THE SMALL CITY of Schiedam, on the Nieuwe Maas river near Rotterdam, has played a big role in the Dutch imagination of late. Five years ago, the historian/journalist Geert Mak entranced the country with a long narrative called My Father's Century. It is still in bookshop windows and is now in its 27th printing. It begins in Mak's great-grandparents' sail-making business in Schiedam, and follows the lives of his family members as they collide with Dutch history in the twentieth century: the Dutch Reformed faith they drifted in and out of, the herring they ate, how much money they made, what it felt like to live under Nazi occupation, their shyness (or boldness) about sex, the jokes they told, and how they faced the 1960s. The book consoled Dutch people that however tumultuous the changes the 20th century had wrought, there was an ineffable "Dutchness" that somehow perdured. Schiedam played the role in the Dutch imagination that Macomb County, Michigan, or Luckenbach, Texas, did in the American imagination in the mid-1980s: You could look there to see how the "real" people in the country lived.
Early this month, another Schiedam native, a 30-year-old man known in his police dossier as Farid A., was found guilty of issuing death threats over the Internet. When the conservative Dutch politician Geert Wilders described Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat last year as a "terrorist leader," Farid A. posted a picture of him on an Islamist website urging: "Wilders must be punished with death for his fascistic comments about Islam, Muslims, and the Palestinian cause." That was a year ago, and since then, Wilders has done even more to tick off Muslim radicals. He left the conservative Freedom and Democracy People's party (VVD) after a personal spat with the party leadership, promising to launch his own "Geert Wilders List," along the lines of the one-person movement that turned the gay populist Pim Fortuyn into the most popular politician in the Netherlands in early 2002. Wilders has focused on Turkey, crime, and the unsustainability of high immigration. He has warned that many of the more than 1 million Muslims who live in the Netherlands "have already opted for radical Islam," and has urged closing extremist mosques.
There is a market for his forthrightness. In early November, a poll in the left-leaning daily de Volkskrant showed that Wilders could win several hundred thousand votes, which would translate into nine seats in the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of the national legislature. When the gadfly filmmaker Theo van Gogh was shot and knifed in southeastern Amsterdam on November 2, the letter that his killer pinned with a knife to his corpse contained a promise to do the same to the Somali-born feminist VVD member of parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Wilders got similar threats shortly thereafter. There were two results for Wilders. First, his popularity shot through the roof: A second poll in de Volkskrant showed Wilders would now win almost 2 million voters, taking 28 seats, or a fifth of the parliament, and that he was drawing support across party lines and in every single sector of Dutch society, despite--or perhaps because of--perceptions that he is a single-issue candidate.
But Wilders also had to go into hiding. He now appears in public only for legislative sessions in The Hague, where he travels under armed guard. He complained in mid-December that the death threats had hampered his ability to build his party. The head of a conservative think tank told newspapers he had been advised by security personnel to stay away from Wilders. Anyone who declared himself for one of those 28 seats that looked ripe for the plucking would thereby place himself on a death list, too. One strange but highly professional video that can be downloaded off the Internet shows drawings of machine guns, then photographs of Wilders with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and then captioned panels reading:
name: geert wilders
sin: mocking Islam
reward: Paradise, in sha Allah
In early December, an appeals court in The Hague confirmed the punishment of Farid A. of Schiedam. He was sentenced to 120 hours of community service.
Only the beginning
This is why the murder of one Dutch filmmaker 911 days after 9/11 is described by people in Holland as having had the same effect on their country as the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 in the World Trade Center towers. Dutch people have the sense that, for the first time in centuries, the thread that connects them to the world of Geert Mak's father, and that world to the world of Erasmus and Spinoza and Rembrandt and William the Silent, is in danger of being snipped. Part of it is the size and the speed of the recent non-European immigration. The Netherlands, with a population of 16 million, has about 2 million foreign-born. By some estimates, a quarter of them do not speak Dutch.
What's more, the public has been told for two decades now that they ain't seen nothing yet, that this is only the first wave of a long era of immigration, which they'd better learn to love. The immigrants the country now hosts have been difficult to manage. Part of the problem is the interaction of high immigration and what was for years a generous, no-questions-asked welfare state: As many as 60 percent of Moroccans and Turks above the age of 40--obviously first-generation immigrants--are unemployed, in the only major economy in Europe that has consistently had unemployment at or below American rates.
