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Unveiling their fears

The open and free-thinking Dutch are having second thoughts about the assimilation of some Muslims.

November 18, 2006

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE, euthanasia, drug use, prostitution -- in the Netherlands those are perfectly fine. But the one thing the Dutch apparently will not tolerate is what they perceive to be intolerance. In defense of their cherished tradition of gedogen -- which loosely translates as "to live and let live" -- the Dutch are ready to force the assimilation of conservative Muslim immigrants, who are deemed intolerant of fabled Dutch tolerance and must therefore no longer be tolerated. Got that?

Five days before a national election, the Netherlands' center-right government announced that it would introduce legislation to ban the wearing of burkas, veils and similar garments in public places. Should it pass, the most famously accepting country in Europe would have the most restrictive anti-Muslim laws on the Continent.

This is a spectacularly bad case of overreaching, even if you believe -- as we do -- that it's unfortunate that some women are forced by their culture to cloak themselves in anonymity before going out in public. Also, there are some Muslim women who feel exposed without covering up.

If anything, the proposed law, which is being justified on security grounds, could backfire by encouraging more immigrants to reach for their veils. And it risks further victimizing women by forcing them to stay indoors. A tiny minority of the roughly 1 million Muslims in the Netherlands are conservative enough to be affected by the proposed ban, but the message to all of them is loud and clear. And menacing.

Dutch anxiety about immigrants' rejection of Western culture is understandable. The nation is still traumatized by the 2004 killing of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who made a film critical of Islam. But to force assimilation is to fight intolerance with intolerance. The ban would undermine the very culture -- Dutch culture -- it seeks to protect.

In the past, the Dutch may have been too indulgent of immigrant communities' desires to remain culturally separate. Because of its permissiveness, Holland has allowed a community that promulgates extremist strains of Islam to flourish. Hundreds of schools, partly funded by Saudi Arabia and subsidized by the Dutch government, helped keep the two cultures apart. A better way to root out intolerance might be to start with these schools, where anti-Western ideology is spread. A ban limited to head scarves and veils in schools, similar to the one in France, would be more defensible than an outright ban on everyone.

Part of Dutch identity, since the Netherlands welcomed Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, not to mention our own Pilgrim ancestors fleeing England, has been tolerance. By outlawing a religious and cultural practice they fear, the Dutch would be sacrificing some of their own identity.

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