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Holland Riven by the Politics of Division

Once known for tolerance, the Dutch now face racial tensions. Immigration, crime and welfare are flash points.

November 17, 2002|Anthony Deutsch | Associated Press Writer

AMSTERDAM — Holland likes to think of itself as a placid country of hard-working merchants and salt-of-the-earth farmers, where tolerance, prosperity and social conscience go hand-in-hand.

Today, the Dutch are agonizing over values that they once took for granted and a system that no longer seems to work.

Six months after the assassination of populist politician Pim Fortuyn, followed by his stunning posthumous election success, his movement is collapsing as swiftly as it rose, leaving some people frustrated and wondering where else to turn.

The changes go beyond politics and into self-image as the Dutch find themselves at the crest of some of Europe's most trying dilemmas -- immigration, crime and overburdened welfare systems.

In a country that has been a pioneer of legal marijuana, same-sex marriages and euthanasia, and where brothels are taxpaying businesses, old-fashioned themes of family values are being sounded more frequently these days.

Many Dutchmen are glad that in the last year, politics has come out of the backrooms into the streets. But some worry that it has changed Dutch norms of respect and decency.

"There is a lot of aggression and violence in our society that nobody wanted to know about because we wanted to uphold the image that we were tolerant," social historian Thera Wijsenbeek said. "It has created instability and stirred up emotions. The brakes seem to have been taken off society."

So many cocaine smugglers have been caught recently that there aren't enough jail cells to hold them. People wait so long for surgery that many go next door to Belgium. Road traffic is snarled into an almost permanent rush hour, while bus and train fares are going up 10% next year.

When immigrants were needed to overcome a labor shortage, they were welcomed with open arms. No longer.

High taxes were imposed to fund a generous welfare system. Now every fifth worker is on long-term sick leave and the welfare system is buckling.

Compared with some jarring industrial European cities, the Dutch still have a lifestyle that harks back to a calmer age. Many bicycle to work, past old gabled houses along ancient canals, and windmills still turn lazily in the mirror-flat countryside.

But a country proud of its sympathy for the developing world now confronts racial tensions that were routinely swept under the carpet.

Youngsters three generations removed from their Turkish and Moroccan immigrant ancestors, speaking fluent Dutch and holding Dutch citizenship, complain of discrimination and are blamed by the self-styled "native Dutch" for rising crime.

Although non-Western immigrants and their descendants are only 10% of the population of 16 million, they make up about half the population of the main cities.

When Rob Oudkerk, an Amsterdam city councilor, was caught on camera talking about "rotten Moroccans" (he later apologized), a Moroccan-born Dutch rapper named Raymzter seized on the phrase for an MTV rap song. Wearing a turned-around baseball cap, he hammered out his lyrics in earthy street Dutch:

They look at me like I flew into the Twin Towers,

They want to put us down when they talk about us,

We didn't do a thing, but they want to hate us.

The May election campaign broke all taboos thanks to Fortuyn, a gay magazine columnist who flaunted his political incorrectness by ridiculing Islam as backward and demanding an end to immigration.

He also challenged other cornerstone values of post-World War II Dutch society, such as the welfare state and workers' rights, saying they were bloated beyond reason.

The outgoing Social Democratic government had already begun to change the system.

Social benefits were sharply scaled back. Student grants were linked to performance. Welfare entitlements were tightened and thousands of people were cut off.

Fortuyn was shot by an animal rights campaigner nine days before the election in Holland's first political murder in 400 years, but his party went on to win more than 1.6 million votes out of 11 million cast, and join a center-right coalition government.

But without the charismatic Fortuyn, whose alleged killer is awaiting trial, the party dissolved into bickering and on Oct. 16 the government resigned.

Building on restrictions the previous government had begun to introduce, the new coalition set up an Immigration Ministry and appointed Hilbrand Nawijn, Fortuyn's designated successor as party leader, to run it. He proposed locking immigrant families in "departure centers" while their asylum requests are processed, promised to double the number of deportations and set a target rejection rate of 80% for newcomers.

But the government collapsed after only 87 days, leaving the Dutch with the feeling that the immigration question is nowhere near a solution.

Elections for a new parliament are scheduled for Jan. 22.

The Netherlands, the size of West Virginia but nine times more populous, is the most densely packed country in Europe. The Dutch were building dikes and landfills 1,000 years ago. So, to many, immigration makes the feeling of crowding seem more acute.

Old Dutch fixtures such as churches and cheese markets are making way for mosques and stands offering Moroccan spices or whole lambs slaughtered under Islamic law.

Herman Heinsbroek, a Fortuyn follower and economics minister in the outgoing government, says his countrymen must do more to absorb immigrants into the Dutch way of life: "Teach your neighbor how it works here, speak Dutch, explain the ground rules of society."

Heinsbroek says he plans to run in the January elections on a platform of "old-fashioned" standards and values such as tougher policing and respect for teachers and elders.

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