Anger toward the Netherlands' Muslim community percolated among the crowd that gathered outside the funeral for the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was killed by an Islamic extremist a week ago.
For Dutch, anger battles with tolerance
By Craig S. Smith The New York Times
Thursday, November 11, 2004
The public debate over how conservative Islam fits into Europe's most tolerant, liberal society had already become a no-holds-barred affair before the killing of van Gogh, who had publicly and repeatedly used epithets against Muslims. But his killing has now polarized the country, giving the rest of Europe a disturbing glimpse of what may be in store if relations with the continent's growing immigrant communities are not managed more adeptly.
The anger is such that for the second time in two days an Islamic elementary school was attacked Tuesday, this time in Uden, part of what Dutch authorities fear are reprisals after van Gogh's killing, The Associated Press reported. The authorities said that Muslim sites had been the target of a half-dozen attacks in the past week, The AP reported.
In apparent retaliation, arsonists attempted to burn down Protestant churches in Rotterdam, Utrecht and Amersfoort, the news service quoted the police as saying.
The attacks have scratched the patina of tolerance on which the Dutch have long prided themselves, particularly here in their principal city, where the scent of hashish trails in the air, prostitutes beckon from storefront brothels and Hell's Angels live side by side with Hare Krishnas. But many Dutch now say that for years that tradition of tolerance suppressed an open debate about the challenges of integrating conservative Muslims.
Jan Colijn, 46, a bookkeeper from the central Dutch town of Gorinchem who was at the funeral Tuesday night, complained that the Netherlands' generous social welfare system had allowed Muslim immigrants to isolate themselves. Because of that, "there is a kind of Muslim fascism emerging here," he said. "The government must find a way to break these communities open."
Another man, who declined to give his name, was more succinct: "Now, it's war."
For many years, such criticism of Islam and Islamic customs, even among Dutch extremists, was considered taboo, despite deep frustrations that had built up against conservative Islam in the country.
Many here say that began to change after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, when the Netherlands, like many countries, began to consider the dangers of political Islam seriously. The debate fueled an anti-immigration movement and helped propel the career of the populist politician Pim Fortuyn, who was murdered by an environmental activist shortly before national elections in 2002.
By all accounts here, Fortuyn's murder removed any remaining brakes on the debate surrounding immigrants.
"After Pim Fortuyn's murder, there were no limitations on what you could say," said Edwin Bakker, a terrorism expert at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. "It has become a climate in which insulting people is the norm."
He and others said the public discourse, even among members of government, reached an unprecedented pitch and included language that went far beyond the limits set for public forums in the United States.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a member of Parliament and one of a handful of politicians threatened with death by Islamic extremists, publicly called the prophet Muhammad a "pervert" and a "tyrant." She made a film with van Gogh condemning sexual abuse among Muslim women, who were portrayed with Koranic verses written on their bare skin.
Van Gogh himself was one of the most outspoken critics of fundamentalist Muslims and favored an epithet for conservative Muslims that referred to bestiality with a goat. He used the term often in his public statements, including a column he wrote for a widely read free newspaper and during radio broadcasts and television appearances.
The cumulative effect made van Gogh, a distant relation of the painter Vincent van Gogh, a kind of cult clown on one side of the debate, and a reviled hatemonger on the other.
The debate became so caustic that the Dutch intelligence service, AIVD, issued a report in March warning that the unrestrained language could encourage radicalization of the country's Muslim youth and drive individuals into the arms of terrorist recruiters. The agency has warned repeatedly in recent years that such recruiters are active in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe.
While only about 20 percent of the Netherlands' estimated 900,000 Muslims practice their religion, according to one government study, officials say as many as 5 percent of Muslims in the country follow a conservative form of Islam. Most are from the Netherlands' Moroccan community, which has its roots in the Rif, an impoverished, mountainous Berber region in the north.
There are about 300,000 people of Moroccan descent in the Netherlands today, and the ratcheting up of the anti-immigration debate has alienated many of them from Dutch society and, many people argue, has also helped fragment the Muslim community.
Jean Tillie, a professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam, says that the debate has broken down a network that connected even the most extremist Muslim groups to the more moderate voices within the Muslim community. He cited an Amsterdam government advisory board that brought together all kinds of Moroccans and fostered communication and cohesion within the Muslim community.
"Those groups participating didn't agree with each other, but they met together with the collective mission of advising the city government," he said.
The board was abolished a year ago, he says, in the wake of the anti-immigration debate. He claims that funds for other ethnic organizations have shrunk and outreach policies have also been abandoned.
At El Tawheed mosque, considered by many people here to be the epicenter of extremism in Amsterdam, Farid Zaari, the mosque's spokesman, argues that pressure from the debate has hindered the Muslim community's ability to control its radical youth.
"If we bring these people into the mosque, it is possible to change their thoughts, but few mosques dare to because if you do, you're branded," he said.
Dutch media reports insist that van Gogh's killer attended the mosque, and though Zaari says the mosque has no record of his ever being there, he said that political leaders and the media should encourage the mosque to reach out to the community's radical youth, rather than stigmatizing it for doing so.
The mosque was previously associated with a Saudi-based charity, Al Haramain, which American and Saudi Arabian officials accused earlier this year of aiding Islamic terrorists. The mosque has since severed its ties with the charity, but more recently it has been criticized for selling books espousing extremist views, including female circumcision and the punishment of homosexuals by throwing them off tall buildings.
Several legislators have called for the mosque to be shut down, but under the Dutch constitution it is difficult to do.
Zaari admits that the Muslim community was slow to respond to the fears within Dutch society. "We didn't feel it was our responsibility to bridge the gap, but now, with the murder, the gap has gotten wider," he said. "All of us want to begin a dialogue now, but the language of the political right is too extreme, and that's preventing discussion," he said. "We all have to cool down and be careful what we say."
The problem is how to bridge a gap that has yawned dangerously since van Gogh's murder.
The Amsterdam Council of Churches published paid notices in some Dutch newspapers pledging solidarity with the Muslim community. But the government's response has been to promise more money for fighting terrorism and stronger immigration laws.
"Islam is the most hated word in the country at this point," said the terrorism expert, Bakker.
Explosion in raid on house
The explosion of a hand grenade during a terrorism-related raid on a house in The Hague on Wednesday wounded three police officers, The Associated Press reported from The Hague.
The Hague's chief prosecutor, Han Moraal, said the raid was part of a "continuing investigation into terrorism" but would not say whether it was related to the killing of van Gogh.
Several city blocks were cordoned off in a mostly immigrant neighborhood near the Holland Spoor train station.