Dutch virtue of tolerance under strain

AMSTERDAM — In the Dutch interiors painted by the great artists of the Golden Age, all appears in order: the ruffs of white linen and polished surfaces speak of a luminous calm. But often a furtive glance caught in a mirror, or a keyhole view of another world, suggests a charged tension behind the elegance.

The Netherlands today can still offer a picturesque tranquillity, with its swarms of straight-backed bike riders and its canals reflected in the handsome windows of gabled homes. But cut a keyhole through Dutch decorum and violence appears: a filmmaker shot and stabbed by an Islamic fanatic, politicians in hiding from jihadist threats, a newspaper columnist menaced into silence, people living in fear.

Immigration, particularly of Muslims, has long been an issue in Europe, a challenge to overburdened welfare systems and to the self-image of countries where every village hoists a church spire to the sky. But what was once a subject of debate is now more a matter of survival. Difficulty, for many in the Netherlands, has become danger.

A familiar European combination of troubled history and quiet hypocrisy, wrapped in a veneer of tolerance, has yielded unexpected bloodshed. “We see that our much-vaunted tolerance toward immigrants was often just indifference and we are left wondering: What have we become?” said Job Cohen, the mayor of Amsterdam.

The murders, in 2002 and 2004 respectively, of the taboo-trampling politician Pym Fortuyn and the Islam-bashing movie director Theo van Gogh have left the Dutch bereft of certainties. They are not alone in their questioning.

Islam is now of Europe, a European religion. But Europe, after terrorist killings in Madrid and Amsterdam and London, sees more threat than promise in the immigrant tide from its Muslim fringes.

Geert Wilders is a rightist Dutch parliamentarian living in a secret location under police protection because Islamic radicals say they will kill him. That, in what was until recently the placid Western democracy par excellence, is extraordinary. “All non-Western immigration must be stopped,” Wilders said. “Pure Islam is violent.”

Other politicians, like Cohen, see the solution more in building bridges than barriers. They argue, like Tony Blair and George W. Bush, that a perversion of Islam, not Islam itself, threatens the West. But nobody, even in laid-back Amsterdam, is indifferent to immigration any longer.

That Europe needs immigrants, and that they will seek to come from adjacent North Africa and other poor Muslim areas, is evident. It needs them to do jobs, from asparagus picking to care of the elderly, that others do not want to do. It needs them to offset a rapid aging of its societies.

But this need now coexists with a growing awareness of a bungled approach to immigration, not least in asylum policy and education, and the danger spawned by the failed integration of Muslim communities as the West and Islam confront each other. The arrests in Dutch antiterror raids Friday of seven youths, including at least one Dutch-Moroccan, were only the latest illustration of the tensions.

“A new religion came in and we did not find a way to manage that,” said Ahmed Aboutaleb, an Amsterdam city councilor and one of few Moroccan immigrants in Dutch politics. “The challenge is to eliminate the Islamic fanatics, and the only way to do that is by including other Muslims already here.”

But that will not be easy. For four decades, from the 1960s on, immigrants from Morocco and Turkey and Suriname poured into prosperous Holland, lured by better-paid work than at home. The newcomers were exotic and, it seemed, harmless. They took factory jobs nobody else wanted. “Guest workers,” they were called, just like in Germany, and, just like in Germany, it was assumed they would go home one day.

They stayed, often in suburbs of subsidized housing like those west of Amsterdam. “Dish cities,” they are sometimes called, because of the mushrooming satellite dishes that deliver Turkish and Moroccan television.

Today, there are about 1.7 million “non-Western” immigrants or their children in the Netherlands, more than 10 percent of a population of 16.3 million. Close to one million are Muslims. As those dishes suggest, the cultural integration the Dutch thought, or hoped, or dreamed, might occur has been spotty at best.

It was this failure that Fortuyn was first, or at least most forthright, in denouncing, railing against what he called the bigotry of Islam-in-the-Netherlands – its intolerance of homosexuals, its oppression of women – and declaring the country “full.” The politically correct left, in the person of an animal-rights activist, killed him for his frankness in debunking their “multi-culti” dream world.

