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Netherlands: Dutch Immigration (Part 3) -- The Voices of Hope And Fear

"From [the day of Van Gogh's murder] you feel like everyone is looking at you and everyone just hates you." -- Hasna el-Baamrani The Netherlands was forged amid the Christian sectarian struggles of 400 years ago. Ever since, this northern European country has prided itself as a beacon of religious freedom and tolerance. But the country faces a difficult challenge. During the past 40 years, tens of thousands of unskilled workers were brought in from mainly Islamic states. Many were never schooled in the Dutch language. The result is an isolated and increasingly frustrated minority of more than 1 million Muslims settled in a small country of 16 million. The killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh recently -- apparently by an Islamic extremist -- underscored the dangers of this relatively new social division. It's left many wondering whether the old model of tolerance can long survive. In this third in a series of articles on Dutch immigration, RFE/RL spoke with a young Dutch-born Moroccan woman, an emerging far-right politician, and a Dutch teacher at an immigrant school. All see the same problems, but from very different perspectives. Part 1 in the series looked at the death of multiculturalism --> /featuresarticle/2004/11/922941ab-4df5-47ef-87da-1d726d9f1db0.html and part 2 looked at the price of political correctness --> /featuresarticle/2004/11/E9F6A663-11F3-48DE-B47D-C4756BD849E0.html

Amsterdam, 25 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Van Gogh was highly controversial -- harshly anti-Islamic and vulgar in his criticism of Muslims. He was scarcely tolerated -- even by the Dutch majority.

Nevertheless, his murder struck a chord in the Netherlands, where people place a high value on the right of free speech. Van Gogh was seen as paying for that right with his life.

His murder drove a wedge between Holland’s Dutch majority and its Muslim minority. And nowhere is that divide felt more keenly than among the 300,000-strong Moroccan community.

Hasna el-Baamrani is a 20-year-old law student of Moroccan origin. She sat down with RFE/RL recently at a Moroccan youth center in Amsterdam where she works part-time.

"I remember the same day, the day of the incident, of the murder [of van Gogh], there was a demonstration [in central Amsterdam]. And I went there with a few friends of mine, all with Moroccan background. And people were yelling 'Go back to Morocco! What are you doing here? You are the people who ruined everything and you are the people who are causing all of these problems.' That's heart-breaking because, like I said, I was born here and I have a Dutch identity just like them -- you know?" Hasna says.

She says 2 November changed her life.

"From that day you feel like everyone is looking at you and everyone just hates you and wants you to go back to your country because you are a 'terrorist' and you are an 'extremist,' and whatever, you know? Like them, I was totally against [the murder]. I don't approve of what happened. It was the worst thing you could ever do," she says.

Hasna is part of the "one-and-a-half" generation. She was born in the Netherlands, but her parents are Moroccan. Her father came to Holland in the 1960s as one of tens of thousands of guest workers recruited to work in Dutch factories. Her mother came later. They’ve lived in Holland ever since.

Hasna says her parents have never felt welcome.

"The first generation that came here have lived here for 40 years and they still don't feel at home; they still don't feel accepted. They never told other people [about this]. This was never [discussed]. When last week, [van Gogh’s] murder happened, people started talking [for the first time] about that they never felt accepted," she says.
"I don’t think we’ve been very ‘tolerant.’ We’ve just been ‘not caring.’ We didn’t really care if they were here or not and we didn’t want to mingle with them. We thought, ‘Well, they’re here. It’s fine if they are here as long as I don’t have to see them too much,’" -- Kees Beekmans, high-school teacher

Hasna was fortunate. She was educated in Dutch schools and attends university in Amsterdam. Her future as a lawyer looks bright. In spite of what happened, she says she’s optimistic.

"You know, the incident that happened, the murder of Theo van Gogh, it was a terrible thing. But it had its benefits, because now we're allowed to talk about problems we never dealt with, you know? Lots of problems are now discussed at all kinds of debates," Hasna says.

New Right

On the other side of the divide is 28-year-old Michiel Smit. Smit -- a member of the Rotterdam city council -- is a founding member of 'New Right,' a new party that’s tapping into Dutch unease over the growing immigrant population.

Appearing confident and upbeat, Smit met with RFE/RL at a coffee shop opposite the Rotterdam city hall.

"We [at New Right] think there should be a dominant culture. Other cultures can have influence, but that [influence] should always be limited. Because if there is not one language, one history, and one value pattern, there is bound to be -- there is always -- chaos," Smit says.

Smit’s group is hoping to attract supporters of the late Pim Fortuyn. Fortuyn -- a right-winger who rose to prominence on an anti-Islam, anti-immigration platform -- was assassinated in 2002. Since his death, Holland’s far right has been fragmented, leaving politicians like Smit and others eager to fill the void.

Smit claims New Right has about 800 members, drawn from all walks of Dutch life. He says people are attracted to the party’s core belief that the primacy of Dutch culture should be legally recognized and protected.

"We think that we should change the [country’s basic laws] to make the basis [of law] Dutch culture. And things that are related to Dutch culture [should be] protected by the law," Smit says.

Smit’s group opposes concessions to minority groups, such as special schools. Instead it favors the rapid integration of existing minorities and a halt to further immigration, though it recognizes that peaceful Muslims already in Holland have a limited right to worship in their own way.

"We live here in the Netherlands with a Christian background, and we can give the Islam a bit of space to act [in society], but it shouldn't be that Islam has too big of an influence on society," Smit says.

Attempting to bridge the divide are Dutchmen like Kees Beekmans. Beekmans -- a youthful-looking man in early middle age -- is a high-school teacher at what’s known locally as a "black" school. Most of his students, in other words, are non-Dutch.

Beekmans says he’s aware many of his students don’t feel at home in Holland. He says this is because they were raised in different cultures and don’t interact often with Dutch people. But he believes the Dutch, for their part, have not lived up to their reputation for tolerance.

"I don’t think we’ve been very ‘tolerant.’ We’ve just been ‘not caring.’ We didn’t really care if they were here or not and we didn’t want to mingle with them. We thought, ‘Well, they’re here. It’s fine if they are here as long as I don’t have to see them too much,’" Beekmans says.

As with many Dutch, Beekmans laments the fact that loud voices on both sides of the political spectrum are only widening the cultural gap.

"I think we have to start letting go of this attitude of indifference. We do have to recognize and acknowledge that there are a lot of immigrants living in Holland and that these people also want to be part of Holland. We can’t just put them away in some area and put their children away in some ‘black’ schools and pretend that they are not really living here -- with us and our children," Beekmans says.

[In part 4, we look at how the international war against terror has found a negative echo in Dutch society -- increasing suspicions on both sides of the ethnic and cultural divide.]
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.