Before the assassination of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, the Dutch were apt to give you the impression that they had cracked the secret of life and knew without doubt how it ought to be lived. They viewed other, less enlightened societies which meant all the rest with a kind of complacent pity, tempered by the certainty that eventually even the most benighted of them would follow where the Netherlands led.
All that has changed. Whatever other effects the two murders have had, they have rendered the Dutch and their society much more interesting than when Holland was merely the land that permitted everything. The era of complacency is over; that of anxiety and doubt has well and truly begun. For the first time in several decades, liberal consensus is not enough; real thought has become necessary in Holland. In the not-distant past, Hollands less-than-glorious performance during its occupation of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and its violent attempt to reestablish its power there after the Second World War was over acted as a reproach to any Dutch conservatism or sense of national pride. But far from remaining a liberal paradise in which it is heresy to question the tenets of multiculturalism, Holland has become a country in which fear of inter-ethnic and religious strife is never far from the surface.
Several questions now haunt the country. Was its previous tolerance mere indifference, blindness, or, even worse, cowardice? How tolerant ought it to be towards those who want to destroy the institutional basis of the tolerance that they themselves have enjoyed but think mere weakness and decadence? Are there incompatible cultures, and if so was it wise to have encouraged mass immigration from a deeply alien land merely to ease a temporary labor shortage? In short, will the Netherlands reap the whirlwind it has sown?
These questions are uppermost in all Dutchmens minds, and provoke furious debates over small matters that quickly become emblematic. Salomon Kalou, a gifted soccer player from the Ivory Coast who plays for the famous Dutch club Feyenoord, applied for immediate Dutch citizenship in the hope of being included in the Dutch national team for the World Cup championships to take place later this year in Germany. The minister of immigration, Rita Verdonk, who has presided over a toughening stance towards immigrants and asylum-seekers, has steadfastly opposed granting him citizenship, arguing that Kalou should fulfill the conditions laid down for everyone else, including a five-year residence. This has led to howls of protest from liberals, hitherto used to having everything their way.
Events in Holland are now for the first time in many years of interest to its neighbors and near-neighbors, many of whose problems with immigration and multiculturalism are similar. Le Monde, the French liberal-left newspaper, reported the Kalou affair, in the process calling Rita Verdonk the most hated politician in Holland: which, translated from Le Monde–speak, means that she is by far the most popular politician in the country. According to polls, three-quarters of the Dutch population support her refusal to grant Kalou citizenship merely because he is good at kicking a ball about: They recognize that there is something more at stake than the results of a soccer tournament.
The fact is that Dutch citizenship has hitherto been insouciantly and indiscriminately granted to people to whom it means little other than a meal ticket. There was open, public rejoicing in some of the Muslim-inhabited areas of Holland immediately after the events of September 11, 2001, by large numbers of people who were on social security. The murderer of Theo van Gogh, Mohammed Bouyeri, did not recognize the legitimacy of the law under which he was tried for murder, but, with the grotesque and mercenary hypocrisy typical of Islamic fundamentalism, he did condescend to recognize the legitimacy of the law that had granted him three years unemployment benefits before he committed the murder.
The disdain that Bouyeri showed towards everything Dutch was not unique to him. A young man of Moroccan origin living in Holland named Samir Azzouz has been arrested several times on suspicion of being a terrorist (he is still only 19). Plans of the Dutch parliament building, Schiphol Airport, and a nuclear power station were found in his apartment after he was arrested during an armed robbery, as well as night-vision spectacles and bomb-making equipment, but this was all deemed by the judges to be of insufficient probative value, especially as the fertilizer he had in his apartment was of the wrong type to detonate a bomb, so he was acquitted on appeal. Who can blame the Dutch if they feel that the law is failing to protect them?
One thing Azzouz cant be accused of is of hiding his disdain for Holland, its government, and its legal system. In his most recent court appearance, Azzouz said, “We reject you, we reject your system, we hate you.” As Dickens would have put it, you cant say fairer than that.
Azzouz was defended by a German lawyer long resident in Holland, Britta Böhler, who also defended the murderer of Pim Fortuyn and the Kurdish Pol-Potist Abdullah Ocalan, and who has made no secret of her sympathy for the erstwhile German terrorists of the Red Army Faction. It is hardly surprising if ordinary Dutch people conclude that the rule of law is actually the impunity of terror.
As if this were not enough, there is plenty of evidence that the famed Dutch tolerance is indistinguishable from cowardice, both moral and physical. It is widely known that teachers in Holland are reluctant to teach the history of the Second World War in high schools in areas where there are large numbers of pupils of Moroccan origin, because these pupils will argue either that the Holocaust never took place or that, if it did, it can be reproached only for not finishing the job. Scared of physical attack, the teachers avoid the subject on the pretext of keeping the peace.
In February 2005, two students at a school attended by many pupils of Moroccan origin were advised by the director of the school to “consider urgently” the question of whether the little Dutch flags that they had sewn onto their school bags were sufficiently sensitive to the feelings of their fellow pupils, or whether they represented a provocation. In other words, the director took for granted that the children of Moroccan origin were profoundly and irredeemably anti-Dutch; he wanted to avoid the violence that he supposed any manifestation of patriotism would inevitably cause.
But pusillanimity and self-loathing have not altogether won the day, and there are signs of a healthy reaction. I had the extraordinary experience recently of finding my ideas about multiculturalism, criminality, and the underclass taken more seriously in Holland than in Britain. I was invited to give a talk in Rita Verdonks ministry, and found a highly intelligent, receptive, and appreciative, if questioning, audience of civil servants far better and more open-minded than any audience I have ever had in Britain.
In Holland, for example, unlike in Britain, the reality of forced marriages among the Muslims has already been officially recognized, and the Dutch government has tried to do something about it. (Those who argue that such marriages are culturally rather than religiously sanctioned ignore the fact that they occur from Morocco to Somalia and from Somalia to Bangladesh, whose principal characteristic in common is adherence to Islam.) The law now confers upon Dutch citizens no right to bring into the country spouses they have married abroad, thus recognizing the non-voluntary nature of many of these marriages.
Of course, there are limits, as yet, to the determination of the Dutch to deal with the threat posed by Islamification. For reasons having to do with a residual belief in non-discrimination, the law on marriage applies to all marriages contracted outside of Holland, as if a marriage to a white Canadian from Toronto could possibly have the same sinister social meaning as a marriage to a Moroccan villager. Besides, the failure of other European countries to adopt the Dutch approach, and the recognition of marriages contracted in other member countries of the European Union, leaves a large loophole in the law that will soon be exploited.
Nevertheless, subjects that were taboo in Holland only a few years ago are now openly discussed, often very realistically, by Dutch intellectuals and politicians. Formerly among the most complacent people in Europe, the Dutch are now some of the most fearlessly self-examining (along with the Danes). It is as if they had woken from a beautiful and beguiling daydream and plunged straight into a cold bath of reality.
There is resistance, of course, to the new realism. You do not get rid of the intellectual habits of generations overnight. But I never thought there was the remotest possibility that Holland might in the end show more backbone than any other country in Europe. Now it is distinctly possible.