El-Tawheed mosque could only be in Amsterdam. Across the street is a coffee shop serving soft drugs. The facade of a house a few doors down is painted with naked female figures. And while some women passing the mosque wear veils, others cycle by in T-shirts.
El-Tawheed mosque became notorious in 2004 when Mohammed Bouyeri, a young man who had prayed there, murdered the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Mr Bouyeri’s friend Samir Azzouz, now serving eight years in jail for planning terrorist attacks, also prayed at El-Tawheed.
The murder of Van Gogh, who had made a film attacking Islam, has been called the “Dutch September 11”. Suddenly the placid Netherlands had become a terrorist target. Gerrit Zalm, then the deputy premier, said the country was at war.
“It was surreal, very scary,” says Abdelkarim At-Tetouani, a member and former chairman of the mosque’s youth committee, a Dutch Moroccan who speaks an educated, even posh Dutch.
“We were in the spotlight,” he admits, but he insists that the mosque has no evidence that Mr Bouyeri ever visited.
Three years on, at first glance Mr Zalm’s “war” appears over. El-Tawheed’s door is open, there is no security and anyone can walk in. The tranquility exemplifies Amsterdam’s attempts since 2004 to end Mr Zalm’s war in the city’s time-honoured fashion.
Amsterdam has always been the most mixed of cities. In 1653 the English poet Andrew Marvell characterised it as “Turk-Christian-pagan-Jew”, and today the city’s biggest religion is Islam. Twelve per cent of Amsterdammers say they identify with the faith, more than with Catholicism or all Protestant denominations combined.
El-Tawheed pursues the purist version of Islam known as Salafism. This preaches an austere version of Islam, based on its early years. In 2004 the Dutch domestic security service AIVD said it was watching El-Tawheed.
The mosque is almost as cosmopolitan as Amsterdam, drawing its flock from different ethnic groups all over the west of the city. Its chief imam is an Egyptian who has run a restaurant on the side, many mosque-goers are of Moroccan descent, and the mosque offers lectures and books in Dutch for converts and others without Arabic. Even before Mr Bouyeri’s act, the mosque got into trouble for selling books that justified female circumcision and called for the killing of homosexuals.
Yet the nationwide panic after Van Gogh’s murder hardly affected Amsterdam. In the days after the murder, while the Netherlands reeled under tit-for-tat attacks on mosques, churches and Islamic schools, the city stayed quiet. That was partly due to Amsterdam’s ancient tradition of religious tolerance, says Mr At-Tetouani.
The anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders, who wants the Koran banned, would get 13 per cent of Dutch votes in a national election, according to recent polls, but in Amsterdam he polls less than half that. That may be because the white working class, the group most likely to vote for the far right, has been driven out of Amsterdam by soaring house prices.
Mr At-Tetouani also praises Job Cohen, Amsterdam’s mayor, for saying amid the national panic: “We must hold things together.” Mr Cohen, in the Dutch tradition, urged dialogue between Amsterdam’s Muslims and other groups. El-Tawheed invited frightened neighbours to an “open day”. After locals complained about noise and disorder at the mosque, a bike rack was set up to keep the pavement free of mosque-goers’ bicycles.
Many Dutch rightists deride the Amsterdam approach as soft and label Mr Cohen “a tea drinker” for his frequent visits to Muslim groups. He is undeterred.
The municipal government tries to keep contact even with youths who flirt with jihadism. When someone starts on that path, Amsterdam’s authorities aim to nudge him towards suitable work or education, anything to fill his days and keep him in society. The city also asks learned Muslims to talk religion with incipient jihadists.
Mr At-Tetouani denies that El-Tawheed spreads radicalism, and city officials agree with him. Do Dutch security agents ever attend prayers at the mosque? “They’re welcome,” says Mr At-Tetouani. “That’s their job, to keep an eye on things.”
However, Dutch mosques have lost some relevance in the “war on terror”. They appear to be losing the hearts of young radicals to their great rival, the internet. Mr Bouyeri found the teachings of Amsterdam mosques too tame compared with the jihadist material he read online. The authorities have trouble spotting potential future Bouyeris studying Islam in their bedrooms. These radicals are few in number — according to a report by the University of Amsterdam, only 2 per cent of the city’s Muslims are even potentially susceptible to jihadist ideas — but that is little consolation.
“You see,” says Mr At-Tetouani, remembering 2004, “a single person can turn the country upside down.”