AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — After a 19-year-old man of Moroccan descent was run down and killed by a Dutch woman driver trying to recover her stolen purse, mourners blamed Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk for the death.
Gathered at a makeshift memorial here earlier this winter, the mourners said Verdonk’s tough immigration reforms have increased Dutch xenophobia against Muslims, spurring the woman’s violent reaction against the alleged purse thief.
Though the Dutch are famous for allowing euthanasia, gay marriage and soft-drug use, it is ironically their tolerance that may have laid the foundation for current ethnic tensions.
“The problem is we have been tolerant of the intolerant and now we are paying the bill,” said Bart Jan Spruyt, director of the conservative Edmund Burke Foundation in The Hague. “That bill has to be settled first before we can become tolerant again.”
In a nation of 16 million, one million residents are Muslim. But according to Spruyt, cultural relativism has reigned so long that there has been little, if any, push to integrate immigrants from Morocco and Turkey into Dutch society.
As a result, he said, “Muslim immigrants…developed their own parallel society” that is not only alienated from the Dutch mainstream, but also has a “hatred of the modern west” that led to the execution-style murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh last November.
Van Gogh, a descendant of the painter Vincent van Gogh, was shot, stabbed and had his throat slit by an alleged Islamic radical with Dutch and Moroccan citizenship. He was killed in the Dutch capital less than 200 feet from where the alleged purse thief died.
The murder was in apparent retribution for Van Gogh’s criticism of Islam in a film depicting Muslim women with texts from the Koran written on their bodies. The implication is that that Islam tolerates violence against women.
The film had been scheduled for a screening at Rotterdam’s International Film Festival in January but was cancelled due to threats.
Such threats have become commonplace, and have forced several politicians to live in secret locations under constant guard.
Among those is Geert Wilders, a member of Parliament and one of the most outspoken figure in Dutch politics.
“Islam and democracy are fully incompatible,” said Wilders, as quoted by the Washington Post in February. “They will never be compatible — not today, and not in a million years.”
He has called for a five-year ban on all non-Western immigrants as well as the pre-emptive arrest of those considered to be Islamic radicals.
Yassin Hartog, coordinator of Islam & Citizenship, a nonprofit group that promotes active Muslim citizenship in Dutch society, said that such measures would only aggravate tensions and increase separation.
Hartog, who is native Dutch but converted to Islam in the early 1990s, said “increased interaction” is the only solution.
“We’ve had the various groups living along side each other, instead of living with each other,” he said. “Muslims will have to move about in Dutch society more, and Dutch people will have to learn that they cannot have a one-sided debate which only serves to give Muslims a message.”
Indeed, Muslims and Dutch share core democratic values and there “is no empirical ground for an often assumed incompatibility of Islam with democratic rights and liberties in the Netherlands,” wrote Prof. Karen Phalet, a research fellow with the Utrecht-based European Research Centre on Migration and Ethnic Relations, in a report called “Muslim in the Netherlands.”
The majority of Muslims in the Netherlands are engaged in the democratic process, said Jean Tillie, co-director of the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies at the University of Amsterdam.
“I see a lot of reflection within the Muslim community about the relationship between Islam and democracy,” said Tillie, who recently completed a study on Islamic organizations in the Netherlands.
But conservatives such as Spruyt argue that Islam prevents a division between secular and religious law.
“That is at the heart of the matter,” he said. “You have to understand that the rules of your personal faith are not the rules of your country.”
In the Netherlands, those rules are becoming increasingly tough on immigrants.
Efforts are underway to require non-western immigrants to pass an integration exam. The test would compel an estimated 14,000 annual applicants to demonstrate competency in the Dutch language as well as an understanding of societal norms, such as acceptance of topless sunbathing and gay marriage.
Such initiatives are the result of a shift in the political climate in the Netherlands that started with the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, and was strengthened by the slaying of politician Pim Fortuyn.
After the attacks, Fortuyn gained popularity by declaring that “Holland is full,” referring to the nation’s status as the most densely populated country in Europe.
He pointed the finger at Muslims saying they were “busy conquering Western Europe” and called for a “Cold War against Islam.”
The message resonated with many native Dutch, particularly in cities such as Rotterdam and Amsterdam where there is a high concentration of immigrants.
“Pim Fortuyn could not have succeeded if the 11th of September hadn’t happened,” said Jeroen Visser of the National Bureau Against Racial Discrimination based in Rotterdam.
When he was gunned down by an animal rights activist in May 2002, the country — in which guns are forbidden — went into shock.
Nine days later, his party took second place in the national elections and was ultimately included in the centre-right coalition government that was formed.
Still in power, the coalition pushed through nearly 100 new anti-terror measures in February.
Airports and train stations will be designated permanent security risk zones, allowing police to search anyone at any time.
Terror suspects — not yet tried in a court of law — can be banned from public places and from doing certain jobs. Those suspects will also have to report to police regularly.
In the meantime, the trial for the alleged killer of van Gogh is getting underway.
And for the first time, Hartog notes, the defendant’s picture has been released to the public. Traditionally, defendant identities are kept private.
The woman driver who killed the alleged purse thief will not be charged, and her identity has not been made public.
“In the minds of many young Moroccans,” said Hartog, “all Dutchmen are equal but some are more equal than others.”