In the Media

04/8/09: Dutch leaders visit Dearborn to learn pointers on tolerance

Detroit News- April 8, 2009

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dutch leaders visit Dearborn to learn pointers on tolerance

Gregg Krupa / The Detroit News

Dearborn -- Dutch officials came to Dearborn today to discern why Muslims are more accepted in the United States than in The Netherlands.

Dutch society is plagued with problems of high unemployment and low integration and participation in the society by Moroccan and some Turkish immigrants. There also are ongoing culture wars between Muslims and the Dutch, including the assassination of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004 and the production of a film "Fitna," which Muslims criticized as highly intolerant. Amid the social and religious tensions, the Dutch are trying to negotiate the difficulties sometimes caused by free speech and seeking to reassert their long tradition of tolerance and freedom.

Dutch Cabinet Minister Francis Timmermans and an entourage of officials met with 35 local Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders at the Islamic Center of America, the largest mosque in the country.

"We are good at allowing people to make their own choices," said Timmermans, the European Minister of The Netherlands, reflecting on the long tolerance for multiple Christian denominations in his country. "But were we good at dialogue? This world needs dialogue."

Victor Ghalib Begg of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan, which organized the event along with the Dutch embassy to the United States, said part of the assimilation of the burgeoning Muslim community in Metro Detroit and the United States is the continuing struggle for civil rights, which is part of the American experience for other groups, too.

"I really believe that Muslim Americans are at the front of the civil rights movement in America," Begg said. "We thank our African-American and Jewish brothers and sisters for going before us."

The struggle for justice is essential for Muslims in America, said Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi, leader of the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights. "If we establish justice in the society, then we can have everything else -- peace, love, unity," Elahi told the Dutch. "If we don't have justice, it is very difficult to love one another."

Timmermans said that before the terrorist attacks on the United States in Sept. 11, 2001, problems of integration of immigrants in Dutch society were often described as issues related to young, often-unemployed Moroccan or Turkish men.

"Since 9/11 all of these people have simply become Muslims," he said. "This is simply, probably a knee-jerk reaction to fear in the society.

"The fear of Islam is greatest in The Netherlands where there is no Islam," he said, noting vast reaches of The Netherlands where there are no Muslim residents.

According to the Dutch government, there are about 950,000 Muslims, mostly in four major cities, in The Netherlands: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. As is the case in some other European countries, studies have shown less integration of Muslims into the society and less contentment with their lives in The Netherlands.

Timmermans noted that, by and large, the United States "has been more successful in terms of social integration" with Muslims than in The Netherlands.

"It is not unusual to hear intolerant people say, 'Why don't those people go back to their own country?' even though the Muslims they focus on may have been in the country for

two or three generations," Timmermans said of The Netherlands. "But then, in areas where Muslims do live, you may also hear said, 'except for Muhammad who lives next door to me. He is a nice hard-working fellow.'

"It begins with talking to each other about our differences," Timmermans said. "Social peace is brought about not just by what you share, but by what you accept as different."

gkrupa@detnews.com (313) 222-2359