Free Inquiry, 27, 2 (Febuary-March 2007), p. 45/47.  Free Inquiry is published by the Council for Secular Humanism, Amherst, NY.


Hans Jansen

The presence of roughly a million immigrants, most of them from Muslim countries, has irrevocably shattered the religious peace of the Netherlands.

The Netherlands is densely populated: roughly sixteen million people live in a country perhaps half of the size of the state of Indiana. The Muslim immigrant minorities reside mainly in the cities. Their numbers are uncertain, but officials estimate that there may be as many as 1.2 million Muslims in the Netherlands. The immigration of Muslims, mainly from the most desolate parts of Morocco and Turkey, started in the late 1960s. To borrow a term from pop psychology, most of these Muslims feel that the “aboriginals”—that is, the Dutch people residing in the Netherlands when Muslim immigrants arrived—are not “OK.” Aboriginal values are severely frowned upon, if not outright rejected.

Three beliefs held by the aboriginals (the term is actually used) provoke particular anger among the Muslim elite. First, aboriginals believe that the Holocaust, the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews, actually occurred during their parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes, in the years 1940–1945. Second, aboriginals hesitate to disapprove of anything that does not personally affect them. Hence, they have little or no problem with homosexuality or other manifestations of other people’s sexualities, certainly not if kept private.

On similar grounds, abortion, contraceptives, soft drugs, and prostitution are hardly interfered with by third parties. Lastly, aboriginals believe that religion and politics should be kept separate. This last notion is somehow connected to the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression and the history of the Netherlands. Recently, however, all parties seem to have accepted that, no matter how beneficial this antique freedom is in theory, in practice, these days, it should be dealt with very carefully.

Nevertheless, there is the beginning of a mutual understanding between the aboriginals and the Muslims, which can only be applauded. The ray of hope in an otherwise dark landscape is a degree of agreement between Muslim spokesmen and Dutch politicians. In statements to the press and in interviews, they have unanimously urged the public not to criticize Islam. One elder statesman said that discussing Islam in the Netherlands was the equivalent of lighting a cigarette in an ammunition factory.

In spite of signs of a rapprochement, Muslims express their contempt for these aboriginals’ beliefs without hesitation. But they are deeply offended when this sentiment is returned. It is not returned very often and never officially, because the aboriginals have been taught that criticism of Muslims and Islam is Islamophobia, a form of racism. Racism is a sin in the eyes of the aboriginals. The aboriginals, moreover, also know that to utter public criticism of anything remotely connected with Islam may be dangerous. The assassination of Theo van Gogh drove this point home most eloquently.

The Dutch political elite, on the other hand, supports multiculturalism and labels any dissent from that benign ideology as fascism or racism. All political parties, moreover, support an expensive system of liberal grants to “the weak.” (The Netherlands has no right-wing or conservative party in the Western understanding of those words.) This system of grants is financed by the taxpayer and by the revenues from natural gas, which is found abundantly beneath the Dutch soil. The Dutch welfare system effectively immunizes the weak from market forces. There is, hence, little or no incentive for the weak to attempt to become “strong.”

If someone’s interpretation of Islam, or any other personal choice or religion, results in unemployability, there are few financial consequences. Adhering on religious grounds to an eccentric dress code, refusing to shake hands when greeting customers, not attending school, or having a knowledge of Dutch that only the staunchest optimist would dare to qualify as “superficial” may make one unemployable, to be sure, but, at the same time, it leads almost automatically to the bestowal of government subsidies. And yet, the inevitable result of this constellation of circumstances—that is, permanent unemployment of large sections of the Muslim population—is seen as being caused by discrimination.

In September 2006, Ms. Femke Halsema, a member of the Dutch parliament and the leader of the Green Left party, gave a parliamentary speech on the government budget. On this occasion, she noted, correctly, that the world is filled with evil. She then gave her own—not George W. Bush’s—explanation for this regrettable state of affairs: an axis of evil. To the amazement of some members of her audience, she explained that this axis consists of “fundamentalist Islam and the Roman Catholic Church.” Her evenhandedness was to be admired, but, nevertheless, two (Catholic) members of parliament interrupted her speech with angry questions and remarks.

