Islamist murders and threats have transformed the once-tolerant Netherlands into a place of armed bodyguards and fear
A film about gay rights should hardly raise an eyebrow in the Netherlands, which for centuries has prided itself as a beacon of freedom of expression and was the first country to legalise gay marriage.
But when Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee turned Dutch MP, starts making a new film about the oppression of homosexuals under Islam, the threat to everyone taking part is deemed so great that there will be no faces shown on screen, no end credits, and the entire production team will remain anonymous. Ms Ali, a ‘lapsed Muslim’ who revealed this week that she has finished the script, lives in a safe house under 24-hour protection.
The precaution is as wise as the courage is extraordinary: Theo van Gogh, the director of Ms Ali’s previous film, about domestic violence under Islam, was killed — repeatedly shot and nearly decapitated in broad daylight in the streets of Amsterdam by an Islamic extremist. Impaled on a knife in Mr van Gogh’s chest was a five-page note declaring holy war on the Netherlands and threatening death to many other public figures deemed ‘enemies of Islam’.
A year after his murder, the Netherlands is a country transformed. Previously, only the Queen and the Prime Minister had police protection, and ministers cycled to their ministries. Now, many politicians, writers and artists are considered to be in such danger that they have permanent armed guards and are driven around in bomb-proof armoured cars. The Interior Ministry has set up a special unit assessing death threats from Islamic extremists and providing protection squads.
“In a democracy, strong opinion-leaders must be able to say what they want to say. Therefore, the Government will take the responsibility to protect them,” a spokesman from the ministry said, adding that the number receiving protection was secret.
In the parliament in The Hague, inside the airport-style security, two besuited bodyguards stand erect outside the office of Geert Wilders, Ms Ali’s political rival, checking closely anyone who has permission to enter. “I have been deluged with death threats,” the maverick right-wing MP, who has called for the deportation of Islamic extremists, said.
Across town, police are investigating the shot fired at the window of Rita Verdonk, the Immigration Minister, who has become a hate figure among Muslim communities for introducing some of the strictest immigration laws in Europe, and insisting that Muslims should integrate.
In Amsterdam, an alderman, Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Dutch-Moroccan who has said that Moroccans who do not like the Netherlands should leave, is also under permanent protection. “He never gives interviews on that issue,” a spokeswoman said. Job Cohen, the Mayor of Amsterdam, has tried to build bridges with the Muslim community but, as the country’s highest-profile Jew, he also needs round- the-clock protection.
At Leiden University law school, Professor Afshin Ellian, a refugee from Iran who has called for reform of Islam, and even suggested that comedians should make jokes about it, is hustled through the electronically locked doors to his office by two bodyguards.
“In the Netherlands, terrorists want to threaten not only the public, on the underground or on trains, but they also want to kill public figures, such as artists, academics and politicians,” he said. “It is not special in terms of Islam — in Iran it is normal to kill people who criticise Islam, as in Egypt and Iraq. It is legitimised by Islamic political theology, which says it is all right to kill someone if they are an enemy of Allah. But this is happening in Europe.”
Academics and authorities in the Netherlands are trying to understand why, in their country, Islamic extremism has gone down the path of assassination, while in Britain and Spain it ended in bombings.
The rise in the death threats started in 2002 when Pym Fortuyn, a flamboyant gay right-wing maverick, called for a halt to Islamic immigration. He complained that police did not take the death threats against him seriously, until he was killed, not by a Muslim but by a left-wing activist who said that he did it “for the Muslims”.
It was the first political killing in the Netherlands for three centuries and was seen as a one-off. But the murder of Mr van Gogh two years later convinced people that the threat of political killing had become permanent.
Frank Bovenkerk, of the University of Utrecht, undertook a study for the police that confirmed the rise in death threats across the country, and their seriousness.
“They are under real threat — they would be killed without protection,” he said. “It is to do with the sudden change in political manners. We have a type of provocateur which is unprecedented in the Netherlands. They claim it is about freedom of speech, but it is about freedom of cursing,” he said.
Even if the would-be assassins are foiled by the intelligence services and the protection squads, the death threats are already having some success in silencing criticism. “People are very afraid of saying things now,” Professor Ellian said. “There is self-censorship.”
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