Holland in flames.

What the foreign papers are saying.
Nov. 11 2004 4:25 PM

Holland in Flames

Religious violence and terror arrests stun the Netherlands in the aftermath of filmmaker Theo van Gogh's murder.

European papers are expressing alarm at a spiral of religious violence in the Netherlands, a normally placid country at the heart of Europe's self-image of tolerance. The wave of attacks and counterattacks began with the gruesome slaying of filmmaker Theo van Gogh as he rode his bicycle through Amsterdam on Nov. 2. Van Gogh was shot several times, stabbed, and his throat slit. A note was pinned to his body with a knife, threatening other public figures with death in the name of Islam. The director—the great-grandnephew of Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh—had made a controversial 11-minute film (in English, viewable here) in which a veiled Muslim woman, her body inscribed with Quranic verses beneath a semitransparent full-body veil, addresses Allah with a mixture of anger, devotion, and defiance while telling painful stories of domestic abuse condoned within Muslim culture.

A wave of retributive attacks against mosques, schools, and churches swept the country following van Gogh's murder. A bomb exploded at a Muslim school in Eindhoven in apparent retaliation; arsonists torched another Muslim school in Uden, an image that dominated the front page of Dutch daily Volkskrant; and vandals tossed Molotov cocktails at churches in Rotterdam, Utrecht, and Amersfoort. Volksrant listed 10 Muslim and five Christian sites that had been attacked since Friday.

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Meanwhile on Wednesday, Dutch police conducted a 14-hour siege on a house in a residential neighborhood in The Hague where alleged terror suspects were holed up, part of a nationwide antiterror sweep that yielded seven arrests. Police have declined to say whether the operation is related to the van Gogh murder or whether it would have occurred anyway—indeed, Agence France-Press quotes police saying it is not related—yet nearly every news account links the two cases.

For a day, it seemed, all eyes were focused on the standoff in The Hague: Police cleared five city streets and stopped air traffic over the city, home to several international judicial bodies, which some have taken to calling "the International City of Peace." Defiant militants tossed a grenade during the standoff, wounding several police officers, and neighbors reportedly heard at least one of them threatening to behead a police negotiator. The United Kingdom's Guardian wrote that The Hague siege may well turn out to be "one more link in the ugly chain of events that began" with van Gogh's murder.

The prime suspect in van Gogh's murder is a 26-year-old Dutch-Moroccan man named Mohammed Bouyeri, named by the local press only at Mohammed B., as is customary in criminal cases. Bouyeri is a second-generation Moroccan immigrant, born in Holland, who reportedly turned to radical Islam only two years ago, following the attacks of Sept. 11. Reuters cited Dutch authorities on Thursday saying Bouyeri was at the center of an Amsterdam-based terror gang with links to the group that carried out the May 2003 suicide bombings in Casablanca in which 45 people were killed. Six other people are also being held in connection with the murder. 

"After the terrorist attacks of the 11th of September 2001, [Bouyeri] reportedly began his radical Islam life," wrote Algemeen Dagblad. The newspaper quotes a friend saying he was wrongfully detained after the attacks on New York and Washington at a time when his mother was dying of cancer. The daily Trouw supports this timeline, saying Bouyeri was a prime target for recruitment by Islamic radicals: "People recruiting for Islamic Jihad know exactly who to be on the lookout for in the Netherlands: second-generation Moroccan youths suffering from an identity crisis with few prospects and plagued by the thought that the Islamic world is being suppressed. ... Mohammed B. was a dream candidate." (Dutch translations via Radio Netherlands.)

Papers across Europe are keeping a close eye on the situation, with multiple references to Europe in the 1930s—wherein the Muslim side either represents the Nazis or the Jews, depending on whom you ask. A comment in the United Kingdom's Daily Telegraphlikened the murder of van Gogh to the Nazi and Communist liquidation of intelligentsia, saying the unfolding events have laid waste to a Dutch tradition of liberal tolerance dating back to Spinoza: "If neo-conservatives are liberals who have been mugged by reality, the Dutch are fast becoming a nation of neo-conservatives." Meanwhile, on the 66th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Denmark's Politiken lamented an apparent hardening of mainstream Dutch attitudes toward Muslims, drawing a comparison with the 1938 anti-Jewish riots in Nazi Germany. (Dutch translation via Expatica.)

In a land that has long prided itself on openness and tolerance, a newspaper poll taken Tuesday, the day of van Gogh's funeral, revealed that a staggering 40 percent of Dutch people say they hope Dutch Muslims "no longer feel at home" in Holland. Muslims make up 6 percent of the country's more than 16 million residents.

Scott MacMillan is a freelance journalist who lives in Cairo.