The Netherlands must not betray its liberal tradition

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Many Dutch liberals fear that yesterday's public funeral service in Amsterdam was an occasion not just to mourn the murdered film maker, Theo van Gogh, but also the demise of their nation's reputation as a bastion of toleration and racial harmony. Van Gogh's murder last week by an Islamic extremist has provoked a series of attacks on mosques, culminating in the bombing of an Islamic school on Monday. Muslim institutions have been given extra protection, but the authorities admit that it is impossible to guard them all.

Many Dutch liberals fear that yesterday's public funeral service in Amsterdam was an occasion not just to mourn the murdered film maker, Theo van Gogh, but also the demise of their nation's reputation as a bastion of toleration and racial harmony. Van Gogh's murder last week by an Islamic extremist has provoked a series of attacks on mosques, culminating in the bombing of an Islamic school on Monday. Muslim institutions have been given extra protection, but the authorities admit that it is impossible to guard them all.

They are not the only ones under siege. Several politicians, threatened with death by extremists, have been forced into hiding. That this breakdown in relations has occurred in the Netherlands, which only five years ago was considered the most liberal country in Europe, bodes ill for the rest of the continent.

The government has pledged to arrest any Muslims who make murderous threats. It would be wrong for the Netherlands to curtail its tradition of free speech in the face of such intimidation. Van Gogh's film on women and Islam may have offended some, but he had an absolute right to make it. The government has a duty to protect anyone who faces threats simply because of the views they hold.

The thousands of Dutch Muslims who have condemned the murder, but who find themselves at risk from revenge, also have a right to expect protection. The worst response would be to start persecuting the law-abiding Muslim majority in the name of rooting out fanatics. There can be no justification for treating all Muslims as potential terrorists.

Sadly, public opinion in the Netherlands has been shifting to the right for some time and there is a risk that Jan Peter Balkenende's government will make the wrong decisions. His Christian Democratic Party, which came to power two years ago in the wake of the murder of Pim Fortuyn, has made a series of moves designed to appeal to the growing xenophobic and anti-Islamic rump of the Dutch electorate. In this time of crisis, the Dutch must do everything in their power to preserve their traditions of free speech, but they must not allow institutionalised Islamophobia to be the price they pay.

Comments