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In the Aftermath of the Van Gogh Assassination – The Future of Islam in the Netherlands


The assassination of filmmaker Theo van Gogh rocked Dutch society and politics. In the aftermath of the murder, the government has set about a process of fundamentally changing its policies towards Islam, Muslims, and integration. These issues have become issues of national security. Vice Prime Minister Zalm stated that “We will wage war against extremism.”[1] The impact of the new policies will be immense. Other countries in Europe are closely watching the Netherlands, and will likely follow suit with similar policy changes. 

Recent History

Although Islam and Muslims have long been topics of widespread public controversy and debate in the Netherlands, the last five years debates regarding the integration of Muslims have been especially acrimonious.

In 2001, before the attacks on September 11, imam El Moumni—popular with young Moroccans—condemned homosexuality as a disease and reckoned Europeans to be ‘lower than dogs and pigs’ because they condone homosexuality .[2] His comments, broadcast on national TV, caused outrage. The same period also saw the rise to prominence of Pim Fortuyn and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Fortuyn, flamboyant and openly homosexual, was thrown out of his political party for stating in a newspaper interview that ‘Islam is a backward culture’ (sic.). Hirsi Ali stated that ‘by the standards of our times, Mohammed would be regarded as a perverse man and a pedophile.’[3] The attacks of September 11, and the subsequent fierce and one-sided debates on Islam only exacerbated the already tense atmosphere.

The run-up to the parliamentary elections in 2002 saw several new right-wing parties, and relations worsened steadily as politicians like Fortuyn gained popularity, based on their fierce critique of Islam coupled with an anti-immigration stance. A week before the elections, Fortuyn was killed by a Dutch animal rights activist, Volkert van der Graaf. Although Van der Graaf has consistently refused to make statements, it seems likely that his motive for killing Fortuyn had to do with Fortuyn’s statements about Islam, rather than his propagation of fur. The murder of Fortuyn and the subsequent election into power of new right wing parties ,[4] hardened and legitimized a climate in which anti-Islamic statements were freely made by a range of politicians and public figures. The media in no small measure went along with this.

The Dutch government seemed paralyzed by the new atmosphere brought about by the killing of Fortuyn, and the style of the new right wing parties: it could not find a suitable stance towards the problems related to Islam and Muslims, which so preoccupied society. If anything, the government exacerbated these problems by severely limiting immigration laws, by often joining the bandwagon of critique, and doing little to co-opt moderate Muslims. Islam-bashing had become a favorite national pastime, and the government joined in, albeit reluctantly.

Throughout the same period, the Dutch secret service AIVD warned in its reports of the growing danger of Islamic extremism in the Netherlands, describing several movements, individuals as well as stating that media and politicians should be more nuanced in their statements on Islam for fear of worsening the public climate. Their reports were generally derided for being overly pessimistic and alarmist.

On November 2nd, 2004, Van Gogh was shot and stabbed to death by a young, Amsterdam-born Dutch-Moroccan, Mohammed Bouyeri .[5] Bouyeri left a letter on Van Gogh’s body, threatening to kill Somali-born MP Hirsi Ali. In a police chase Bouyeri was shot in the leg and arrested. Another letter was found on Bouyeri’s body stating his desire and expectation to become a martyr.[6] 

Aftermath: Security Informed Policy Changes

Van Gogh’s murder could no longer be done away with as an isolated incident, and as such its impact on Dutch society and politics was deeper and more profoundly disturbing than the murder of Pim Fortuyn. It proved beyond doubt, stated some politicians, that the integration of Muslims into Dutch society had ‘failed’ and that Islamic terrorism was ‘here to stay’.

The weeks immediately following the assassination saw more violence, such as attempts to burn mosques, churches, and Islamic schools. Over 800 incidents were reported in the three weeks after the assassination. Politicians toppled over each other making ever harsher statements on Islam and integration. Week after week, minor scandals came and went, the press and population displaying an almost obsessive interest in extremists.

