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Netherlands: The Coming Culture Clash

4 MINS READJan 24, 2008 | 18:02 GMT
ROBIN UTRECHT/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
The Netherlands is shaping up to be the epicenter of the next major West-Islam culture clash. An outspoken Dutch politician deemed insensitive to Islam will be the catalyst, despite the relative success Muslims have experienced assimilating in the Netherlands.
While Muslims have experienced assimilation problems throughout Europe, the Netherlands probably represents their best opportunity to fit in. The country is extremely tolerant and inclusive of Muslims by European standards, and extremist Muslims are few in number. This does not mean that no meaningful threat of Islamist militancy exists. Jihadists still use the Netherlands for fundraising and such, and violence is not unheard of, but there has never been a serious militant attack. Traditionally, Muslim protests have been small and peaceful, remaining within broader Dutch political traditions. But three events in the past few years have shifted the normally placid Dutch mindset toward hostility to Islam. The first, of course, was 9/11. The second was the emergence — and 2002 assassination — of the populist right-winger Pim Fortuyn, who broke the Dutch taboo against openly discussing Islam and immigration. The third was the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, whose less-than-flattering portrayal of Islam prompted a local cell of militants to assassinate him in 2004. Enter Geert Wilders, a maverick politician who recently formed the Freedom Party, which holds nine seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament. The party in many ways is the ideological successor to both Fortuyn and van Gogh, and it is certainly the standard-bearer for anti-Islamic sentiment in the Netherlands. Wilders traveled extensively, particularly in the Middle East, before making his ideology known. More recently, Wilders has achieved notoriety for his assertion that if the Prophet Mohammed were alive, he would have him "tarred and feathered as an extremist and deported if he were in Holland." Wilders now plans to air a film in early February on how the Koran "is an inspiration for murder." Local Muslim leaders already have condemned Wilders for racism, and the online jihadist community already has posted rap videos in which Wilders is beheaded in effigy. While one need not look far to find sources of tensions between secular Europe and the Islamic Middle East, most points of friction do not ignite into larger problems. This one probably will, however, for three reasons. First, such issues normally only explode if someone has a vested interest in their doing so. For example, the Danish Mohammed cartoons circulated for months before a group used them to provoke the Middle East. This time around, Iran appears to have the greatest interest in stoking Muslim outrage. Iran's pragmatist and conservative factions are locked in an election battle, and a few religious riots would be just the thing to bring out the conservative vote. Second, this issue is not going to quietly disappear. The rising popularity of Wilders and his party means that he — or at least his party — will be a fixture in the Dutch political system for at least the next few years. Wilders' position grants him a bully pulpit, an audience and a guarantee of more of both in the future. Third, unlike issues such as the Danish cartoon crisis, this one is being started by a member of parliament, not some anonymous artist or a newspaper editor. In the minds of many Middle Easterners, Wilders is part of the government, even though his party is not part of the ruling coalition. This had led some Muslims to believe that the Dutch government approves of Wilders' position, despite government protestations to the contrary. Riots are not likely in the Netherlands — very few Muslims there are radicalized, and a culture of protest simply does not exist. In nearby Belgium, France and the United Kingdom, where Muslims are far less integrated into European society, the prospects for violent outbreaks are much higher, however. The circumstances Muslims there live in — not foreign agitation — could lead to a spontaneous outpouring of violence, given the right trigger. And riots in Europe would be nothing compared to those that could plague the Muslim world. In any Muslim nation experiencing instability or political transition, ambitious leaders could grab the issue to rally support. In addition to Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and the Gaza Strip, among other places, could experience trouble. In light of the risk, the Dutch government is preparing for all eventualities and already has prepped evacuation plans for several of its Middle Eastern embassies.

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