Dutch face future after Van Gogh

Following the jailing of a radical Islamist for the murder of controversial film-maker Theo van Gogh, the Netherlands faces the question of how best to move forward.

The life sentence handed down to 27-year-old Mohammed Bouyeri came as little surprise after he confessed to the killing in court – and vowed to do the same again, given the chance.

But a day later, debate continues over what can be done to heal the tensions his actions have stirred up between Muslim and non-Muslim in the Netherlands.

The news that Bouyeri will now also be charged as a leader of an alleged Islamist terror network plotting attacks against politicians may add to public unease.

Paul Scheffer, professor of urban sociology at Amsterdam University, said the future of Dutch multi-ethnic relations could hinge on the period following Bouyeri’s sentencing.

‘Price of freedom’

He said: “If there is more violence or more forms of terrorism then it will be seen as a beginning of a longer period of instability and conflict, and that would be something of a turning point.

“If nothing along those lines happens again, people would look at it as a tragic event but more as an isolated incident.”

Prof Scheffer said Van Gogh’s murder – a direct response to his film, Submission, which criticised the treatment of women under Islam – had also raised serious questions about freedom of speech.

Women’s Shelters

In the Netherlands, the largest percentage of people housed in shelters for abused women come from a Muslim background.

“It’s something that was felt in the Netherlands very sharply after this murder – people were really hesitant to express themselves,” he said.

“Many Muslims claim the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of religion for themselves but aren’t willing to understand that in an open society the criticism of religion is completely legitimate… It’s the price of an open society.”

He believes that while security forces must be quicker to deal with radical imams who preach hate, the Muslim community also has a responsibility to fight against terrorism.

Target for terror?

Peter van Heemst, the opposition Labour party spokesman on terrorism, warns the feelings stirred up by Van Gogh’s murder last November remain very volatile.

While there is relief at the life sentence handed down to Bouyeri, he said, people now have a greater fear the Netherlands could, like Madrid and London, become a wider target for terror.

“I think those tensions are a little bit less visible now but they are still very strong and they are under the surface,” he said.

“If there was a terrorist attack in this country it could very easily lead to an explosion of violence. I am very worried.”

Mr van Heemst is critical of the court’s decision not to deprive Bouyeri of his voting rights.

The MP fears Bouyeri, who has joint Dutch-Moroccan nationality, could win the support of some 60,000 voters if he decided to enter politics from his prison cell.

Sebastiaan Gottlieb, international law editor for Radio Netherlands, said the country’s newspapers seem to share the concern that Bouyeri could gain a political following.

“His actions are not denounced by everyone because some young people especially think what he did was right or can understand why he murdered Van Gogh,” he said.

“They were really upset by his insults to the Islamic religion.”

‘Not a big issue’

But Ahmed Larouz, a Dutch Moroccan and chairman of the group Towards A New Start, said it was easy to over-estimate the strength of feeling in the Muslim community.

He said he was now more concerned by events in London, although he acknowledges the Van Gogh case has had an impact on Moroccans in the Netherlands.

“It affected the dialogue, it affected everything here in this country. It affected the way we live,” Mr Larouz said.

“But we expected the verdict on Bouyeri. He deserved to be punished like that, so he is punished like that. We are not even really talking about it. It’s not a big issue any more for us.”

Sybrand van Haersma Buma, a spokesman for the Christian Democratic party (CDA), points out that without a change in the law a year ago it would have been difficult to jail Bouyeri for life.

He is concerned that despite the efforts of the authorities, growing cultural divisions may put the Netherlands’ traditional freedoms at risk.

“In Europe it is more than ever important to keep our standards of democracy, keep our standards and keep our way we want to live our lives,” he said.

Prof Scheffer agreed: “If there is more violence like we’ve seen in Madrid and London, and in the Netherlands, it will become very difficult to live together in a peaceful way.

“We should try to do everything we can to achieve that – because otherwise everyone loses out.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
July 27, 2005
Laura Smith-Spark

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday July 28, 2005.
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