successive cabinets have been making plans for seven years to tackle anti-democratic groups, without clarifying what this means. In any case, it concerns behavior that is not punishable, but is seen as problematic by politicians.

    Abuses

    The minister’s plans follow reports of abuses within mosque education. In 2019, the AIVD warned against after-school Islamic education, where more and more “intolerance and anti-democratic” messages are being proclaimed. “In the long term, this can put pressure on social cohesion and thus undermine the democratic legal order,” the service said in its annual report. Investigation followed NRC and News hour, about Salafists (fundamentalist Muslims) who provide education in at least fifty places in the Netherlands. In various places, minors were taught to turn away from this “unbelieving country” or were taught about corporal punishment within Islamic law.

    Read the diptych NRC and News hour about Quranic schools: Here children learn that the Netherlands is not their country (2019)

    The school in Veenendaal where Taubah Foundation taught Islam to young children. Photo from 2019.
    Photo Bram Petraeus

    In order to be able to act against the ‘discrimination, intolerance and isolationism’ that are the focus of such lessons, Wiersma wants to expand the powers of the Education Inspectorate. But then there must still be a ‘sharp legal definition of the problem’.

    The search for that definition has been going on since 2016. That year, then-minister Lodewijk Asscher (Social Affairs, PvdA) announced that he was going to tackle ‘problematic behaviour’. He had a ‘normative framework’ drawn up. It listed all kinds of intolerable practices that, according to Asscher, had to be tackled. Examples: “Keeping out dissenters”, discouraging voting, “peer pressure to adhere to a certain interpretation of a belief” or “failing to practice equality between men and women in one’s own circle”. After that, the ministry took many more actions; for example, a ‘problematic behavior task force’ was set up and municipalities were given an ‘assessment framework’ to recognize and tackle this behaviour.

    But in practice little happened: mayors who had to deal with such a ‘problematic’ mosque found that they had no leg to stand on to take measures against it. This was once again underlined in 2019 in a legal study by the Ministry of Social Affairs: as long as the government does not lay down crystal clear in law which behavior is no longer permitted, no measures can be taken against it, the study stated. Citizens have the right to know what behavior could get them into trouble.

    Minefield

    “It is a hopeless search,” sighs terrorism researcher Jelle van Buuren of Leiden University. He does understand why the cabinet wants to get a grip on excesses within informal education. “As a government, you naturally do not want ideas that are at odds with the basic principles of democracy to be structurally taught to children.” But according to him there is little that can be done about this, as long as these ideas are not punishable. “Traditionally, churches and mosques are free places in society, where the state cannot interfere. If you do, you will inevitably end up in a minefield. That is why the government has been trying for years to define what constitutes problematic behavior, but has not yet made any progress.”

    The Education Inspectorate itself is also critical of Wiersma’s plans. Besides the fact that it is unclear what behavior should be supervised, the Inspectorate also has the question of where this supervision should take place. “What is informal education?” asks the spokesman for the inspectorate aloud. “It is a very broad concept, which includes everything. We wonder if you can define that.”

    Paul Zoontjens, emeritus professor of education law at Tilburg University, sees the same objection. “Informal education is also scouting, the knitting club or the skating club. They are all places where people teach each other. According to international treaties, everyone is free to do so. The government has no business there, unless public order is at stake.”

    The state lawyer, who was asked for advice by Wiersma, says that a new law that should regulate this supervision would clash with human rights, such as freedom of expression. Sons thinks so too. According to the emeritus professor, the plans are also harmful to the inspectorate itself. “The government thus conveys that everyone should pay close attention, because if the standards that the government considers important are not acted upon, the inspection will soon be imminent. A completely wrong signal.”

    Minister Wiersma has not decided yet. He will present a bill early next year. Until then, he writes in his letter to parliament, he will think about the definition of the problem he wants to tackle.

    ttn-32