Dutch suspect real tension is political




By Mark Huband in Helden, The Netherlands

Financial Times, 15 November 2004

The odour of burned wood lingered in the air hours after the small mosque behind a museum on the edge of the tiny Dutch town of Helden burned to the ground.

The eruption of violence against Muslims since the fatal stabbing in Amsterdam 13 days ago of the outspoken filmmaker Theo van Gogh is being felt across the country, with churches, mosques and Islamic schools being burned in a spiral of apparently tit-for-tat violence. A young Muslim, allegedly linked to a network of Islamic extremists, has been charged with van Gogh’s murder.

Police said an investigation into the fire in the rural south-eastern town of Helden early on Saturday morning was under way, and the possibility of arson was being “seriously taken into account”.

But the burning of the mosque came after weeks of growing tension between local Muslim and non-Muslim youths that predated van Gogh’s death, several people in the town said at the weekend. This has raised questions over whether the violence has been motivated by religious differences of the kind occasionally voiced by van Gogh, whose film Submission criticised the treatment of women by Islam, or is the work of political extremists.

“In this town there are a lot of rightwing youths, and the conflict with the foreigners – with the Muslims – has been growing in the past month or more,” said a woman who woke to see the mosque ablaze across the street from her house.

“They are white supremacists, rather than religious people,” said another resident living close to the mosque. He said conflict between young people had erupted in the large square at the centre of Helden, where a cafe frequented by both groups had been the scene of growing tension.

“The fear is that it can only get worse,” said a young Muslim as he cycled quickly home. “We know there are reasons for this tension that are religious, political and social. But the Muslims in Helden were not responsible for the death of Theo van Gogh.”

The suspicion held by some in Helden that political extremists rather than religious fundamentalists are exploiting the murder of van Gogh to foment conflict has also taken root in other areas of the country.

Off a quiet side-street in the central town of Amersfoort, worship at The Ark evangelical church on Sunday climaxed with a prayer “for the people who are angry”. When a church close by was attacked with a Molotov cocktail last week, the pastor at The Ark organised members of the multi-ethnic congregation to stand guard at their building over night.

But church officials said on Sunday the violence did not reflect the true state of relations between the town’s Muslim and Christian communities, despite the arrest of a Muslim convert in the town in connection with the van Gogh murder.

“There are racists who are taking advantage of the situation,” said Peggy Sieberichs-Lambooy, deputy pastor at The Ark. “They are acting against the mosques. I don’t believe that it’s a conflict between Muslims and Christians. This situation is something that started as a small fire, which has been built up into something much bigger by these people.”

“The Muslim youth here are between cultures. If they go to Morocco, they will be seen as Dutch. But here, they will never be seen as full citizens of the Netherlands,” said a Dutch security official who is studying the radicalisation of young Muslims. “I don’t think the Dutch themselves know how to deal with this presence within their society.”



© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.