Letter from Amsterdam
New Yorker, Dec 7, 2009
There was something unusual about the Gay Pride Parade held in Amsterdam in August. It wasn’t that various cabinet ministers, in suits and ties, had joined the throngs of men dancing to earsplitting techno-pop in pink leather jockstraps, Roman gladiator gear, or patent-leather Speedos on a flotilla of boats gliding along the canals. It wasn’t that one of the politicians was a pious Christian Democrat, whose boat was quickly designated “the holy boat,” or that soldiers in uniform–real soldiers in real uniforms–were bopping along as well. Or even that Job Cohen, the mayor of Amsterdam, used this fine summer day to marry five gay Dutch people to their American partners.
All this was to be expected in a city that prides itself on its tolerance toward minorities–ethnic, religious, and sexual. A recent publicity campaign promoted tourism in the Dutch capital with the slogan “Everyone’s gay in Amsterdam.” And the conspicuous presence of city fathers and government ministers on such occasions is also rather Dutch: for centuries, the Dutch establishment has shown genius in coopting wayward cultural trends. (In the seventies, even the Hells Angels received a government subsidy.)
Instead, the odd thing about the Gay Pride Parade of 2009 was that it was officially opened by a Moroccan-born politician, Ahmed Marcouch, who heads the district council of Slotervaart, a borough with a large Muslim population. Poverty is a serious problem there; unemployment is relatively high, especially among immigrants; and there have been riots, mostly started by idle youths. Many of the offenses committed by the city’s Muslim residents are ascribed to their alien culture. They allegedly sacrifice goats on their balconies, beat their wives, and harbor anti-Semitic tendencies. And they are often accused of harassing gay men–spitting at them on the street, jeering at them, or worse. Even when such conduct doesn’t rise to the level of illegality, it sins against the official Dutch compact of social tolerance. What many Dutch people have come to regard as the city’s “Muslim problem” is found in a conjunction of these two kinds of offense: criminality and illiberal, “un-Dutch” views.
Anti-immigrant populists have seized on issues like gay rights as a way of distinguishing “us,” the good native folk, from “them,” the bigoted Muslims. They accuse liberals of being soft on crime and tolerant of intolerance. Some members of the liberal elite have responded by coming up with a less compromising approach, stressing Dutch liberal values. That’s why people who wish to immigrate to the Netherlands are shown a government-sponsored film that features, among other scenes of Dutch life, male couples kissing. This is Dutch culture, the message goes, and you had better get used to it.
And it’s why Ahmed Marcouch, a liberal member of the social-democratic Labor Party, and a divorced ex-policeman, was kicking off the gay jamboree, on a lake in, of all places, Slotervaart. Some people lauded him for a brave gesture. Others criticized him for an unnecessary provocation, of a piece with his frequently quoted assertion that he would welcome the opening of a gay bar in his district. His attitude certainly marks a change from the past, when officials from immigrant communities tended to become defensive in public, ascribing any criticisms of their constituents to racism. There have been a few bold dissenters, to be sure, such as the Somali-born activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But she had renounced her faith. Marcouch is still a Muslim.
I met Marcouch a month before the Gay Pride Parade, at the district office in Slotervaart, an area of cheap three- and four-story concrete apartment blocks built mostly in the nineteen-fifties, which are dreary rather than visibly poverty-stricken. The man who, five years ago, killed the filmmaker Theo van Gogh in the name of jihad came from here. I was curious to see how Amsterdam had changed since then. If van Gogh’s killer, Mohammed Bouyeri, represented a brand of Islamist extremism, Marcouch, too, seemed to stand for something larger, and certainly more encouraging with respect to the Muslim presence in Europe.
A stocky, partly bald man with a close-cropped beard, Marcouch offered me a typically Dutch lunch of sandwiches and milk, while explaining his idea of tolerance: “Look, the fact that one is allowed to be an orthodox Muslim is a right. What people in this neighborhood fail to understand is that gays have the right to be gay. People–gays, Muslims, black, white–should never be forced to be untrue to themselves. The freedom of every individual to insist on his own identity must be defended.”
