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Holland After van Gogh

The murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh and the ensuing arson attacks against mosques, churches, and Islamic schools have caused more soul-searching in Dutch homes in the last week than in the past two decades. The old Netherlands, it seems, has ceased to be, never to return.

The goal now must be to unite the Dutch people. This will require much work on the part of both immigrants and native Dutch. As long as moderates keep their heads, a new Netherlands may be born out of the terrible events of the past weeks.

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It is often said of the various immigrant groups in the Netherlands that they lack the ability to "cleanse themselves" through honest self-appraisal and criticism. There are many who acknowledge this and want to change. Non-committal multiculturalism has long kept the conservatism of Dutch Moroccans and Dutch Turks hidden from the public eye. Among immigrants, soul-searching is closely related to belonging and commitment, which in practice boils down to feeling part of society and feeling responsible for the city, neighborhood, and street where you live.

We native Dutch also find it hard to hold a mirror to ourselves. We are bad listeners and air our views whether or not we have thought deeply about them. There is a lack of self-examination. As a result, many people no longer understand themselves, which makes it hard for them to understand others. Freedom of expression is becoming a caricature.

When asked what it was like to be interviewed by Theo van Gogh, European Commissioner Frits Bolkestein said, "He was impertinent, and that is a good thing; he was offensive, and that is not." It is as simple as that. In today's Netherlands, assertiveness is seen as a good thing, modesty as a form of self-chastisement. Respect is for wimps!

Moral relativism has damaged public life. Many youngsters now see politics as a kind of computer game. It is no longer about message or content - it is just one more form of entertainment, and what matters is who wins and who loses. Context has been lost.

Extreme ideas offer an alternative compass to disoriented souls like Mohammed Bouyeri, van Gogh's suspected murderer. He is not so much a product of zealous imams from rural Morocco as of the West's information society. The gospel of Muslim extremism has found a global market through the Internet. Something similar is happening on the extreme right, with "white power" offering an apparent certainty to youngsters who are adrift.

The real struggle is about ideas. Indeed, what is most ominous is that extremists realize this more clearly than the moderate, silent majority, who find the noise irritating but do not know how to start a serious dialogue.

Meanwhile, tolerance degenerates into multicultural segregation. We do not live together, but in isolation from each other. The Turkish-Dutch headmaster of the Muslim school in Uden that was burned down after van Gogh's murder voiced the inhibitions we all feel when he asked, rhetorically, "Is the enemy not within us?"

A revived permissive society is not the answer. The state must battle terrorism, public space must not be abandoned to extremists, and Islam in Europe must adapt to Europe. People who live in a society they hate, amidst people they despise, cannot contribute to a shared future. Life in Europe will only remain worth living if all cultures and religions accept the laws that represent the common interest.

So a European Islam is needed urgently. It can be given shape by, for example, training imams in Europe, by encouraging mosques to promote social cohesion in their neighborhoods, and by more active participation by Muslims in the public debate.

At the same time, native Europeans must learn to accept that Islam may offer new vantage points on such moral issues as euthanasia, abortion, individuality, and solidarity. This way Islam could really become a source of inspiration for the European community of values.

If we want to build something better on the ruins of multicultural indifference, our dialogue must become more profound. Prejudice must make way for empathy, and alienation for respect. Essentially, this is all about giving a new meaning to solidarity, beyond the left-right dichotomy.

It is time for a civilizing mission that will emerge from society itself and bring people together. This mission must also reflect a new politics that does not accentuate differences, but helps shape a new sense of who "we" are.

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The Netherlands need not be the focus of international religious conflict. What is precious must be preserved, and what enriches must be absorbed. This process must begin in school. Children must learn that they do not live in a monoculture, but in a pluralist society bound together by universal values and common laws. They must learn that critical thought is valuable, and that doubt is healthy.

Restoring the past is not an option. Rudderless societies are easy prey for bigotry. This is not just a matter for politicians. All of us must help turn Europe's motto "unity in diversity" into a genuine guiding principle.