They call it the City of Peace, the Dutch political capital of s’Gravenhage, better known as The Hague and home to the magnificent Peace Palace. But in one district, according to a recent report in Dutch daily Trouw, it isn’t peace that rules there, but Sharia.
“Non-Muslim and moderate Muslim residents of the Schilderswijk district have had problems [with Orthodox Muslims],” according to the Trouw story, written by veteran reporter Perdiep Ramesar, “They say they are criticized over issues that displease the Orthodox majority, such as smoking in public and the consumption of alcohol and pork.”
Indeed, many residents refer to the area as “Sharia-wijk,” (meaning “Sharia district”) having, according to Ramesar, “watched the development, over the years, of a ‘small caliphate’ governed by a ‘mini Sharia’” where women are scolded for appearing on the street unveiled or wearing sleeveless dresses on hot summer days. The changes, he says, are “subtle” – but real. “Slowly but surely the rules of the neighborhood are changing,” he writes. “The norm of the majority increasingly holds sway.”
That majority is indeed decidedly Islamic: Seventy to eighty percent of Schilderswijk residents are Muslim, according to local Islam Democrats Council Member Hasan Küçük, (though he also claims that “fifty-one percent of the [country's] population is Muslim” which it certainly is not.).
But that’s just fine with one Moroccan woman living in the Schilderswijk, a niqab-covered, Dutch-born 28-year-old who told Ramesar, “That is what the so-called ‘democracy’ of the Netherlands is made of. Only,” she added with evident sarcasm, “all woe betide us if the majority is a group of foreigners.”
To some extent, none of this should come as much of a surprise, given especially the history of the neighborhood, where the famed extremist Hofstadgroep was based when its most renowned member, Mohammed Bouyeri, slaughtered filmmaker Theo van Gogh on an Amsterdam street. And its largest mosque, the Salafist As Soennah, is a known breeding ground for radicalization and incitement to terrorism.
Nor is this the first time Holland has experienced the imposition by Muslims of their own prejudices and values onto the national culture. In May of 2008, for instance, Muslims in the town of Almere expressed their displeasure with construction workers who wore t-shirts and shorts during a pre-summer heat wave. And throughout the country, threats against teachers by Muslim high school students have forced schools to abandon lessons in the Holocaust.
Yet since Ramesar’s article appeared, many have contested the reporter’s claims, accusing him of Islamophobia. But their defenses are far from reassuring: If anything, they paint a picture of an Islamizing Europe where, according to Hasan Küçük, in many neighborhoods (like this one), “There is nothing more natural than seeing a covered woman or a man with a beard in the streets or a mosque being constructed.”
Others don’t outright deny the Trouw story, but suggest, rather, that a Sharia-based neighborhood is perfectly okay by them.
“So what if they don’t serve alcohol in the cafes?” writes Bart Voorzanger, for instance, in a blog post for Republiek Allochtonie, a web site that explores the relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims in the Netherlands. “People who want to drink can go elsewhere.”
Besides, he argues, at least one gang member in the area claims he is trying to be more polite these days precisely because of his abiding respect for the pious Orthodox Muslims there — so maybe, suggests Voorzanger, their presence is actually a good thing.
Notably, however, on the subjects of the harassment of un-veiled women, or of the three Salafist/Takfiri mosques in the neighborhood — including Al Soennah, the mosque Bouyeri and other known terrorists have been known to attend — Voorzanger, has no comment at all.
He is not alone. In responding to Ramesar’s account, politicians, too, seem to have largely sidestepped the real issues, failing to look past the worn facades of the district’s run-down homes. The result: Widely diverging and wholly superficial impressions based only on the briefest of visits, the kinds politicians tend, generally, to make to any troubled part of town, anywhere in the world.
And most of the time, while they may tsk-tsk the poverty, perhaps even comment, their brows deeply furrowed, on local high crime rates (a concern, too, in the Schilderswijk), it is rare that they will admit that Islamism has taken hold of a community, or that Orthodox Muslims hold power there, however blatant the evidence may be.
Hence while right-wing, anti-immigration minister Geert Wilders, after paying a brief visit to the area, pronounced that “The Schilderswijk is no longer the Netherlands,” left-wing deputy Prime Minister and Labor party leader Lodewijk Asscher said he “saw no Sharia there.” (Is Sharia something you can see?)
That latter reaction surprised Ramesar, though perhaps it should not have. The politicians, after all, had only visited once, and just for a few hours. His report, by contrast, was based on an investigation that took place over two months.
“I spoke to almost 50 people, including professionals who work in the neighborhood, as well as the people who live there” says the journalist, who emphasizes that, contrary to the accusations, he is “absolutely” not anti-Islam.
“It was a very broad selection, with all the groups who live in that neighborhood.” Those conversations also took time, as Ramesar won over the trust of those with whom he spoke – most of whom requested anonymity. It seems unlikely, then, that any of them would simply have come forward to speak publicly and on the record to a Parliament member on the subject, particularly when the issue has become so hot.
Which gets to the heart of the matter: What we know about the Muslim communities in Western cities, how well we know it, and whether we are paying enough attention.
Because the truth is, this is a community, a Muslim enclave in a Western city, where assimilation is not only rejected, but condemned, where even “moderate Islam” is thwarted, a culture of intolerance nestled neatly in a tolerant culture.
It is a breeding ground for all that Western society rejects: An environment in which women are oppressed, rights are trampled and religion rules the streets. Worse, still – though not necessarily more dangerous — it offers welcome to Islamist recruiters for jihad, with an open door, a cup of tea, a stage for them to speak from and an army already in training.
How many times, after all, have we thought that things were “not so bad” until they were – like the threats against Theo van Gogh, or Russia’s warnings about Tamerlan Tsernaev? And how many more times can we afford to make that same mistake?
Abigail R. Esman, an award-winning writer based in New York and the Netherlands, is the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West