Marcouch spoke like a liberal Amsterdammer, but he was born on the north Moroccan coast in 1969. His father, like many immigrants from Turkey and Morocco, arrived in Holland as a gastarbeider in the late nineteen-sixties. Marcouch joined his father when he was a ten-year-old, and mastered the language of his adopted country in two years, by reciting Dutch sentences over and over–“like texts in the Koran,” he says. He went through a phase of religious fundamentalism (“in search of my identity”), listening incessantly to tapes of Muslim prayers. It was a period when he didn’t know how to behave with women and was shy with strangers. Then he got over it, he told me. Though he’s still a believer, he is not particularly strict. In 1993, he joined the Amsterdam police, a highly unusual step for a Muslim immigrant. “The police had hardly any contact with Moroccans,” he recalled. “I told them that we should go to the mosques. That’s where the masses were, the people we needed to reach. They didn’t want to know.”
Tough liberals like Marcouch often use the word verloedering, meaning “squalor,” or “degradation.” Marcouch’s colleagues in the city administration are trying to crack down on such obvious signs of urban degradation as the rampant drug trade, illegal prostitution, and teen-age violence, particularly in heavily immigrant areas like Slotervaart. It has become common to place the blame for such problems on foolish multiculturalism–on too much tolerance of alien ways. I have even heard street crime in Slotervaart described as “a war on the West.” Marcouch has a more plausible explanation for the difficulties in his area, where the immigrants are mainly Moroccan and Turkish. “Newcomers have large families, and different habits, and they speak no Dutch,” he says. “They have no real ties to the area, and that’s what brings verloedering. Kids drop out of school. You get a lot of crime. So people are naturally afraid.”
When Marcouch came into his new job as the district boss, in 2006, he was handed a broom by his predecessor. “I was shocked by what I saw in Slotervaart,” he recalls. “The first Sunday I was here, I got a phone call from a police officer. The cops were being stoned by local youths. What should they do? I told them to use the big stick. They said things would escalate. O.K., I said, let them escalate.”
To be a Moroccan-Dutch policeman–or, indeed, politician–is to be exposed to criticism from all sides. Non-Muslims have criticized Marcouch for insisting on the importance of sustaining a Muslim identity, which, in his view, should include the teaching of Islam in public schools. One anti-Muslim Web site described him, a little incongruously, as “the same as Arafat.” But when he called Moroccan troublemakers in his area “scum,” and argued that two criminals who had never bothered to get Dutch passports should be sent back to Morocco, a Muslim critic declared him “worse than Geert Wilders,” the right-wing populist politician who is being charged in an Amsterdam court with inciting hatred against Muslims. (Wilders denies the charge.) Some Muslims have attacked Marcouch as a traitor, especially after he made his remarks about the desirability of having a gay bar in his district. “Women in burkas have scolded me for being a kaffir, an infidel,” he says.
A young Dutch journalist of Moroccan origin, Hassan Bahara, who professes to admire Marcouch, was there when the Gay Pride Parade kicked off in Slotervaart. A week later, in a cafe in central Amsterdam, he gave me his views. “First of all, Marcouch’s gay policy gives the impression to the outside world that everyone in Slotervaart is bent on beating up homosexuals,” he said. “This is certainly not true. I think Marcouch–and this is often true of people who try to move away from their background–wants to find a place for himself in Dutch society without losing his Muslim constituency. I don’t think he has quite found that place yet.” In fact, Marcouch may be up to something more interesting. Breaking away from multicultural pieties, he is looking for a way of reconciling Islam with modern European life, a way to be both a pious Muslim and a liberal-minded citizen.
