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The Elephant in the Room: Unexposed Roots of Islamic Radicalism in The Netherlands


I take complete responsibility for my actions. I acted purely in the name of my religion…. I can assure you that one day, should I be set free, I would do the same, exactly the same…. I don't feel your pain. I have to admit that I don't have any sympathy for you. I can't feel for you because you're a non-believer.

– Mohammed Bouyeri (Rennie, 2005)


What drove the Muslim extremist Mohammed Bouyeri to kill the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh? Why do some Muslim youth in The Netherlands resort to radical Islam? Faced with the reality of a growing Dutch Muslim population – 945,000 Muslims as of 2004 – what can be done to prevent the causes of this radicalism?

Islamic radicalization in Europe today is primarily a cultural creation of young European-born Muslims who feel marginalized by their host societies, and turn to international radical Islamic movements. Most Muslim radicals in The Netherlands and Western Europe are thus not direct immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. Instead, second- and third-generation Muslim male youth, particularly of Moroccan and sometimes Turkish backgrounds, are more likely to become radicalized. They are at risk of alienation from Dutch society. Young Moroccans are likely to assume a Moroccan rather than Dutch identity. Media, technology, and travel help to bridge the divide between these youth and their countries of historical origin.

Because no clear path exists to integrate these youth, the problem of Islamic radicalism will continue to grow. Although experts disagree on precise definitions for “radicalism” or “extremism,” they agree that this phenomenon poses a threat to Dutch democracy. Our aim is also to analyze, rather than merely condemn, Islamic radicalism, so that it may be reduced in The Netherlands.

In this paper, we will use the definition of the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations for radical Islam as “[t]he politico-religious pursuit of establishing - if necessary by extreme means - a society which reflects the perceived values from the original sources of Islam as purely as possible” (Ministry, 2004, 7). For the sake of simplicity, we will use “radicalism” and “extremism” interchangeably. We will examine the roots of Islamic radicalization by dividing the causes into both internal and external factors, and we will then suggest solutions to the problem of Islamic extremism.

Brief History of Radicalization in The Netherlands

The Netherlands began actively recruiting guest workers in the 1970s, including from Turkey and Morocco. Many of these laborers stayed in The Netherlands instead of returning, and the Dutch government soon faced the challenge of immigration and integration. Policies for “multicultural” integration and equality for minorities produced mixed results, enabling Turks and Moroccans to live in the country without fully integrating with Dutch society. For them, Islam has tended to remain a central aspect of their identity. 

More recently, Dutch conservative movements have formed to restrict immigrants’ entry to The Netherlands and the benefits provided to them within the country. September 11 and subsequent terrorism by radicals, including incidents in The Netherlands – especially the murder of Theo van Gogh – have also increased anti-Muslim sentiments and a fear of radical Islam among the general public.

Internal Factors

The Dutch political climate reflects increasing fears among white Dutch of immigrants and particularly Muslims. The political rise of Pim Fortuyn, a strong critic of Islam, significantly altered public discussion of Muslims in The Netherlands, making opposition to Islam more generally acceptable. Fortuyn was known for making polarizing statements such as, “I am…in favour of a cold war with Islam. I see Islam as an extraordinary threat, as a hostile religion.”

Professor Ruud Peters, a highly respected scholar on the topic, comments,

[A]nti-Muslims... represent, and foment, the fear against Islam felt in wider circles of society and..., on the other hand, they attack Islam from a position of implicit and explicit power.... The Dutch publicist Mak actually called the prominent anti-Islamic participants in the debate and the politicians embracing theirs views ‘traders in fear,’ implying that they were not only inspired by fear but also wanted to spread fear in order to pave the way for repressive policies and legislation. (Peters and Vellenga, Contested Tolerance, 10)

Mustafa Hamurcu of Milli Görüs, a social-religious Islamic foundation, claims that it was mainly right-wing politicians, such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders, who started the polarizing speeches that captured the attention of the media. This media coverage crystallized a feeling of exclusion from Dutch society among Muslims, especially youth.

Reinforcing the rhetoric of fear, extreme right-wing political parties and movements have turned to action as well. Hamurcu notes that the murder of van Gogh created a negative climate towards Islam and Muslims. Research by the Anne Frank Foundation shows that the van Gogh killing led to a wave of “racist and right-wing extremist violence.”  Sixty percent of the targets of this violence were Muslims, and forty-seven mosques were attacked following van Gogh’s murder in November 2004. These developments, consequently, have influenced the spread of Islamic radicalism. 

