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."