For all the talk of verloedering, the truth is that drug use and violent crime are less of a problem in Amsterdam than they are in many American cities. Even on a Saturday night, Slotervaart is not particularly dangerous. What’s distinctive about Amsterdam is that sex and drugs are so visible. Amorous couples spill out of gay bars into the streets on summer nights. In the red-light district, called the Wallen, girls from Russia, Nigeria, Guatemala, and Thailand stand like exotic merchandise behind glass storefronts, many dressed only in panties, beckoning customers to come into their parlors. All over the city center, the sweet smell of hashish wafts from coffee shops, where the smoking of tobacco is banned but a wide variety of potent cannabis is available. Hard-core pornography is openly displayed in specialty stores that offer a bewildering array of sexual paraphernalia. For decades, Amsterdam has accepted the open sex industry as part of its vaunted tolerance. Some people took pride in the red-lighted windows and the sex emporiums. The Dutch say, “Vrijheid, blijheid,” which, though it literally means “Freedom, joy,” might be roughly translated as “doing your own thing.”
The effect of all this on the sons of guest workers from tiny villages in the Rif Mountains, in Morocco–many of whom came of age in the nineteen-nineties–can be imagined. Holland looked like the country where anything went, and the women were free and easy. It meant, to some young men, that while their own sisters had to be shut away from the sinful world, white Dutch women could be treated like whores. It also meant that gay men could be openly despised as symbols of a decadent society.
Many Dutch liberals themselves have started to take a dim view of the sex and drug trades, but for different reasons. Over the past decade or so, it became clear that brothels, sex stores, clubs, and hash cafes were being used to launder large amounts of money for Serbian, Russian, Turkish, and Israeli crime syndicates. A report written in 2005, by a liberal politician who had herself worked as a prostitute, revealed that many of the women had been forced into the sex industry. It slowly dawned on people that “doing your own thing” had reached its limits, and that civic virtues had to be reinvented. Being able to rent a Thai girl for an hour, or to buy a bag of Nepalese Black hashish, was all very well, but Amsterdam, in the words of Lodewijk Asscher, a prominent city alderman, “had become too much of a magnet for international crime. That is why we had to do something.”
Like Ahmed Marcouch, Asscher is a breed of social democrat for whom bromides about tolerance are no longer sufficient in the face of modern urban blight. The scion of a prominent Jewish family (his great-grandfather was the head of the Jewish Council in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam), Asscher is a young politician who speaks like a man in a hurry. I saw him in the city hall, not far from the red-light district. He told me that when he ran for office, in 2006, he concluded “that all this pride in the prostitution windows was gratuitous–tolerance too often means indifference.”
Asscher, who is also Amsterdam’s vice-mayor, has proposed replacing half the brothels with fashion boutiques and art galleries. Inevitably, some people accuse Asscher of being a scold, who wants to destroy Amsterdam’s uniquely liberated cultural heritage. Posters in the windows of many cafes around the Wallen protest the new restrictions. “Hands off the Wallen!” they say, or, simply, “It’s enough!”
I had a sandwich with Corrie Verkerk, a city reporter, and one of those who think Asscher has gone too far. Verkerk is a journalist of the old school–tough-minded, wiry, a smoker. She lives in the Wallen and prizes its raffish atmosphere. “People who’ve chosen to live here like the rough edges,” she said. “I don’t want the city to make everything nice and neat.” We took a stroll around the bars that line the rather rank-smelling canals so that I could meet some locals.
One was a plump man with creamy blond hair, who looked to be in his early seventies, and who was known to barflies as the Sailor. When I asked him about Asscher’s policies, he growled. “They’re turning this city into a country town–soon we’ll be just like Kampen,” he said, referring to a small provincial place known for its strict Calvinist ethics. I heard more or less the same thing from others in the neighborhood, including a soberly dressed old transsexual, who spoke in a refined voice and had nicely framed engravings on her walls.
That particular fear seemed implausible. Although Marcouch spoke about being inspired by New York’s zero tolerance, neither he nor his social-democrat allies are remotely like Rudy Giuliani, let alone the Christian right in America who fulminate about licentious liberalism. After all, these Dutch politicians are liberals. Job Cohen, the mayor, compares the criminalization of marijuana to Prohibition in the United States, with the clear understanding that it doesn’t work. Asscher talks about trying to reduce the sex industry, not eliminate it. And both Asscher and Cohen are proud of Amsterdam’s reputation for being hospitable to immigrants. After Theo van Gogh was murdered, Cohen visited the mosques and sought to reassure Muslims that Amsterdam was their home, too. “I need to keep things together,” he said, and conservatives, who saw him as an appeaser, ridiculed him for the line.