Most of these immigrants are Muslims. Muslim immigrants had begun to scare people long before Pim Fortuyn, the charismatic populist, turned himself into the country's most popular politician in the space of a few weeks in 2002, by arguing that the country was already overloaded with newcomers. (Fortuyn was assassinated by an animal-rights activist in May of that year.) Already in the 1990s, there were reports of American-style shootouts in schools, one involving two Turkish students in the town of Veghel. This past October, newspaper readers were riveted by the running saga of a quiet married couple who had been hounded out of the previously livable Amsterdam neighborhood of Diamantbuurt by gangs of Muslim youths. There were incidents of wild rejoicing across Holland in the wake of the September 11 attacks, notably in the eastern city of Ede. The weekly magazine Contrast took a poll showing that just under half the Muslims in the Netherlands were in "complete sympathy" with the September 11 attacks. At least some wish to turn to terrorism. In the wake of the van Gogh murder, Pakistani, Kurdish, and Moroccan terrorist cells were discovered. The Hague-based "Capital Network," out of which van Gogh's killer Mohammed Bouyeri came, had contact with terrorists who carried out bombings in Casablanca in 2003. Perhaps the most alarming revelation was that an Islamist mole was working as a translator in the AIVD, the national investigative service, and tipping off local radicals to impending operations.
The question naturally arises: If immigrants behave this way now, what will happen when they are far more numerous, as all authorities have long promised they will be? It has been estimated that the country's two largest cities, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, will be "majority minority" very soon (Rotterdam is today at 47 percent), and already 65 percent of primary and secondary students in both cities are of non-Dutch parentage. London's Daily Telegraph, citing immigration experts and government statistics, reported a net outflow of 13,000 people from Holland in the first six months of 2004, the first such deficit in half a century. One must treat this statistic carefully--it could be an artifact of an aging population in which many are retiring to warmer places. But it could also be the beginning of something resembling the American suburban phenomenon of "white flight," occurring at the level of an entire country.
The pillars fall
Perhaps the Dutch did with immigration what most countries do with most things: They thought too much about their own history, and then misapplied it. The concept that Dutch political scientists use more than any other to describe their society is "pillarization." For all that it is thought of as a Protestant society, the Netherlands is a quarter Catholic. Over the centuries a system of separate institutions developed. In the world of Geert Mak's father, Catholics not only went to their own churches but also had their own schools, newspapers, trade unions, social clubs, and the like. Protestants lived in a similarly separate world. There was a secular pillar as well. Elites from these different walks of life met to carve out a modus vivendi among different confessional groups.
The Netherlands was a society with a high level of religious affiliation and intensity--as it still is in its own "Bible Belt," which stretches in a rough southwest-to-northeast diagonal across the country. A political system that empowered church-affiliated organizations to perform temporal tasks created a mighty role for religion. That is why the world revolution of the 1960s--which was seen as a revolution against class in Britain, against de Gaulle in France, against the World War II generation in Germany, and against Vietnam in the United States--was seen in Holland as a rebellion against church authority.
The natural result was the libertine public square that will be recognized by any American who visited the Netherlands with a Eurail Pass at age 18--the Milky Way, the legalized prostitution, hashish in the "coffee shops," the laissez-faire immigration policy, a law enforcement system whereunder you get 120 hours of community service for threatening to kill someone. The essential fact about this dispensation, at the political level, is that most Dutch people don't like it. Eighty percent of Netherlanders tell pollsters their country is "too tolerant." But the post-sixties tolerance seemed to have antecedents in the national mythology: Apostles of the new ethic claimed--without much justification--the mantle of the pre-Enlightenment tolerance that once led the Netherlands to welcome persecuted dissenters from across Europe: Huguenots from France, Jews from Spain, the Mayflower pilgrims from England.