A number of politicians were given a permanent detail of bodyguards, unprecedented in Dutch history. Justice Minister Donner, for example, who was used to cycling to parliament on his bike, now has bodyguards. For people not used to their freedom being reigned in, having to sleep in different locations every night is profoundly upsetting, and some of those now under permanent guard have significantly toughened their stance on extremist Muslims. Across the board, the Dutch government and many—now fearful—MPs have now taken an uncompromising stance towards anything they regard as excessive or out of bounds. This is exemplified by the tough rhetoric of politicians previously known for their conciliatory speech.

It is my contention that in the weeks and months after the assassination, the government has privately been drawing out plans to counter Islamic extremism and further the integration of Muslims. In the formulation of these plans, the AIVD has played a central and guiding role: in the perception of the government, security now reigns supreme and precedes other interests or considerations. This new policy will fundamentally change the way the government relates to the Muslim population, and reflects the changed attitude towards Islam, Muslims and integration.
The government has not admitted to having privately formulated such a radically new, cross-governmental policy that significantly differs from its former position towards Islam, Muslims, and integration, however its contours are slowly becoming apparent. Gleanings from press statements indicate the following three pillars for the new policy:

  • Isolation and prosecution of extremists
  • Strengthening mainstream Islam
  • Complete revision of integration and immigration policies

1. Isolation and prosecution of extremists

Until recently, the Dutch government largely trusted in the capacity of the moderate Muslim leadership to be able to stem the rise of Islamic extremism. However, the assassination of Van Gogh signaled their complete failure in the governments’ eyes. In the course of the coming years, the Dutch government will seek to replace those institutions, such as Islamic organizations and multicultural institutions, which it now deems inadequate or ineffective, and it will set up completely new institutions which will work to satisfy the government’s primary need: combating terrorism.

To the government, the primary tool to combat terrorism is the isolation and prosecution of Islamic extremists. To do this effectively, it seeks to drive through parliament a number of new laws. The package of proposed laws, some of which caused some public debate but none of which the government has actually withdrawn so far, includes the following:

  • Stripping Dutch nationality of bi-national citizens if ‘involved in terrorism’
  • ‘Glorifying acts of terrorism’ to be a criminal offence
  • Closing mosques and persecuting imams for being ‘too radical’
  • Loyalty tests for Muslims; ‘choosing between Qur’an and constitution’
  • Persons suspected of extremism (‘member of’, ‘ties with’) can be excluded from certain types of job, education and even be forbidden access to certain areas, without judicial oversight or right of appeal. They may also be given the duty to report regularly at a police station
  • Punishing parents if their children prove to be extremists (by withdrawing rent subsidy, etc.)
  • Those stating their desire for a terrorist action (which is not the same as planning), even if they change their minds at a later stage, will be punishable. Glorifying acts of terrorism is now an offence.
  • Right wing maverick Wilders argued in favor of building a special prison for those convicted of terrorist actions (widely dubbed the ‘Dutch Guantanamo’
  • €400 million extra for the secret service spread over five years (the 2004 budget was 86,5 million €)[7]
  • Secret service to take on 600 new personnel (in 2004, about 1.000 worked for the AIVD)[8]

The Dutch government seems intent on following the model of the German government’s actions against the Rote Armee Fraction. The German government took a very tough stance against the RAF, which in fact meant that relatives and friends were made to feel that their association with a RAF suspect or member would have negative consequences for them. The policy had the desired effect, and RAF members were utterly isolated as people were completely unwilling to associate with them.

Some of the proposed measures have raised concerns by human rights organizations and other organizations, such as a group of judges.[9] Also, the measures may convince Muslims in the Netherlands that the government is anti-Islamic. In trying to prevent no more than a handful of extremists, the government is risking further alienating the Muslim population.

2. Strengthening mainstream Islam

Since the assassination of Van Gogh, promoting security through persecution and isolation of extremists has become the government’s main priority. However the government realizes that the position of non-extremist Muslims, and the acceptance of Islam in society must be significantly improved to prevent further destabilization in society. This entails a fundamental reform of the relationship between the government and the Muslim community, as well as the relationship between Muslims and society at large.