Still, his critics had identified a real dilemma: when it comes to such subjects as homosexuality, Jews, and the public role of women, immigrants are sometimes far from the liberal Dutch consensus. When I put the problem to Asscher, he replied that freedom of expression shouldn’t be compromised, and added, “Gays and Jews do feel that the atmosphere has been affected in Amsterdam.” Because of Islam? “Well,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “youths who attack gays do this not because of Islam but because of taboos in their upbringing.” So was Marcouch right, I asked, to talk about opening a gay bar in Slotervaart? “Marcouch challenged these taboos in a deliberately provocative manner,” Asscher replied. “I approve of that. If things cannot be openly discussed, nothing will change.”
In the past, many social democrats believed, in the multiculturalist spirit, that promoting integration was almost tantamount to neo-colonialism. Asscher takes a less sentimental view. “Of course, we cannot ask people to give up their identities,” he said. “But we must at the same time stress our values. We must make our norms more explicit.” Asscher ticked them off on his fingers, like a keen schoolmaster: “The rule of law, freedom of expression, non-discrimination, faith as a strictly private affair.”
Amsterdam was always a relatively open city. The city hall, an ugly modern building, stands in the middle of an area that used to be mostly Jewish. It is a short walk to the grand Portuguese Synagogue, built in the seventeenth century for a wealthy Jewish community whose members had fled to Amsterdam in the late sixteenth century. To Jews, Amsterdam was known as Mokum–literally, “the Place.”
Dutch tolerance didn’t help the Jews when disaster arrived. Before the German occupation, in 1940, about ten per cent of the Amsterdam population was Jewish. After the Germans left, barely two per cent remained. The reason that most buildings in the old Jewish quarter, including the current city hall, are relatively new, compared with the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century houses in the rest of central Amsterdam, is that the old buildings were abandoned after their inhabitants were taken away to be murdered. In the nineteen-seventies, the rotting housing stock was largely razed to make way for a subway that many people feel the city never needed.
The first wave of Turkish and Moroccan gastarbeiders, who arrived in the early nineteen-seventies, to do unskilled and semi-skilled work in industry and construction, was greeted mainly with indifference. These immigrants sent much of their wages home while surviving as well as they could in cramped boarding houses, and their presence created no serious cultural conflict. Tensions began when their wives, often illiterate village women, were allowed to settle in the Netherlands. Old working-class districts were quickly transformed into immigrant areas, with halal butcher shops and mosques. Then came 9/11, just as the first and second generations were struggling to forge new identities as Dutch Moroccans or Dutch Turks. Some were religious; many were not. For all of them, however, the spectre of global jihad pushed the issue of religious identity to the forefront.
Funda Mujde, an actress, cabaret artist, and columnist for a popular Dutch tabloid, was born in Turkey in 1961, and came to Amsterdam as a child. She told me how she was treated in her adopted country: “First, I was a foreigner, an alien. Then, after 9/11, I was suddenly a Muslim. I used to be known as a Turkish cabaret artist. After the row over the Danish cartoons, I became ‘that Muslim cabaret artist.’ ”
But Mujde doesn’t complain. She finds it easy to love Holland, she said, sunning herself in her garden outside Amsterdam, with a view of flat green pastures and grazing cows. She lives in a village now, because a traffic accident in Turkey two years ago left her wheelchair-bound, and an Amsterdam walkup was no longer possible. Perhaps, she said, loving Holland was easier for her because she still had a solid Turkish background. She speaks Turkish, and goes back to Istanbul regularly. Her children, who were born in Amsterdam, have a harder time. “They faced more discrimination,” she said. “They are Dutch, but don’t feel welcome here. And that makes them furious. My adolescent son goes into rages and says he doesn’t want to be Dutch anymore. He wants to be Turkish.”