But Fortuyn’s message gained ascendancy. Tolerance is no longer fashionable. Toughness, personified by Rita Verdonk, the immigration minister nicknamed “Iron Rita,” is.

The Netherlands is making it harder for immigrants to get in, and trying to oblige those already here to embrace Dutch culture. “We don’t expect them to go ice-skating in winter or put on clogs,” said Patrick Mikkelsen, a political adviser to Verdonk, a member of the governing free-market VVD party. “But we do expect them to learn our language and accept basic values like the equality of men and women.”

It was precisely such values that van Gogh’s murderer, Muhammad Bouyeri, loathed, despite being born and raised in the Netherlands, the son of Moroccan immigrants.

If I’m ever released I’d do the same again,” Bouyeri said in court in July. The killing was justified, he argued, by Islamic law “that instructs me to chop off the heads of everyone who insults Allah or the prophet.”

This month, Bush quoted Bouyeri, of all people. In a major speech on what the president called “militant Jihadism” or “Islamo-Fascism,” he illustrated the ideology’s inhumanity by citing Bouyeri’s dismissal of Van Gogh’s mother: “I do not feel your pain, because I believe you are an infidel.”

In its way, the allusion confirmed little Holland’s new global notoriety. But it offered no clue as to how the Dutch, or other Europeans, might reconcile their need for immigrants with the ongoing radicalization in those immigrants’ midst.

Dual identity

Osdorp, on Amsterdam’s western fringe, is one of the “dish cities.” The grocery stores are Turkish-run, the bakeries full of sticky Arab cakes. At the Future Cafe’, one recent evening, a World Cup qualifying match between Morocco and Tunisia was shown on a giant TV screen.

When the bartender, Hans Ketting, tried to switch to the Dutch-Czech game, howls of abuse from the Moroccan crowd forced him to reconsider.

Annas Hamid, an electrician, was among the men screaming. Brought to the Netherlands as an infant by his father, who labored in a milk factory, he calls himself Dutch-Moroccan. “When I need one identity I use it,” he said. “And when I need another, I use that one. An identity is only a piece of paper.”

But is it? The conflicted identity of second-generation immigrants like Hamid, at home neither in their adoptive nor parental land, appears to be one possible source of radicalization. For Bouyeri, as for the London suicide bombers, so it proved.

That fact, insisted Hamid, should not prompt generalizations. “Somebody is crazy,” he said. “O.K. But that does not mean the whole Islamic people is.”

Small humiliations now accumulate: The bus driver closes the door on him, he overhears talk of Moroccans being killers. “But it’s the government’s mistake not to have mixed us up more,” he said. “We’ve been here more than 20 years.”

The mistake was well intentioned. Let’s give them a home and welfare and let their culture flower: Such was the Dutch approach to immigration. There was a history behind it. Of the 140,000 Jews in the Netherlands at the start of the Nazi occupation, 102,000, or 75 percent, were killed, a larger proportion than in any other West European democracy.

The implications of that statistic did not begin to be digested until the 1960s, when the Dutch realized that not all of them had helped hide Anne Frank, who was betrayed in the end. Once assumed, Dutch shame proved enduring. To criticize an immigrant became taboo because racism could lead to the gas chamber. Favoring immigrants, at some level, could be seen as a form of atonement, like elsewhere in Europe.


Keep in mind that the vast majority of women who live at Dutch shelters for victims of domestic violence come from an Islamic background

Ketting, the bartender, is Jewish. His mother was born in hiding in 1944. The Dutch are hypocrites, he said. “Get 20 of them together,” he continued, “and they talk about how to get the stupid Muslims out. But they never dared say it directly, until Fortuyn gave them an outlet.”

His father, Johannes, was in the military, stationed in Indonesia after the war. The Dutch only gave up their colony after a bloody struggle that ended in 1949, a fight for which they expressed “profound regret” last August. “My Dad has found it hard to adapt,” Ketting said. “The country has changed so much in a short time.”

So has much of Europe. Loss of empire, loss of influence, loss to the European Union of national sovereignty: These are profound shifts compounded by becoming lands of immigration.

