The price of tolerance

The Dutch grapple with assimilating immigrants with radically different mores.

It’s not tolerant to tolerate intolerance. That’s the message of Ayaan Hirsi Ali‘s book, “The Caged Virgin,” which arrived on U.S. shores last week. Ali, a 36-year-old member of the Dutch parliament, takes her adopted country to task for being too passive in answering radicalized anti-female teachings among Muslim immigrants in Holland’s famously tolerant society.

Ali, who was born into a devout Muslim family in Somalia, fled to Holland in 1992 to avoid an arranged marriage to a distant cousin. In her book and as a public figure, Ali urges the Netherlands and other Western democracies to intervene on the behalf of immigrant Muslim women who, she says, “are still enchained by the doctrine of virginity” — repressive mores that fuel the poverty and violence that spawn Islamic terrorism.

It’s a critique that targets, and enrages, Muslim men. It also hits home in the halls of power in Europe, where immigration and Muslims’ alienation from the larger society have become pressing issues for politicians. In some ways, Ali’s criticisms echo those of Pim Fortuyn, the iconoclastic Dutch politician who was assassinated in 2002. But there are signs that Dutch society, or at least the Dutch government, is now more receptive to the message.

Most of the talk Americans hear about immigration focuses on the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living and working in the United States. But Europe, too, is struggling with an immigration dilemma. Like Americans, Europeans depend on foreign labor (including about 15 million Muslims) to keep their economy healthy. There simply aren’t enough Europeans being born these days to continue to support the continent’s social welfare system.

At the same time, European democracies like the Netherlands worry that the influx of migrants from countries such as Morocco and Turkey is endangering their way of life. Fairly or not, Muslim immigrants are thought to be reluctant to assimilate. Europeans are afraid of terrorist attacks and riots like the ones that inflamed France last summer. The Dutch were scandalized when filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, with whom Ali collaborated on the short feminist film “Submission: Part One,” was murdered by a Muslim extremist in 2004. Ali, too, has been the target of numerous death threats and travels with bodyguards.

Ali believes that the only way to curb such violence is to force Muslims to abandon strict interpretations of the Koran and to find a new way to reconcile Islam with Western secular values. It’s a message that is hard to swallow for many left-leaning Dutch, who support multiculturalism and are hesitant to criticize Muslim culture.

But many Dutch are now reassessing this reluctance — and justifiably so. Ali’s book can read like an academic screed, leaning heavily on political theory to make its points. Her message, however — that liberal democracies can’t afford intolerance — appears to be taking hold in the mass culture.

Sometimes it rears its head in laws that place strict limits on immigration or otherwise make foreigners feel less welcome. Other times it offers a firm-but-friendly nudge to assimilate. That’s the message of a strangely mesmerizing DVD produced by none other than the Dutch government.

Naar Nederland” is a sort of training video for would-be immigrants to the Netherlands. Intended to help migrants wend their way through the paperwork and day-to-day details of starting a new life in Holland, it is oddly unwelcoming. “It seemed bleak, cold, untouchable,” one immigrant says about arriving in the country.

Combatting Intolerance

The primary purpose of the film, ‘Coming to the Netherlands’ is to provide people who have expressed a desire to move to the Netherlands with an overview of the country, Dutch society and culture.

Providing this information is one way of combatting the intolerance of (for the most part Muslim) immigrants who, after having moved to Holland, decide they do not like Dutch society and its values.

An edited version of the film is made available to countries in which images of nudity or homosexuals and lesbians are illegal

The message to Muslims — delivered via discussions of Dutch religious tolerance, casually dropped references to condom availability in pharmacies, endless harping on the importance of learning to speak Dutch, occasional glimpses of happy women in bikinis and a chipper warning about the perils of wearing a heavy veil when going through a security check — is clear: Welcome to our country. And welcome, also, to the way we think. You can’t have one without the other. Our tolerance is conditional on yours.

“You have to emigrate mentally as well as physically,” an interviewee observes.

That is hardly the call to cultural arms that Ali would like to see. But it’s an honest statement from a country struggling with its better impulses, trying to balance protecting its freedoms and respecting its differences. Yes, it’s kind of sad that the Dutch tolerance bubble has to burst — or at least deflate a little. But maybe, just maybe, it’s a realistic step toward a peaceful future.

Watch Submission, written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. This is the movie filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered for by an Islamic extremist. The vast majority of women who live at Dutch shelters for victims of domestic violence come from an Islamic background.

Note: This video is hosted by Google Video


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Los Angeles Times, USA
May 14, 2006 Editorial

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday May 17, 2006.
Last updated if a date shows here:


More About This Subject


Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission -- at no additional cost to you -- for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate, Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this research service free of charge.

Speaking of which: One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at