The journalist Hassan Bahara said something similar. He told me that immigrants come with ambitions. They are willing to try anything. “But their children sense the disillusion of their parents, and become cynical about their chances,” he said.
This sense of rejection is driving some well-educated Dutch-born Turks to seek their fortunes in Turkey, often to find themselves feeling like strangers there, too. Others have followed the path taken by Mohammed Bouyeri, who never felt Moroccan but looked for an alternative identity in Islamic extremism, downloading much of his violent ideology from the Internet. Suddenly, he was a member of a fraternity, a man of power. This is not a phenomenon associated with earlier waves of immigrants. The fine reputation of Mokum notwithstanding, Jews in Holland faced a certain degree of discrimination, and some no doubt found refuge in religious orthodoxy, but few indulged in a murderous hostility toward the country of their birth. Jews were not feared as Muslims are now.
This fear is why forty per cent of Dutch voters are said to agree with the views of Geert Wilders, the right-wing provocateur with dyed blond hair, whose Freedom Party defines itself largely by its antagonism to Islam. He would like to ban the Koran, stop Muslim immigration, force women in Muslim head scarves to pay an extra tax (for “pollution of the public space”), and expel Dutch Muslims with criminal records. As he said in a speech sponsored by the Hudson Institute, “There is a tremendous danger looming, and it is very difficult to be optimistic. We might be in the final stages of the Islamization of Europe. This not only is a clear and present danger to the future of Europe itself, it is a threat to America and the sheer survival of the West.”
It’s unclear what Wilders and his followers fear more–Islamist extremism or the unruly behavior of young so-called Moroccans in places like Slotervaart. Their language usually conflates the two issues. And, where liberals like Cohen and Marcouch want to promote norms of social and sexual tolerance within immigrant communities, stories of immigrant intolerance have become a rhetorical staple of Holland’s anti-immigrant right. Dutch nativism has thereby developed a rather unusual style of argument. One can only wonder what Wilders’s conservative Israeli audience at a “Facing Jihad” conference in Jerusalem made of the following remark: “How is Amsterdam to remain the gay capital of Europe if gays are regularly beaten up by non-Western immigrants, often Muslims?” Although enthusiasm for gay life is probably limited among Wilders’s supporters, they know that it has proved a useful cudgel.
To the growing number of people who fear Islam, and genuinely believe that Europe will turn into “Eurabia,” Marcouch’s vision of mutual accommodation is either implausible or abhorrent. They believe that an observant Muslim cannot be a good European citizen–that Dutch civic virtue is incompatible with belief in the Prophet. This is why Marcouch has been vigorously denounced for claiming that Islam should be taught in public schools. His enemies see it as an attempt to “Islamize” Amsterdam.
In Slotervaart, I asked Marcouch what he made of this accusation. He sipped from his glass of milk and said, “I believe that Muslims should integrate along with their religious identity. We must create Dutch Muslims. You can’t just put children from religious families into separate Muslim schools. That adds to their segregation. By teaching different religions in public schools, you encourage children to think critically. At the same time, we should make it clear what Dutch civilization stands for.” He ticked off the same tenets that Lodewijk Asscher had invoked: basic rights, the constitution, religious freedom.
And what about Wilders? Marcouch smiled. “I have told Wilders that the Dutchification of Muslims is already going on at full speed. They are so Dutch. My God, when I hear some of the things those girls in head scarves are saying! Sure, they’re wrestling with modernity. But that’s good. That’s where their chances lie.”
Fatima el-Houfi, thirty years old, is one of those young women in head scarves. She is Muslim, of Moroccan parentage, but she is also unmistakably Dutch. Sturdy, round-faced, with a ready smile, Fatima is employed by the Slotervaart district council as a social worker. When she hears about cases of domestic violence, say, or neglected children, she gets on her bicycle to see what can be done. “Ignorance is still a big problem here,” she told me. “And for many it is taboo to talk to strangers about family issues.” She mentioned the case of a young Turkish woman who had been physically abused by her father-in-law but was too shy, or scared, to complain openly. It all came out in secret phone calls to Fatima’s office.
