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Netherlands: Dutch Immigration (Part 4) -- Was 2 November Holland's '9/11'?

Moroccan activist Mustapha Baba 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 fourth in a series of articles on Dutch immigration, RFE/RL reports that the international war on terror has found a negative echo in Dutch society -- ratcheting up tensions between the majority Dutch population and the country's Muslim immigrants. Part 1 in the series looks at the death of multiculturalism --> /featuresarticle/2004/11/922941ab-4df5-47ef-87da-1d726d9f1db0.html ; part 2 explores the price of political correctness --> /featuresarticle/2004/11/E9F6A663-11F3-48DE-B47D-C4756BD849E0.html ; and part 3 speaks with Dutch people about their hopes and fears --> /featuresarticle/2004/11/85b8d3f6-c169-4d37-8d4e-28e69cbb5288.html concerning immigration.

Amsterdam, 26 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Many in the Netherlands see 2 November 2004 as their country's "September the 11th."

That was the day Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was shot and stabbed to death in Amsterdam by an alleged Islamic extremist. Police say the suspected killer -- a Dutch-born Moroccan student named "Mohammed B" -- had contacts with terrorists.

It's not clear whether Mohammed B operated alone or part of an international conspiracy. Nevertheless, the possibility that van Gogh's murder was an act of terrorism has worried many.

Edwin Bakker, a terrorism expert at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague, says the dangers are real.

"There is a terrorist danger. A lot of people of course were surprised that [van Gogh's murder] happened, but if you read the reports and if you listen to the warnings that were issued by the secret service and the politicians, everybody knew there were persons active -- Islamic activists -- who were planning terrorist attacks in the Netherlands. And this time, they killed somebody," Bakker says.
"The misgivings about the [immigration] situation [in Holland] became explosive after [the terrorist attacks of] September 11 because before that [immigration] was still seen as a social problem. But after September 11, it also became a security problem." -- immigration expert Meindert Fennema

But he is quick to add that only a small number of people are involved. And not all terrorists are Muslims.

Not everyone, however, shares that view.

Meindert Fennema, an expert on immigration at the University of Amsterdam, says 11 September and the war on terror prompted a major shift in Dutch perceptions of the Islamic minority.

"The misgivings about the [immigration] situation [in Holland] became explosive after [the terrorist attacks of] September 11 because before that [immigration] was still seen as a social problem. But after September 11, it also became a security problem. And then the emphasis was on the fact that these people were 'Muslim.' Before that they were just 'Moroccans' and 'Turks' -- which was bad enough as it was, so to speak -- but then suddenly they all became 'Muslim.' And in the eyes of a lot of right-wing adherents and citizens they were either 'terrorists' or 'sympathizers with terrorists,'" Fennema says.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, Dutch companies brought in tens of thousands of unskilled "guest-workers" -- mainly from Morocco and Turkey. There was no attempt to assimilate these immigrants since they were expected to return to their home country.

Most, however, opted to stay in Holland. The result is an Islamic minority of 1 million people, with many still isolated from mainstream society.

Twenty-year-old Hasna el-Baamrani is a Dutch-born Moroccan student. Her parents were part of the initial immigration wave in the 1960s. She says 11 September marked a definite change in attitudes.

"I do think that after September 11, everything got worse. Because before September 11, we did not even talk about 'terrorism.' That word did not even exist. After September 11, people got scared, and people began to judge Islam. I think that's a big cause of all of the problems that are going on right now," Hasna says.

In the wake of van Gogh's murder, Moroccan activists are working hard to counter perceptions that immigrants are potential radicals.

One of these is 31-year-old Mustapha Baba. Baba was born in Amsterdam to Moroccan parents and now works to promote relations across the religious divide.

"I think you have to see it in a kind of balance. If you only focus [on] the negative and you only focus [on] the problems, then you are going to get a picture that it's only 'bad, bad, bad, bad.' There are problems, but on the other side there are a lot of people who are trying to find their place in the Dutch society," Baba says.

His group runs a youth center in central Amsterdam. It's also distributing thousands of posters across Amsterdam appealing for calm. The image is of an upturned "Hand of Fatima" -- a symbol against evil. The message is clearly visible: "Murder for the word. We reject extremism."

Their success remains to be seen. Much depends on whether Holland's leaders can refrain from exploiting popular fears to their own advantage.
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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.