Tuesday, March 14, 2006

As events such as the Madrid and London bombings have abundantly proved, Europe has become one of the key battlegrounds of the global war on terror. Friday marked an important date in this struggle, as a court in Amsterdam issued a much-awaited verdict in the trial of the so-called “Hofstad group,” the maxi terrorist cell that planned various attacks throughout the Netherlands between 2003 and 2005.

The court convicted nine of the 14 alleged terrorists, imposing sentences up to 15 years. A key member of the group, Mohammed Bouyeri, had previously been sentenced to life in a separate trial. Bouyeri reached worldwide notoriety in November 2004, when he ritualistically killed in broad daylight Theo van Gogh, the controversial Dutch filmmaker who had directed a movie highly critical of Islam’s treatment of women. The verdict represents a major victory against what Dutch intelligence agencies consider the most severe threat to the country’s security, and the first successful use of new antiterrorism legislation.

But the Amsterdam trial has an importance that goes well beyond the sphere of counterterrorism. This verdict is the culmination of a new trend that has been growing in Holland since the van Gogh assassination, as the country has gone through a severe self-examination. The Hofstad group is just the most dramatic and evident manifestation of a much larger problem. Most of the members of the group, in fact, were born in the Netherlands, sons or grandsons of North African immigrants who had grown up immersed in Dutch culture, yet had embraced radical Islam and decided to “wage a holy war against their own country,” as Dutch prosecutors defined it.

Bouyeri, who had described Holland as a “democratic torture chamber,” talked about overthrowing the Dutch parliament and replacing it with an Islamic court. While receiving generous benefits from its social security, the men planned to kill the country’s leaders and start a civil war that would have pitted Muslims against Christians.

As exiguous as their number is, the members of the Hofstad group are living examples of the failed integration of large segments of the local Muslim population and, more broadly, of the end of Holland’s multicultural dogma. While only a tiny minority of Holland’s Muslims has joined the group or taken part in other violent anti-system activities, tensions with the Islamic community concerning everyday life have been boiling in the Netherlands for the last 15 years. The van Gogh assassination was widely perceived by the Dutch as a tipping point, a sign they could no longer turn a blind eye to a problem they had either ignored or downplayed for too long.

Even the most liberal voices in the Netherlands now acknowledge that disturbingly high percentages of the local Muslim population have segregated themselves, ignoring, if not shunning, basic Dutch values such as women’s rights, separation of church and state and respect for different lifestyles.

And if the verdict signals a strong shift in the country’s attitudes toward countering terrorism, Holland has been rethinking many of its internal policies since that tragic November day. Immigration has been drastically reduced, with the stated aim of focusing on integrating the large and widely unassimilated existing immigrant communities. New residents must now undergo 500 hours of Dutch language instruction and 50 hours of social orientation. And in January Immigration and Integration Minister Rita Verdonk talked about a “national code of conduct,” a set of general rules to be applied to the public that emphasizes the equality of men and women, non-discrimination and the importance of the Dutch language.

Other measures directly target the Muslim community. Public funding for Islamic schools, often accused of perpetrating the self-segregation of the Muslim community, is under review. And parliament has already voted in favor of a proposal to ban the most extreme forms of veiling (such as the burqa and the niqab) in public.

More generally, there is a growing consensus on what it means to be Dutch. Voices throughout the political spectrum have found an unprecedented determination and pride in reaffirming basic Dutch values of tolerance and democracy. “We were tolerant to the intolerants and we only got intolerance back,” said Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician often criticized for his harsh tones against the Muslim community, in the wake of the van Gogh assassination. This concept has now become mainstream in a country that has found the courage to talk about immigration and the need for newcomers to accept the basic values of their host countries while still retaining their identity.

The recognition of these problems, unspoken until a few months ago, is now the priority on the agenda of all Dutch political parties. The fact that, according to official government estimates, major cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam will be Muslim-majority within a decade only adds urgency to the issue. The verdict is another battle won by the Dutch in a long war they have finally decided to fight, without demagogic alarmism or excesses, but with the necessary firm determination.

Lorenzo Vidino is a senior terrorism analyst at the Investigative Project and author of “Al Qaeda in Europe: The New Battleground of International Jihad.”

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