We bicycled together through the streets of Slotervaart, past the Piet Mondriaan School, where Theo van Gogh’s murderer had been a pupil, and past a “one hundred per cent black” (that is, immigrant) primary school. We pedalled across August Allebe Square, which is notorious for violent confrontations between local youths and cops but had no air of menace. There were kebab joints and supermarkets, a school with multicolored windows. Children were out in the playgrounds, old men smoked cigarettes and chatted on park benches. I noticed one woman in a full burka, but she had the pale skin and bright-blue eyes of a typical autochtoon, the unlovely Dutch term for a white native-born citizen.
What problems people shared with Fatima were whispered about, mostly behind closed doors: a young woman living illegally in a sparsely furnished room with her husband and child in the small apartment of her father, who wanted them to leave; a half-Moroccan drug addict who was seeking help to pay off his debts after being released from prison; a heroin addict from the Dutch Antilles with an abusive husband and huge debts; a Turkish woman whose husband had left her with bills she couldn’t pay. Fatima managed to drag these stories out of strangers with tremendous tact and professional tenacity.
Over lunch in one of those Amsterdam cafeterias that serve halal kebabs as well as Gouda-cheese sandwiches, she told me about her ambition to start a social-welfare center in the neighborhood. She made an interesting observation about money, which appeared to be a source of greater difficulties than any struggles related to religion or identity: “The second generation of immigrants never got any pocket money. They didn’t learn how to deal with money. But the third generation is being raised in the Dutch way. They will be totally different.” She later sent me a photograph of herself, posing in a white head scarf with Mayor Cohen, in suit and tie, and Ahmed Marcouch, more casually dressed in an open shirt. She was proud of her association with the district boss.
The day after my bicycle ride with Fatima, I met another person of Moroccan origin, in a different part of Slotervaart–on the same lake where Marcouch had blessed the Gay Pride Parade. He was a student named Mourad Ezzoubaa, majoring in business at the University of Amsterdam. Tall and wiry, with a shaved head, Mourad spends his spare time as a sports coach for kids in the area. Like Marcouch, he had spent part of his childhood in Morocco.
I asked him what he thought of Marcouch and the gay issue. “He has brought us some discredit with his remarks,” Mourad replied, squinting at the lake, where the children were learning to sail. “The media are always presenting anti-gay attitudes here as something cultural. Well, if you talked about opening a gay bar in a provincial Dutch town, young men would also protest.” Street violence, too, had little to do with cultural differences, in his view. But then he gave an explanation that revealed certain differences nonetheless: “Parents try to control their kids with harsh discipline, but the kids know they can call the police to complain about parental abuse. So the parents give up. The kids then turn to the streets for their education. They get involved in criminal activities. That’s what’s happening in Slotervaart.”
Mourad started out in a mixed primary school. Later, he was a schoolmate of Mohammed Bouyeri’s at the Mondriaan School, but he didn’t remember Bouyeri at all. He hadn’t much enjoyed his “black school” experience. “This is no melting pot,” he said, talking about Slotervaart. “This is a salad bowl, with each community–Dutch, Turkish, Moroccan–sticking to themselves. I don’t like that. Guys who’ve lived only in a segregated area don’t know how to work with others. They have to be taught how to grab their opportunities.”
Still, Mourad sees that even Slotervaart is changing. He thinks that the younger generation is beginning to feel less victimized. “They understand better how Dutch society works,” he said. “They don’t even feel especially threatened by the likes of Geert Wilders. We know there must be room for all opinions, even his.” Mourad smiled, as the kids under his charge made it to shore. He shooed them toward the locker rooms. “You know, I’m proud to be an Amsterdammer,” he said. “My wife comes from Rotterdam. Things are much worse there.” Spoken like a true Dutchman.