Mostafa Hilali, one of the very successful Dutch citizens of Moroccan descent, points to the lack of trust of certain Muslim youth in the legitimacy of the government. According to Peters, politicians and ministers competed in anti-Islamic statements and measures during the past few years. The government announced new regulations to prevent the establishment of Islamic schools. Soon after the murder of van Gogh, Parliament demanded the government to investigate the possibilities of prohibiting the Muslim community from obtaining imams from abroad, and banning the reception of certain Arabic television stations. These kinds of developments, which affect mainly the Muslim community, create a lack of trust in the legitimacy of the government because it seems to be based on double standards. After the murder of Van Gogh, Parliament accepted a motion on 12 November 2004 which pressures the government to make it legally impossible for the Muslim community after the year 2008 to bring imams from abroad. Peters explains that the anti-Islamic political and social climate can reinforce the feeling of exclusion and humiliation.

Socially, anti-Muslim sentiment has been growing in The Netherlands, particularly in response to terrorist attacks. After September 11, 2001, The Netherlands experienced an increase in attacks on Muslims, and attitudes between Muslims and non-Muslims appeared to have been polarized. After the van Gogh murder, one poll stated that 40 percent of Dutch people surveyed wished that Muslims “no longer feel at home here.” A study of Rotterdam youth found that of Moroccans and Turks, 50 percent reported experiencing discrimination “sometimes” and 15 percent regularly or frequently. Hilali maintains that one basic principle that causes radicalization is the lack of trust in society, because of the feeling of exclusion.

Examples of this feeling abound. Milli Görüs, which also supports the integration and emancipation of the Turkish community, organizes regular meetings between Muslim youth and public officials. The Muslim youth in these meetings have largely expressed that they feel “vomited up” by society. This feeling is one of their main reasons for rejecting the society in which they live. This is confirmed by Peters, who suggests that the feeling of alienation from the Dutch society and the feeling of humiliation play an important role in the radicalization of certain Muslim youngsters. Hilali adds that these youth feel inhibited in their development when they experience difficulties finding a suitable job, even when they have a relevant degree. Besides this, Hamurcu of Milli Görüs also notes a double standard that is applied to certain groups, mainly Muslim youth of Moroccan or Turkish descent, and that worsens their marginalization. Farid Zaari, spokesperson of Al-Tawheed Foundation, comments that Muslim youth sometimes feel that their freedom is taken away, whereas white Dutch youth are not viewed with the suspicion that their Muslim counterparts receive. For instance, Hamurcu alleges that when a group of Moroccan or Turkish youth is visible in the evening, it is perceived as a threat.

Zaari suggests that this kind of fear is also responsible for creating a gap within society, especially when politics and the media help to stimulate the fear. He cites a recent exercise in combating terrorism in Rotterdam. During this exercise, several actors were hired to play the role of “terrorists,” including wearing a jalaba (an Arab garment) and speaking Arabic. Zaari considers these kinds of stereotypical images to be very stigmatizing, causing discrimination towards the Muslim community in The Netherlands. He explains that these kinds of images and experiences make it difficult to convince Muslim youth that Muslims are equal members of society. As some Muslim youth told Zaari, “They all see us as terrorists.”

The problem of social exclusion of Turkish and Moroccan Muslims from Dutch life is reflected as well in residential segregation patterns. These communities tend to retain strong and insular civil society networks based on religious identity, such as existed with different Dutch Christian groups before secularization in the 1960s. Whether the causes of this segregation lay with the white majority, the Muslim minority, or both, the effect is problematic. Many Turks and Moroccans feel a lack of a Dutch identity and without a stake in Dutch society.

A final, and significant, factor contributing to radicalization is the relatively low economic status of many Turkish and Moroccan youth, compared to their white counterparts. (Due to social security, the poverty of Turks and Moroccans is relative instead of absolute, but the contrast with wealthier populations is clear.) Many Moroccans and Turks have a low educational level, and unskilled manual jobs are limited; thus unemployment is high and employment in professional careers is low. Some young Moroccan and Turkish men who have not achieved adequate education are particularly likely to turn to crime. Although the educational attainment of young Muslims is improving in recent years, this development does not guarantee integration due to obstacles of prejudice and discrimination. Additionally, Moroccans and Turks tend to live in depressed urban neighborhoods, further restricting their educational and employment opportunities. Many government services have been made available to minorities but, for a variety of social and economic reasons, inequality continues.

Deprivation does not automatically lead to radicalism. However, many Muslim terrorists throughout Europe, before turning to radicalism, are alienated and denied opportunity in their host countries. Inequality in The Netherlands, creating political, social, and economic fault lines, and lacking a clear resolution in sight, appears to be fueling radicalization among marginalized young Muslims.

