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A Test of Tolerance: Muslim Immigrants in the Netherlands

November 4, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, Europe and its Muslim immigrants. The issue of Muslim immigration is particularly volatile in the Netherlands. And this week it turned violent, with the murder Tuesday of a Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh. He had produced a fictional movie about a beaten and abused Muslim woman. Nine North African Muslim men have been arrested and charged in the murder.

Recently, producer Saul Gonzalez of KCET, Los Angeles, was in the Netherlands reporting on the immigration issue for the PBS program Religion and Ethics News Weekly. Here is the story he prepared for us.

SAUL GONZALEZ: The Netherlands has long been a country synonymous with peace and prosperity, with its 16 million citizens enjoying one of the highest standards of living in the world. It’s also a nation known for its liberal social values. Here, prostitution is open and legal, as is the use of some drugs like marijuana, which can be bought as easily as a cup of coffee.

However, like other European nations, Holland’s reputation for tolerance is being tested as the country grapples with how to welcome and integrate its growing immigrant Muslim population, a community of 900,000 people who are increasingly vocal in demanding equality in Dutch society.

SAMIRA ABBOS: I don’t want to be tolerated in this country, I have lived here for 32 years, I’m a citizen of Holland. I want to be accepted.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Samira Abbos is a writer and social commentator of Moroccan birth. She says many of Holland’s Muslims, especially the young, are trying to find ways to reconcile their identities as both Muslims and Europeans.

SAMIRA ABBOS: What I see here is Holland that’s very important is that a young generation of Dutch Muslims is coming up, Dutch Muslims who say, “I want to be Dutch and I can be Muslim here in Holland. Give us the freedom.”

SAUL GONZALEZ: As Holland and other European countries struggle to assimilate their growing Muslim populations, many fear a gulf is growing on this continent between Muslims and non-Muslims, a gulf characterized by mutual suspicion and hostility.

BARRY MADLENER, Rotterdam City Councilman: If you say “I reject the western lifestyle and I don’t want to fit in your way,” I say, “keep away.”

SAUL GONZALEZ: Barry Madlener is a municipal councilman in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam. It’s a metropolis where nearly 50 percent of all residents are foreign-born, with most of them from Muslim countries. Echoing the views of many Europeans, Madlener favors tighter immigration laws and argues that too many Muslims living in Europe are unwilling to accept European cultural values, such as equality for women and gays.

BARRY MADLENER: They really reject a western lifestyle and we think that is very strange, because if you don’t want to have a western lifestyle, you shouldn’t come here. So they come here and they want to claim their lifestyle and of course we have, we are a liberal society. But when the children of these people cannot fit into our society, then the problems will grow.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Madlener’s views are not unique. A recent national poll found that more than a third of Dutch citizens feel threatened by Muslims. Such public concerns have spurred Holland’s center-right government to propose some of the toughest immigration reforms in Western Europe, including the expulsion of thousands of asylum seekers in the country. Fears of terrorism also contribute to Europeans’ ambivalence toward the continent’s more than 12 million Muslims, especially in the wake of the Madrid train bombings of last March. Those attacks, planned and carried out by Islamic militants, killed nearly 200 people.

Many young European Muslims, like Dutch-Moroccan kick boxer Fekre Tayardi, say they’re saddened that Islam has become associated with bloodshed and fanaticism in the minds of some Europeans. Tayardi says the only people he wants to fight are in the ring.

FEKRE TAYARDI: I feel power in my religion, but I don’t feel hate. I feel only love and power. Everything I need is in my religion. I am happy in my religion. But there are people who see it as a terrorist religion, and bad religion, hate religion.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Abbos feels that the actions of a radical few make it easier for Europeans to demonize all Muslims.

SAMIRA ABBOS: It can make you crazy because, you don’t know me, but you are afraid of me. And we live in the same country. For me, that’s a very big problem.

SAUL GONZALEZ: However this woman, one of the most controversial figures in Holland, says European society should fear some in the Muslim community. She is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born Dutch legislator and former Muslim herself, who says Europe is increasingly threatened by Islamic fundamentalist beliefs imported from the Middle East, beliefs that are appealing to many poor and alienated Muslim young people.

