The Limits Of Tolerance

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PASSIONS ENFLAMED: A fire rages at an Islamic school in Uden

A filmmaker is shot and stabbed to death in broad daylight on the edge of a city park. Streets fill with tens of thousands of angry protesters. Police storm an apartment, are attacked with a grenade, and arrest two accused terrorists. One Islamic school is bombed, another burned to the ground, and more than a dozen mosques and churches set ablaze — with a severed pig's head left as a calling card outside one of the mosques. Can all of this really be happening in the calm, tolerant, liberal Netherlands?

The answer is yes. Immediately after the Nov. 2 murder of firebrand filmmaker Theo van Gogh, 47 — whose recent work included a controversial attack on Muslim violence against women — a Dutch Muslim man with alleged ties to a terrorist gang was arrested for the crime. That touched off a violent anti-Muslim backlash, which has forced some Dutch citizens to question the limits of free speech, others to ask whether the country's age-old reputation for tolerance is a thing of the past, and still others to wonder whether their grand experiment in integration has ignited an all-out clash of civilizations. "We have allowed a climate to develop in which everything is tolerated," says Geert Wilders, a right-wing member of parliament who has received death threats from radical Muslims. "There is way too much political correctness in the Netherlands — and now we're paying for it."

When maverick politician Pim Fortuyn was assassinated in 2002, the Dutch were relieved that his murderer turned out to be a radical white vegan from the small town of Harderwijk. Like Van Gogh, Fortuyn was critical of Islam — he called it a "backward culture" and demanded that immigrants assimilate into Dutch society — and many people feared his killing was the first salvo in the country's own culture war. But that battle may have finally begun with Van Gogh's murder, allegedly carried out by a Dutch-Moroccan, 26, who is being referred to in the media as Mohammed B. And attitudes in the Netherlands are hardening. A recent poll by the Dutch Associated Press Service found that 9 out of 10 Dutch agreed their country is becoming less tolerant. "All the myths we've been living with for the past 50 years — that we're progressive, tolerant, the moral guides of the world — are breaking down," says Dutch author and documentary filmmaker Stan van Houcke. "We Dutch are not tolerant."

Van Gogh, a great-grandnephew of the artist Vincent van Gogh, had just finished a film about Fortuyn when he was murdered. Amsterdam's public prosecutor says Mohammed B. shot Van Gogh as he cycled to his studio, then slit his throat and impaled a five-page letter to his body with a knife. The act was apparently in retaliation for Van Gogh's film Submission, a graphic look at abused Muslim women that was broadcast on Dutch television in August. Calling Van Gogh's murder part of a wider terrorist plot, the prosecutor's office arrested five men — four Moroccans and one Spanish-Moroccan — in addition to Mohammed B. The letter knifed into Van Gogh's body was typed and addressed to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born member of parliament who wrote and narrated Submission, and contained threats against Hirsi Ali, Jozias van Aartsen, parliamentary leader of the right-wing vvd party, and Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen.

Born in west Amsterdam, Mohammed B. appears to have been a typical second-generation child of Moroccan parents. He was by all accounts a good student, and his family attended a moderate mosque. He may have moved toward fundamentalist Islam after the death of his mother two years ago. Though he initially sought to fit into Dutch culture, he may have faced the same dilemma as other young Dutch Muslims, caught between their parents' old Islamic ways and an unaccepting modern Dutch society. "They're living between two different worlds," says Van Houcke. "They can feel in 1,001 ways that we consider them lower than us." Driven by economics as well as culture, the conflict between well-off native Dutch and poorer Muslim immigrants has simmered for about five years, says Dutch professor Maurits Berger. There is "fear and suspicion that anything Islamic is incompatible with Dutch society," he says. "If Jews, Catholics and Chinese can live here and adhere to the democratic rules, so can Muslims."

People like the 135 kg, chain-smoking Van Gogh could make that difficult. Always a provocateur, he had taken verbal swipes at virtually every Dutch minority. Three cases had been brought against him for slurs against Muslims and Jews; he was convicted of anti-Semitism in 1990, attacked Catholics in his spare time, and routinely referred to Muslims with an unpublishable epithet. Wilders, now under police protection, defends him. "Van Gogh was provocative, but in a democracy you fight words with words, not bullets," he says.

Van Gogh was reviled by many of the country's nearly 1 million Muslims, who comprise about 6% of its population. "It's increasingly less pleasant for Muslims in the Netherlands," says Driss El Boujoufi, deputy chairman of the Union of Moroccan Mosque Organizations. "Society is becoming more divisive."

In the days after Van Gogh's death, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende's government promised a series of new security measures, as well as proposals to strip extremists of their Dutch passports, deport radical imams, and close down radical mosques. Dutch police believe Mohammed B. was part of a terror cell called the Hofstad Netwerk, whose alleged leader, Syrian Redouan al-Issar, preached at Mohammed B.'s home. Around a dozen alleged members of the cell have been picked up so far, including Samir Azzouz, a Moroccan arrested in the Netherlands this year for allegedly plotting attacks on government and public sites, and Abdeladim Akouad, another Moroccan detained near Barcelona last year. Dutch police who stormed an apartment in the Hague last week were met by a grenade. After a 14-hour siege, four police had been wounded and two Dutch citizens arrested. Prosecutors described the incident as "a separate investigation," but newspaper reports suggested it was related to the Hofstad Netwerk.

If these developments mean tolerance is backfiring on the Dutch, they're not about to accept the alternative. Van Gogh's murder was such an affront to free speech that Cohen, the Amsterdam mayor who was once the butt of his anti-Semitic jokes, asked demonstrators to gather in Dam Square and make noise. Twenty thousand people came, screaming and banging pots, pans and drums in the damp autumn night. A progressive society isn't about to go down quietly.