Amsterdam grapples with integration since filmmaker's murder
Five years after Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim extremist in Amsterdam, where half the population is of immigrant origin, the city is grappling with social integration."It was as if, before Van Gogh, they had never seen a Muslim in the Netherlands," Ahmed Marcouch, the Moroccan-origin mayor of Amsterdam suburb Slotervaart, told a recent press event.
"From one day to the next, they realised that Muslims existed and that something had to be done -- there was much panic."
Mohammed Bouyeri who shot, stabbed and cut the throat of virulent Islam critic Van Gogh on 2 November 2004, had been a resident of Slotervaart.
Though of Moroccan origin, he was born and bred in the Netherlands.
Bouyeri was jailed for life for the murder that stoked ethnic tensions in the Netherlands and raised fears of home-grown terrorism.
During his trial, Bouyeri said that "the law compels me to chop off the head of anyone who insults Allah and the prophet".
Several mosques were burnt around the country after the murder of Van Gogh, a distant relative of post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh.
In a bid to prevent a spiral of retaliation, the city adopted an emergency plan by the end of that year, at an annual cost of between EURO five and seven million (USD seven to 10 million), to combat Islamic radicalisation and stimulate social cohesion.
The council subsidised projects of immigrant associations and pursued dialogue with mosque representatives.
Even a television reality show, featuring the daily lives of Turkish, Surinamese and Moroccan families, was financed and broadcast on a local station.
A recent study commissioned by the Amsterdam municipality found that two percent of the capital city's Muslim population, some 1,000 to 1,500 people, were orthodox and politically active and "sensitive to radicalisation".
"It concerns mostly the 16- to 18-year-olds, who feel discriminated against and have a distrust of politics," said political scientist Jean Tillie, who led the study.
"This group is big enough to warrant a special policy approach, which is what happened in Amsterdam."
Slotervaart, which has yielded several radical young Muslims investigated for links to extremist groups in recent years, appointed a "radicalisation specialist" in the person of Hassan Maimouni in 2007.
In collaboration with social workers, the police and mosques, Maimouni has since then identified 35 youngsters at risk of being absorbed by extremist groups, and opened dialogue with them.
"We try to reincorporate them into society, to give them guidance, because the rift is very big," Maimouni told AFP. "They often feel themselves to be very socially isolated."
Some were reported to the police for monitoring.
Have these efforts help curb radicalisation? Only time will tell, say the experts.
"But it is important to keep the issue high on the agenda."
Marcouch predicts that "the tensions are bound to remain".
"Muslims are afraid of losing their identity, and Dutch society is afraid of them," said the mayor who encouraged the building of a western-style mosque in his neighbourhood where sermons are in Dutch and men and women pray together.
"The debate on Islam has hardened" since 2004, added Tillie -- citing the popularity of far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders whose anti-Islam film "Fitna" prompted protests across the Muslim world when it was released.
"The problem in Dutch society is that there are groups of people who don't trust each other."
AFP/ Alix Rijckaert/ Expatica