The Islam debate in the Netherlands

A day before the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, the Netherlands commemorated the murder of Theo van Gogh by Muslim radical Mohammed Bouyeri on 2 November 2004. In the many items and analyses devoted to the anniversary in the Dutch media, one question has been prominent: has the Netherlands changed since the Van Gogh murder?

A recent survey conducted on behalf of commercial broadcaster RTL reveals that a 60 percent majority of the Dutch population feel that the country has indeed changed. Meanwhile, 77 percent of those interviewed believe there should be more contact and dialogue between the indigenous Dutch and immigrant populations. Apparently, the Dutch view a dialogue with the Muslim community as an important way to improve the present climate.

One-sided debate

In this light, it is all the more significant that Muslim participation in Dutch public debates on Islam is very meagre. These debates largely remain ones between Dutch critics and defenders of Islam. Since the 11 September attacks in the United States, the murder by an animal rights activist of populist politician Pim Fortuyn and, more particularly, following the killing of Theo van Gogh, the critics have monopolised the debate, while the defenders have been on the defensive.

On Tuesday evening, the day before the Van Gogh commemoration, a debate on Islam was held in Amsterdam. Amidst tight security, some of the most prominent participants in the continuing Dutch Islam debate came together to discuss their views.

Defending freedom of religion

Perhaps the most remarkable contribution came from left-wing thinker Paul Scheffer, who put forward an argument he elaborated the same day in a commentary in the NRC Handelsblad newspaper. Muslims, he said, rightfully demand freedom of religion in Europe. The enjoyment of this right to freedom of religion, however, necessarily entails the duty to defend this right for others, both fellow Muslims and non-Muslims. Paul Scheffer argues that political Islam in particular is not ready to accept this basic democratic principle and is, therefore, in need of reform.

Paul Scheffer is one of the most reasonable and moderate voices among Dutch critics of Islam. More radical ones, such as Arabist Hans Jansen and Somali-born liberal-conservative MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali, are less hopeful about the prospects for reform. They both argue that what they call ‘pure Islam’ cannot be reconciled with the principles of democracy. In order to be democratic, Muslims therefore have to ‘dilute’ Islam and strip it of some of its essential teachings. According to Hans Jansen, Theo van Gogh’s murderer was primarily driven by verses of the Koran. Speaking at the debate in Amsterdam, he said:

“Pure Islam has everything to do with terrorism. The Sharia advocated by its adherents always contradicts human rights.”


Similar views can be regularly heard and read in the Dutch media. The advocates of such criticism say they want to challenge Muslims to engage in discussion. But the Muslim response to this critique of their religion is quite the opposite. The negative view of Islam generates a general sense of bitterness, a feeling of being unwelcome and a tendency to withdraw into the Muslim community.

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.

Tariq Ramadan articulate advocate of reformist Islam

This process of withdrawal is dramatically illustrated in the outskirts of Dutch cities, where an increasing number of young Muslims are taking to Islamic dress and appearance. Although definitely a minority phenomenon, it seems to be indicative of a more general feeling. More young Muslim women are choosing to wear a Muslims have responded with outrage to government proposals to ban the headscarf or veil. The veils become blacker and more concealing and, in some cases, make way for Muslims have responded with outrage to government proposals to ban the burqas that completely cover the face. More young Muslim men are growing religiously inspired beards and developing an interest in different types of Salafist Islamic dress, bin-Laden style or otherwise.

Silent protest

In almost every respect, this emerging subculture among young Muslims appears to be the complete opposite of the materialist and seemingly sex-obsessed hip-hop subculture represented in many of the music videos shown on television. The choice of religious-style dress gives the impression of being a form of silent protest and a way to express distinction from – and disagreement with – the rest of the surrounding society.

The renowned Swiss-Egyptian Muslim reformer and preacher Tariq Ramadan recognises this process of withdrawal: “Muslims feel that they are unjustly held responsible for the murder of Van Gogh. The natural reaction is to turn away from public life, but this is exactly what should not happen.” In his view, Muslims need to increase their contacts with society and explain to others both what Islam stands for and – as in the case of the murder of Theo van Gogh – what is contradictory to its teachings. Only in this way will it be possible to counterbalance the media’s almost exclusive attention for Muslim radicals with the view of the majority of Muslims who want to live in peace.

The Dutch dialogue with Islam, it seems, is waiting for articulate representatives of reformist Islam such as the charismatic Tariq Ramadan.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Radio Netherlands, Netherlands
Nov. 3, 2005 Opinion
Michel Hoebrink

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday November 4, 2005.
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