This conflation of two regimes had its appeal even to conservatives who were unhappy with the new world of hashish, gay marriage, and euthanasia. Better to claim to be pursuing a difficult but very Dutch social arrangement than to admit to having been wiped out in a political struggle. The Dutch talked themselves into believing that this valueslessness was a perennial feature of their society. When immigrants began to arrive, authorities fantasized that they'd seen it all before--after all, they'd welcomed John Locke and René Descartes. So they could build up an "immigrant" or a "Muslim" pillar and then let it collapse into postmodern individualism, following the same historic route that Protestantism and Catholicism had taken, as if that route were the product of an iron historical law. In came an ultra-neutral, respect-centered vocabulary: Foreigners became "allochthonous," as opposed to natives, who were henceforth "autochthonous." In the 1980s, the government started creating Muslim schools. It poured public money into the construction of mosques.
There were two voices warning that history was not following this multicultural script. In 1991, Frits Bolkestein, the conservative statesman who occupies a position in Dutch political life that is an odd mix of Ronald Reagan and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, wrote a long article in de Volkskrant in which he warned that there was nothing inevitable about assimilation. Noting the threat of Muslim separatism to freedom of religion and freedom of expression, he warned, "Everyone in the Netherlands, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, is expected to obey the laws that stem from these principles." He was dismissed as a reactionary, and worse.
The multicultural drama
In 2000, the journalist and literary critic Paul Scheffer wrote an article called "The Multicultural Drama," which was the first attack from the left on this system of postmodern pillarization. For Scheffer, the system was a means of excluding Muslims, creating a kind of segregation by which people could "coexist without interacting." Real pillarization of the sort that worked in the past rested on shared and nonnegotiable understandings of three things: language, history, and law. But Dutch society had become too self-loathing to insist on any of them. Now people weren't even expected to learn Dutch. Scheffer complained that the Labor party (PvdA), to which he belonged, "wanted to cut the subsidies of cultural organizations that were not sufficiently concerned with ethnicity." He threw up his hands at one educator who had questioned the relevance, in a world of high immigration, of teaching Holland's history ("We're not going to bother Turkish children with the Occupation, are we?").
Dutch multiculturalism, when Bolkestein and Scheffer began to question it, was an unassailable certitude. Now it lacks a single full-throated defender. Wouter Bos, the new leader of the PvdA, many of whose members privately think the country has overreacted to the van Gogh murder, insists that "Islam is part of our country," and faults those who, "under the pretext of women's rights, try to claim that Islam doesn't belong here." He seems to want to punt the Netherlands' problems away to blue-ribbon committees and international bodies when he warns that we "underestimate the international character of the threat we're dealing with: radical political Islam."
Nonetheless, Bos, too, has been stung by recent history, particularly his party's great blunder of treating Pim Fortuyn (a former PvdA intellectual himself) as some kind of sociopath or prankster. Bos admits that in recent years, "tolerance became a pretext for not addressing problems." When asked whether his party would enter a coalition with Wilders, he does not rule it out.
The man who has been the most ardent defender of the old multiculturalist model has himself received threats from Islamists, and travels with bodyguards. Amsterdam's PvdA mayor Job Cohen was always so keen to embrace foreign cultures that Theo van Gogh (who was not above Jew-baiting) once wrote of him: "Of all the swindlers who have tried to pass off the fifth-column of goat-f--ers as some kind of an enrichment of our oh-so-marvelous multicultural society, Job Cohen is the most cunning." Questions within the Muslim community about whether they ought to be happy living under a Jewish mayor first arose under the mayoralty of Cohen's predecessor, Ed van Thijn, also Jewish, who ran the city in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Threats have been made, too, against Cohen's deputy, the Moroccan-born alderman Ahmed Aboutaleb, who has his own security detail.
Many discussions of the Netherlands suggest that the country's multicultural model is "under threat." Maybe that was true a year ago. Now it would be more accurate to say there is a society-wide consensus that it has failed. Even before he left office in 2002, PvdA premier Wim Kok had begun tightening the country's asylum laws, and under the conservative premiership of Jan Peter Balkenende, the reforms have picked up pace. One of the top priorities has been marriage laws. Several immigrant groups have an endogamy rate approaching 100 percent: Young, marriageable people return to their homelands to find a bride or groom and bring them back to Holland. Many Dutch believe the marriage laws are being abused simply to confer automatic citizenship and the right to welfare payments on as large a number of foreigners as possible. As a result, foreign spouses marrying Dutch citizens must now be 21 and speak Dutch, and their eligibility for welfare is not immediate. Education in foreign languages has been phased out, so the Dutch can concentrate on teaching their own endangered language.