The Dutch media paid little attention to this incident until Ms. Halsema, probably under pressure from her own party, started taking back her words. She said she had meant to identify the one party of the problem as the fundamentalist element in the Roman Catholic Church. There is no doubt much wrong with the Roman Catholic Church, but, unlike its Protestant competitors, it has no “fundamentalist” wing in any meaningful sense of that word. (A sociologist would perhaps characterize the Catholic Church as a broad and loose coalition of religious movements, which is led, kept together, and controlled by a small group of dedicated apparatchiks. This, of course, is not the image the church has of itself.)

The “axis incident” illustrates a number of points. Almost no Dutch journalists thought Ms. Halsema’s insight into the nature of religion to be newsworthy. The Dutch media elite is not antireligious, perhaps, but it certainly and massively regards religion as a thing of the past. And newspapers have little use for the past.

Nevertheless, many rank-and-file members of the Green Left party see a connection between their political views and their religious beliefs. Many party members view religion as a source of inspiration for their societal ideals. Although they are accustomed to not being taken seriously by enlightened intellectuals, they were unwilling to accept the same cold shoulder from their own party’s leader. Ms. Halsema had to try to explain away her remarks, because the general populace is more religious than the political and media elites.

This is not all that the above story teaches us. Ms. Halsema is no fool, and so it is reasonable to assume that, in the first draft of her speech, she spoke only of Islamic fundamentalism, or perhaps Islamic terrorism. She must then have realized that, just perhaps, a number of Muslims might be angered by such a bold statement. So, she must have thought, why not add Catholicism to the axis of evil? After all, Catholics are not dangerous, and so, at no cost or risk, she would make her speech look impartial, statesmanlike, and evenhanded! She not only had contempt for Islam, but she feared it as well, and with good reason. She attended—as I did—the wake for Theo van Gogh on the eve of his funeral.

The Van Gogh assassination carries in its train two mysteries that have yet to be resolved. A sermon preached in Arabic by Muslim preacher Sheikh Fawaz Jneid of The Hague, delivered in the As-Sunna mosque in September 2004, can easily be understood as incitement to violence and murder. Van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are mentioned—and cursed—frequently in this fine piece of religious rhetoric. Mohammed Bouyeri, Van Gogh’s assassin, is reported to have attended this sermon. Will the Dutch justice system straighten its back and bring this sheikh to justice, or will it give priority to keeping the country calm? The trial of a Muslim clergyman, to say nothing of a guilty verdict, could have unwelcome repercussions for public order. The sermon can be found, in the original Arabic and in a poor translation into Dutch, on the Website of the influential Dutch national daily De Volkskrant.

The second unresolved mystery is the role of “the Syrian,” the coach and guru of the assassin. This individual’s identity is not known. He fled the country on the day of Van Gogh’s murder, almost certainly to Syria. He is widely believed to be a professional secret agent—but nobody knows who employs him or who trained him. He goes by a number of aliases: Mohammed Bassem, Redouan, Al-Issa, Abu Khalid, and Abu Hassan. Without his testimony, our understanding of the Van Gogh assassination cannot be complete. A persistent rumor has it that he managed to get paid by the local secret service for keeping an eye on the assassin. There is absolutely no doubt that he did so; but if he filed reports about his protégée with the proper authorities, their contents are unknown. Public trust in the justice system is not furthered by these rumors.

In reaction to Van Gogh’s assassination, a brief wave of violence hit the country. Several mosques and Muslim schools were burned down. In reprisal, several churches were attacked. The Dutch government and media have been extremely discreet about releasing the number of such incidents, but as many as two hundred spontaneous attempts at reprisal against “Islamic buildings” may have taken place. An Israeli observer remarked that, if the Israeli public would spontaneously burn down Palestinian buildings with the same enthusiasm whenever an Israeli was murdered by a Palestinian, not a single Palestinian building would be left in Israel or the West Bank.

The Dutch political and media elite see it as their duty to cooperate closely to keep things calm, or, in their own words, “to keep things together.” They are no doubt right that this is of considerable importance. However, the degree of cooperation between journalists and politicians, as Bruce Bawer has recounted in his excellent book While Europe Slept, helps to create an atmosphere in which the general public trusts neither journalists nor politicians. This may be an explanation for why local commercial-television channels are more popular than the state-funded channels. The commercial media too often interrupt their programs for “commercial messages,” but at least their reporting is reasonably honest and reliable.

