In Mourning Slain Filmmaker, Dutch Confront
Limitations of Their Tolerance
By CRAIG S. SMITH
Published: November 10, 2004
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AMSTERDAM, Nov. 9 - Anger percolated through the crowd gathered Tuesday
night outside the funeral for the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was
killed a week ago on an Amsterdam street by a man the police described
as a Muslim extremist.
That anger is adding new fuel to a public debate over conservative Islam
in Europe's most liberal society, one that had already become a
no-holds-barred affair even before the killing of Mr. van Gogh, who had
repeatedly used epithets against Muslims. His killing has polarized the
country, giving the rest of Europe a disturbing glimpse of what may be
in store if relations with the Continent's growing immigrant communities
are not managed more adeptly.
Officials suspect that a fire at an Islamic elementary school on Tuesday
in Uden, in the south, was arson, part of what the Dutch authorities
fear are reprisals after Mr. van Gogh's killing, The Associated Press
reported. It said the authorities had reported that Muslim sites had
been the target of a half-dozen attacks in the past week.
In what seemed to be retaliation, arsonists tried to burn down
Protestant churches in Rotterdam, Utrecht and Amersfoort for the bombing
of a Muslim elementary school in Eindhoven on Monday, The Associated
Press quoted the police as saying.
The attacks have scratched the patina of tolerance on which the Dutch
have long prided themselves, particularly here, in a city where the
scent of hashish trails in the air, prostitutes beckon from red-lighted
storefront brothels and Hells Angels live side by side with Hare
Krishnas. But many Dutch now say that for years that the tradition of
tolerance had suppressed an open debate about the challenges of
integrating conservative Muslims.
Jan Colijn, 46, a bookkeeper from the central Dutch town of Gorinchem,
who was at the funeral, complained that the generous Dutch social
welfare system had allowed Muslim immigrants to isolate themselves.
Because of that trend, "there is a kind of Muslim fascism emerging
here," he said. "The government must find a way to break these
Another man, who declined to give his name, was more succinct: "Now,
For many years, such criticism of Islam and Islamic customs, even among
Dutch extremists, was considered taboo, despite deep frustrations that
had built up against conservative Islam.
Many here say this began to change after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks,
when the Netherlands, like many countries, began seriously to consider
the dangers of political Islam. The debate fueled an anti-immigration
movement and helped propel the career of Pim Fortuyn, a populist
politician who was killed by an environmental activist shortly before
national elections in 2002.
By all accounts here, Mr. Fortuyn's killing removed any remaining brakes
on the debate surrounding immigrants.
"After Pim Fortuyn's murder, there were no limitations on what you could
say," said Edwin Bakker, a terrorism expert at the Netherlands Institute
of International Relations in The Hague. "It has become a climate in
which insulting people is the norm."
He and others said the public discourse, even among members of
government, had reached an extraordinary pitch and included language
that went far beyond the limits set for public forums in the United
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, member of Parliament and one of a handful of
politicians threatened with death by Islamic extremists, publicly called
the Prophet Muhammad a "pervert" and a "tyrant." She made a film with
Mr. van Gogh condemning sexual abuse among Muslim women, who were
portrayed with Koranic verses written on their bare skin.
Mr. van Gogh himself was one of the most outspoken critics of
fundamentalist Muslims and favored an epithet for conservative Muslims
that referred to bestiality with a goat. He used the term often in his
public statements, including a column he wrote for a widely read free
newspaper and during radio broadcasts and television appearances.
The cumulative effect made Mr. van Gogh, a distant relation of Vincent
van Gogh, a kind of cult clown on one side of the debate, and a reviled
hatemonger on the other. The debate became so caustic that the Dutch
intelligence service issued a report in March warning that the
unrestrained language could encourage radicalization of the country's
Muslim youth and drive people into the arms of terrorist recruiters. The
conservative Islamic revival that has swept the Arab world from the
Middle East to North Africa in recent years has reached Europe, where
frustrated second- and third-generation Arab immigrants frequently say
they feel rejected by European society.
While only about 20 percent of the estimated 900,000 Muslims in the
Netherlands practice their religion, according to one government study,
officials say as many as 5 percent of Muslims in the country follow a
conservative form of Islam. Most, like Muhammad Bouyeri, the 26-year-old
arrested by police in Mr. van Gogh's killing, are from the country's
There are about 300,000 people of Moroccan descent in the Netherlands
today. The ratcheting up of the anti-immigration debate has alienated
many of them from Dutch society and, many people argue, helped fragment
Jean Tillie, a professor of political science at the University of
Amsterdam, said the debate had broken down a network that connected even
the most extremist Muslim groups to the more moderate Muslim voices. He
cited an Amsterdam government advisory board that brought together
Moroccans and fostered communication and cohesion among all Muslims.
"Those groups participating didn't agree with each other, but they met
together with the collective mission of advising the city government,"
The board was abolished a year ago, he said, as a result of the
anti-immigration debate. He said that financing for other ethnic
organizations had shrunk and that outreach policies had also been
As a result, Mr. Tillie said, there has been a sharp decline in
political participation and trust among Muslims in the Netherlands and
between Muslims and the broader Dutch society.
"That worries me," he said. "When you break the networks, the extremists
within these communities become isolated and become more radical and
At El Tawheed mosque, considered by many people here to be the epicenter
of militancy in Amsterdam, Farid Zaari, the mosque's spokesman, argued
that pressure from the debate has hindered the Muslim community's
ability to control its militant youth.
"If we bring these people into the mosque, it is possible to change
their thoughts, but few mosques dare to because if you do, you're
branded," he said.
Dutch news reports say that Mr. van Gogh's killer attended the mosque,
and though Mr. Zaari said the mosque has no record of him ever being
there, he said that political leaders and the news media should
encourage the mosque to reach out to militant Muslim youth, rather than
stigmatizing it for doing so.
"If they come now," he added, "everyone says, 'Look, the mosque is
extremist, and they are plotting something there.' "
Bearded, robed men file in and out of the lobby of the modest brick
building that once housed a school. The mosque has been under intense
scrutiny for years, suspected of harboring an anti-Western agenda.
It was previously associated with a Saudi-based charity, Al Haramain,
which American and Saudi Arabian officials accused earlier this year of
aiding Islamic terrorists. The mosque has since severed its ties with
the charity, but more recently it has been criticized for selling books
espousing extremist views, including female genital cutting and the
punishment of homosexuals by throwing them off tall buildings.
Several legislators have called for the mosque to be shut down, but
under the Dutch Constitution it is difficult to do.
Mr. Zaari admits Muslims have been slow to respond to the fears within
Dutch society. "We didn't feel it was our responsibility to bridge the
gap, but now, with the murder, the gap has gotten wider," he said.
"All of us want to begin a dialogue now, but the language of the
political right is too extreme, and that's preventing discussion," he
said. "We all have to cool down and be careful what we say."
The problem is how to bridge a gap that has yawned dangerously since Mr.
van Gogh's killing.
The Amsterdam Council of Churches published paid notices in some Dutch
newspapers pledging solidarity with Muslims. But the government's
response has been to promise more money to fight terrorism and to adopt
stronger immigration laws.
"Islam is the most hated word in the country at this point," said Mr.
Bakker, the terrorism expert.