External Factors

Events outside of The Netherlands have also helped Islamic radicalism spread within the country. Internationally, Islamic extremists tend “to display identification with often marginalized Muslims in conflict zones and to oppose the prominent military presence of the West in predominantly Islamic countries.” Events such as September 11 and the war on Iraq have polarized mutual views of Muslims and the West, creating tensions that fuel Islamic extremism. Hilali believes that external factors such as the Middle East conflicts can play a role in explaining radicalization amongst certain Muslim youngsters. According to Zaari, Muslim youth feel a connection with Islamic communities all over the world, because they perceive being a Muslim as an important part of their identity. When injustice occurs towards a Muslim community, they feel as if injustice is being done to them too, because of the shared Islamic identity. 

Furthermore, globalization also aids radicalization; the Internet is increasing in influence among Muslim youth, while local mosques are declining. Hilali states that a lack of knowledge about Islam makes Muslim youngsters more vulnerable to the wrong kind of information about their religion, such as they might find on the Internet.

External factors alone, however, do not determine radicalization. Instead, a combination of events both inside and outside The Netherlands affects tendencies toward extremism. Zaari believes that the way in which external factors may influence radical behavior depends on how they are handled on the internal level, so he is more concerned about internal factors.

Recommended Solutions

Internal factors, then, should be the key focus of Dutch policymakers and community leaders concerned about radicalization. Although the Dutch government is already attempting to support moderate Islam against extremism, such as by funding some religious organizations and websites, Islamic radicalism continues to spread. We will propose some solutions, based on the views of our interviewees and research, for reducing the influence of Islamic radicalism in The Netherlands.

Public policy and civil society solutions should focus on several areas to promote greater inclusion of Muslims, into Dutch society. Politicians, religious figures, and leaders of community-based organizations, can cooperate to foster integration and to oppose radical Islam. Some ideas for topical focuses are listed below.

•Advancing economic initiatives: It is important to create opportunities for socioeconomic advancement. In our opinion, such policies might include improved counseling for students entering secondary school, stronger connections between students and employers, and job training. 

•Fostering dialogue and debate: According to Hamurcu of Mili Görüs, politicians should show more responsibility in order to prevent segregation, and should cooperate with relevant groups. Politicians can start by being more diplomatic instead of wanting to be more popular for electoral gain. Muslims play a very important role in this process and should be considered as vital partners. Therefore Milli Görüs has taken the initiative to play a role in this strategy by starting a project with the Ministry of Justice. The project, named “Weerbaarheid tegen radicalisme” (defensibility against radicalism), features diverse debates and lectures to which Muslim youngsters, police officers, and government officials are invited. In this way, Muslim youth can debate with the other parties about radicalism. Additionally, the Al-Tawheed Foundation sees dialogue and debate as a part of the solution, and so it organizes debates in its mosque. The foundation has contact with the neighborhood and hosts lectures about Islam for mutual understanding. Zaari stresses the importance of listening to the youth and approaching them in a positive way and not see them as being a problem or burden. 

•Enhancing education about Islam: Ahmed Marcouch, of the Executive Committee of Slotervaart Municipality, sees investing in the Muslim community as an important solution, so that the community can feel that they are part of the society in which they live. He suggests that investing means creating space for Muslims to build more mosques and giving clerical opportunities to highly educated imams from abroad that have knowledge about the West. These imams, he argues, can bridge a gap within society. Hilali also agrees on the importance of investing in well-educated imams from abroad, because in his opinion, they can fill the gap for Muslim youngsters in their need to gain more knowledge about Islam. These imams could form a reliable source for information, instead of the Internet or other low-quality resources. 

•Providing recreational facilities for youth: According to Zaari, spokesperson of the Al-Tawheed Foundation, youth feel a need to have hobbies. Therefore it is important to bring youth in contact with different kinds of activities, such as sport tournaments and cultural activities. Youth can also benefit from other services for social and personal problems to which they are particularly at risk, such as discrimination and all other obstacles that restrict them in their development. 


Although the increasing radicalization of Dutch Muslim youth appears daunting, we believe that with proper identification and intervention, the problem can be reduced. The way a secular state and its majority treats its minorities plays a part in radicalization, and a minority’s responses to unequal treatment can vary widely. Moroccan and Turkish youth, the most marginalized Muslims in the country, do not represent the entire face of Islam in The Netherlands. Other Muslims such as the Indonesians and Surinamese have had more success in Dutch society. Nothing inherent to Islam determines radicalization, and reform is possible within the political, economic, social, and religious realms. Peters, a highly respected scholar on the subject, argues that the cause of radicalization is not Islam per se, but rather the present situation in The Netherlands, including socioeconomic discrimination, constant anti-Islam and anti-Muslim sentiment, and humiliation. These factors cause alienation from Dutch society, and radicalization.  Reducing radicalization calls for a joint effort of non-Muslims in The Netherlands and their Muslim counterparts, especially Muslim organizations and moderate religious leaders. Ultimately we believe that the proverbial elephant in the room – the root causes, not just the effects of Islamic radicalization – should be addressed and can no longer be ignored.




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