Immigration has polarised the Netherlands as never before but, as Alex Duval Smith reports, its traditional values of tolerance have found some unlikely defenders . Martyn Loosman, impeccably turned out in a traditional costume of baggy trousers and a red and white striped shirt, buffs up the Dutch Queen Wilhemina coins on his belt buckle. ‘The government is going too far by proposing body searches and forcing suspected terrorists to report weekly to police,’ he says before sloping off, his black clogs scraping nonchalantly against the cobblestones of the fishing village of Urk. Forty miles south, in an Amsterdam coffee shop, advertising copywriter Geert Beck toys with his blond dreadlocks while sucking on a joint. ‘There are too many immigrants in Holland. They are stealing our society.’ The men, both 29, represent the contradictions in the Netherlands’ liberal society and pose questions over whether it has died or was only ever superficial. In a country where euthanasia is legal, one million people are on sick leave with no questions asked, prostitutes pay income tax and you can buy cannabis with your coffee, the government has for the past three months been passing radically intolerant laws. Immigration tops the political agenda all over Europe – in Britain ahead of the general election, in Denmark where the right was re-elected last week on an anti-foreigner platform and in Spain, which has infuriated its European Union partners by launching an amnesty for thousands of people without work permits – the Netherlands has reasons for a clampdown. In November 2004 – 911 days after the 9/11 attacks – controversial film-maker Theo Van Gogh was brutally murdered in an Amsterdam street. His alleged attacker, Dutch-Moroccan Mohammed Bouyeri shot him, strangled him, then stuck a note on his chest with a knife threatening war on Europe in the name of Islam. Within hours of the killing, prompted by Van Gogh’s controversial short film, Submission, which criticises radical Islam’s attitude to women, Integration Minister Rita Verdonk told 10,000 mourners gathered in front of Amster dam’s royal palace that Dutch tolerance ‘stops here and will not go any further’. There followed a cascade of reprisals. By the end of the year, more than 20 mosques, religious schools and churches had been attacked. Submission’s screenwriter, Somali-born MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali, still receives regular death threats. ‘People say Holland changed after the Van Gogh murder but we started asking ourselves questions long before that,’ said Loosman, who is unemployed. ‘I have done many different jobs but right now I do not want to work. I will get a job when I want one,’ he says as he walks with two friends through Urk’s winter fair – a pageant of basket-weaving, lace-making and wood-turning, punctuated by the sounds of a fairground organ. The village is festooned with Urk’s flag, a mackerel on red, white and blue stripes, and stalls sell smoked fish. In Calvinist Urk, a picture-postcard fishing village, there are only white people. Urk was an island until the great damming projects of the Thirties, and its mentality remains insular. Its dialect is incomprehensible to other Dutch people, businesses close at noon on Saturdays because that is the start of the Lord’s Day, and women go to church in black dresses. There are 16 churches for 17,000 people and some people still do not watch television on Sundays, or use the phone or ride their bicycles. ‘We call ourselves Holland’s indigenous Muslims because we are different,’ said Loosman. ‘People in the rest of the country make fun of us, saying we are rigid and high and mighty. ‘But I am proud to be an Urker. We have a history going back 1,000 years. During the Second World War we hid hundreds of Jews in the reeds to save them from the Germans. The other day I saw a photograph which was an aerial view of Urk as an island, and I felt sorry that we are no longer that way.’ Being attached to the mainland has changed everything for the Urkers. Friday’s fair was Urk’s first, created to improve its image. ‘In the last two years things have happened here which are not good,’ said Loosman. ‘First there was a split in one of the Reform churches. It was very nasty. Then, when some Kurds came here to do road work, there was a fight with local people. It was all over the Dutch papers. We are holding the fair, in which everyone is invited to wear local costume, to show we are friendly.’ Urk’s idea of a good image is somewhat different from those of other towns and villages in the Netherlands now engaged in the national pastime of working out what it means to be one of the world’s 16 million Dutch people. Many individuals and local authorities have forged links with the immigrants, said to be 5.8 per cent of the population. A ‘white march’ for peace was launched by a web- site called ‘Don’t touch my neighbours’ and Moroccans in Amsterdam started a ‘We won’t tolerate it’ campaign reminiscent of the France’s ‘Don’t touch my mate’ anti-racism drive in the Eighties. In Delft, a local association has started courses in ‘Moroccan culture and civilisation’, partly as a protest against new rules making immigrants take ‘acclimatisation courses’ and exams before being granted residency. Halfway between The Hague and Amsterdam, the local council of Alphen aan den Rijn has gone further than most with a campaign, under the slogan: ‘Let’s throw away our prejudices.’ The mayor, Nico Schoof, has plastered these words on bus stops, dustcarts and on the wrappers of Dutch waffles and Surinamese pancakes in cafes. Supermarkets have even slapped it on ‘fair trade’ such as bananas. Yet at government level the victim of another murder, the far-right politician Pim Fortuyn, is enjoying posthumous triumph. Fortuyn, who called Islam a ‘retarded religion’ and was killed on the eve of elec tions in May 2002, had run on a ticket calling for the Netherlands’ borders to be closed, integration to be obligatory and for measures against Muslim extremists. After his death, his party won 26 seats, though it lost all but eight of them six months later. In the past two years, Jan Peter Balkenende, the Prime Minister, has done Fortuyn proud. The previous government of Social Democrat Wim Kok began the trend in 2001 by hardening the asylum laws so much that the country was condemned by Human Rights Watch. Asylum applications, which had totalled 43,000 in 2000, fell to 13,400 in 2003. Balkenede then pushed through rules banning all unsuccessful applicants fromstaying in the country. Now Fortuyn has a successor of sorts, Geert Wilders, 41, reckoned by opinion polls to have the third largest number of supporters in the country, though a general election is not due until 2007. Wilders, who left the liberal VVD last September because he objected to its moderate stance over Turkey joining the EU, appears to have wider support than Fortuyn, including some academics. But his party has not yet been tested in an election and he has no manifesto, apart from calls for a ban on extremist mosques. Yet most people in the Netherlands – Dutch or not – remain proud of their liberal traditions. Doing his bit for multiculturalism is the Surinamese comedian, J_rgen Raymann, 38, whose show at Emmeloord on Friday, had a all-white, often elderly, audience in stitches of laughter. His jokes – about food, dancing and accents – tackled racism head-on, making fun of immigrants and of the Dutch. ‘I try to hold up a mirror to myself and make them look at it, but I also hold up a mirror to them,’ said Raymann. ‘I try to put across the idea that Holland is a great country with fantastic health services, infrastructure, a tradition of compassion and no natural disasters. ‘Even though the weather is like a beautiful woman with premenstrual tension there are plenty of reasons to feel happy here. The Dutch have been spoilt and because they were so comfortable for many years, they felt guilty and became all politically correct. We are paying the price now. There is a panic. Everyone in a headscarf is a potential terrorist, and the media accentuates those views.’ Raymann believes the Netherlands ‘nee
ds to take a stand. We have to kick out the extremists and start a dialogue with the moderates. Dutch are not xenophobic, they are in a panic. When they have got over it, they will get back to their proud, tradition of moderation’. Others, however, feel lost. Loosman looks out to sea from Urk lighthouse, wishing his village was still an island. ‘Five years from now, I do not know where we will be. I am proud to be an Urker but the world seems to be pushing us in a direction we do not want to go.’ Geert Beck, the cannabis smoker at the Amsterdam coffee shop, does not want to be pushed either. ‘Our society is free, if you respect the rules. We Dutch know this but others have come here with different values and taken advantage of our trust.’

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