But with the killing of van Gogh, the Dutch immigration crisis--which, as elsewhere in Europe, is a polite way of saying its Islam crisis--has moved to a higher pitch than in any other country in the West. Naturally, security concerns are also driving reform. Justice minister Piet Hein Donner wants tougher laws to permit holding terrorist suspects without trial. Most everyone in the Netherlands, whether they support or oppose it, believes something like the Patriot Act is coming to their country, too.
But on top of that, the Dutch public is being presented with an interpretation of their crisis that other publics in Europe are not. Namely, the view that the problem is not "radicalism" or "marginalization" or "fundamentalism" but Islam--that Islam and democracy don't coexist well. There are several reasons that the debate has taken a different turn in the Netherlands, but primary among them is the presence of outspoken Muslims. Afshin Ellian is an Iranian-born legal scholar in his late 30s who is seeking to modernize Islam. He takes heart that scholars in Iran, particularly the imprisoned theorist of democracy Akbar Ghanji, are doing the same. Ellian himself is living under police protection.
When Ellian writes provocative op-eds in the country's major journals, he gets dismissed by Muslims as a "fundamentalist of the Enlightenment." They are not necessarily wrong. Ellian has a view of Western intellectual history that casts tolerance as the fruit of attacks on Christianity rather than of Christianity itself. He thus thinks that what Islam needs is its own Nietzsche, Voltaire, and the Marquis de Sade. Four days after the van Gogh murder, he wrote an article entitled "Make Jokes About Islam!"
The most outspoken of these foreign-born Dutch, though, is the feminist member of parliament Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The daughter of prominent Somalians, she fled the country with her family when war broke out. When she arrived in the Netherlands in the early 1990s, via Saudi Arabia, she was still wearing a veil. She soon dropped it and began proclaiming the superiority of Western values to Islamic ones. She has spoken out against female circumcision, which is clandestinely practiced in the Netherlands and Belgium. She was elected to parliament in 2003 in the wake of the killing of Pim Fortuyn. Hirsi Ali has been under constant police protection since she described the prophet Mohammed as a "perverted tyrant" in the newspaper de Trouw two years ago and said she no longer believed in God. She wrote the screenplay for Submission, the violent and semi-pornographic movie about repression of women in Islam for which Theo van Gogh was murdered. Many of Hirsi Ali's associates believe that she was the preferred target of the murderers, and that van Gogh was chosen only because they could not penetrate her security arrangements. They are probably right. She is in hiding and has not been seen in public since the killing.
Hirsi Ali, like Ellian, belongs to what one could call the écrasez-l'infâme school of reformers of Islam. She and Wilders recently cowrote a column in the NRC Handelsblad calling for a "liberal jihad." Like Pim Fortuyn (who once said, "I have nothing against Moroccans; I have them in my bed all the time"), she has a tendency to taunt her political foes. And like Fortuyn, who could play up his gayness to an almost preposterous level of camp, she is aware that her outsider status makes her a natural leader for a society that fears it will die if it does not change, but would rather die than be accused of racism, gay-bashing, or Islamophobia.
So Hirsi Ali appears to many Muslims as the country's premier moral monster, and to many Dutch people as something like Joan of Arc. It is her position on women's issues that is potentially most explosive. Many European countries, notably France, are trying to recast arguments about the wearing of the Muslim headscarf as a matter of women's rights, as if that will somehow mollify fundamentalists by moving the discussion from a religious plane to a political one. But it risks doing something different: moving the discussion from an interpersonal level to a psychosexual one. It conveys that the West hopes to assimilate Islam by stealing its women out of the seraglio.
The Dutch minister for immigration and integration is Rita Verdonk, a woman, as it happens. In late November she went to the town of Soesterberg to speak about "Dutch values." There she was introduced to an imam named Ahmad Salam. He refused to shake her hand.
In the hours after van Gogh's death, Verdonk had given a speech that had drawn fire from a representative of the radical, Antwerp-based Arab-European League, who likened her to Hitler. ("All she was missing," he said, "was the little moustache.") But that wasn't what bothered Salam.
"I cannot shake hands with a woman," the imam explained.
"Well, then," Verdonk replied, "we have plenty to talk about."