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Netherlands seeks delicate balance between freedom and security
The Washington Diplomat / February 2005

By Larry Luxner

Nearly one million Muslims live in Holland, constituting over 5% of the population — a statistic few Dutch people knew or cared very much about, until Nov. 2, 2004.

That was the day filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was ambushed by an Islamic fanatic and gunned down as he rode his bicycle through the streets of Amsterdam.

The alleged attacker — a second-generation Moroccan immigrant — shot Van Gogh six times, slit his throat deep enough to sever the spinal column, and stuck two knives deep into his chest, one with a note proclaiming that the famous filmmaker had been murdered in the name of Islam.

In the ensuing weeks and months, several Dutch mosques and churches have been burned down, police have conducted numerous raids against presumed Islamic terrorist cells, and a number of Dutch politicians have received death threats including Justice Minister Rita Verdonk and Amsterdam's Jewish mayor, Job Cohen.

Such violence would hardly merit a headline in Iraq, but in Holland — long noted for its religious tolerance and open-door policy toward immigrants — the attacks have unleashed a wave of soul-searching among the country's 16 million inhabitants. "This was the act of an extremist, and the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the Netherlands very strongly condemned this horrible deed," says Boudewijn Johannes Van Eenennaam, Holland's ambassador to the United States. "This could have happened in any other European country, so it's not a typically Dutch issue. Terrorism is a global problem. But even if it was the deed of an extremist, for us it was an enormous shock."

Van Gogh, a great-great-grandnephew of the famous painter, had made a documentary condemning the treatment of women under Islam. His film Submission, shown on Dutch TV, angered Muslim fundamentalists in much the same way Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel, "The Satanic Verses," earned him the enmity of hardline Muslims worldwide and forced the British author to go into hiding, where he remains to this day.

In fact, an online book of condolences for Van Gogh had to be closed down because it became filled with 5,000 messages of anti-Islamic abuse.

Van Gogh's murder also follows the assassination two years ago of Pim Fortuyn, an openly gay Dutch legislator who had called for greater restrictions on immigrants, particularly those from Muslim countries.

"We are faced once again with how to assure the security of our citizens in light of this new threat," the ambassador told The Washington Diplomat. "This latest murder was carried out in the name of Islam, so there's a cultural issue. It also involves the issue of freedom of speech. This raises the question of rights and obligations. There are no rights without responsibilities, and this applies to all Dutch citizens, whether they were born in the Netherlands or come from elsewhere."

According to figures provided by the Dutch Embassy, the Netherlands has around 1.3 million immigrants, or just over 8% of the total population. These immigrants come predominantly from Turkey (300,000), Suriname (275,000), Morocco (250,000) and the Antilles (75,000).

"What it all boils down to is striking the right balance between freedom and security," said the ambassador. "We have to find ways to be effective in our fight against terrorism, and at the same time guarantee our essential freedoms. We must be careful that we do not trample on our fundamental freedoms."

Eenennaam, who became ambassador in March 2004, previously served as director-general (1997-2001) and deputy director-general (1993-97) for political affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Hague. From 1990 to 1993, he was also director of the Atlantic Cooperation and Security Affairs Department at the ministry.

He has also served as political advisor to the Netherlands Permanent Mission to NATO in Brussels (1988-90) and as a counselor for political affairs here in Washington (1984-88).

Eenennaam graduated from the University of Leyden with a law degree in 1973, and regularly publishes articles on international security issues in newspapers and journals. In addition to representing Holland itself, he also speaks for the Netherlands Antilles (Bonaire, Curaηao, Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Maarten) and the autonomous Caribbean island of Aruba (see sidebar).

"Freedom of expression is an absolute cornerstone of our society," he said. "It's not a problem as long as everyone agrees on what is being said. It only becomes relevant when that speech is provocative. So when does freedom of speech become too offensive? When does it present a clear and present danger?"

In establishing those boundaries, Eenennaam explained, "we must also determine how much foreign cultural input we are prepared to accept. It's not a black-and-white situation, but a dynamic process where norms and values develop over time."

Deciding exactly where those limits should be, he added, is not the responsibility of government, "but a matter for discussion within society, and if need be, in court — never by way of violence. Disputes about the limits of freedom of speech can never be resolved by violence."

