Uneasy Dutch ask if diversity kills identity

Amsterdam, Netherlands -- There has been speculation in the media here that a new citizenship test for immigrants to the Netherlands might include this question about Dutch soccer:

"If Holland is playing the national team from your previous country, whom should you root for?"

A few years ago, the politically correct--and very Dutch--answer would have been "the underdog."

These days, when many Dutch fear their unique identity is being swept away by a flood of immigration, the correct answer is "Holland."

This tidy and prosperous nation of dikes, canals and legal marijuana is in the throes of a deep identity crisis. Intellectuals and political leaders from the left and the right are saying that the vaunted Dutch model of tolerant multiculturalism has not only failed but has failed catastrophically.

The tipping point came Nov. 2, 2004, when Theo van Gogh, a provocative and sometimes outlandishly boorish filmmaker, was murdered while bicycling to work.

Van Gogh had recently made a short film ridiculing aspects of Islam. The accused killer is a 26-year-old Dutch-born Moroccan who allegedly shot van Gogh several times before slitting his throat. He then used the knife to pin a note to van Gogh's body warning others who allegedly insulted Islam.

The slaying has brought about a sea change in the way the Dutch view themselves and their society.

Last week the government passed a terrorism bill, granting authorities far-reaching powers of investigation and detention of suspects. Also, a new poll indicates that most Dutch favor the death sentence for terrorists--a remarkable turnabout in a country that has long opposed capital punishment, and a symptom of the growing backlash against the country's large immigrant population.

About 2 million immigrants live in the Netherlands--population 16 million--about half of them Muslim. But the figure that makes many Dutch uncomfortable is a forecast that by 2015, the country's four largest cities will have immigrant majorities. Children of immigrants already are the majority in the elementary schools of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and several other cities.

Maarten Huygen, an editorial writer at the respected NRC Handelsblad newspaper, noted that in the mid-1990s, a Dutch politician was threatened with prosecution when he had the temerity to link a rising crime rate to an increase in immigration.

Similarly, the leader of a demonstration was fined for insisting that "Holland was full" and had no more room for immigrants.

"In this country, you were obliged to be tolerant. You would be prosecuted if you weren't," Huygen said.

As recently as two years ago, a parliamentary commission looked into the question of immigrant integration and concluded that things in general were going well.

These days, almost no one in the Netherlands would agree that anything involving immigration is going well.

Blunt message

Geert Wilders, a conservative parliamentarian with improbably blond hair, is riding the crest of the anti-immigration sentiment.

Like others, Wilders has declared the Dutch model of multiculturalism a failure. But he goes further.

"Democracy and Islam are not compatible--not today, not in a million years," he said. "If you look at the political culture of Islam, it's a retarded culture." By "retarded" he means that Islam, unlike Christianity, has never undergone a reformation, and that the Islamic world, unlike the West, has not had its equivalent of the Enlightenment. Wilders' message to Muslim immigrants is blunt: Learn Dutch, embrace Dutch social values--or get out.

Last year, Wilders split from the Netherlands' main conservative party to start his own. Early polls indicated the Geert Wilders List might win a few seats in the Tweede Kamer, the Dutch parliament. At the time, no one paid much attention.

But things changed after the van Gogh murder. Wilders' popularity surged, with some polls indicating that he could win nearly a fifth of the seats in parliament. But he has been forced to go into hiding as death threats from militant Islamists multiplied.

These days he sleeps in government safe houses and travels to work under armed guard. Four bodyguards are stationed outside his office in the Tweede Kamer.

Wilders has called for closing the Netherlands' borders to "non-Western" immigrants for five years. He also wants to expel a group of 150 or so "jihadists" who have been identified by the police and to keep close tabs on 10,000 to 15,000 more Muslim immigrants who have shown sympathy for militants.

Despite the harsh rhetoric, Wilders distances himself from the likes of France's Jean-Marie Le Pen or Austria's Joerg Haider, far-right politicians who have had some electoral success in recent years.

"I never cross the line of extremism," he insisted. "We are a country of tolerance. It's in our veins. The problem is we tolerate the intolerant--and we get paid back with intolerance."

From the other end of the political spectrum, the rhetoric is softer, but the message is similar.

"This is an open and tolerant society, but sometimes we mistake indifference for tolerance," said Paul Scheffer, a prominent Dutch social critic and journalist from the left.