“It’s funny,” said Folkert Jensma, the editor-in-chief of the respected Handelsblad daily. “We now want to teach immigrants more about our identity, and we discover that we’re not sure what’s left of it!”

Certainly, at the Future Cafe’, Dutch identity seemed murky. The air was thick with hash smoke.

“What kind of country is this?” Hamid exclaimed. “They give drugs to heroin addicts, they legalize too much. Drugs should be illegal.”

For a moment, the roots of trouble in the Netherlands seemed clear: Pour Islamic immigrants from remote villages into Europe’s most liberal culture and the chances something might go haywire were real, especially once the boom times passed.

Still, Hamid wants to stay. This is his home. He will soon marry a Moroccan also raised in the Netherlands. “I had a Dutch girlfriend for a while,” he said. “But for me it was important my wife be a Muslim. That was a barrier.”

Challenging Islam

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somalian-born member of Parliament from Verdonk’s VVD party, used to be a Muslim. After 9/11, however, she renounced a religion from which she was already estranged, and has now become one of its most uncompromising critics. In return, Islamic fanatics want her dead.

Islam / Islamism

Islamism is a totalitarian ideology adhered to by Muslim extremists (e.g. the Taliban, Wahhabis, Hamas and Osama bin Laden). It is considered to be a distortion of Islam. Many Islamists engage in terrorism in pursuit of their goals.

Adherents of Islam are called “Muslims.” The term “Arab” describes an ethnic or cultural identity. Not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. The terms are not interchangeable.

Surrounded by her armed security detail, Hirsi Ali arrived at a discreet hotel in The Hague, the Dutch capital, wearing pearl earrings and a pearl necklace: a Vermeer portrait in contemporary guise. She lives in hiding.

“You live in fear,” she said. “Sometimes it just hits me.”

Hirsi Ali wrote the script for van Gogh’s 11-minute movie “Submission,” an account of the sexual humiliations of a beautiful young Muslim woman and her resultant religious doubts.

The film, now withdrawn, was first shown in August 2004. Three months later van Gogh was dead. A five-page “Open Letter to Hirsi Ali,” skewered with a knife to the corpse, threatened her with the same fate.

She has no doubt the movie had to be made in order to “challenge the sexual morals” of Islam and so open the way for “girls to finish school and choose their own partner,” an emancipation she believes essential if Muslim immigration is to work.

Hirsi Ali, raised partly in Saudi Arabia, talks a lot about individual freedom. The Netherlands is “a man-made society,” an elaborate contract in which citizens enjoy great liberty and pledge to respect the same liberty for others.

Into this elaborate democratic construct came a large group used to a different relationship with government, of fear rather than participation, and unused to individual choice, even in such matters as the selection of a spouse.

“I’m going to say something very controversial now,” she continued. “I think that immigrants from rural areas, most of them, are at a certain phase of civilization that is far behind that of the host countries, like the Netherlands, and because of that, these terrible events can occur.”

She alluded to a famous 17th-century painting in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, of the lynched De Witt brothers, their corpses slashed with a knife, just like van Gogh’s in 2004.

“Can you imagine that?” Hirsi Ali asked, eyes wide. “We know that’s not how we want to live now. And here come people from another world who are living in the period when people are lynched publicly, immigrants who have not thought about individual freedom, and it’s clear to me that the Dutch and the Germans and the French all made this huge mistake, saying, O.K., their kids will go to school, and take on more liberal or secular views, and instead you get Bouyeri.”

Hirsi Ali became a Dutch citizen in 1997. She went along to a local government office, paid about $300, and was given a passport. Nobody asked why she wanted to become Dutch. “I just bought a travel document,” she said.

For decades, hundreds of thousands of immigrants did the same. The contract involved in becoming Dutch was never spelled out. And one day, the country, like others in Europe, woke up to find strangers in its midst.

“All of Europe is in a state of denial,” she argued. “It thinks these killings will go away, but they will not. The Holy Book says infidels must be destroyed.”