On the morning of October 31, His Majesty Abdullah II, King of Jordan, delivered a speech in the Amsterdam City Hall on the occasion of his state visit to the Netherlands. It was a sunny day. The speech was titled: “A Message of Peace and Understanding among Peoples.” Her Majesty Beatrix, Queen of the Netherlands; the Dutch prime minister; and the mayor of Amsterdam all attended this extraordinary occasion. The audience comprised about a hundred dignitaries from the traditional religious communities in the Netherlands: Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims. About a dozen local politicians and a few university professors from religious-studies departments joined the clerical dignitaries. It was a solemn occasion with ample opportunity for a little networking both before and after the speech.

It was certainly not His Majesty’s intention, but the contents of the speech he delivered demonstrated how bad the situation in the Netherlands has become. He started his speech by noting that it is a time of crisis in the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. What followed was less truthful. Islam, he argued, respects human rights and preaches the Golden Rule, “Do unto others what you want them to do unto you.” This was no doubt an immense relief to the non-Muslims in the audience. If this is true, what is there to fear?

However, according to the manuals written by Muslims for Muslims, Islam, in its classical form, does not respect the rules laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), not only because of the numerous distinctions Muslim law makes between men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, or slaves and free men, but also because of the corporal punishments Islam prescribes and the limitations it puts on changing one’s religion. (This by no means exhausts the list of points of conflict.) Needless to say, the Golden Rule is the opposite of everything the Muslim manuals say about jihad. But the Dutch notables and religious dignitaries did not blink an eyelid. They listened silently and obediently, probably thrilled by the proximity of their queen.

But worse was to follow. The king, a foreign head of state, freely gave his opinion on an internal matter of the kingdom he had graced with his visit. According to Islamic law, Abdullah declared, Muslims must obey the laws of the land where they live. It would be great if this were really the case. But in reality, it is a point fiercely debated amongst Muslim religious leaders. Many vocal Muslims in the Netherlands do not agree: they want to replace Dutch law with sharia. Certainly the terrorists amongst the Muslims have this aspiration.

No doubt, many Muslims silently take it for granted that the law of the land has to be obeyed—but that, regrettably, does not make it a valid prescript of Islamic law. In Talmudic law, on the contrary, such a rule is axiomatic (the Aramaic expression dina de-malkouta dina means “the law of the land is the law”), but a similar rule cannot be found in any of the classic authoritative Muslim manuals.

Most of the Dutch Muslim leaders present at King Abdullah’s speech were of Moroccan descent. If they know a foreign language, it is French, not English. Their peace of mind cannot have been disturbed by the King’s words. As for Dutch Muslim leaders of Turkish descent, if they speak a foreign language, it is German. It is certain that the King’s speech did not disturb them either. It was, consequently, the best of all possible worlds. Politicians and non-Muslim leaders heard what they wanted to hear, and the Muslim religious leaders did not hear what they did not want to hear.

The whole ceremony was an indication of the panic that holds the Dutch political elite in its grip. They desperately want Islam to be like Judaism or Christianity. They are in a state of denial as to the differences between Islam on the one hand and Christianity and Judaism on the other. If only the Muslims would be more like the Christians and the Jews, the country would again be what they want it to be. But it never will.

Two questions, both of little interest, remain. Will Her Majesty Queen Beatrix, on her next visit to Jordan, be permitted to give a speech on the peaceful character of Christianity? Or will her hosts see this as unlawful missionary activity? Missionary activities, as is well known, are forbidden in all Muslim countries. Will she, on her next visit to, say, Belgium or the United States, have to assure the Dutch nationals who live there that obeying Belgian or United States law is one of the principles of Dutch law?

The speech of the Jordanian king did not help to restore peace between Dutch aboriginals and the Muslim immigrant community; on the contrary, it underlined its end. To beg the Muslim residents of the Netherlands to obey Dutch law produced nothing but a painful spectacle. It is pathetic that the ruling elite of the Netherlands actually saw the need for such a spectacle.

In other European countries, the details and the proper names are different, but not the situation itself. Only when Muslim apostates come out of the closet in large numbers might things change for the better.