AYAAN HIRSI ALI, Dutch Legislator: You see that these individuals have now gone through a complete mental change and take a hostile attitude towards Europe and Europeans– label people unbelievers. And those Muslims who are mild about their religion, those Muslims who practice their Islam like most Christians practice Christendom in Europe, even those Muslims have been labeled by the radical Muslims as unbelievers or working with the unbelievers.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Hirsi Ali says she is especially concerned about what growing Islamic fundamentalism in Europe means for the progress of Muslim women on the continent.

AYAAN HIRSI ALI: So fathers forbid their daughters to go to school, they forbid them to have friends. They forbid them to mix with the native Dutch people. After a certain age they are forced into marriage or they are persuaded into a marriage and when society discusses this then the left would always say, “It is their culture, we are supposed to respect it.” But what you see, these are human rights abuses.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Many European Muslims complain that it’s their rights and freedoms that are in jeopardy, as suspicion of them grows.

DYAB ABOU JAHJAH, Arab European League: When a Muslim declares openly that he is a Muslim and is quite outspoken about that and wants to participate in politics and participate public life, out of his own beliefs, which is what everybody does, that Muslim is considered an extremist.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Lebanese born Dyab Abou Jahjah is the president of the Arab European League, a controversial Muslim civil rights group. Jahjah argues that the plight of Muslims in 21st century Europe is no better than that of African-Americans during the days of segregation.

DYAB ABOU JAHJAH: I think it is even more oppressive, I mean, they are unemployed, they have no education, the level of dropping out of school is phenomenal. They have no housing. And they have no practical political rights.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Jahjah criticizes recent laws passed in Europe, such as a ban on headscarves in French schools and a requirement in Holland that Muslim clerics use the Dutch language in religious services. To Jahjah, such laws are repugnant examples of forced cultural assimilation that send a clear message to Muslims.

DYAB ABOU JAHJAH: We don’t want them to stay like they are. We don’t want them to be different. We want them to be exactly like us. And only when they are exactly like us, we accept them. Well, if you only accept people who are exactly like you, you are not tolerant.

DYAB ABOU JAHJAH: I think democracy is an ongoing process everywhere.

SAUL GONZALEZ: As he lectures about the oppression of Muslims in Europe, however, Jahjah himself is attacked as a dangerous demagogue by his critics. Those critics often cite Jahjah’s qualified condemnations of past terrorist attacks, such as the Madrid bombings.

DYAB ABOU JAHJAH: I said clearly that I condemn the bombings. And then they ask me, “is it absurd violence?” I said, “well, it’s not absurd in the sense there’s an agenda, a political agenda behind it.” I can understand… if you ask me why they did it, I can tell you why they did it. So I am not going to come into a politically correct discourse. I don’t care about that. I just say things like they are. I know why people attacked Madrid. I say, “stupid of them.” They should have taken other targets. People are shocked then. And I say, “yeah, they should have attacked, you know, positions of the Spanish army.” Any military target is a fair target. Any military target of a country that is occupying an Arab land is a fair target for an Arab.

SAUL GONZALEZ: Jahjah’s comments stir concern in Holland, which has 1,300 soldiers deployed in Iraq. In Dutch cities, authorities fear some Muslim institutions, such as the ultra conservative al Tawheed Mosque located in this plain building in west Amsterdam, are teaching a militant form of Islam, one which could encourage disaffected Muslim young people to turn to violence. Hirsi Ali’s criticisms of Islam have earned her numerous death threats. Wherever she goes, she’s now accompanied by bodyguards. But Hirsi Ali says she has a responsibility to speak out against religious extremism, no matter what the danger.

AYAAN HIRSI ALI: I think it’s worth the risks, but I think I can, living in the Netherlands, in a western country, very rich, who can afford to give me bodyguards all the time, can afford to do it. If I were to do the same thing that I’m doing now in Somalia or in any other country with an Islamic majority, I would have been dead a long time ago. I wouldn’t even have tried it.

SAUL GONZALEZ: As Islam’s influence in Europe continues to grow Europeans face a challenge familiar to many Americans: Welcoming the beliefs and traditions of newcomers while protecting freedom and equality for all.