She added: “We should acknowledge that it’s a very violent religion, say, yes, you are right, instead of pretending, like Bush, that this violence is not true Islam. And then we should encourage Muslims to say that they will remain Muslims, but reject those verses incompatible with human rights, with a decent coexistence between men and women. We should demand an Islamic Reformation.”

Aboutaleb, the city councilor who works for Cohen, the Amsterdam mayor, forming an unusual Muslim-Jewish team, thinks Hirsi Ali, Wilders, Verdonk and the country’s center-right government are wrong. A Social Democrat, he’s alarmed by the Netherlands’ hardening. “Their direction is setting groups against each other,” he said. “But we need what I call ‘The Big We’ community, where our one million Muslims feel members of society.”

Islam, for Aboutaleb, is less the problem than European culture. On TV, he spends 40 percent of his time explaining his religion, because Europe shuns Islam. “Why,” he asked, “is Cohen never questioned on being a Jew?”

To move forward, Aboutaleb wants to involve imams in the fight against extremists, thought by the government to number 3 to 5 percent of Dutch Muslims.

But on one thing the Muslim and lapsed Muslim agree. Their country has a problem with its education system. It is shocking to hear the frequency with which the Dutch refer to “white” and “black” schools, the latter being where “dark-haired” – hence “black” – immigrants often end up.

This division is the result of a schooling system, enshrined in Article 23 of the Constitution, which grants parents the right to get government support for schools based on the Christian, or any other, faith, and school boards the right to refuse pupils who do not espouse that belief.

“The constitution makes educational segregation a fact in the Netherlands, and that is appalling,” Aboutaleb said. “But for the Christian Democrat Appeal party, Article 23 is sacred.” The current government is a CDA-VVD coalition.

Efforts to change

For now, that coalition is focusing its immigration reform efforts on other fronts. As elsewhere in Europe, immigration has been based mainly on three legal forms of entry: asylum, family reunion, and marriage.

Asylum procedures, which often left foreigners in years of limbo receiving welfare benefits, have been tightened up, and expulsions of thousands of failed applicants accelerated.

Immigrants wanting to join family or wed will soon have to pass a test on Dutch language and society in their country of origin. Age and salary stipulations for those wanting to bring in relatives or a spouse have been upped.

The passing of a so-called “Inburgering” test, a kind of good citizenship exam, will become mandatory. A new ceremony, complete with national anthem, is being contemplated for naturalizations, along American lines.

“Europe should look to America and accept that a major presence of immigrants is now part of their makeup,” said Demetrios Papademetriou, the president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “In the U.S., one in nine are foreign-born; in Europe, perhaps one in 10. But in Europe, a real change in mentality is needed to see immigrants more as opportunity, less as problem. And for that, Europe may have to adjust the full-plated set of benefits it has offered to all at the outset.”

A deep rethinking of European immigration is under way, driven by post 9/11 danger, uncertain identity and the economics of indebted welfare systems. Where it will lead, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, is not yet clear.

Kes Van Twist, who recently chaired the Dutch movie awards and saw several films by a young Dutch Turks and Moroccans “accepting both the world they came from and the world they are in,” is optimistic of a reconciliation with Islam, just as once occurred between Catholics and Protestants.

But tensions are high. The time when former Prime Minister Wim Kok could cycle to work seems impossibly distant. In fact Kok quit just three years ago, over the failure of Dutch United Nations troops to protect the Muslims of Srebrenica.

Do such failures – toward the Jews during the war, toward waves of Muslim immigrants, toward the massacred Muslims in Bosnia – help explain the country’s disarray?

Perhaps. As the Golden Age painters understood, things here are never quite what they seem. In railway stations today, big orange-and-black posters are everywhere. Put up by the country’s main Jewish organization, one declares: “In 1940-45, most of the Jews had to disappear. Who’s next? Don’t let hate come back.” The second says: “From here the trains departed to Auschwitz. When will the world get wiser?”

As a visitor stared at this grim adornment of The Hague station, a woman in her 60s approached. “Don’t be offended,” she said, hurrying on her way. “It’s just meant so things get better.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
International Herald Tribune, France
Oct. 16, 2005
Roger Cohen
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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday October 16, 2005.
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