AMSTERDAM, Oct 31 (Reuters) – Deputy mayoress Fatima Elatik walks through the lively district she represents in eastern Amsterdam wearing a bright blue T-shirt with the slogan “Hello neighbour”, greeting passers-by of all ages and ethnicities.
Exotic food stores line the bustling streets with names like Javastraat and Sumatrastraat, which feel a world away from the picture-postcard canals, humpback bridges and slender townhouses of central Amsterdam.
Elatik’s mission in the multi-ethnic Zeeburg district near the city’s docks is to break down mutual suspicion between different communities which escalated after the killing of provocative Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh a year ago, as he cycled to work just a short distance from here.
Van Gogh, 47, a distant relative of the 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, was an outspoken critic of Islam and received death threats after making a film, “Submission“, which accused Islam of condoning violence against women.
“The murder blew away a lot of phoney tolerance,” said Elatik, a 32-year-old Dutch-Moroccan who wears a Muslim headscarf.
“But people got together immediately to say whatever happens, this is our neighbourhood and we want to protect it. They organised all kinds of events and discussions, and maybe something good can come out of this tragedy.”
Van Gogh’s brutal killing on Nov. 2 last year by Dutch-Moroccan Islamic militant Mohammed Bouyeri, and the death threats against leading politicians found pinned to his body with a knife, deeply unsettled Dutch society and provoked an anti-Muslim backlash.
In the weeks after his murder there were dozens of attacks on mosques and churches in tit-for-tat violence.
BANNING THE BURQA
Once famed for its tolerance, the Netherlands found itself branded as a country that had failed to integrate its immigrant communities and was now suffering the consequences.
“The national government won their elections by emphasising all the problems which stem from neighbourhoods such as this one,” said Elatik.
She, like many local Labour (PvdA) politicians such as Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen, feels the centre-right government has exacerbated tensions with a tougher line, focusing on law-making at the expense of anti-discrimination policies.
The Christian Democrats took power from Labour in 2002 on a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment following the murder of populist maverick Pim Fortuyn.
With a population of 16 million, the Netherlands is home to a million Muslims. Concentrated in the major cities, about a third have Moroccan roots.
But Elatik stresses the onus is also on immigrants and their children to show they want to be a part of society.
Elatik opposes burqas for another reason.
“Burqas say ‘I don’t want to play a part in society’,” she said, adding she would seek to help any woman forced to wear the covering by men.
Muslims here must be visible, engage with society and challenge it, she said.
The Van Gogh killing has lent added urgency to the work of grass-roots integration projects around the city.
On the western fringe of Amsterdam, the ENIP project takes teenage Dutch-Moroccan boys who have already offended or who are seen at risk of delinquency and teaches them to fix old hospital equipment such as cots and wheel chairs, which they then deliver in person to Moroccan towns and villages.
The trips serve several functions, explained Moustapha Baba, one of ENIP’s organisers. Teenagers are firstly stunned by people’s gratitude and realise the value of their work, giving them a sense of self-worth.
Although some kids may already know Morocco well, they are confronted by the poverty and lack of opportunities there, which prompts them to reconsider what kind of a future they want in the Netherlands.
They are also forced to acknowledge that they in fact have a dual identity.
“There is a part of them which is angry at Dutch society, they feel they are not accepted so they define themselves as Moroccan. But when they travel to Morocco they realise most Moroccans see them as Dutch,” said Baba.
The project aims to help youngsters cope with this double identity, and to tackle the discrimination they are likely to face particularly on the labour market.
Mayor Cohen told foreign journalists earlier this month: “The first generation of migrants was never taken seriously. Their children are getting more and more influenced by Dutch society but are still not accepted. They have trouble getting a job and get frustrated, so they look for some way of belonging.”
The so-called “Hofstad group“, a militant Islamist network rarely out of the headlines and suspected of plots to kill leading politicians, is believed to have members as young as 18 and include women as well as men.
Baba believes it is critical to reach young people and give them a new outlook, and to dispel unease on both sides.
“Things are tense here. If something else happened the situation could change within an hour,” he warned.