There's no question that Van Gogh's murder sparked a wave of anger against Muslims. But Dutch Jews are also on edge these days.

"There was and still is criticism that Europe is becoming more anti-Semitic," said Eenennaam, conceding that even in Holland — famous for giving refuge to Jews fleeing Nazi oppression during World War II — the painting of swastikas and desecration of Jewish gravestones is on the rise.

It all seems to be related to an increasing suspicion of people who are simply different. Many Dutch citizens feel their small country is being overwhelmed by immigrants who either cannot or will not adapt to Dutch society.

"Because of our geographical position, we've always been open to immigrants, maybe more so than other European countries. But it's also because of our national character. The Netherlands is a seafaring country, a commercial country — outward-looking rather than continental — so we've always been in touch with other civilizations," said the ambassador.

"But in the past, we focused heavily on work, work, work, to promote the integration of immigrants into Dutch society. This was when we had economic growth. Now we may have to intensify our cultural dialogue."

However, immigrants themselves bear a major responsibility for making the successful transition into Dutch society.

"Islam has to adapt to Europe," Eenennaam told the Diplomat. "Muslims can experience Islam to the full extent in their own countries, but when it's transplanted into our society, I'm afraid they will have to adapt to our rules and values."

The ambassador added: "If one has no self-respect — like the people who come from other cultures to the Netherlands and are not prepared to adapt to our society — you cannot expect them to have respect for someone else. At the same time, they will never be able to gain respect from others. They're isolated and becoming more extremist. They're trying to split Muslims from non-Muslims, and that is the sort of danger which we have to address."

In so doing, the Dutch government has stepped up its counter-terrorism efforts, in coordination with the European Union. The EU's anti-terrorism czar happens to be a Dutchman, Gijs de Vries, who maintains very close ties with his counterparts in the U.S. government, specifically the Department of Homeland Security.

"I would not compare the murder of Mr. Van Gogh to 9/11, but it's clear the suspect had ties with other terrorist cells, so I think the awareness of those risks has clearly increased," said Eenennaam.

Dutch officials, he said, are being more aggressive and more intrusive in their efforts to catch terrorists, noting that "lots of measures are being taken in terms of giving officials more authority in going after suspects."

These include requiring all citizens over 13 years of age to carry identity cards, authorizing police to stop and search people with no apparent cause; a relaxation of rules on wiretapping and monitoring Internet traffic, and tripling the amount of time suspects can be held without charge from three days to 10.

In addition, he said, "we have a very sophisticated system in which we are scanning containers in Rotterdam on their way to the United States. Also at Schiphol Airport, we have U.S. Customs officials checking passengers before they take off for the United States."

At the same time, Holland has allied itself with the Bush administration with regard to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Around 1,320 Dutch soldiers are currently stationed in Iraq, mostly in the southwest region of Al-Muthanna. And since March 2003, the Netherlands — which spends 0.8% of its GDP on foreign aid — has distributed over 30 million euro in Iraqi humanitarian and reconstruction assistance.

"We have always been strong allies of the United States," said Eenennaam, "though I'd make a distinction between anti-Americanism and opposition to the Bush administration. A large part of the Dutch population is critical of the policies of the Bush administration, but at the same time they are very fond of the United States."

Another area where Islam overshadows Dutch foreign policy is Turkey's proposed membership in the European Union.

"The issue of Turkey is complicated and has many aspects, starting with the fact they have 70 million people. If negotiations start in 2005, it will take many years before they really become a member of the EU. By then, they'll be even bigger. This will shift the balance of power within the EU. Undeniably, Islam is playing a role [in this issue]. But then the question is, do you want to keep them out, or do you want them in?"

Even without Turkey in the EU, Holland must contend with a flood of asylum-seekers attracted to the country's relative prosperity and lax immigration laws. In a controversial approach to the problem, Dutch officials have begun to offer families whose asylum requests are denied the equivalent of $7,200 if they agree to leave the country immediately.

"It is a modest amount of money by our standards, but it could really give them a helping hand back in their own countries," he explained. "Deportation is usually a very harsh way of getting rid of these people, so we want to treat them in the most humane way possible."

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