Amsterdam has always been one of Europe's most beautiful, perfectly preserved cities. Naturally resistant to automobile traffic, it's a stroller and bicyclist's paradise. And, thanks in part to a long history of welcoming persecuted minorities, political exiles, and religious dissidents, Amsterdam is also Europe's most tolerant city, famous for its laissez-faire attitude toward gay rights, euthanasia, and every imaginable vice. But Amsterdam is changing rapidly, and the tensions that erupted here 2½ years ago—when a Dutch-Moroccan named Mohammed Bouyeri shot, stabbed, and slit the throat of the filmmaker and newspaper columnist Theo van Gogh—lie just beneath the surface.
The much-discussed Dutch paradox was how a society founded upon the very idea of tolerance would endure Islamic intolerance. But for a new generation of young Muslim artists, writers, musicians, and others, such abstractions were beside the point: they don't perceive their country as particularly tolerant, nor are they enamored of Islamic fundamentalism. Instead, they're making passionate and political art, expressing themselves freely, taking on Dutch complacency and narrow-minded thinking in general.
"When I'm with Dutch dudes, I'm a foreigner," says Dutch-Moroccan rapper Raymzter, after a concert at one of Amsterdam's biggest venues, the Melkweg, or Milky Way, club. "When I'm with Moroccan dudes, I'm also a foreigner." This sense of double alienation is common among second-generation immigrants. Raymzter, whose given name is Raymond Redouan Cristiaan Rensen, is half Dutch and half Moroccan, and is seen by many here as a genuine hero—a conduit for righteous fury. "Why does everyone look at me like I blew up the Twin Towers?" he raps on his hit single, "Kut Marokkanen," which takes its name from an ethnic slur uttered by a Dutch politician. But sitting backstage with his friends, Raymzter is most striking for his politeness, his thoughtfulness, and his refusal to see the "Moroccan community" as anything like a monolithic entity.
"When I say 'Muslim,' you think of radicalism and fundamentalism," he says. "When I say 'Christian,' you don't think that. How is a Mohammed Bouyeri different from a Timothy McVeigh?You can't blame a whole religion for the actions of one man." Nevertheless, the alienation that animates Raymzter's songs has seemed to make some Dutch-Moroccans especially susceptible to recruitment by jihadists from Afghanistan. ("A few years ago, many girls wouldn't wear the veil," he says. "Now, you see more veils on the streets.") These radicalized youths might amount to a tiny fraction of Holland's Dutch-Moroccan population, but it would take just a few to destroy the cultural bridges that others have dedicated themselves to building. "We really do live separate lives," says concert promoter Wijnand Hollander. "I'm Dutch, but most of the people I know are Moroccan, and wherever I go, I'm the only Dutch guy walking around." A tall, stylish man who first visited Morocco at the age of 17, Hollander is a director of the Amsterdam-based Marmoucha Foundation, which stages concerts featuring North African performers in one of Amsterdam's largest concert halls, the Paradiso.
One word I heard, time and again, when I'd ask someone to describe the atmosphere, was "steamy"—as if the person I was talking to sensed a storm just over the horizon. And yet people also felt the media's reports were alarmist, transforming Dutch-Moroccans into a faceless, unified, dangerous mass.
When I visited the studio of Aziz Bekkaoui, a 37-year-old artist and fashion designer who was born in Berkane, Morocco, he had no interest in speaking as a Muslim, or in terms of identity politics of any kind. He made a name for himself (he goes by Aziz) in 1996, when he won the Grand Prix for women's wear at France's Festival International des Arts de la Mode for his daring, playful designs. "I'm not thinking, I'm Moroccan, or This is for the Dutch people, or That is for the market," says Aziz. "I'm interested in the history and construction of clothes. So I use influences from Japan, or from India, maybe from Morocco or from Africa, but never am I thinking Oh, I'm African, and I must do this."
Rajae El Mouhandiz is half Algerian and half Moroccan, and the first Muslim to attend the Utrecht Conservatory. "Music starts where politics and racism end," El Mouhandiz writes in the liner notes to Incarnation, her album influenced by soul music and Sufism alike. And yet, the Holland she describes is rife with casual racism. "People will ask, 'Where are you from?'" she says. "And when I say, 'Amsterdam,' they reply, 'You speak Dutch so well!'" El Mouhandiz is 27 and preternaturally lively and beautiful. She is also fiercely independent, quick to take offense, and says she feels stifled in a country she thinks of as small-minded and provincial. "The Dutch have no shades on their windows, but their hearts are closed," she says. "We may wear the veil, but our hearts are open." She dreams of emigrating to the United States.
But she also took me to a book party for Rashid Novaire, who'd just published his third book, and who is as soft-spoken and self-contained as El Mouhandiz is exuberant. He too fits none of the preconceptions one might have about European Muslims. Twenty-seven years old, he published his first story collection at the age of 19; a few years later, his first novel was short-listed for the Netherlands' most prestigious literary prize. Of Dutch, Moroccan, and Polish descent, he is the very model of a European intellectual—albeit an intellectual without visible pretensions—and has a thorough knowledge of Amsterdam's architecture and history (twice a week he leads tour groups through the city). And if El Mouhandiz speaks in terms of "us" and "them," Novaire speaks in terms of an all-inclusive "we."
"The nightmare scenarios people expected never came to be," says Novaire. "It doesn't mean there aren't tensions under the surface. We didn't have any riots like in Paris. But there is a feeling, somehow, that Amsterdam lost its innocence when van Gogh was slaughtered. Many people asked themselves, Why here? But what a naïve question, when you look around the world! Why not Holland?We live in a difficult period. And we—as a group—need to find a way to move forward." He continues, "Do you know the American poet Wallace Stevens?He has a poem, 'The Man with the Blue Guitar.' It reads, in part:
They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."
The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."
And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."
"We really need people with a blue guitar. More than ever," Novaire says. "We've got some. And there will be more."
As we talked, I remembered another day I'd spent in Amsterdam, during the Ramadan after van Gogh's assassination. Even the city's outlying districts were quiet then, and I'd walked for hours, searching for local symptoms of global jihad and coming up short. Just as I was about to give up and head back to the city center, I spotted a poster of Osama bin Laden, depicted in the iconic Che Guevara freedom-fighter pose. But when I went closer, I saw that this bin Laden had a Nike swoosh imprinted on his turban and realized that the building I was standing in front of was an anarchist collective. The poster was a sly statement about the commodification of terror, the manipulations of politics and identity.
Indeed, one of the things that makes the musicians, authors, and artists I've met in Amsterdam so compelling is their ability to rise above identity politics, create significant works, and express themselves as single, separate individuals. If they couldn't quite answer my questions about finding a solution to problems in their city, it was because their very emergence was cause for hope.
Alex Abramovich writes for Slate and the New York Times.