The government will therefore pursue a broad agenda of societal reform, and a series of wide-ranging measures have already been announced. Further measures seem likely. The government is not half-hearted about these initiatives: it believes that it can and must shape society and it will devote significant resources to this end. We will look at some measures, already announced or likely to be taken. 

A unified Islamic Council

As stated already, the Dutch government has lost its trust in those who claimed to speak for the Netherlands’ Muslims, as well as in the plethora of Islamic organizations, multicultural institutes, integration consultancies and other such organizations which were supposed to further the integration of Muslims into Dutch society. The Dutch Islamic landscape is diverse, and this was reflected only partially by the large number of organizations claiming to represent Muslims, vying for attention and subsidies. The majority of these organizations are Turkish or Moroccan, or dominated and led by Turks and Moroccans, and virtually all organizations are based on shared ethnicity, allowing immigrants to remain snugly within their own communities while appearing liberal and integrated.

One key instrument in regulating the contacts between the Muslim community and the government will be the formation of one single unified Islamic council, which will become the single, official, organ with which the government ‘does business’. In doing so, the examples of France and Belgium will be followed. The organization will have to include and represent smaller Islamic groupings such as Shi’as, the Ahmadiyya and the Alevis as well, and the government’s attempts to form such a single organization have thus far failed. It is likely, however, that the government will continue to push for the formation of a single, unified ‘discussion-partner’.[10]

The government will also seek to work with a new generation of Muslim leaders, for the simple reason that the old clique has – in their eyes – failed. The new leadership which will be cultivated will no longer be exclusively Turkish or Moroccan, but reflect fully the diverse backgrounds of Holland’s Muslims. It is my prediction that Afghan, Iraqi, Somali, Iranian and Kurdish individuals will be given much more credibility and attention, thus undermining the preponderance of the ‘established’ leadership as well as allowing a younger, more dynamic group to form. This will also help break the mono-ethnic nature of most Islamic organizations.[11] 

Public information efforts

The government is also likely to try and change public perception of Islam and Muslims: people must be better informed about Islam through the media and at school. In their view, years of subsidizing Muslim organizations has not done the job, and the government will now pursue different strategies. It has already started public awareness campaigns. The press will be nudged to both tone down its criticisms of Islam and Muslims as well as to take more care to present a diverse image of Islam. Alevis, Shi’a Muslims and other smaller Islamic groupings will be given more attention. To a certain extent, this is already happening.

Educational reform to improve general education about Islam will also become a priority. There is, for example, no widely accepted school method of good quality to teach schoolchildren about Islam and other religions, and it is likely that this will change. It was also decided to establish a master’s course in Islamic theology. Future generations will be better informed on Islam and come to know Muslims as a diverse group. This will also help undermine the monopoly and by implication also the legitimacy of (Sunni) Muslim leaders, claiming to speak for all Muslims, or presenting their religious opinion as the only correct opinion.

Changing subsidy policies

The Dutch government has in the past liberally subsidized all manner of Muslim organizations, from multi-cultural institutions to women’s swimming classes. The government will now use this dependence on subsidies to influence and steer organizations towards goals consonant with the government’s new security priorities: this has already been advised by the AIVD.[12] This means that organizations will be encouraged to become multi-ethnic, and focus on community relations, as opposed to mono-ethnic and inward-looking.

Emancipation of Muslim women

The treatment of women, polygamy, honor killings, and female genital mutilation have long been heated topics of popular and political debate, yet the Muslim community was generally allowed a liberal amount of self-regulation. However, as with its foreign aid policy, the Dutch government is likely to push strongly for the improvement of the position of Muslim women in the Netherlands. The government will become pro-active in this matter and tackle the emancipation of Muslim women with a variety of legal, educational and organizational measures.

The primacy of security concerns resonates in all these measures, which together will in time shake up the Muslim community, transform its leadership and change the way Muslims are perceived in Dutch society. It is however doubtful whether these processes can be controlled, and the upheaval in the Muslim community that these policies will cause may as easily deepen problems or create new ones. One may well wonder whether security should be the main motivator for an ambitious program of broad societal reform.

3. Complete revision of immigration and integration policies

As the government sees it, the complete failure of the Muslim minority to integrate into Dutch society is one of the prime causes leading to the current social tensions, and the assassination of Van Gogh. Improving integration has therefore become a matter of national security.

