It prides itself on being the beating liberal heart of Europe, but the murder of film-maker Theo van Gogh has convinced many in the Netherlands that the nation’s legendary tolerance has now reached its limit.
Van Gogh’s execution last Tuesday, which has been linked to Islamic extremists, has brought calls for a crackdown on fundamentalists and renegade preachers that would previously have been unthinkable.
Once liberal commentators now want Muslim hardliners to be thrown out of the country, even if they have Dutch passports, and greater surveillance of the wider Islamic community.
Meanwhile, one of the biggest Muslim populations in Western Europe is fearful of being tarred with the extremist brush by a nation which increasingly feels it is being taken advantage of.
Van Gogh, who had made a controversial film about Islamic culture, was shot and stabbed in Amsterdam as he cycled to work. A five-page letter addressed to a female Somali immigrant who scripted the controversial film that Van Gogh directed before she entered national politics, was pinned to his body with a knife.
A Dutch-Moroccan has been charged over the incident, and also with membership of a group with “terrorist intentions and conspiracy to murder a politician”.
The 26-year-old accused, identified by Dutch media as Mohammed B, was also charged with attempting to kill a policeman and a bystander.
The killing has revived memories of the shocking murder of anti-immigration populist Pim Fortuyn by an animal rights activist in 2002.
Prior to his death, Fortuyn’s views had been condemned by the liberal media. But the slaying of Van Gogh has had a cathartic effect in a country where racial tension and hostility towards foreigners is on the rise.
The leading liberal Amsterdam broadsheet, The Telegraaf, has led the charge with a hard-hitting editorial that would never previously have been published.
“There needs to be a very public crackdown on extremist Muslim fanatics in order to assuage the fear of citizens and to warn the fanatics that they must not cross over the boundaries,” the newspaper said.
“International cash transfers must be more tightly controlled; magazines and papers which include incitement should be suppressed; unsuitable mosques should be shut down and imams who encourage illegal acts should be thrown out of the country.
“This should also apply to extremists who have dual nationality. They have no business here. In addition, the range of extremists to be kept under surveillance needs to be expanded. If more money is required for all this, then that money must be made available. It is more than worth it for the sake of the citizens’ safety.”
Volkskrant, published in The Hague, declared that while Muslims might be infuriated by Van Gogh’s film, they should have taken the film-maker to court rather than engaging in acts of violence.
It said: “Muslims will have to learn that, in a democracy, religion, too, is open to criticism – this applies to Islam no less than to Christianity. Theo van Gogh, in this respect, always purposefully went to the limits of decency.
“Many have regularly had reason to feel hurt or offended by him. In a democracy, those who want to defend themselves against this can go to court. Any other curtailment of free speech is inadmissible.”
The daily Algemeen Dagblad challenged the nation’s Muslims to take to the streets to condemn the killing and “cleanse” themselves as a community in the wake of the murder.
It said: “The has to be the time when voices from the Muslim community must say a massive ‘no’ to this kind of madness. A mass protest made by Dutch Muslims could be the symbolic beginning of a needed cleansing within the self.”
The rising tension in the Netherlands has led increasingly to calls from white Dutch people for Muslims either to accept Western ways or leave the country.
Prior to the killing, a poll found that a third of Dutch people felt threatened by Islam in their midst.
Barry Madlener, a councillor in Rotterdam, where half the population is foreign-born – many from Muslim countries – said: “If you say: ‘I reject the Western lifestyle and I don’t want to fit in your way,’ then I say: ‘Keep away.’
“When the children of these people cannot fit into our society, then the problems will grow.”
The murder has made allies of both freewheeling liberals and traditional church-goers who normally condemn the nation’s drug culture and sexual licence.
Justice minister Piet Hein Donner, regarded as a stern Calvinist with little in common with the ultra-permissive outlook personified by Van Gogh said: “If this is what has happened to this man, who did nothing but express his opinion, then one can no longer live decently in this land.”
A backlash has begun. In the central town of Utrecht, several fires broke out on Thursday at a new mosque belonging to a Moroccan religious association. A police spokeswoman said no evidence had been found of fire-raising but this was still under investigation.
The Dutch cabinet, meanwhile, has made it clear it is considering new ways to tackle Muslim extremists, including stripping criminals with dual citizenship of their Dutch nationality, increasing police powers and boosting the budget of the security service.
Gerrit Zalm, the deputy prime minister, says the cabinet also considered taking action against a mosque in Amsterdam regularly attended by Mohammed B.
Van Gogh, whose great-great-grandfather was the brother of artist Vincent van Gogh, has been described as the Netherlands’ Michael Moore.
The film, Submission, may have been only 10 minutes long, but it caused uproar in the country when it was broadcast at the end of August.
The outcry centred on the stories of four Muslim women who were beaten, raped and forced into marriage, and were asking for Allah’s help.
On their bodies were written verses from the Qu’ran describing the permitted physical punishments for women who “misbehave”.
Van Gogh claimed that he had been deliberately cautious, and would have made the film differently if he really had wanted to shock.
Nevertheless, death threats were soon received.
In a recent interview, Van Gogh was asked how he felt about the threats. Laughing, he replied that no one would believe it worth their while to shoot at the “village idiot”.
As all of the Netherlands now knows, Van Gogh got that one badly wrong.
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