Five years ago Scheffer created a stir among Dutch intellectuals with a groundbreaking essay in which he argued that the Dutch multicultural model was no longer working. In his book-cluttered study overlooking an old Amsterdam neighborhood that is now predominantly Turkish, Scheffer explained how the first wave of Muslim immigrants, mainly Turks and Moroccans, came as guest workers. They were expected to work for a few years and then leave.

They didn't, and Dutch society never bothered to integrate them.

But the Dutch did offer them a generous welfare state that made it easy to stay, and today nearly 60 percent of Turkish and Moroccan men over age 40 are unemployed despite shortages in the labor market, Scheffer said.

"There are some people who have been on welfare for 30 or 40 years. They don't speak a word of Dutch. They have no contact with Dutch society. They watch satellite TV from the old country. Physically they are here; mentally they are there," he said.

For the most part, the Dutch were content to keep paying the benefits and--in the name of tolerance and social diversity--ignoring them.

Dutch values de-emphasized

"We have a long tradition of conflict avoidance, but a weak culture of citizenship," Scheffer said. "We have a very negligent way of treating our own history. We are always saying, `Who are we to put such an emphasis on Dutch history. We are not such an interesting country.'"

The result, he said, is a generation of immigrants who have no real understanding of Dutch society or Dutch values. And because many of them do not feel connected to the host society, it is easy to become alienated by it, especially when the neighborhood mosque offers a warm welcome and a fiery sermon about the evils of the decadent West.

That, apparently, is the story of Mohammed Bouyeri, the accused murderer of van Gogh. A second-generation Moroccan born in Amsterdam, Bouyeri spoke Dutch and did well enough in school.

He got involved in community activities, enrolled in a course in social work and seemed headed in a positive direction. Then he fell in with a crowd at a fundamentalist mosque.

The rest of the story has a familiar trajectory--constant prayer, the shunning of alcohol and women, reverting to traditional dress--but it is hardly the norm.

`Country of freedom'

Mohammed B.--as Bouyeri is known in the Dutch media--"is as strange to me as he is to the rest of the Dutch community," said Ahmed Larouz, a 33-year-old Moroccan immigrant and successful Amsterdam business consultant.

"I come from a mosque culture. For me, the mosque is a normal part of life. Mohammed B. collected his religion in two years--that's when it is misused," he said.

Larouz is the son of a guest worker, but unlike Bouyeri, he was raised in Morocco. The Netherlands, he said, was a place he had always dreamed of being in--"a country of freedom."

Larouz dresses in sharp suits. His company, Mex-it, specializes in what he calls diversity management.

Based in a sleek office tower, bustling with lots of attractive twenty-somethings from North Africa, Asia and South America, Mex-it feels like a casting call for a United Colors of Benetton ad. The company helps public- and private-sector employers recruit talented minorities. Although Larouz is relentlessly upbeat about the future of multiculturalism in the Netherlands, even he acknowledges that real life is not a Benetton ad.

"I feel Dutch. I want to be part of this country ... but people look at you, and when you're black, and your name is Ahmed, and you're Muslim, they want to know how come you think you're Dutch."

The failure of multiculturalism, of course, goes beyond the Netherlands. France is in turmoil over the question of whether the state can force Muslim schoolgirls to remove their head scarves. And this month Spain marks the first anniversary of the Madrid train bombings, the worst terrorism attack on European soil.

"The world of Islam is at war with itself. You see it in the streets of Baghdad and Kabul, but now it has spread to the streets of Amsterdam and Paris and London," said Afshin Ellian, an Iranian dissident who teaches law at the Netherlands' Leiden University.

According to Ellian, the conflict pits the despotic regimes of the Middle East against a rising tide of political Islam. The latter seeks to enlarge the struggle by attacking the West. Drowned out are the faint voices that speak for human rights and democratization.

"Muslims in Europe have to be emancipated from this kind of political Islam. They also have to be emancipated from multiculturalism," he said.

After the van Gogh murders, Ellian wrote a piece for the NRC Handelsblad urging intellectuals to avoid self-censorship when discussing the problem of Islam in Europe, perhaps using humor to leaven their critiques.

"Please Joke About Islam" was the title of his essay.

The Islamic militants didn't get it, and Ellian got a raft of death threats. A bodyguard now accompanies him everywhere he goes on campus.