The tacit assumption of many in the government was that immigrants would, in time, invisibly dissolve into mainstream society. Convinced of the seductiveness of Dutch society, assimilation was not as much a firm policy goal but understood as a natural process. The events in recent years, culminating in the assassination of Van Gogh, have proven to the government’s mind the impossibility of assimilation by osmosis.

This means that a fundamental rethink of integration policy is underway. Already, the Dutch government has become much more serious about the integration of ‘newcomers’, organizing catching-up language classes, establishing an integration (‘inburgering’) course, and setting stricter standards for naturalization. But unlike before, the government currently asks fundamental questions like “When shall we consider someone truly integrated?” and “What do we do if people continue to reject Dutch values?”

The last few months and years have seen a rise of nationalist tendencies, a rethink of what it means to be Dutch, and discussions on Dutch ‘norms and values’. Politicians have enthusiastically joined in this debate. Attempts are made to formulate a ‘national canon’; propositions have been made to start school with the national anthem –which probably only the Queen knows by heart-; and Muslims have been asked to choose between Qur’an and constitution. The confrontation with Islam and Muslims has prompted an identity crisis in Dutch society.

Although Dutch immigration policy has become quite strict, the government will not only further restrict it but also reshape it, with security the main criterion. Many feel that a prime reason why integration failed was because the immigrants were uneducated and illiterate, and so the immigration of large groups of uneducated people must be prevented. Future immigration policies will resemble a Canadian-style immigration policy, and will select those with ‘something to offer’: immigrants must be well-educated, mobile and self-reliant. If the Netherlands adopt a Canadian-style immigration policy and is followed by other European countries, Fortress Europe will become fact. 


The assassination of Van Gogh prompted the Dutch government to resolutely set about fundamentally changing its attitude and policies towards Islam, Muslims and integration. Security now forms the prism through which it views the world and consequently shapes its policies. This is understandable but risky.

The preoccupation with security may skew the resulting policies in ways that may further antagonize groups in Dutch society. For example, the new legislation proposed will only be applied to Muslim extremists and this will confirm to some Muslims that these policies are targeted against them as a group. The processes the government has set in motion are not as predictable as the government may wish; integration can be stimulated but not enforced. The combined effect of the government’s policies may thus serve to speed up the rapid and unpredictable social changes in Dutch society, rather than calm tensions down. Further upheaval awaits us.

Jeffrey Schwerzel is cultural anthropologist and works at the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam. He is currently working on his PhD thesis. The opinions expressed in this article in no way reflect those of the Vrije Universiteit.


When asked whether there is jihad in the Netherlands, Zalm responded: “One could put it like that.”
See NRC Handelsblad May 22, 2001 and June 16, 2001.
Author’s translation.
Although in Italy, dead people vote for candidates, in the Netherlands 1 million people voted for a dead candidate, Fortuyn.
Bouyeri holds Dutch and Moroccan passports.
See as accessed on April 22, 2005, for the letter. In his own words: “So this is my last word… perforated by bullets… baptized in blood…as I had hoped.” Author’s translation.
See as accessed on April 22, 2005.
See as accessed on April 22, 2005.
See NRC Handelsblad 11 February 2005.
After many attempts and much wrangling, the government pressured Islamic organizations to unify themselves into the CMO or Contactorgaan Moslims Overheid. However, one organization within the CMO refused to admit the Ahmadiyya on the grounds that they are not Muslims. The NMR (Nederlandse Moslim Raad) then left CMO and together with Alivis and Ahmadiyya founded the CGI (Contact Groep Islam). Both the CMO and CGI have now been acknowledged as formal discussion-partners by the government.
The extent to which these organizations represent the full diversity of Muslims in the Netherlands is probably low. Although various organizations are careful to make politically correct statements about homosexuality, the average ‘Muslim in the street’ cares more about issues such as discrimination and jobs.
See AIVD publication From Dawa to Jihad at as accessed on April 22, 2005. Subsidies as tool are mentioned on pages 48, 49, and 53.