Dutch debate a 'values' divide after slaying

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The murder of a controversial Dutch filmmaker has reenergized an uncomfortable debate over Europe's relationship with its growing Muslim minority.

Theo van Gogh, whose latest work cast a critical spotlight on Muslim treatment of women, was gunned down and stabbed last week as he road his bicycle in Amsterdam. A letter left on his body threatened lawmaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Muslim who worked on the movie, as well as Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen.

Prosecutors have targeted what they say is a gang of young Muslim extremists. They have also arrested two men who made a video that promised paradise to those who could behead Geert Wilders, a right-wing politician opposed to immigration.

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The slaying and disclosures of other threats underscore growing tensions in the Netherlands over the integration of Muslim immigrants and their tolerance of Western values. Moderate Muslims, meanwhile, say they are being victimized because of the actions of a few.

"Tensions are really blazing up," says Ruud Peters, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Amsterdam. "Many Dutch think the activities of radical Muslims spreading hatred should be ended, and they don't separate extremists from the large majority of moderate Muslims. The Islamic community feels forced to apologize for something they cannot be held responsible for.''

It's a divide that has played out across Europe, where the Muslim population has more than doubled in the past 15 years, according to the UN, and perceptions have been shaped by Sept. 11. In the Netherlands, reports surfaced after the attack on the US that Dutch Islamic schools were teaching anti- Western lessons, and that imams were taking intolerant stands against homosexuals. In 2002, Pim Fortuyn, a popular right-wing populist who said borders should be closed to all new immigrants, was assassinated by a left-wing Dutch activist.

A survey last week found that 80 percent of all Dutch people feel their society has changed for the worse as a result of the slaying of Van Gogh.

That discomfort cuts both ways, says Said Bouddouft, chairman of the national Moroccan council, SMT. "Muslims are afraid to speak out and feel separated from the society they live in,'' he says. "People feel uncomfortable at work, because colleagues question them.''

Concern over radical activity has spurred the Netherlands' secret service, the AIVD, to increase investment in staff and expertise, says Professor Peters. Indeed, Muslim extremism is the new focal point in most European countries, says Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "The French have their own magistrate on terrorism, just like Spain, and Britain started with its Joint Terrorism Analysis Center where all intelligence information is gathered.''

This process is beginning to bear fruit, though cooperation is still imperfect. Germany recently banned the extremist Turkish Kaplan movement, while France expelled radical imam Abdelkader Bouziane. "Unfortunately,'' says Mr. Ranstorp, "Holland still seems to be suffering from a lack of staff and resources.''

But Ranstorp emphasizes the need for bridging divides - not just better policing. "What we need are political initiatives: we have to avoid people feeling alienated, and authorities need to have liaisons with the Islamic community," he says.

A counterstrategy like this can prevent young Muslims in Western countries from joining radical factions, many experts say.

Mr. Bouddouft, the Dutch Moroccan leader, says including Muslims in the process is essential. "We can be an important partner in the fight against extremism,' he says. He plans to propose guidelines all Dutch mosques should obey.

"We should make clear on certain topics: this is the limit," he says. "Some imams say in their prayers that we shouldn't pay taxes. That's absurd. We live here and should abide by the rules.''

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