In the Netherlands, a growing number of young people from a Muslim background appear – just like Mohammed Bouyeri, the self-confessed killer of Theo van Gogh – to be developing a strong interest in orthodox Islam.
On the streets, an increasing number of young men can be seen sporting long beards, while the number of young women wearing head scarves is also growing. Youssef Azghari, a communications and culture teacher in the southern Dutch city of Tilburg, has witnessed a growing interest in orthodox Islam taking place among his students.
There have always been young people in the Netherlands with a more radical interpretation of the Islamic faith. When Mr Azghari was himself a student at Nijmegen University at the end of the 1980s, he came into contact with Muslims who he describes as having supported the ‘Taliban form of Islam’: “They were set on having their own Islamic prayer space and refused to share a room with other student religious groups,” he recalls. However, Islamisation at universities was much less visible than it is now, as Mr Azghari explains: “Nowadays, Muslim students are open about their orthodox religious views, and they dress accordingly, too. I see a growing number of students in class with beards, short trousers or head scarves.”
However, it’s not clear how many young people follow a ‘hardline’ version of Islam. The Dutch AIVD intelligence and security service does not have exact figures and is not willing to make guesses.
Not necessarily radical
Youssef Azghari believes that not all young Muslims with a beard or a headscarf necessarily have radical views:
“There’s also a large number of girls who wear a headscarf and who follow a more liberal interpretation. Yet there are young Muslims, too, who wear a veil or grow a beard to make a political statement, and take their faith to the extreme.”
He can easily pick out young Muslims who are becoming more radical:
“These are people who not only demonstrate they are a Muslim on the outside, and who pray five times a day; they also practise their religion as it was practised in the times of the Prophet Mohammed. They listen literally to the word of Allah and have a constant need to defend him. They study the Koran as preparation for the road to paradise.” Mohammed Bouyeri told friends that he was following the Prophet. He once wrote that he had submitted himself “to that one power who is the creator of the greater whole.” Radical young Muslims turn a deaf ear to different views and Youssef Azghari, himself a liberal Muslim, thinks this is ridiculous. It was this attitude that led Mohammed Bouyeri to become estranged from his own family. In his farewell letter to them he wrote: “I have often searched for ways to show you the truth, but each time it was as if a wall stood between us.”
Youssef Azghari sees a total revolution taking place in the way many young Muslims think:
“Up to puberty, these young Muslims enjoyed all the benefits of a western lifestyle, but suddenly left all this behind them and turned against the west.”
He sees a particular growth in interest for fundamentalism among young people whose parents come from Morocco, but who were themselves born and raised in the Netherlands. He says that students who’ve only recently arrived from Morocco are much more modern:
“Migrants’ children do not choose orthodox Islam on the basis of conviction, but out of frustration.” He knows young people of Moroccan descent who do not feel accepted in Dutch society and who try to set themselves apart with radical religious views: “They are lost, because when you are teenager you are looking for your roots and identity.”
As regards how the Netherlands should deal with fundamentalist Muslims, Youssef Azghari says that Dutch Muslims need to take a critical look at themselves: “In the 1980s and ’90s, moderate Muslims ignored their radical fellow believers who held orthodox views. But that no longer works.”
He also believes that radical Muslims are a danger to everyone, since the radicals also threaten liberal followers of Islam: “They call us the cancer of the Islamic community, which needs to be exterminated. I would say, turn it around. Fundamentalist Muslims are the virus in our society, and you can only combat a virus by taking action.”